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.