Short Story Cheat Sheets
There might still be one or two people in the universe who don’t know that I started my fiction writing in English (in Portuguese I’d had a couple of shorts and a book of poems published) by sitting down and writing a 40000 word thing I thought was a novel. (It will be a series of novels, someday.) From that I scaled up to 80k words, 90k words and 650k words (which is actually probably salvageable, when I break it up and fix it a little, as a Mediterranean-based heroic fantasy.)
As people who follow my blog know, I write long naturally, and it takes me double the time to write lean, which is why I don’t do it. I allot an hour a day for the blog, and if I had to stop to proof/fix/make shorter, I’d never be done. I know, I had a job doing a non fiction article a week and it ate half the week, because editor wanted me at 500 to 700 words.
Anyway, after the 650k word thing, I got hold of a book that told me to break into science fiction you had to do short stories. Note that this was not only not true, but REALLY not true. Lots of people who came in at that time only wrote shorts after they had written novels and many of them not even then. Once, at World Fantasy, in a late night bar chat, at which all participants were a little boozy, we calculated the “slots” available per novel and the slots available per short story every year, and realized your chance of breaking in (as a pro at least) in novels was about ten times as good as for novels. Now my husband doesn’t drink and had gone to bed, but two of the guys in the group had physics/math jobs and the calculations seemed right to me.
Only I didn’t know that, and this was the times before the internet, and I was young and broke and depended on the writing books and magazines I could get from the library. I didn’t know anyone who was published. I only knew a couple of people trying.
So I thought I had to write short stories. And then I realized my 2k word things weren’t so much short stories as outlines for novels.
Thus started a process of learning to write short stories, which involved taking other stories apart, identifying their parts, then writing “Cheat sheets.”
I’ve promised these sheets to any number of people, but I’d lost them. And then while opening one of the last boxes for the office, I found a folder with cheat cheats and story ideas.
The story ideas are lame, since at the time I was aiming for “come to realize” stories, but I’ll copy one of them anyway, and also try to do a more “actiony” one to give you an idea of what can be done with the frame work.
So, why would you want to write a short story? Well, I assume you have your reasons. I find that collections sell about half as much as novels, and before that I can use the shorts as giveaways. Also, being on an anthology with someone better known than you really can help. BUT that’s up to you. I don’t care what your reasons are, nor who you are. I figured out this neat way to do a thing, and I’m going to share it. It’s called pay it forward and it’s part of what writers do. I expect you’ll do it too in turn.
First, the Cheat Cheat, suitable for copy-pasta-ing onto your file and printing out to fill by hand, or type it in or whatever.
1 Setting (this includes time and future history if needed) It sets the stage for the conflict.
2. Story Characters
3- Problem or goal
4 – Complications
5 – Turning point/black moment (often also called mirror moment, when your character realizes he’s been pursuing the wrong goal or the right goal in entirely the wrong way.)
So, because I’m lazy I’m going to copy two short story plans I made long ago, but which I never “liked” well enough to write as stories, though at least one of them might eventually get written in some form. BTW this notebook is 28 years old, which shows you how long a particular world has been with me.
So, two examples:
Title – Cain
1 – Setting
Near future. Doctors are able to or think they’re able to identify the gene combination for aggression and psychopathy which, they claim, will create a violent criminal.
2 – Story Characters
Daphne, Melton, a young historian, pregnant after many years of trying. her husband died in an accident early in her pregnancy.
Problem or goal:
Daphne wants to have her baby.
4 – Complications
The doctors tell her she’s carrying a baby who will become a murderer and they recommend an abortion. While Daphne is worrying about it, Daphne tries to call her mother in law. She knows there’s nothing like that in her family so, if it’s hereditary and inescapable, it must be in her late husband’s family. Her mother in law is away/unavailable.
On the way home Daphne is assaulted by a young mugger and starts miscarrying. She’s rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.
5 – Turning point/black moment
She thinks if her child is going to be like that, it would be better if she loses him.
At the hospital she starts telling one of the nurses to let her miscarry, but in talking to the woman, she learns that assaults on strangers are actually on the rise, though this program of culling out those with aggression traits has been in place for twenty years. This is not what the news report, but people in the hospital confirm it.
She realizes that her husband might very well have had that gene, too. It’s what you do with it, not what you’re born with. She changes her mind and demands that her pregnancy be stabilized. In the future, they’ll need sheepdogs, as well as wolves.
7 – Conclusion
Her mother in law calls and they talk about the baby and how her husband always defended anyone in need. And her son will be just like him.
1- Setting – Twenty second century. After the first Seacity War. Biology has progressed to the point it’s possible to tailor a drug to addict a specific person by targeting the exact make up of his/her DNA. One dosage is enough to get addicted. Once you’re addicted it become vital to your survival and you’ll do anything for it.
Max Keeva – Leader of Olympus Seacity
Deran Maurice – Leader of Katmandoo Seacity
3 – In the wake of the war with the continental states, the seacities are parsing out continental territories and these two have been involved in a dispute.
Maurice slips Keeva a tailor drug in his drink — this is accomplished, of course, via a mole in his mansion — and refuses to give the formula for it, unless Keeva gives up the disputed territories.
4- Keeva’s attempts to have his scientists figure out what the drug would be from his DNA fail, as do his attempts to do without it. His medical exam reveals that in time addiction to the substance will destroy his brain.
He’s not sure who slipped him the drug, and he knows for sure that Maurice will now be on the watch for any new personnel in his Seacity. And he doesn’t trust his own counselors, who know in what state he is, not to be turned.
There’s only one thing for it. He is an enhanced person, capable of physical feats his servants and followers can’t even dream of. Impaired and shaky by his need for the drug, he decides he must do this himself.
He manages to get hold of Maurice’s DNA and has his scientists synthetize a drug that will affect Maurice the same way.
Then he goes to Katmandoo Seacity.
5. Turning point, black moment
It seems impossible, and his first attempts at penetrating the Seacity fail, because he’s not good at climbing while shaking like a leaf. All seems lost. But he perseveres, even though by then he’s hurt from a fall off a cliff.
And he manages to slip the drug into Maurice’s food.
Since both of them are compromised, they sign a treaty on territory and exchange the formulas. Keeva decides to tighten up his security. And Maurice must meet with a fatal accident asap.