When writers submit their projects for possible publication, it can feel like all of that hard work has been sucked into a black hole, especially if the response is ultimately a rejection. Having your project turned down can be as mystifying as it is disappointing: OK, so you’ve rejected my manuscript, but why?!?
Obviously, we receive far more manuscripts than we can possibly take on, so below are some general aspects of craft that we consider as we evaluate a manuscript. A project that needs shoring up in one or more of these areas might be declined. Not all of these criteria apply to every manuscript, of course, but if you’re running up against a brick wall with your submissions, one of these elements could be part of what’s holding your manuscript back.
Conflict: This is the thing (or things) that gets in the way of the protagonist achieving what he or she wants. It can be a literal conflict, but often it’s an emotional one, or another character, or an event or series of events that stands in the way. Even in a nonfiction manuscript, there should be some obstacle to be overcome. The success or failure of the protagonist to overcome that conflict is at the heart of a compelling narrative.
Tension: This is essentially the page-turning quality of a manuscript, what pulls the reader through the narrative. How finely tuned the narrative’s conflict is, how the characters overcome or fail to overcome the central conflict informs a manuscript’s tension. A manuscript that isn’t holding its reader’s attention might have its tension watered down by other elements—overlong descriptions of setting, say, or superfluous scenes that detract from rather than heighten the conflict.
Pacing: Similar to tension, pacing refers to the rhythm of the unfolding narrative. A narrative whose pacing is relentlessly full throttle may not be giving its reader a chance to know and become interested in the characters, for example. A narrative with Sunday-drive pacing might be giving the reader too much time. A well-considered mix of the two keeps the reader moving through the narrative while lingering at appropriate moments so the reader can, say, get his or her bearings in a scene.
Incident: Stuff’s gotta happen. Lovely prose is, well, lovely, but that shouldn’t be all that’s going on in the narrative. Something needs to happen for the characters to react to and against. The characters need to do things, preferably interesting things. (Even in the most skilled writer’s hands, depicting a character doing housework, for example, is a tricky thing to pull off.)
Character development: It’s not enough for a narrative simply to have a cast of characters, of course. The reader needs to have a vested interest in those characters and what happens to them. Whether or not they’re likeable (which is a debate for a different day), the characters need to feel real to the reader. They should speak and behave in believable (though not predictable) ways.
Believability: Certainly, there’s room for shock and awe in good writing, but the events that happen and the things the characters say need to be believable within the bounds of the narrative world and within the scope of that character’s personality. Similarly, the plot shouldn’t hinge on coincidence or divine intervention.
Predictability: Most narratives share common elements with existing stories, but the reader shouldn’t feel like he or she is reading a thinly veiled retread of something that’s already out in the world or that the characters are stereotypes. There is a nearly infinite range of unique details and ways for characters to react to a familiar conflict that will make for a uniquely successful narrative. Similarly, the reader shouldn’t be ahead of the story in anticipating what is going to happen. One of the great thrills of a narrative is the element of (believable) surprise.
These are, of course, highly simplified summations of complex narrative elements. Whole creative writing seminars are spent exploring them. While we’re no MFA program, in upcoming posts, we plan to address these topics a bit more in-depth, with insights directly from our talented Algonquin editors, so check back here often.