Happy Saturday Everyone!
We’re back for part four of my series on writing short fiction. We’ve talked a bit about why to write short stories, we’ve talked a bit about what a short story consists of and last week, we started looking at how to find ideas for short stories.
I’m going to skip over the obvious details around making sure you have a good location for writing, whether its a desk in a corner or a laptop in a coffeeshop. And I’ll skip over the bits about the importance of daily production to keep the story alive in your brain as you write it. You know all of that, I suspect.
So now that you’ve spent some time coming up with an idea, it’s time to do some more pre-writing. Unless, of course, you’re one of those writers who instinctively find their story by actually writing it. I can go both directions and the longer I write, the more convinced I am that whatever we do that tricks our brain into writing is Our Writing Process (TM) and it seems to me that it can (and should) be as adaptable as we primates are. Sometimes introducing change to our process is just what we need to get our creative minds unstuck. So for today, let’s pretend you’re going to plan your story rather than discover it as you write it.
We have an idea. And we know the elements that the story needs — a person in a place with a problem. So it’s time to connect those dots. I have a thinking chair that works quite well (that leather recliner in the Den of Ken). But when I’m looking for a story, I find that all my spare thoughts drift toward that story wherever I am as I turn it over in my mind. Who is my character? What are they all about? What is it about this snapshot in their lives that is so important? What are they afraid of? What do they long for?
And what is their problem? By knowing the character, I can get a better idea of the problem they need to face and why…and how. And what is the setting that becomes the context for this struggle? The supporting cast upon that stage? I tend to be rather spartan as a writer when it comes to setting detail and supporting characters — I show just enough to get us by but would rather err on the side of letting my readers’s imaginations fill in the blanks (and thereby strengthen their connection to the story) than give too much detail.
And here’s a good place to take a few questions. Someone asked “what do you think wrecks a short story? In other words, what do you leave out?” The question is well-put because it’s recognized from the start that the writer should leave out the bits that break or wreck the story. For me, I leave out most descriptions of people beyond what the POV character would notice…including descriptions of said POV character. I leave out dialect. I leave out things that are going to “squik” my readers just for the sake of “squiking” my readers. I stay rooted firmly in a single point-of-view character. I also like Elmore Leonard’s advice — leave out everything that isn’t story. Especially in short fiction. I leave out scenes that do not involve the character learning or doing things that move them closer to solving their problem. I leave out the supporting characters that are not necessary to the POV character moving forward to solve their problem. (If the scene where the protagonist is buying coffee from his favorite barista does nothing to advance the story, chop it.) And with short fiction, I keep solidly in mind that I have to make all my words, all my scenes, lift more than their weight. My person, in their place, with their problem needs to be established on the first page.
Another question: How do you plot or plan a short story? Well, if I’m going to plot or plan, I do the thinking that we just talked about to the point where I can answer some basic questions. How does my POV character discover the problem? How do they first attempt to solve it and when they fail, what does it cost them? Having a pen and paper handy may help; I find I’m able to turn most of a short story around in my head without much in the way of notes. (But notes can be very helpful if you end up sidelining the project and come back to it later…which has happened to me before.)
A really simple structure for short stories — taken from the most succinct and helpful writing book I’ve ever read (Writing to the Point by Algis Budrys) is this: Your character must make three attempts, each with rising stakes, to solve their problem. And they must fail twice and only succeed the final time because of something inside of them that has changed, leading to a different final attempt that is successful. Now, I’ve never gone back over my body of work to see if that exact structure is in place, but I do know that my stories have characters with problems who are changed in their attempts to solve them. And no, I don’t think a story has to have two try/fails and a try/win. Sometimes it’s losing that the character needs in order to change. And I’m not suggesting that all stories need to have that clear-cut of a formula. But this one is time-tested with good results. And I am a big advocate of learning the classical structures before going off-road with our fiction.
So how does that try/fail look?
Susie wakes up in the middle of the night. Her dog was barking but now he’s gone quiet. She goes to the window and sees a great light over her father’s corn field. Her dog, wagging its tail, vanishes into the corn. Okay, there’s our first problem. How many stories start with a protagonist waking up? Enough that it’s considered cliched. So I think some more. I could start with Susie awake on the porch, squinting into the light. There are things I could do to make it even better, but for the sake of the exercise let’s go with this.
Susie loves her dog. Her dog running off into the corn under that bright light is the most unusual circumstance she’s likely ever faced in her young life.
So how does she go about solving the problem? Well, first, she goes in to wake her father. They live alone because Susie’s Mom was killed in Iraq. She tries to wake him up but…there’s something wrong. He is asleep and can’t be budged. Her problem is suddenly more than just a dog running after a strange light in the corn. She tries the phone to call 911. There’s a song playing when she listens to the receiver — the one they played at her Mom’s funeral. The plot as they say thickens.
She sees her father’s .410 gauge shotgun in the corner. She’s been shooting since she was little and knows how to use it. She knows where he keeps the ammunition. She gets it, loads it, and heads outside.
And then what happens next? Your homework assignment is to post the next try/fail below in comments.
Once you have the bare bones of structure, it’s time to sit down and write your first draft. And that’s where we’ll pick up next time…after our theme week….
Trailer Boy out.