Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Six Plastic Bags by James Victor

I was caught by the powerful combination of pace and voice in “Six Plastic Bags”—and the skill it shows in balancing buckets of information to create an immersive, textural world. However, those strengths aren’t yet matched when it comes to the story’s plotting. This month, I’d like to talk about what we want from our readers, how to help them get there—and how to evaluate if we’re providing them a worthwhile interaction.

There’s a lot of skill in how the world of “Six Plastic Bags” is built. Indra’s world is the kind of grim, brutal setting that’s easy to lay on far too thick, but “Six Plastic Bags” handles its worldbuilding and information with a thoroughly deft hand. It’s full of fascinating little tidbits folded in organically enough to create texture without overwhelming—the sheer amount of worldbuilding information in the fourth paragraph, parceled out so it’s only the quick sprint through a night-long chase, is an incredible example of how to do verisimilitude with a light hand. Every detail is just important enough, and matters later. The details of Indra’s world (the tinted skin on “ski-slope nose”, the fish guts) are precise, unexpected, and visceral.

Indra also works very well as a protagonist: glib and halfway immoral (the “clever thing to say” line is deeply funny), but never crossing the line into outright awfulness. He’s quirky and a little crappy in true Neal Stephenson style, but still someone I’m able to cheer for, and his self-regulated, artificial lack of terror at the situation he lands in is a clever way to make the more horrific action of the story readable; it’s a wonderful balancer.

But while it’s very well-executed on that prose level, as above, plotting is a point where “Six Plastic Bags” could be worked on. When I step back to summarize the piece, the plot is very straightforward: Indra does something stupid in the first paragraphs—for no discernible reason, with no motivation—and in the end he is punished for it, or what the creepers thought it was for some reason (not discernible, no motivation), in the same exact way as the last guy who actually did that thing.

Unfortunately, when I step back yet farther and start to test the logic of this world, the entire story falls apart: the creepers had him in custody. Why not just kill him then? Why bother with another chase—the main action of the story?

I’d suggest there are two approaches to consider when taking a look at what’s not quite firing in the plot of “Six Plastic Bags”: character motivation and emotional arc.

Whenever a critiquer finds themselves asking “Okay, but why?” it’s a good diagnostic for a motivations problem. I think motivations are a source for some of the trouble here, and on a certain level the story is aware of that:

He had known that he would keep going until he’d passed all reasonable limits, brought down the wrath of the slum lords and for what? One night and seven shags? It doesn’t make sense, even to himself. Except of course that perhaps he wants some wrath.

Indra’s motivations don’t “make sense, even to himself”. The creepers’ motivations for disbelieving his multiple protests and insisting this was personal are opaque and arbitrary as well—and two parties with no real motivations make it very difficult to infuse a plot with weight, meaning, or stakes.

This is a question that runs through the entire piece, even into the endgame. Indra goes to the Lighthouse—but why? He risks Constant Rex, who is a risk for him—but why, and why is that a risk? That threat isn’t well-defined, and is truncated before it ever has a chance to develop into a meaningful plotline. The whys pile up, the narrative tension—the sense of progressing through a plot, answering questions to find new ones and raising the stakes—falls away, and then “Six Plastic Bags” abruptly stops.

I think one route to making this story work more effectively would be going back to the beginning building blocks of its plot to consider some of those questions about motivation and choice. Why our characters do things is fundamental to why they matter to us as readers, and why the action of a story is important, and not just actions—which brings me to the question of emotional arc.

When it’s boiled down, readers read stories to satisfy something: to feel whatever question is opened in the first paragraphs resolve in a way that makes it feel complete. There’s a reason the end of the story is called a resolution. That sense of completion is something we can play with as authors, but it’s always worthwhile to consider our plotting in terms of its effects. If readers pick up a story to feel something, plot is the engine by which we, as writers, create the feeling. What feeling are we creating, how, and why? And is that why a good reason?

So the second route I’d suggest is to ask what readers are meant to feel by the closing bars of “Six Plastic Bags”? Which plot points or pieces of information are the stepping-stones to get them there? And most importantly: Why do you want them to feel this way about this information?

Thinking about this piece’s plot in terms of what effect you want it to produce is a great diagnostic for finding why each component of action is there, and where they’re all taking readers together. But it’s also a useful tool for evaluating our own motives as authors, because when stripped down to the emotional movements, it’s easier to evaluate what we’re saying in terms of the emotional context of the time we’re in.

Ultimately, I think there’s a lot of skill in play here: more than enough to discover where “Six Plastic Bags” wants to take readers—and what effect it wants from their going there.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012), and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

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