The Myth of the Perfect Story

I carry the perfect story in my brain. In this story, my characters are perfectly fleshed out and rounded. Everybody’s motives are crystal clear – even the villains. My setting is so real you can see and hear it. My dialog sparkles. My twists are totally unexpected and profound. The ending is a perfect summation of the story.

I sit and write this story. I do. I think I’ve done a pretty darn good job of capturing my story. Then I go to a meeting of my critique group and learn–not so much.

If you are a writer, you can relate.

See, the story in our heads will never be the story on the paper. I don’t think it can be. This is for multiple reasons. The story in our head is ethereal. When the words pass from the brain to the paper, I swear something happens to them. Maybe my hands are not capable of adequately translating my thoughts. Maybe English is simply insufficient to capture all that I imagine. Maybe the story is really crap and I just don’t know it yet.

(I prefer not to believe the last one.)

Whatever the reason, I’ve talked to many writers and it does seem to be true. But in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t important. As long as we keep one thing in mind.

Don’t let the imperfections stop you from writing the story.

I think it was Anne Lamott who said “perfection is the enemy of the good.” Eventually, those words on the page make up a darn good story. Yeah, it takes some revision. Smoothing, editing, massaging. Input from the critique group. That cruddy first draft (my apologies, Ms. Lamott, but this is a family-friendly blog) becomes good. Not perfect, but good nonetheless. A friend of mine tells the story of the time a student asks when the book is done. My friend had attended a reading by a multi-published, award-winning author. During the reading, the author paused, took a pencil out of his pocket, and made a note on the page.

Answer: the book is never done. It is never perfect.

Stephen King would probably tell you he’s never written a perfect book. Nor any other author. And that’s okay.

As long as knowing that perfection is a myth doesn’t keep us from putting words on the page. From striving to make tell the best story we can.

As long as we don’t let perfection become the enemy of good.

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

14 thoughts on “The Myth of the Perfect Story”

  1. Oh, this is so good I want to frame it. “As long as we don’t let perfection become the enemy of good.” How many writers have stopped writing because the work wasn’t perfect. That’s truth distilled. Well done.

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  2. Kait, I bet that applies to a lot of people in a lot of fields, especially creative fields. “It isn’t perfect so I might as well give up.” My son is a little like that. If he doesn’t do it perfectly the first time, he figures he’s a failure and why bother. We’re working on that.

    Sue, I’ve gotta laugh. Your comment made me think of the line from Galaxy Quest: Never give up, never surrender!

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  3. Wonderful post, Mary! The fact that the story we envision will never quite make it on the page is a hard truth to accept, but is absolutely necessary. This reminds me of how Navajo Native Americans purposely incorporate flaws into their rugs–they believe only God can be perfect and, thus, weave in imperfections to honor this. We’re not supposed to be perfect, and perhaps the beauty is in the flaws.

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  4. Kate, I have heard that. And yet I’ve never seen an “ugly” Navajo rug. Ever.

    Becky, yes. As a former co-worker said, “It may not be finished, but it’s done.”

    Peg, if you get a tattoo I want a picture!

    Keenan, isn’t it maddening sometimes how the exact same words can feel like garbage one day and pretty good the next?

    A friend of mine just said, “The story in your brain is in color. The page is black and white.” Exactly!

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  5. As a reader, the perfect book is the one I just finished reading — great for you writers. The corollary is that the next book I start will supplant the previous one and become the perfect book. As long as you all (or all ya’all if you prefer) keep writing the “perfect” book, I’ll be able to keep reading the “perfect” book.

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  6. Great post! I’m always bummed because the story I write is never like the one in my head and the one in my head is amazing. I’m struggling with this now.

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  7. Yes, the distance between story-in-head and story-on-page is so daunting. And that IS such a good saying–very powerful. I originally heard it credited to Voltaire, though I think he was quoting someone too. 🙂 It’s certainly worth repeating.

    Also loved “cruddy” first draft for family friendliness. Tee hee! Thanks for a great post, Mary.

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  8. Kimberly, I know. I’ve felt that way myself. Just keep pushing through it.

    Cynthia, isn’t everything we quote these days from someone actually from someone else? LOL But Voltaire was a smart guy so I don’t think he’d mind us stealing his words. And yes, we must keep it family friendly!

    Pamela, I don’t know if our local tattoo parlor does group rates, but I can ask. 🙂

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