Success only flourishes in perseverance -- ceaseless, restless perseverance.
--Baron Manfred Von Richtofen

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Writing Short Fiction Part IV: How (Plot)

Okay, so I think it's time for another little blog series, this time on writing short fiction. A subject dear to my heart. I have written dozens of short stories and spent seven years as an editor of short fiction. If short stories are something you're interested in writing, hopefully I'll have some useful information. Feel free to leave questions in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them!

How to write a great short story! 
Photo by Julien Tromeur
I once took a class from Orson Scott Card in which he compared writing short stories vs. novels to taking a boat across a lake. When writing a novel, you can take a rowboat across the lake. You can stop and fish and enjoy the scenery and paddle around all day. When writing a short story, you get into a speedboat, start the engine and race to the other side of the lake as fast as you can.

Short stories need all the same elements as a novel in order to make it truly a story and not something else. (See Part I). But you're going to handle those elements quite differently in a short story than you would with a novel.

Today, we'll talk about the plot! In order to be an actual story, you must have a plot with a conflict and a resolution. Without those things, you don't have a story at all. Your main character needs a problem, something standing in the way of what he wants. The story is about him (or her) trying to solve the problem and either succeeding or failing in the end. Same goes for novels. But in a short story, you must focus on only one problem or one main storyline without subplots like you'd have in a novel. (See the boat metaphor above.)

You want to start your story right at the inciting incident, the thing that drives the character into action, or maybe even a little bit after the inciting incident. I think it's fun to read a short story that begins with the zombies breaking down the door!

Then the action must proceed fairly quickly to the climax. That means in short fiction, the conflict will be less complex, but no less compelling, than in a novel. Both characterization and setting details must also drive the plot forward. No problem, right?

Finally, you must have a resolution. The story needs to feel finished, not like it was just a first chapter or an excerpt from a longer work. There's nothing wrong with excerpts, of course, but you shouldn't try to pass it off as a short story. Even if you intend to write a series of short stories about the same character, each story should have it's own complete story arc, so the reader feels satisfied in the end.

That, in my opinion, is what makes a great short story great. You get the complete story experience in a short space of time. They are exhilarating to write and to read!

In case you're interested, check out Part I, Part II, and Part III


T. M. Hunter said...

Great article. I think I enjoy writing stories more than the novels for the simple reason that I can concentrate on just one plot line at a time...though I've been told that my "talent" shines more in the novels, so who knows for sure?

Angie said...

You're good at both!

Romance Book Haven said...

Great post on plot. I'm going to bookmark this post for my aspiring writers group! Thanks for sharing!


ali cross said...

It always surprises me when short stories leave off so much of the important stuff when really, it should have all the same components that make a novel great. Just because it's short doesn't mean it should be short on story!

Great post, Angie! Thank you!

Shallee said...

I like your point that the plot should be less complex but not less compelling than in a novel. Great point!

Carolyn V said...

That is so cool that you got to take a class from Orson Scott Card. And I totally agree with a plot that is driven. Makes all the difference. ;)

Britney Gulbrandsen said...

This is a great post! I used to write short stories, but I haven't in awhile. Nor have I done anything with the ones I have written. Your post made me want to!

Jackee said...

Very good point! It annoys me when I read a short story with the same character but not a different story arc per story. I never walk away feeling satisfied with my reading experience.

All great advice. Thanks!