There are about five questions you can ask yourself about stories, and they're not foolproof, but they're useful. One is, what do these characters want? Second is, what are they afraid of? Third is, what's at stake in this story? Fourth is, what are the consequences of these scenes or these actions? And the last one is, how does the language of this story reflect the world of the story itself?
Now, if a writer is writing a story and looks at you and says, "I don't know what my characters want; I don't think they want much of anything," then the story is in trouble. If you don't know what's at stake in the story, it means that nothing stands to be gained or lost in the course of it. Something has to be risked. The characters have to want something or to wish for something. They have to be allowed to stay up past eleven o'clock and to make mistakes. If there's a flaw that many beginning writers have, it is that their characters don't risk enough. They are just sitting in chairs having ideas. I had a student a few months ago, when I was in residency at a university, who said, I don't want my characters to do anything, I just want them to think through the problem of nature vs. culture.
That's not exactly a story, is it?
That's what I tried to tell her. But she was determined to write a story about issues. I mean, this is an old thing to say, but if you want to write something about issues, write an essay. That's what essays are for. If you want to see the consequences of ideas, write a story. If you want to see the consequences of belief, write a story in which somebody is acting on the ideas or beliefs that she has. But that's why it's important to have a sense of what your characters want.
interviewed by Linda B. Swanson-Davies