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Writing A Short Story


Cia

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With the upcoming anthologies, I thought I'd start this topic for tips and tricks to condensing that story idea you have into a short story. Some of us (me!) have a hard time keeping a story short. The idea might come for a plot, but actually refining it down to its basic elements and then fashioning a complete beginning, middle, end in less than thirty thousand words can be a challenge.

 

First, let's look at the motivation and general story arc elements as I view them when I write a short story.

 


1) Decide what your character wants.

 

2) Decide how they are going to act to achieve what they want.

 

3) Introduce obstacles (people, events, personal issues) to achieving what they want. This creates the 'big conflict'.

 

4) Decide how their actions to confront, avoid, conquer the obstacle will change the character and/or those around them to create the climax scene.

 

5) Give us an ending. Happy ever after if they achieve their goal? Happy ever after if they're close to it or know they will eventually? Bittersweet if they realize they will never reach their goal? Moralistic if they realize their goal wasn't the 'right' choice and alter their path?

 

How does this work? Take my short story, Coupled in Synchronicity, and how I fulfilled each of those elements with actual plot.

 


1) Miken (aka Miniux Kevis Norzchup, human prince) was a "sensitive" to the magic of the planet of his birth (Synchronicity), but he doesn't want to follow his ascribed path. He wants freedom to help his people by more directly, and more than anything, he wants a simple life.

 

2) He creates a new identity, goes through training, and deploys with a team working for the Investigative Council.

 

3) On a mission to investigate a shop owner, they learn he's a necromancer when Miken picks up Vr Acum bones carved with symbols of power. (The Vr Acum are an alien race who co-colonized the planet, but they live separately on another continent with uneasy relations with the humans on theirs) The magic changes Miken, but they don't know the how or why.

 

4) When notifying the Vr Acum emissary to the humans about the bones, Miken and Ipisov (the Vr Acum emissary to the humans, a powerful position) learn they're bonded together by the magic wielded by the actual planet (which has a very obscure sentience) as foretold by an ancient prophecy. There is something big coming, something that could destroy everything. If Miken doesn't give up his 'simple life' dream and assume the role in the power structure of their people, the whole planet and everyone on it could be lost to darkness.

 

5) Miken mans up and decides the need to help his people is more important than his own desire for a simple life, so he agrees to take on the role destiny--or Synchronicity--has decided to give him.

 

Now, I haven't told the whole story. I have an EPIC novel planned out for this. But I introduced the main character and his personal "want", included a whole host of supporting characters, set the groundwork for an alien planet that is magical and has an unknowable sentience, created a personal obstacle and then a moral choice for my main character, and then had the character make that choice to give up what he originally wanted for a deeper desire that is for the greater good.

 

In just under 7,000 words. That's super hard for me. I prefer to write novels because I want to explore and expand the characters and worlds I write to their fullest. But it's fun to explore different techniques and challenges when writing.

 

What do you think? Do you prefer to write short stories or novels? If you've written short stories, do you plot out certain elements to ensure you write a complete story, or do you just start writing?

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I would so much want to learn how to write a short story and make it truly short. Even though I've spent most of my professional life as a lawyer carving away any words that aren't absolutely necessary, I can't seem to do the same when writing fiction. I guess most of that is due to lack of planning. I tend to get an idea and then just start to write. Without a clear goal in mind, or an inkling on how to get there, the words mount up. 

 

Perhaps I should try to do a mapping of a story and see what happens? 

 

Also, I'm sort of relieved you draw the line at 30k. That I think even I could manage... LOL But if I'd go for sub 10k, then I would have to really apply myself. 

 

I hope others share some useful tips. Sadly I have none...

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A description I heard a long time ago was as follows:

 

Imagine a room, filled with objects. A short story is a spot light on one of those objects. A novel is a light filling the room. A great novel not only fills the room with light, but also illuminates the world outside the room.

 

When I write a short story, I concentrate on one thing. What is the 'object' I'm trying to shine a spotlight on. Yes, the 'object' is in something bigger than it, but you don't need to illuminate those other things -- you need just enough context to allow the reader to know that those things exist and how they help shape the object of the short story.

 

When I write, I try to have the ending in mind before I start. That's true for both short stories and novels, but it's much more important for short stories. With a novel, the path to that ending can be meandering. For a short story, it has to be straight (though a sharp turn at the end is always fun). Essentially, you have to have most of the plot worked out before you start, or you're not going to get anywhere.

 

I have written a few short stories :*) Some examples of what I'm talking about:

 

Secrets: A story of a mother's search for the story behind her son's death. The idea was to explore how survivors feel after the unexpected death of a family member, contrasting the different reactions of the mother and father.

