How Not to Be Boring

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Tim O’Brien has a really brilliant article in The Atlantic in which he argues that the biggest problem with “unsuccessful stories” is, to put it quite simply, that “they are boring.” I couldn’t agree more.

O’Brien worries about the focus in writing workshops on believability and “verisimilitude.” For him, believability isn’t usually the problem.  “The failure,” he says, “almost always, is one of imagination.”

Here’s a few of his ideas on what authors should strive for, some of which seem obvious, but all of which hearken back to some long lost idea of “storytelling” that focuses on keeping people’s attention and doing something with it:

“(I)nformational detail must function actively within the dynamic of a story.”

“(A) well-imagined story is organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events, which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary.”

“Inventing a nifty, extraordinary set of behaviors for our characters is not enough. A fiction writer is also challenged to find import in those behaviors.”

Off to go try to write a story about vigilante penguins whose flippers have turned into nuclear artillery guns because they’ve been drinking from radioactive icicles. What? That’s not what he’s getting at, you say?

(hat tip to Susan Taylor Chehak)


Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →