Thursday, December 8, 2011
Just Another Day: Slice of Life Stories
I have an uncanny ability to read a lot of the same types of books over a short period of time with no intention of doing that. Maybe I'm just in the mood for that type of story then and pick up books that are similar. Because of that, I often get interesting perspectives on what makes stories of a certain type work and why they didn't. This happened a few years ago with several slice of life stories. The ones where the focus is more on a character's journey through a period of time, and not so much about that one big bad problem that needs to be resolved.
Slice if life stories can be a lot harder to pull off than your typical plot-driven novel, because character growth isn't all that exciting in and of itself. It's the results of that growth, the struggle for that growth that intrigue us. Not a lot of stuff happens during "growth" like it does with a protag trying to solve an external problem. But there are ways to make these internal stories just as gripping as their action-packed counterparts.
The Slice of That Life
What period of time chosen make a big difference. Carter Finally Gets It takes place during Carter's freshman year of high school. His story goal (plot) is to have sex, but had the book been one escapade after another with him hitting on girls it would have been a tedious snore. Instead, the sex goal is used as a wonderful metaphor for Carter becoming a man. He has plans to make himself more appealing to the opposite sex, and thus get him laid, and this drives the story. Along the way, Carter learns a lot about who he is and what kind of man he wants to be. I don't think it would have worked as well had he been a senior, because he'd have been almost 18 and already a man by many standards. It was the threshold between being a kid and being a man, set in a very awkward time in someone's life, that allowed this journey to happen with such resonance. You didn't care if he actually had sex or not, you cared about his journey over the course of this year. Caring about the journey is what made this work.
The Character Growth
If the point of the story is to see the growth, the growth matters. In It's Kind of a Funny Story, the focus of the book is on the days leading up to a suicide attempt, and the five days the protag spends in a mental institution. You know going in that the protag tries to kill himself, so you're curious why, which drives you through the opening setup chapters. What I think really made this book work is that the reader figures out early on why the protag is hurting so much. Part of the appeal is seeing what it will take for the protag to realize it, too, and if he'll be able to change it. The goal isn't about him suddenly solving his depression and living happily ever after, it's about discovering what depressed him in the first place and how to take those first steps to recovery. The conflict was with himself, and you really want to see him figure it out and help himself. Wanting to see the character change is what made this work.
The Event Shown
For stories that cover a specific event, the event is a big draw. In Life As We Knew It, the story is about a cataclysmic event that changes the world. While there is a "survive" goal driving the protag, there is no major conflict to resolve. She's not going to fix what's happened and it's not going to magically revert back. It's all about how this event changes the protag. But the event itself is so compelling that it really hooks you. The world needed to end for this character to go through this internal change. It drew focus to the simple things in life we take for granted and really allowed for a change in both the reader's and the protag's perspective. It made you wonder how you would act in this same situation. Curiosity about the event and the protag's ability to handle that event is what made this work.
Stories That Almost Worked
Although I hate to say anything negative about another writer's work, there is one book I think is a good example of one that didn't quite work for a very specific reason. I'm a huge fan of the author, and there was a lot of good about this particular novel that makes it worth reading, but one element turned it from a great slice of life story to a what was the point then? story. In Rash, the teen protag is sent to a work camp-type prison and exploited for the very reason that sent him to prison inn the first place -- his anger. It has all the great potential for a character growth story, because this sentence affects the protag in a way that will force a change and let him figure out who he is. The dystopian future setting is compelling and interesting, so even as an event story, it works. The problem (in my opinion of course) is a subplot that suggests a much larger resolvable goal that's never developed. It goes from being an intriguing "ooo, what's going on with that and how will the protag's experience connect to this larger thing and change the exploitation plot?" to a deus ex machina. The element is never explained, and all it does it save the protag for no reason the reader can figure out. This didn't work because a single plot element hijacked the story and suggested that solving this element was the point of the book, which was then never resolved.
The Why Should I Care? Story
This final example is a movie, but it's such a great example of a bad slice of life I have to use it. In Skyline, a small group of people wake up to an alien invasion. This group has a goal driving the tale, but there's clearly no way they can do anything about the invasion, and before long it's clear no one can do anything about it. The aliens are going to win. So the movie is one scene after another of the small group getting smaller until the heroes are captured. At this point I actually thought, "Ah, it's an end of the world tale, like a horror movie, okay, that's different" but that wasn't it either. It ends with the implication that the pair of heroes' fight goes on even though it's futile.They were just going to keep fighting until they died, and the Earth (and thus the human race) would be destroyed by aliens. This didn't work because the point of the story was to watch people go through a lot of horrible situations that didn't resolve anything or get anywhere.
How Can You Tell if You Have a Slice of Life Story?
One common story problem writers face is a slice of life story that wasn't meant to be a slice a life story. This is a close cousin of the premise novel, where the novel focuses on an event, or a time, and there isn't that major goal to solve. Feedback likely includes comments like "nothing happens" or "what's the point of the story?" or even "what's the protag's goal? or "what's it about?"
If you think you might have one of these novels, ask yourself what the story is about. If you describe it in a way that is clearly about the journey and growth of the character, then you might have a slice of life story. If you have a specific event or problem that needs to be resolved, then you probably don't. In a slice if life, the plot itself doesn't matter, because solving that plot isn't what's driving the protag. There will be goals, and things to do, but no big event that the book is about. Something emotional is the compelling factor. If there's something solvable, odds are it's not slice of life.
If the story is genre, there's a big chance it's not slice of life, because genre stories tend to be about a resolvable problem. Even though you have character development, the plot is a major part of the book. As my examples show, you can have a slice of life with a genre story, but by their natures, genres tend to be about something tangible that can be resolved.
It's possible (and easy) to describe your story in a way that makes it seem like a slice of life, when it really isn't. This is when the story is dipping into premise novel territory. If you end up with a description about a character dealing with or going through an event or situation, such as, a woman deals with the aftermath of her son's death, you might want to explore it further. Is the story just going to show how this woman deals with the death, or is there a greater meaning? If by the end she just gets over it, or learns to accept it, you might have a premise novel brewing. But if your ending is about how that woman is changed and why, then you're probably on track for a slice of life story. It's a subtle difference, but a common reason why some stories just don't quite work and you're not sure why.
Slice if life stories are tough. It's hard to make a reader care about a character enough to want to see them living their day to day life. It's tough to have enough conflict to drive the plot without that conflict becoming the driving force of the story. But they can be very rewarding stories when done well, because they do tap into things the reader can relate to and care about.
Have you ever written a slice of life story? Was it harder or easier for you than a plot-driven novel?