So, you planned your story in advance. Or if you’re like me, you just sort of had it pour out of you, which is all fine and dandy except for the parts where it isn’t.
Look, being a pantser is fine, and I’ve gone through period sof plotting and periods of pantsing and I’m the last person to tell you to do one or the other, but his is the trajectory I’ve seen with sort stories, and which I’m now in the middle of for novels.
- Eager and doomed – You don’t plot because you don’t know there is anything to plot, and in fact, you wouldn’t know a plot if it hit you in the fleshy part of the back. You just write and the usual results are “Oh, no.”
- More clue than a bear – You have some clue of what parts should, at least theoretically, be in a story, and you try to make sure they’re in a story by plotting it all exquisitely in advance. Depending on your internalizing of what should be in a story and what the parts actually do, this might be okay. It still usually starts out rough, though.
- You’ve got this -You’ve mastered the short story but you’re still exquisitely plotting in great detail. If you’re a control freak, you might do this the rest of your life. If you’re not a control freak, you might at some point find the story escapes you, and the actual narration doesn’t follow the outline. This is a sign that
- The subconscious drives – At some point you don’t outline. The story just appears fully formed in your head, and you ride along with it sometimes not sure what comes around the bend. I’m in the process of having that happen for novels, and it’s a harrowing experience. OTOH Pratchett and Agatha Christie wrote this way, so chill. All the same, it’s important to do a check when the story is done, in case you’re not as proficient as you thought you were.
So, what functional parts should be in your story?
1 An attention catching opening.
No, I don’t care how often you tell me this is unfair and that your story gets better in the 5th page. Look, every magazine reader reads the first paragraph only, if that. Even more important, if someone downloads your story from Amazon, they’d best be caught by that first paragraph, or they’re not going to read.
And before you protest the injustice of this: I’ve read a lot of slush in my day. If your story gets better on page five, it’s the only story that does so. When I was young and inexperienced and confused slush reading with being a teacher, I made a point to read every story to the end. This is what I found: if you can’t capture me with the first paragraph or if your first paragraph confuses corpulent and copulate (True story) it will ONLY get worse.
So now that you have the story down, test it. Does that first paragraph really catch the reader, or are you giving backstory?
If you’re giving backstory, does it even need to be there? (I used to have forty pages at the beginning of DST that gave the history of Earth from now to Athena’s time. What I found on thinking about it is that the reader didn’t need to know any of it to actually enjoy the story, or follow along. Oh, we needed to know little things, like when the story takes place, what the regime is, and what Athena’s position is, but you can get that from a sentence here and a sentence there.) I’m not going to tell you you don’t need an infodump somewhere, but you more than likely don’t need it in the beginning of the story.
The other common defect of beginnings of stories, and one that’s more high rent, in the sense that it’s something people do who have a little bit more clue is what I call “party of strangers.”
Your first page has a bunch of people doing a bunch of things that we don’t understand and therefore we couldn’t care less. Sometimes this is because you’ve lived in the world so long that you know all these characters personally. So to you it’s like reporting on a party of your friends. They’re hanging out, making inside jokes. To them it’s very exciting. Did you see that jibe Morgwin just made to Vlar? Oh, boy, he’s in trouble now.
To the reader it’s like attending a Martian mating ritual. It might be fascinating to the exobiologist, but you’re not one. You don’t know who is doing what to whom or what the consequences will be, and your eyes glaze over and you go to your happy place.
In the beginning of a story, try to keep the number of characters simple, and make sure the situation is something that your reader can sort of follow even if he doesn’t get every detail.
Also, it would be better if something is happening, though of course, I can see a situation where, as say, in the regency, you start with dialogue and it’s a challenge to a duel, say.
Something else to make sure… well, throughout your story, but here is the most important place for it: You’re using descriptive words, not generic words.
By this I don’t mean your characters should snigger, susurrate or even ejaculate (unless it’s that kind of story, of course or the use of these words is a stylistic point.) What I mean is that you need to make sure you’re not giving the reader a lot of empty words.
Take this opening, for instance: Mgld got to the high place and looked down on the verdant expanse.
