Every good story has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning introduces the reader to characters, setting, theme, and the central conflict. The middle places the protagonist in dire circumstances. The ending reveals how the protagonist either overcomes, or is overcome by, the conflict — depending on whether the story is comic or tragic.
When writing a short story, all of these elements must still be present. Where a novel gets 75,000 words or more, the short story gets 5,000 to 10,000, and that’s on the long end of the medium.
This poses a challenge to me as a writer when trying to create nuanced characters and plots. It is a constant struggle to make my writing clear and concise enough to convey my ideas while still remaining within the format. There is a process that I use that helps me overcome this, though.
1. Begin with a stereotypical character. This allows me to set a template in someone’s mind. Within one paragraph, I can associate my character with a given stereotype that may take pages or chapters in a novel. Generalities exist because they are generally true. I use this to my advantage. For example, the social perception of an athelete is someone who is physically gifted, but lacking in mental capacity. By allowing the reader to form this opinion on their own, I can skip quite a bit of characterization. This saves my word count for showing the reader how they are wrong about the character.
2. Allow your plot to develop your character. In a short story, my characters and plot really have to form a symbiotic relationship. I simply do not have the word count to use the same bag of tricks a novelist uses. By using an easily recognizable template, it allows me to play with the readers perception of the character. I can guess what the reader will think of my character, and what they may expect my character to do. Armed with this information, I can sculpt my plot to surprise and entertain the reader by preying on their preconceived notions.
3. Subtlety is key. I try my hardest not to tell my reader what to think about events or characters in my stories. I try to allow my diction to lead the reader to assumptions and revelations about them. Instead of telling my reader that my protagonist athelete is really smart, I might try to find a way to squeeze in a reference to the completed crosswords he has in his room. Instead of telling the reader that he wakes up a 5am to work out, I may mention that he woke up late drooling on a book. The idea is to subtly shift the reader’s perspective from the template to your character.
The whole goal of this process is to allow the reader to retain the 90% of the character that fits the template, while delving into the 10% where your character differs. This saves wordcount that you may be tempted to spend on characterization that does not add to the plot. The plot, then, can be more robust and engaging because your words are freed from unnecessary obligations. In the end, the short story is all about my economy of words.
Disagree with my process? Have something to add? Feel free to comment on how you bring your short story characters to life.
The car turned the landscape into a blur of lights and darkness as it raced down the highway. Sam wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, but he knew that he was in trouble.
The suspicion hit him when he first noticed that he was driving. He looked around groggily, his brain trying desperately to catch up. He had experienced black outs and sleep walking before, but usually his wife was able to manage him through these times. He dug his cell out of his pocket and punched in his wife’s speeddial.
Suspicion turned to alarm when he heard the ringing from the backseat. “Marge?” he asked, “Are you there?” He couldn’t see anything through the rear-view, and was too terrified to turn his head to actually look.
The alarm turned to panic when he realized that his hands were sticky. It was hard to see detail in the glow of the dashboard, but he already knew what color his hands would be. His stomach turned.
Panic turned to hysteria when he saw the flashing lights in his rear-view. He knew what they would find. He knew what would happen to him. He sped up. The lights behind him lagged for the briefest of moments, and then were right on his rear bumper. The needle hit 95-100-105. Sam checked his rear-view. It was the last thing he would do.
It took several hours to clean up the debris from the accident. Hundreds of rush-hour commuters cursed Sam without even knowing his name.
Plot is very important to me as both a reader and a writer. I expect the plot to reveal things about the characters in the story. I expect the author to craft a plot that forces change in both the characters and world that I am glimpsing. This is far easier said than done.
It annoys me when I read or write a story that does not build towards anything. It is like walking through traincars, but never knowing where the train is going or why. That is why I go to great lengths to make sure my plot is always pointing towards something; always acting as a device to allow the reader to analyze my characters. I do this by writing with intention.
I always make a plot outline. I am definitely a planner. This step would be natural to me, even if I wasn’t obsessed with plot like I am. This serves as a guide to me while I am writing — it helps me line up my scenes and characters. It allows me to build suspense and forshadowing, because I already know what is coming.
I limit my outlining to major plot points. I believe that spontaneity is important, and even necessary, to a story that makes me want to revisit it again and again. In order to allow myself this spontaneity, I do not plan all of the small details. I find that once I have an understanding of the characters and the overall plot and theme, the details set themselves in place. I do not care what route I take between point A and point B, only that I arrive at point B.
I attach theme and intention to the plot outline. At each major junction that I have written in my plot outline, I attach a reason why. I try to attach the overall reasons why I would stop at that junction in the story, and not let the train move on to the next station. Every stop must do one of three things.
1) It must reveal something about the characters.
2) It must forshadow a future major plot point in the story.
3) It must shed additional light on a previous plot point in the story.