 

Ten Years: A story about love despite obstacles. It was written for Valentine's Day. One of the subtle points I wrote into the story was to have the reader believe that Carl's boss is homophobic, when that's not actually the cause of her hostility. She has another reason for disliking Carl's partner, and that reason is the 'obstacle' I mentioned. As is common in a lot of my short stories, the story is based around the reader making assumptions as to what is going on, and then show that those assumptions were incorrect.

 

Gay Whales: This was intended to be a simple, fun look at interfering but well-intended friends. The main challenge here was developing the characters to be unique but such that they would interact in a fun way. The writing is focused on the interactions, as the plot itself is extremely simple.

 

Black Swans: This is probably my most complex short story. It was written deliberately to have multiple layers, all revolving around the idea of seasonal cycles. There are three stories intertwined: the swan colony growing and dying, the old man starting and ending his retirement, and the young boy and his family starting and growing through life.

 

Superhero: One of my not-so-successful short stories. I was experimenting with the concept of an unreliable narrator, but roughly half of readers didn't realise that. They accepted the narrator as being reliable, and hence were disappointed. The key challenge with this one was to have the narrator's perceptions aligned with events, but for all of the special events to be purely from his point of view -- an outside person wouldn't see things the same way. As I said, I wasn't completely successful, but I'm including it here as an example of what was intended...and what actually resulted.

 

That's a few examples of my short stories, with some background as to what I was trying to achieve with each one.

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I've written a lot of short stories over the past few years, and I like to think I'm reasonably good at them, which is more than I can say for my novels, which are a little hit and miss.(In my opinion) 

I'm planning on adding something more constructive to this thread than just a little thought, but I wanted to put something out there before the idea left me, and it pertains to the type of ideas which can be written as short stories.

Whenever I have an idea or concept for a scene I want to include in a story, I tend to write it down or otherwise record it in memory so I can use it later. Some of these incubate for awhile and eventually become novels. An example of that would be the scene of attempting to come out at school by breaking free of a locker, which gave birth to "Fearless". Some of them, however, never really grow. I know a lot of writers hold onto these scenes indefinitely, hoping they'll have some opportunity to integrate it into some plot somewhere down the line. Mine become short stories.


Take my story "Another Day In Parodyse" for example.

SPOILER ALERT: 


I had a scene in mind where two straight kids each think the other one is gay, and so they go through the process of broaching the subject in order to show support for their gay best friend. I'd considered making it a longer story for some time, and so I sat on the idea for awhile, but eventually I realized I simply didn't have the material to make it into a novel. Instead of scrapping it as I know some of my exclusively novelist friends would've done, claiming they "can't write a short story" (which I believe is complete BS. I think anyone can learn) I decided to write the scene and play with it from there. I started out by defining my characters, established what they wanted, and then, with my end goal in mind of this great "straight coming out scene"(with many obstacles and potential for drama along the way), and it all wrapped up nicely in just under 7000 words. 



END SPOILER

So, my final word of advice on this point would be to look at any of those scenes that don't have a home anywhere else and play around with them for a little bit. You might be surprised by what works as a short story when you finally set down to write one. :)

Edited by Cynus
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I don't have a problem with short stories (as you can see looking at the stories I wrote for GA). It comes naturally to me, probably due to where I get my ideas...and my impatience. A story often develops in my head when I hear snippets of conversations, an unusual choice of words, part of a song, someone acting silly. The song 'A Guy Walks into a Bar' (Tyler Farr) inspired me to several short stories and poems. IDK why, but I think I used almost every line of that song by now. I want this solved, quickly. I don't think about the history why they said/did/acted (then it becomes longer), they just did and I write what happens next, nothing more. I want immediate reactions. The end. If I feel it should be longer it will become a multi chapter story or I write another short story. The Four Perspectives series is a good example, especially Cumulonimbus. If I remember correctly someone wrote a review complaining I left it in the middle of everything, but I had said what I wanted. ;)

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  • 1 year later...

I do a bullet point plotting for each chapter I do in a story. The bullet points would be scene by scene with some minor details. To me, a short story is one to three chapters. I even do this for stories with more than 3 chapters, with one exception; I have another level of bullet points that oversees the general arc.

It would look something like this:

 

Story Title: The Time Traveler

Chapter 1: Time

1. In the device and off to the distant past.

A. First meeting when 10 yrs old.

B. Tells 10 yrs old self to watch for bullies in the woods

C. Watch in stealth.

2. A few years forward.

A. Second meeting when 15 yrs old.

B. Tell self not to inform parents that you're gay.

C. Watch to make sure nothing happens.

3. Last meeting.

A. Third meeting when 20 yrs old.

B. Tell self to say Yes.

C. Return to future.

4. Paradox or bust.

A. Did it work?

B. What major changes happened?

C. Who's that guy coming to talk to me?

1. Future self, telling you Not to go into the past.

 

I will admit, I like some of the different approaches you all use, and I think I may try them out.

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