So, now you want to write a short story, and you have a pretty good idea. Great. So… how do you set about it.
If you set about it as I originally did, you either write a beginning and mill around looking for the next bit (and never find it) or you start adding complications as you know the character and the world, and then end up at ten thousand words realizing you have two chapters of a novel.
Part of the way to get over this, of course, is to figure out the plot.
Plots aren’t “just what happens.”
Or rather, they are “just what happens” but that is not the same as something interesting happening.
(Sighs and taps fingers on the desk.) Look, a story has to have a satisfying chain of events, leading to a conclusion that does something for the reader. (Unless you’re writing literary and plotless, which is your problem, bub. I think it’s no longer illegal in most states, but don’t come crying to me if you grow hair on the palms of your hands. Oh, and remember to do it in private.)
The purpose of any story telling is to have your reader experience emotion, preferably the emotion you want them to experience and not some other emotion at random. (Or as happens with a lot of books I try to read, vague disgust and a sense that several electrons/trees were killed in vain.) To do that, you must take the reader along with you on a ride that you have planned and which ends with some sort of emotional pay off.
In novels this is more attenuated (and if there’s interest I’ll do a novel one after this) and you can have “rest” periods in the middle of the more tense sequences, etc.
But in a short story, each movement in the story needs to lead to the denouement and heighten the emotion.
So, even if you’re a pantser by choice you should try to plot your stories, if not in advance, then after the fact.
There are various ways to do this, and it’s important to remember the tool is not the story, just like the map is not the journey. If one tool doesn’t work for you, try another.
The most normal way to plot is the W plot. You start at a high point, something happens that sends the character spiraling down. The character tries to solve it (a little higher, but not as high as the first peak, which is why the W is a misnomer,) something in the way he tries to solve it, sends it spiraling down further than the first dip. Character tries again, rises with hope, falls when it fails. This is also known as try-fail sequence and hard wired into us is the expectation there will be three of these before solution, though it’s been known to be two or four. In short stories this is often two.
The other way to plot involves The Hero’s Journey and gets way more complex. A good summary of the points to hit on The Hero’s Journey (Originally Joseph Campbell – I was hit on this on another post where I mentioned because someone thought I said Pixar invented it. Pixar rather distilled it from The Hero’s Journey which can be touchy feely and too mushy for words. They used their “points list” to make their big hits. They no longer use it.) is in the middle of a book called The Writer’s Journey, which I’m sure you can find at your library.
Face with all these tools, when I started writing stories and was completely blind, I made my own, of course. This came in the form of a “short story cheat sheet”. I no longer can find it, but I can sort of recreate it here, with an imaginary short story’s points filled in. (Because the way the day is going, I can’t think of even my favorite shorts, and because I don’t have permission from their authors to use that. Because it’s for an example, I’m going to use a radically simple story. Also a little silly.)
Character Poly Polideuces, emigrating with her family to newly terraformed Mars. She’s ten years old and a good kid.
Character’s Obvious Problem During transfer on the moon, Poly’s puppy, Pimpernel, runs away. Poly must find him in ten minutes or she will have to leave without him.
Character’s Hidden Problem Poly knows her parents aren’t thrilled with her insisting on taking the dog, because she doesn’t seem that attached to him and has been very bad at looking after him in the past. And besides, Poly’s parents will have to sacrifice protein rations the first year to feed Pimpernel. They wouldn’t mind if Poly really loved him, but though Poly says she does, she doesn’t act it.
Precipitating incident: Pimpernel runs away while the baggage is being weighed for Mars. Poly’s parents say if she doesn’t find him, Pimpernel will have to be left behind.
First attempt at solution/fail: Poly looks in the most obvious place, the Moon’s Marvelous Cafeteria, where she thinks Pimpernel might have been attracted by the smell of food. He’s not there.
Second attempt at solution/fail: She looks in the cleaning closet at the landing bay, and not only isn’t Pimpernel there, but a scary alien Janitor chases her.
Facing up to real problem/mirror moment: Poly realizes she’s been neglecting Pimpernel for weeks, and was holding him too tight on the shuttle up, and scolded him when he squirmed. Perhaps what Pimpernel really is looking for is love.
Third attempt at solution/climax/win Poly looks for kids around her age, and finds a little girl, in a back corridor. She’s the daughter of one of the workers at the station, and has no kids to play with, and she’s playing with Pimpernel and Pimpernel clearly doesn’t want to leave her. Poly decides to do the best thing she can for Pimpernel, and gives him to the little girl. She still catches her rocket. The end.
Stop giggling. It’s a perfect structure. I told you the story would be stupid.
Now, go forth and do a plot for your own story.
Next week: character plots, action plots, mixed plots, oh, my.