Great fiction can teach a writer a lot about their craft, but so can bad fiction. I don’t go out of my way to find crappy stories, but if I come across one, I won’t trash it, I’ll examine it.
A few years ago, I attended the Alameda International Film Festival on Halloween night because the organizers were showcasing a number of short horror features. It was held at a great little community movie theatre located on a quiet neighborhood street. In a previous life, the theatre had been a church. Now the pulpit served as the projector room. The pews had been replaced, but instead of theatre seating, it was all threadbare sofas and la-z-boys. Neat!
That was the good side of the evening. Sadly, only a couple of films were entertaining. Most were lacking and a couple were damn right awful. I didn’t go in with high hopes, but I was hoping for something to stand out. However, the night wasn’t a washout. Each of the films taught me something about my writing. Several of the stories lacked subtext, and were nothing more than a series of events daisy-chained together. Others blew my suspension of disbelief because they lacked credibility and/or suffered logic problems. A couple had complex stories that were unsuccessfully told. A couple of stories had conclusions come out of nowhere, while others were so obvious that I knew what to expect moments after the opening credits. One was technically perfect from a story standpoint, but suffered from awful dialog.
I walked away from the night with a head full of pointers. The movies made me conscious of my own work. Had I committed any of these cardinal sins in my current batch of works and in my past stories? Because of what I’d seen, I gave a couple of my “finished” short stories another going over just to make sure I hadn’t committed the same literary sins.
The problem is that after a while, it’s easy to get complacent. I’ve gotten comfortable with my writing voice and if I don’t pay attention, my writing will get worse and not better. Seeing someone else’s mistakes makes me think about my own potential clangers sticking out from my manuscripts.
A truly great story can inspire and educate, but it can’t demonstrate the mistakes. For that, you have to look at the imperfect.
Thank you, SyFy channel originals, for being my creature feature teacher.