Thursday, October 15, 2020

Complicated questions for sophisticated writers: Short Stories- how do you make them SHORT!


I just did a “Plot Finish Fest” day (6 very intense hours!) with a group of plotters. This is a bonus available to writers who enroll in my Plot Blueprint Course.  For each story, we worked through the three acts and then the nine turning points of the plot-- just in time to start drafting the scenes in NaNoWrimo (National Novel Writing Month).

When writers with different types of stories interact, we often have to adjust our brainstorming for “medium”— whether a novel or a short story or a TV script or whatever new form will rise up next. In the last month, I’ve worked with writers working on projects as varied as a 1-act play (a musical!) and a novel that could be adapted for a Netflix series.

Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” And that was before the Internet, where the medium has become the message, the messenger, and the messaged all at the same time. Well, when it comes to plots, I don’t think the medium IS the message necessarily, but it certainly AFFECTS the message.

One of the plotters, Vikk, was discussing an old standard medium—the short story.  How does a “natural novelist”—used to plotting in three acts for 300 pages or so—compress the plot down to 15-50 pages? Or do you instead compress the message—chart just a segment of a character journey, explore a smaller conflict? Or do you focus  on deeply describing a moment, a slice of life, rather than a sequence of events?

I had a few thoughts—fairly random—about one way to make stories short.

I think a short story will not just be compressed plotwise. In some cases, the plot might have to be smaller, less complex-- a shorter journey from beginning to end. I think of an episode of a TV show rather than a season-- it's complete in itself, but just has one main incident or problem that can be dealt with more quickly.

But I’m more drawn right now to the conflict or problem that can be experienced and resolved in just a day or two.  An example is the Roddy Doyle short story Life without Children, about a man travelling on business during the quarantine. This gave me a good sense of compressing the "problem" in a short story. His protagonist starts out by answering "no" when he's asked if he has children. In fact, he does have children, and a wife too. And he's not sure why he lied, but it makes him feel liberated. And pretty soon he's deciding he's going to quit his life-- throw away his phone, disappear, be free!

He  starts planning his escape, and he does throw away his phone. And then in the end, after flirting with the idea, he gets a new flight and texts his wife from his tablet and decides to go home.

That is, the problem is that he feels trapped and old and disheartened, and just entertaining the idea that he could escape lets him feel relieved, and he can resume his life. The problem is resolved in a way that doesn't need a lot of events—just the set up of the problem, and then the decisive event, and the aftermath.

In this case, the “shortening” comes in a shorter distance between problem and resolution.

 This was of immediate interest to me, because during NaNo month, I want to experiment with writing interrelated short stories. They’d all be set in the same place and (I hope) combine to create the story of a town under the shadow of a curse. Each would involve a different character, and perhaps only peripherally involve the curse and only marginally advance the big plot. I’m hoping the ‘scatter-stories’ will create almost a collage, but one with a narrative thrust. And I think probably they might not all be “short” in the same way. Maybe one will be just a compressed novella, and another will be a slice-of-life, and another will just follow as the character comes to a realization…. Well, we’ll see! But I’m excited at the prospect of narrowing my focus and plunging in every day to something new—a new story each day.
What do you think? If you write short fiction, how do you get it all done in so few pages?

Would anyone be interested in mutual support for NaNoWrimo? Here’s a Facebook group where a few of us will be doing writing sprints and sharing encouragement. We’ll have fun!