“Potential” is a double-edged word. Whenever I say to someone that a story has potential, I can almost see them wilt, hear that little internal “Oh!” of disappointment. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and it sounds like – failure. It sounds like the story isn’t working, and should be abandoned.
That’s a lot of weight to put on that one little word. It’s also not how I mean it. I’m not a kind editor – I’m not going to tell someone that something is interesting (another word that is often used to mean “it sucks, but I’m not going to say that”) if I think it isn’t working. If you’re looking for someone to spare your tender little authorial feelings, don’t look here.
So what does it mean when a story – or anything – has potential? I want you to think back to high-school physics, and the two types of energy. Kinetic energy is energy in motion. Potential energy is energy that has not yet been released. In its simplest illustration, a rock falling has kinetic energy, but the same rock teetering on the edge of a cliff has potential energy.
Potential in a story means that the rock is still on the edge of the cliff. It’s sitting there, full of that potential energy and just waiting to fall onto the roadrunner the moment Wile E. Coyote gives it the right amount of push. You are the coyote.
When you push a story that has potential, push it in the right way, and with enough force, then you release that potential. The story comes off the cliff; it stops teetering and takes a definite forceful direction.
It’s also important to remember that once you’ve pushed that rock, there’s an extremely good chance it will do something you didn’t expect; it may fall straight down, or it may bounce back and land on you, if it doesn’t defy gravity altogether. Suck it up. You wanted to be a writer and stories occasionally, if you’re lucky, take on a life of their own.
That’s what “potential” means. There’s something there, waiting to be released. You need to push it – maybe just a little, maybe a lot. Maybe you need a lever, or an Acme rocket. Whatever it takes, find it and do it. A story with potential is not a failure.
At least, it’s only a failure if you quit.