An Embarrasing Little Problem – Short story workshop part 6 (I THINK)

Your character must have a problem. You know that, right?

In short stories you might even have a “problem story.” It’s early in the morning and I’m uncaffeinated, so I’m blanking on this, but they’re very common in science fiction, particularly hard science fiction.

A problem story is something like The Still Small Voice of Trumpets (which is a problem novel – how do you induce revolt in a planet that doesn’t care so long as they have art?)

I understand it’s easier in short stories. I never figured out how to write one of those, which is probably why I don’t remember any of them.

My reaction to problem short stories that are JUST problem short stories is “Oh, my, how clever” but they don’t tend to stick with me. However, for the record they are a very accepted style in science fiction and favored at Analog. If you can do them – I’m looking at you Laura M – particularly with a science issue at the center of them, then do them.

However, even if your story is not JUST a problem story, your character still must have a problem. The problem for a short story is, of necessity, smaller than a problem for a novel. What I mean is, your dog being kidnapped by aliens might fit a (longish) short story. All the dogs on earth being suddenly uplifted by a ray from space is a problem for a novel, because it spawns all sorts of little problems you need space to deal with “what does this do to spaying and neutering laws? Laws of dogs being property? What can dogs do now, if they still don’t have thumbs? Prosthetics for dogs? What kind of citizenship do you give dogs?” etc. Novel.

Now you could take one of those and write a bang up short story. BUT for the full effect, you need a novel.

Some things to know about problems in short stories:

  • Your character must have something he or she wants, needs or misses. When you start up, it is best this thing be physical. (I’ll explain later.) Your character might want world peace, but what she needs right at the beginning is a gun so she can take the bad guy prisoner, for instance. It’s easier for a reader to focus, particularly in short stories, on wanting something physical
  • Yes, there must be a problem. Your character can’t just sit there and contemplate the state of her soul – or her toe nails – for the entire story. Do you want to write “If you were a dinosaur, my love?” No? ‘nuff said. Your character must have something she wants to have, do or accomplish.
  • The problem in the first or second paragraph, where it should be, doesn’t need to be the one that carries you through the story. It just needs to be the problem that draws you in. I’ve started stories with people stuck on ledges; I’ve started stories with people dying of cold; I’ve started stories with people just looking for an ice cream stand. This wasn’t the problem of the story which was usually much bigger and something about freedom or human self-reliance (hey, I know myself) but it was enough to draw people in. Even in Something Worse Hereafter, the problem is how to stay alive after death. Well, that’s what it is until it turns into something else at the end.
  • Don’t throw in a lot of unconnected little problems, just to keep things hopping. The little problem must be related to the bigger problem like the thigh bone and the leg bone, and whatever (ham bone!) And if the problem gets bigger, it must be because of something your character did in his attempt to wriggle free. What I mean is, picture your character digging himself out of a landslide. His efforts are going to jog things lose that will get him more buried/injured until he makes it out. This is what your characters efforts should do. You can, sure, have one or two bad things happen randomly (better than good things) but I caution you, these work better in novels. In short stories, because of the tighter format, it starts feeling like you’re pushing walls over on your characters for no reason. You don’t want that feeling that no matter what your character does, you’re standing ready, over him, to wham him good, because then the reader loses interest.

So your embarrassing little problem? It would be worse not to have one. Now go write and it will pass.

Next week – Bringing it all to and end with bells on.

27 comments

        1. I was just going to put them out one at a time? I’m going to put the flashback chapter out as a free short story on the non-Amazon sites where, with the exception of Smashwords, I have sold precisely zero of my new book. This will lure readers. I am certain.

            1. You bet! What does it involve? I have the second book out of Select, but D2D makes it look easy to change prices.

              1. You change price halfway through the day on Thurs. so it takes effect on Fri. You change it back evening of Mon. You let us — me, though I should put someone sane in charge of this — know. You echo the joint promo on your social media, if you use it.
                I think I’m going to setup a page for the books on sale, to make it easier. Probably off my site.

      1. You think? Just a little. (Actually, I was all blushing and everything, but feeling pleased lost out to feeling frightened).
        It did start me reviewing the short stories living in the computer for whether I had one that fit the problem motif. Probably the seasteader one does, but I still have to fix the errors about the silkworms. And, it might be too libertarian for Analog. I don’t know.

  1. On “building on problems”, in the story I’m “working out in my mind” the first problem is that Steve believes he’s a danger to others (correctly) and doesn’t want to kill himself. His response is to head “Into the Wild” (working title) where he’s not likely to met any humans. Of course, the Wild doesn’t have supermarkets and does contain real monsters, his problem is “how do I survive in the Wild”. He has the ability to survive long enough to learn what he needs to know to survive longer (and has taken a larger game hunting rifle with him). Then after rescuing another wanderer in the Wild, he learns his “real problem”. [Smile]

  2. “Put down that wrench!”

    I’ve often maintained that in Blowups Happen, Mr. Heinlein provided a prime example of writing the effective short story, particularly in the Science Fiction field.

  3. But Sarah! :: whine :: It’s so much more fun to explore characterization and worldbuilding. Why must I _always_ have something go wrong? It’s not Faiiiirrrr!

    Yeah, I too often have to retcon problems into the fun I’m having playing with characters and worlds. Just once, Muse, just once, can’t I _start_ with a problem and build characters and worlds around it?

    1. Because the Muses hate us. At the moment Clio is pointing and laughing at me because of something I should have thought about, oh, three years ago that has risen up to cause much mayhem and consternation.

      I had a story that started with the MC getting an earworm (the musical kind) . . . and then my version of a Hummvee rolls down a cliff and chaos ensues, as she’s still hearing the song. Strange but I think it worked. (The song is “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” to the tune “Promised Land,” for the curious.)

      1. The Muses definitely hate us.

        I figured out how to make Steve’s problem into a story but the Muses keep throwing me ideas that would make the “solution” too easy.

        Steve needs a “secure camp site” with available food while he “gorges and sleeps” and “mysterious strangers” keep popping up to provide help or “strange places” keep popping up that would provide his necessary “secure camp site”.

  4. Chutney Kristallnacht’s keyboard wouldn’t type the letters q,t.u,p,j or the numbers 1 and 3. She had to write all her email without those keys.
    How do you coerce/persuade sophonts to adopt an eco-neutral lifestyle on their planet when your propaganda said ” Ado an eco-neral lifesyle on yor lane”?
    If only she could work with the Happies, small, hairy quadrupeds making most of the population. They were too flighty, though, only interested in play and reproduction. The Stalwarts were the problem: they kept cutting down trees and altering the eco system.
    Chutney discovers the Stalwarts and the Happies are two stages in the lifecycle of one species. After the heterosexual Happies reproduce, they become sentient and homosexual builders. Chutney cannot reconcile her affirmation of their diversity with her rejection of their engineering, and her head explodes.

  5. What can dogs do now, if they still don’t have thumbs?

    That just begs for posting this ad again:

    Sure, many people will have seen it before. But if you hadn’t, enjoy.

    1. Awesome.
      We used to “empathize” with our dog over his lack of thumbs. He pretends he doesn’t care.

    2. Chuckle Chuckle

      One Bar-Fly commented that one way to deal with the Saudis was to develop cats with thumbs and send the cats to them. [Evil Grin]

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