Brokeback Tales

It being late Sunday evening, I want to throw a question out into the void and see what comes back.

Geoff Ryman often rolled out the term ‘broken backed’ when he was teaching at Clarion. Geoff meant it not as a general term for a bad story, but as a specific term for a good story with something very wrong with it. Thats an interesting line to draw. A bad story is a bad story. But a good story, even with major flaws, is a thing of interest. So what to do about the broken backed story?

In my thinking a broken backed story is one where the writers imagination outstrips their skill. You are hit with inspiration for a truly original / inspiring story but your skill with the pen isn’t enough to express it in words. But that doesn’t quite work. Anyone who has sat down to write their Tolkienesque epic fantasy and failed is discovering how easy it is to imagine more than you can realise.

Another thought we all took away from Clarion, thanks to first Kelly Link then Mary Anne Mohanraj, was that there are many good stories in the world, but only a handful of great ones. Anyone can learn to produce a good story, but the thing every writer struggles with is stepping up into greatness. Stories are both complex and illogical, they are mechanisms with many moving parts, driven at their heart by a kind of magic none of us really understand. You can think you have all the parts mastered, only to find the magic is not there. Even the greatest writers only get the alchemy write some of the time.

Broken backed stories are the ones where writers are striving to get all the parts running smoothly and the magic blazing as well. They are like insane science experiments mixed with wild sorcery, Frankenstein’s monsters colliding with dancing mops to the music of Fantasia. They do not work. They are off kilter, out of joint, fucked up beyond all reason. Monsters that we keep looked in our trunks or exhiled to unused areas of hard drive.

Which leads me to my question. What should we do with them? Keep them locked away? Put them out of their misery? We might say ‘rewrite them and make them whole’. But what if we can’t? What if they can never be fixed? And what if fixing them means losing the mysterious spark that might have made them great?  Isn’t a great story always a little broken backed? I think most of my favourite stories are in one way or another.

Maybe we need some kind of home for the broken backed that will never be whole.  A Freakshow of Brokeback Tales. Hmmmm…I think I smell an anthology brewing!


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

3 thoughts on “Brokeback Tales

  1. I like the stuff you say here. Am really tired, and so not capable of saying anything much more coherent, but that sentence about stories being mechanisms driven by indecipherable magic is really good. Something to chew on. Or, something I would chew on if I had any brains left to do the chewing.
    I’ve been having trouble lately in that my stories only start breathing when they surprise me. And it’s so hard to get into them enough so that I stop feeling like a puppeteer.
    Right. I think it’s time for pajamas and bed.


  2. Interesting. If a story is broken backed because the author doesn’t have enough skill, might it be possible to obtain that skill over time, with more experience, and then revisit said story some years down the line?


  3. I read the title ‘Brokeback Tales’ but Thought ‘Brokeback Mountain. I thought you were going to write a piece about gay and lesbian Fantasy and Science Fiction. Well I think I might. I usually don’t in for tribalism but it could be quite interesting.



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