Short story workshop, part however many 4? 5?
Sorry to be so late with this. I’d started to explain that you can’t have character without plot or plot without character. That you can’t take your beautiful character and display him to the readers, and make the readers give a good d*mn without showing your character in action.
Not that writers haven’t tried. I’ve read a lot of newbies having Perfect Princess Pattycakes (who is sometimes a guy) wandering through the novel while everyone talks about how Perfect and Pattycakey she is, even as she does nothing. Just her mere presence causes problems to be solved around her.
Yep, her name is Mary Sue. Don’t be Mary Sue.
The thing is that this is most important for novels. (Are we doing one of these for novels, afterwards? With emphasis on the differences between short stories and novels? You command, I obey.)
Short stories, are… a different beast.
Look, I’ll level with you. While you should still have a plot and things actually happen, it is perfectly possible to write a short story when ALL you have is a character.
Okay, maybe not ALL you have. It would really help if you also had Bradbury’s facility with words. (Younger son, the inarticulate one, seems to while writing fantasy. It’s very odd. Like there’s a were writer who lives in his brain.)
Given that and a fascinating enough character you can write a short story in which the character reminisces, or moans or sets fire to his own hair.
If you have the ability to do that and make the story interesting, what are you doing here? Go make with the typytypy.
(Mind you, even that level of ability won’t save you in a novel, though you could write an episodic novel with perfect little character gems, right? Sort of. Kind of. Sideways. If you do don’t tell them I sent you – you’ll win so many awards.)
For most of us, even in a short story, there must be some sort of plot to make it… you know, a story.
But you can start with the character (weirdly for short stories I usually don’t. I usually start with a character for novels. For short stories I start with a situation. Most of the time the character appears after that. If he/she doesn’t, I play it by ear and plug in generic character for plot, with one or two interesting quirks.) and interrogate him to get a story.
By “interrogate” I don’t mean you should interview him/her. Sure you can do that, but if you do that, often the interview becomes the thing.
I interviewed a character once, for a deeper understanding of what was eating him, but the thing is, though I got to know him better, the things I got to know didn’t fuel the plot which still had to come from somewhere else.
If you’re a character writer, the character is there in your head already and interviewing him with nonsense about his favorite desert and his most embarrassing moment in childhood won’t help you. These were things he would have given you anyway, given time and the need to know. You’re just cluttering yourself with a bunch of facts you don’t need. It sort of reminds me when ebooks were new and editors (ah!) said stupid sh*t at cons, like “We can have information linked right from the page. So, if you mention the Alps, there will be a tab the reader can click in and find out how tall they are and everything about it.” Because you know, in a novel, description (what we choose to tell and what we choose to withhold, how we tell it, where we put the emphasis) isn’t part of the story tellers art at all, right? It’s just the imparting of information. (Good thing these people were gatekeepers, right? Look at their brilliant understanding of the narrative art.)
So, don’t do that. Instead, if you have the character in our head, ask yourself “where does this character hurt?” That is, what does the character want more than anything, what’s in his way, and (if possible) why does he want it that badly. What causes this near unbearable craving? Or “What is the character’s greatest regret and grief?” (For another type of character, of course.) What can he/she do about it.
Again “Where does the character hurt?”
The nature of the wanting or the regret or the pain or the longing, or all of those might tell you what your story is.
“The thing I wanted most of all was to kill Joe.” Is probably a mystery. As is “I wish I’d been there when Joe was killed and could have stopped the bastard. I wasn’t, I coldn’t, but I can go and find his murderer.”
“Ever since I was little I dreamed of going to the moon. My mom gave me a bunch of clockworks and told me it was a piece of the sputnik which had been to outer space. I slept with it clutched in my hand while I was battling small pox.” Is either science fiction or the beginning of my autobiography.
“It was the elves that did it. We though we had a problem with the rabbits, but no. I was there when the elves came. I wish I’d believed in them and could have done something about it.” Is probably fantasy. Might even contain exploding elves.
But Sarah, you say, what if the character isn’t telling me what his greatest fear/pain is? How do I figure out a story for this character.
Well, the reason I started with the “greatest” fear and pain is that short stories are of necessity more focused. So you need to find the big brush and paint with that, so it can be seen even in postage stamp (okay, it’s a bad analogy. Shut up.)
Let’s suppose you have a character who is just telling you what is bothering him right then. It’s possible that what you have is actually a novel (you won’t know till you figure out what his big fear/pain is) but you can at least start looking at it and bringing it out to play.
If the character is afraid of the dark, putting him in a spaceship where the lights fail should produce some interesting results. The same way, if you know your character absolutely refuses to believe in anything supernatural. Drop him head first into fairyland and then see what happens.
Yes, it’s torture. Well, what do/did you torture people for? Information, right? Story people aren’t any different.
Chances are the story that results from this won’t be very coherent and you’ll have to clean it up at the end. Short stories are all a matter of proportion. (More on that later.) But you’ll have something.
Just remember – don’t have your character born on page one. Even in a short story, if your character has no past, chances are he has no future either.
And – don’t have the entire plot based on running away. Yes, you can get away with this in a short story (The Littlest Nightmare. COFF.) BUT if it’s more than a joke or a vignette and if you’re going to go more than three thousand words on the outside, you need something more than that. Find out what makes your character stand and fight. Then do it.
Next week: Location, location, location.