Novelists have a luxury that short story writers do not enjoy: they have fifty to a hundred thousand (or more) words in which to achieve their desired effect on readers. Those working with the short form of fiction labour under many of the same obligations: we have to create a universe, populate it, and paint a workable story on its canvas… but we have to do it at about one-tenth of the length. On the plus side, short story writers don’t usually have to explore the extended history of the world they are writing in, let alone generate maps! In short fiction, we rarely have to generate subplots for our stories, script extensive biographies for our principal characters, or create and educate readers in alien languages.
Many novels open slowly–they still have hooks, but a chief concern in beginning a novel-length work of SF often lies in establishing atmosphere as well as providing extensive setting and character details, giving a reader a sense of the novel’s milieu, establishing the author’s prose style, and setting out the principal symbolic and thematic elements of the piece. Stories do some of these things, but swiftly–we must introduce our story elements in a few paragraphs and then get on with the business of moving our conflict forward.
The trickiest issue in pacing short fiction, of course, is that your prose cannot seem breathless or rushed: unless you are writing an action sequence or another type of quick and choppy scene, your story has to feel unhurried; the reader must have time to breathe. Nobody wants to be quickly ushered through a plot and dropped off at its ending without so much as a wave goodbye. Somehow you have to provide a leisurely tour of your setting and a strong sense of your characters while carrying us swiftly to the story’s conclusion.
The key to the unhurried brevity demanded of short fiction is the power of suggestion. Letting small details suggest volumes about your world and its people is tricky, but it is also a technique well worth learning. Examine how various SF writers accomplish this in the assigned readings and other stories; then look at your own work and see where your strengths lie.
If you can evoke your setting with a well-placed phrase here and there, if you can help a reader understand your character’s motives with the right snatch of dialogue or telling action, you will have more words left free for critical story issues: character transitions, exposition on the trickier elements of your SF concept, and polishing your prose to make the story a seamless and suspenseful whole.
Questions to ask about pacing:
- What is each scene accomplishing? Multitasking is the heart of fast-paced prose: if you can deepen character, advance plot, and provide setting details all at the same time, you are going to have a tightly written and entertaining piece.
- What elements of the piece are most important? If something matters, spend the time and the necessary words to make it clear, compelling and interesting. Look for moments where the characters’ situation changes. These are the points where the narrative should slow. Imagine a spotlight shining on these key transitions in your story… now highlight what’s going on in those sections.
- Where can you deepen your worldbuilding using suggestion, i.e. without adding huge amounts of verbiage? Are your proper nouns carrying their weight? (Connie Willis tells readers something about the universe in which her story “Spice Pogrom” takes place simply by naming the locale where it takes place the Space Station Sony.) Can you create a few interesting colloquial phrases to give readers a sense of the setting?
- Are you reinventing the wheel? Can you make use of some of the well-understood conventions of SF and folkore to establish the underpinnings of your world and save on words? In other words, could the bloodsucking fiends of your horror story be vampires? Could the odd, long-lived folk of your fantasy story be Elves? Sometimes drawing on the existing foundations of the genre leaves space for you to spotlight the areas where your unique vision of the universe comes into play.
Plot doesn’t pick up where characterization ends: the two are inextricable. It’s all very well to create a vibrant protagonist whom readers can relate to, but then you have to get that character into some kind of trouble. The engine that drives a short story’s plot is its protagonist’s wants and needs. Knowing your characters’ deepest desires–and why these desires motivate them–is critical.
Sparks begin to fly in fiction when characters come together–when we see them conflict, fall in love, betray each other, form alliances, and just plainly perform on the stage you’ve created for them. This can be accomplished in as little as a single scene between two characters. Most stories, though, move their conflict through a series of scenes whose tension increases incrementally until the conflict reaches its crisis and boils over.
Though an SF story’s element of the impossible certainly gives an author unique options for plot complications–few mainstream stories see a character blown out of a spaceship airlock, or trampled by a centaur–the mechanics of plotting are less affected by genre considerations than other story components like setting and character. At the heart of every story, fantastic or not, is a character with a problem: one that, for whatever reason, isn’t easily solved.
There are as many approaches to plotting a story as there are writers, but for those struggling to tighten a piece, a look at standard plot formulas can sometimes be helpful. Author Wendy Webb, for example, suggests that stories be structured using seven steps:
Hook (open with a high-impact phrase that engages reader interest)
Problem (clue readers in as to what the protagonist wants… and why s/he cannot have it)
Backfill (now that the audience is engaged, provide whatever context is required)
Complications (the protagonist encounters obstacles in his first attempts to achieve the goal.)
Action (more attempts, more failures)
Dark Moment (the goal seems out of reach… but is it?)
Resolution (The protagonist succeeds or fails, and we see the final result of his struggle.)
An alternative structure used by other writers is even simpler:
Intro (similar to hook, above)
Resolution: Things Get Worse
Resolution: Things Get Still Worse
Resolution: Where Character Either Triumphs or Dies
Some writers find these plot bones useful in initially planning their stories. Others prefer to veer off-road, blazing their own trail through the plot jungle. Where these structures often come in useful is after you have a first draft. At that point, compare your piece with the structures provided above. Analyzing an existing draft with an eye to clarifying and strengthening the conflict will always make it stronger, and plot formulas like the ones above are useful tools in forming this analysis.