If I cannot find a way for the scene to do one of these three things, I remove it from the outline.
I find these steps helps me bring focus to my story and characters. I want to write the kind of story that I would enjoy reading. What kinds of things do you do to help your story stay focused?
Hello, my name is Sam. I am dead.
I woke up a while ago. At first, I was content to simply lie there in the silent darkness. My thoughts came and left like the tide. One day, the tide brought in a thought that lodged itself in my mind. Who am I?
I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier. As I began to explore the question, I stumbled upon others that cluttered up my mind. I longed for answers that would make my beach pristine again, but answers never washed up on the shore — only questions. Questions like: Why am I here? How did I get here? Is there anyone else here?
I don’t know how long I suffocated under the weight of those questions in the darkness. Time just didn’t seem to be important to me. It didn’t answer any of my questions. When I had decided that I had enough of my question’s mockery, I started to try to get away from them. I didn’t fully understand the implications of the questions, of the darkness. It hadn’t dawned on me that I was dead. So I sat up and tried to kick my legs over the edge of the bed. Nothing changed.
This brought on a whole new level of panic. I could tell that I was now sitting, but for the first time I realized that I had never felt the bed. I guess I just assumed that since I had been lying down, I would have been on a bed. I sat there for a long time, trying to think what I should do next. I stood up, even though I could not feel the ground beneath my feet.
I think this is when it really started to make sense, in a morbid sort of way. It started with a: What if I am a ghost? This inevitably was followed by the thought: I woke up in a coffin. As an experiment, I began to pretend to walk up a flight of stairs.
When I first broke through to the surface, I was blinded by the brilliance of the overworld. I glanced at my tombstone. My name was Sam. One question down — I knew who I was now. I didn’t know how I was going to answer the rest of the questions, but I started my journey of self-rediscovery at that point.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve made progress. The Others tell me that there are no answers, that “Why?” is the most foolish question of all. They don’t understand. I must know. Can you help me? Why am I here?
“Write every day. It doesn’t necessarily matter if it is good. Just write.”
If you have spent any time at all reading blogs on the writing process, this piece of advice will be extremely familiar. It seems to peek mockingly at me from every “Top 10 tips” list that I read. I find it difficult to write daily. I work. I have a wife and a daughter. I have to sleep sometime. However, day by day, I am getting better at taking the time to write.
It isn’t that I don’t want to write. It isn’t even that I feel like writing and my family are mutually exclusive. No, my problem is on a much smaller scale. I get distracted. I reach some small break in my flow, and suddenly I am ready to check my twitter feed or facebook or favorite websites. I’m sure that I am not alone in this.
My answer is to go old-school. I bought some decent pens and a nice notebook, and I actually write. I find this to be extremely helpful for me in my quest for writing discipline. I think this happens for a few reasons.
1) There is no twitter feed in my notebook. There is no internet. It is just me and the scritching of my pen on paper.
2) I can actually see my progress. I feel much better about my writing when I can turn pages. It just seems more real to me than a word count — I feel like I’ve made progress, and that helps me come back the next day.
3) It turns off my internal editor. Being a passive-aggressive perfectionist, all those squiggly lines really get on my nerves. I spend time reorganizing my words when I should be spinning new ones. By writing in a physical notebook, it is so much harder for me to edit my work, and leads to wasted writing time. My editor can come out when I transfer my first draft to my computer.
Writing daily is still a struggle. Every day, I must remember that above all, writers write.
If you have any tips that help you stay organized, please share them with me. As a Hopeful Author, I welcome all advice.
Like so many before me, I have gone through the varying steps to becoming a blogger. I looked at them with disdain when I first heard of them. Surely, noone would be so vain as to think their mundane lives would be of interest to the public in general. Sure, I dabbled. I judged with haughty chuckles at the blogs that I skimmed. A few caught my attention, but were quickly forgotten as one thing pushed out another in the meat-grinder that is my mind.
It was my wife who began to change my views on blogs. She would read excerpts to me. Ever so slowly, my perception of bloggers began to shift. Recently, I decided to begin reading one of my wife’s favorites (whyamiweird.com). It was surprisingly entertaining. It was a very small step for me from accepting that bloggers are OK to becoming one myself.
You see, I love to write. My friends throughout the years could verify that I have almost always had an idea for a book or story rumbling around in the dusty recesses of my mind. Rarely have I ever given birth to those ideas. I like to blame life in general. I’ve always told people that life just has a habit of getting in the way of living. Deep inside I knew that what I really lacked was discipline and desire.
My hopes for this blog is that by simply disciplining myself to write on a consistent basis, I can help build the desire to let the ideas hiding in the dark corners of my mind loose on digital paper. My hope is that this blog is both a forerunner and documentation of my attempts to publish the works that I have neglected for so long.