In 1916, Georges Polti published a book entitled The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. Polti's premise was that all of literature could be deconstructed to fall into one or more of his 36 dramatic situations. I had heard the theory, and although I'm still not sure if I buy it, it's widely cited.
Coincidentally, I recently purchased and have been reading Story Structure Architect: A Writer's Guide to Building Dramatic Situations & Compelling Characters by Victorial Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D. (see our May We Suggest... page). This book expands on Polti's original 36 situations, adding another 19 for a total of 55 dramatic situations.
I was in the midst putting the Fall issue together when an e-mail popped up in my electronic inbox with the intriguing subject, "THEORY: Nothing new?" It was from editor Didi Wood, who, while reflecting on the reading period just past, "...was struck, as always, by how many storied failed to shed fresh light on familiar subjects. They weren't all bad, and some were well written; they just didn't bring anything new or special to common topics. I was just as struck by the few that somehow did."
The message had been addressed to all of the flashquake editors, and before I had a chance to fully read the rest of Didi's message, two other editors had concurred with her. Didi's message went on to ask "Anyway, if there are really only three (or nine, or fifty, depending on whose writing book you've purchased) basic stories to tell, how do we make ours different or special?"
While I worked, I thought about Didi's question. What were the stories that had affected me most deeply, and why? Here are a few of my answers.
A strong sense of place: Take me somewhere — or to some other culture — that I have not experienced before, and show it to me. Tell me a story so tightly bound to its place/culture that it could not have been set elsewhere.
A compelling situation: Make me care about what happens, about how things eventually turn out. Make the conflict believable and make the characters three-dimensional.
Interesting characters: If I don't care about the people in your story, I'm not going to care much about what happens to them. Make them real, with motivations and foibles we can understand.
Provocative subject: Two of my favorite writers are Ray Bradbury and Phillip K. Dick. The reason they're on my favorites list is because they write stories that make me think, that challenge me to look at things from another point of view and to ask "what if?"
So for those of you who seek publication in flashquake, think about these suggestions for how to write an irresistible story, one sure to tempt at least one of our editors.