In college I had a workshop with the writer Tony Earley, who taught us a theory of putting together an effective short story that I have never forgotten. I’m going to spend a bit of time discussing it today, because it’s fun and it might help you if you’re stuck in your writing.
Your story needs two pieces: 1. The Thing 2. The Other Thing.
To explain how it works, I’m going to just shamelessly paraphrase what Mr. Earley explained, because the details have stuck with me for almost ten years (accurately, I hope!).
Mr. Earley read to us a short story he had recently written, and explained its background: He had been fascinated by Bigfoot believers for years, and wanted to write about them – the Thing – but the story had never quite worked when he sat down to write it. Then, he read a news article about the FBI pursuing a suspect into the woods around his home in North Carolina, and realized that could be the missing piece of his story – the Other Thing. And boom. The Cryptozoologist was ready to be a story.
While Mr. Earley was focused on short fiction, I’ve found the theory of the Thing and the Other Thing applies to full-length fiction and even memoir, as well as short stories – it helps me analyze the bones of a plot when I’m when I’m assessing queries or responding to a client’s story concept. Let’s look for this concept in a few other books so that you can really get a handle on how this works.
Twilight by Stephanie Meyers Thing: Girl goes to a new school and falls in love (yawn) Other Thing: with a vampire in disguise.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Thing: Boy’s mother dies in a museum bombing and he struggles to find meaning in the rest of his life (yawn) Other Thing: while keeping hidden the painting he stole from that museum.
WILD by Cheryl Strayed Thing: Woman is grieving mother’s premature death while trying to move on from a lifetime of self-destructive behavior (like a thousand other grief memoirs) Other Thing: and hikes Pacific Crest Trail with no experience and little preparation.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin Thing: Middle-aged widower running a small bookstore (ok, so what?) Other Thing adopts a baby girl abandoned in the store.
Now, I’m not claiming that no book ever could manage to organize itself without clear, identifiable Thing and Other Thing at all. (Bonus points for whoever can pull out the GONE GIRL T. and O.T. in the comments.) But the main idea holds up, and can even help you organize more complex projects.
Maybe you have multiple story lines, and they all have their own Other Thing, so sharing the same Thing unifies the book. Or maybe your story jumps from era to era and each has the same Thing and Other Thing but in different form for each time and place (David Mitchell, I’m looking at you.) And there might be a couple Secondary Things. For example, in the Donna Tartt example above, STs are that Theo’s father dies, that his best friend is a drug dealer, that he goes to live with an antiques seller and ends up embezzling from him…but none of those pieces can hang with each other without being pinned to both T. and O.T., right? (Not to mention that we can’t all be Donna Tartt.)
This is probably the longest post in the history of the DGLM blog, so I’ll cut to the takeaway: If you have an amazing idea that just isn’t working, put it in a Thing folder. And wait for its perfect Other Thing to come to you. (And then send it to me!)