You can picture that scene in your mind, right? Mgld climbed or walked, or used a rope to the top of the tower, skyscraper or mountain, and looked down on green. Okay, if we want to be more charitable, looked down on something green and growing. And Mgld is… animal vegetable or mineral?
All of these would be valid ways to unpack it:
The young woman walked to the top of the hill and looked down on the grassy plane.
The young man climbed hand over hand to the top of the skyscraper and from above looked down at the canopy of trees in the park below.
The child climbed on the stool and looked at the table top, covered in lychen.
Mgld, moving its eight legs slowly, got to the top of the gods mound and looked down at its world. What was this green thing the aliens had brought g-rass they called it.
Here is the thing: your contract with the reader is not “I’ll make you work insanely hard for every little bit of information possible.” Your contract is “I’ll tell you a story.” So make it easy for the reader to visualize the story going in – and really at all steps – instead of playing kep-away with it. People who have to think really hard about what your words mean aren’t experiencing the story. They’re experiencing etymologic hangover.
2 A plot
Yes, believe it or not, it’s possible to forget one of these. Your characters are just there, and doing fascinating things, and by page ten they haven’t really done anything that matters.
Everyone tells you a plot is “things happen” which is true. But there’s more than that. It’s things happen starting from a defined point to attain another defined point and there is some logic to them.
So, just having your characters go shopping and have breakfast is not a plot. It might be interesting – though most of the time this sort of thing is only interesting to you – but it’s not a plot as other people can follow. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t have your characters do this in the middle of a story or the middle of a book. I’m saying your story or book shouldn’t be constituted of “down time.”)
Make sure at the beginning of a story your characters have a problem. This could be “I lost my hanky” or (if you’re Inigo Montoya) “someone killed my father. I must get revenge.” The stories will have different weight depending on the problem, but there’s a time and place for everything and you might want a light or heavy one depending.
Make sure their actions proceed from the problem and have a reasonable expectation of solving it, based on what your characters know. For instance, if you lost your hanky rubbing yourself all over with goose grease and setting yourself on fire is not a reasonable means of solving the problem. Unless of course your magical system tells you so.
3 – the plot unfolds.
As your character acts, things happen in reaction. No, things can’t just happen because, a method that Kate Paulk calls “dropping walls on characters” but they should happen in reaction to his actions. Now in a novel you can have him do something, and we don’t see the consequences till the very end. In a short story you usually have to be more direct. Though you can still have the character do something offhandedly, say, throw out an orange while chasing the bad guy, and then bring it around at the very end of the story, where he’s approached by a group of people who want to crown him king and/or kill him because of that orange and a prophecy.
4- Everything in proportion.
I don’t care how great your opening scene is, or if you really enjoy it because you created this entire alien sport you want to show us. Things have to happen and fairly soon and we should have a hint of a problem, if not the real problem by the first/second paragraph.
The parts you should give most weight – i.e. text space – to are the ones that bring the greater emotional response. So, I don’t care how much you love going shopping for shoes, stop telling me about the pumps on the shop window, in the second row from the left, and start with the something happening.
5- Your action/reaction should rise towards a climax. In a short story this usually means two try-fail attempts or, sometimes, for variety four, or only one. If only one make it dang good.
But if it’s two or three or three each attempt should be, for lack of a better word, epic. The climax should be the most epic of all. Are you going to get your hanky? Or will there be no hankies, ever? For ANYONE?
6-Make sure there’s an end. This depends on your audience. Some audiences love inconclusive endings, and in fact I just wrote one myself (it’s a horror story. Its scarier if you imagine it.) BUT even then, you have to end the story, if only by setting out what is at stake and what might be the variations you can expect.
Or you can tie all the loose ends, and leave the reader feeling that they know how everything ended. “And they lived happily ever after.” Or “and he died a wretched death.”
The ending, in terms of pages taken in relation to the rest, is usually not very long. It is still necessary.
I call it “return the reader to its upright and locked position.”
Questions or issues you want further explained? If not the next installment will be “Now what do you do with it?”