Remember, though, that the true key to plotting lies not in following a formula, but in establishing a conflict that readers can clearly identify (and identify with), bringing it to a crisis, and then resolving that crisis in an emotionally satisfying fashion. If you can pull this off, your story will be a successful work of fiction.
Questions to ask when plotting a story:
Think through your unwritten story on a scene by scene basis:
- Does each scene advance the plot?
- Does the conflict come into play within each scene?
- Is it possible to increase the tension of some or all of your scenes?
Are all the elements of plot present in your draft?
- When can the reader say, positively, that they know what forces are in conflict in your story?
- Can they identify the moment of crisis and its resolution?
- Are the protagonist’s actions in pursuit of her goal logical?
What emotions do your characters experience as the story progresses?
- Is your protagonist happy, sad, anxious, or in some other emotional state when the story begins?
- How far from this starting point is the story going to move them? (Remember that a character who is already in crisis on page one of a piece has nowhere to go but up, whereas one who is happy–or only moderately distressed–can be set up more easily for a big plunge.)
How suspenseful is your story?
- What is it that your reader wants to know or experience?
- Do you have a plan for balancing the need to surprise readers against the need to make your characters’ actions believable?
- Do your characters’ actions make sense?
- Is what is happening clear at every stage of the story?
First: Clarion Write-a-Thon Word Count: 1,417 out of 20,000. (More info here).
“And I do not play this instrument as well as I should like, but I have always thought that to be my fault, because I would not take the time to practice…” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Some of my students have accused me, obliquely, of being too picky. “I see lots of books where writers do this,” they say, when they get an MS back from me and in addition to the structural critique I’ve marked twenty eye bookisms, a bunch of passive verb constructions and noted that one of their perfectly good phrases has been around since Shakespeare, and that while it does the job maybe there’s a way that suits their characters better…
They’re right, to some extent. Part of what I do as a teacher is point out the strengths and the flaws in a person’s writing… even when that writing starts to be of publishable quality. I know new writers want to learn what it takes to sell their fiction, of course, but I hope they also want to just plain be better. There’s a lot of room between just barely salable and outstanding. I have yet to stop finding fault, even with my best students, even as I praise ’em to the skies.
Storytelling is engaging readers in a dream. You are taking them from the here and now and enveloping them in another world. The novel as a work of art offers its audiences the chance to be at once themselves and another person, just as dreams do, as fantasies do.
The thing about dreams is that some are shallow. Think of a night when your sleep was easily broken, by the slightest noise. The dreams of light sleep are the ones that most fleeting, that they’re the ones that vanish like vapor when your eyes open.
Such dreams are just fine. You might say they’re just barely publishable. But I think what most of us want, as writers, is to create deep absorption–compelling, vivid, engaging on a visceral, emotional level, and impossible to forget. It’s a lofty goal, but what I hope people are going for in this racket… not immediately, but eventually, if they’re very good and very hardworking and very lucky, is to be life-altering.
There are a couple ways to instill deep dreaming. One is to have a story so suspenseful that the reader simply can’t put it down–we’ve all devoured books whose line-by-line writing is shaky, because we got hooked; we had to know. Stieg Larsen’s The Girl Who books were like this, for me. This cartoon, My Lost Weekend in the Meyer, says the same about the Twilight saga.
So: be suspenseful. Check! The other way to deepen the dream of a given narrative, once the basic story’s working, is to up the quality of the prose. To have undertow within the words themselves, to be compelling, seductive, to beguile and even drown. We each have our own way of pulling this off, and when it happens, it’s a powerful thing. Heck, there are stories where it’s a superpower in its own right: seizing or changing someone’s sleeping world.
So yes, I’m picky… because I think it’s a skill worth developing.
What I like most about this is I feel the imagery sets a very particular, chilly and winter-hued tone:
He knew it was regarded as one of the loveliest Tudor manor houses in England and now it was before him in its perfection of form, its confident reconciliation of grace and strength; a house built for certainties, for birth, death and rites of passage, by men who knew what they believed and what they were doing. A house grounded in history, enduring. There was no grass or garden and no statuary in front of the Manor. It presented itself unadorned, its dignity needing no embellishment. He was seeing it at its best. The white morning glare of wintry sunlight had softened, burnishing the trunks of the beech trees and bathhing the stones of the manor in a silvery glow, so that for a moment in the stillness it seemed to quiver and become as insubstantial as a vision. The daylight would soon fade; it was the month of the winter solstice.
THE PRIVATE PATIENT, by P.D. James
My current, lovely, talented and very hardworking group of Novel III students is reaching the end of another quarter, with fifty new pages under their belts, and some of them are feeling the re-entry burn. They have more to do, and they’re falling prey to the “Is this shit? Can I finish?” blues.
I’ve told them they’re not alone, and offered a few of my tried-and-true funk breaking-techniques (punitive amounts of caffeine, bribing myself just to keep on, freewriting, Ignoring it and Hoping It Goes Away), but I am always happy to hear more. The more so because my current story, “Wetness,” is kicking me in the head with the Pointy Boots of Vagueness.
On another note, M.K. Hobson explains here how you and twenty-six of your friends can earn Clarion West $1500 just by joining the Write-A-Thon.