11 Feb 2008 [ Prev | Next ]

Planning Your Short Story (with the Reader in Mind)

Accomplished writers work hard to make their end product look as if they tossed it off effortlessly. While everyone knows the joyful rush of productivity that happens when you feel "inspired," in reality, good writing -- like almost everything else of value -- requires hard work.

You might start by creating a character, based on someone you saw in a train station years ago, or totally out of your own imagination. What one incident in that person's life is worth writing about?

Or, you might start with a genre (fantasy, horror, romance) and try to look for an unusual combination of elements (I once suggested "The Godfather, but with mermaids," which actually makes sense if you've read Hans Christian Andersen's original "The Little Mermaid").

You might start with a line of dialog, or a bit of action.  But however you start, once you've begun to identify bits and pieces of the world where your story will take place, the next step is to plan.

  • Who is your protagonist, and what does he or she want?

    Unsurprising examples
    : A warrior hero wants to avenge his father's death. A widow longs for companionship in her old age. A fuzzy bunny searches for a warm place to spend the night. All those are pretty predictable.

    Unexpected examples
    : A warrior hero hears a rare bird that he wants to catch and bring home to his daughter. A widow longs to go sky-diving. A fuzzy bunny is an aging sleaze-ball who flatters a girl bunny with the intention of luring her to his burrow for some hot bunny love. (Are you going "eeww" now?  Good!  Then that scenario got a reaction from you!)

  • What obstacles prevent the protagonist from achieving that goal?

  • What is the source of conflict? (See "Conflict vs. Crisis") How do early choices made by the protagonist (perhaps a choice that he or she made even before the story began) intensify this conflict, thereby raising the stakes?

    : Frankie has been giving his milk money to a bully all year. When a new kid shows up at school, Frankie tries to impress him by warning him about the bully, and offering to protect him. (That's a moral choice. This story should NOT include a line that says, "Frankie was so desperate for a friend that he was willing to lie about his ability to protect Doug."  The action of the story will show that clearly enough.)

  • What is the climax?  What moral choice does the protagonist have to make in order to resolve the conflict?  An athlete doesn't have a moral choice whether or not to make a basket, so simply describing the excitement around shooting a basket at the buzzer won't cut it as a short story.

    Example:  A high school basketball player and his teammate are both pursing the same girl, who seems attracted to both.  With his team behind by one, the protagonist gets the ball seconds before the final buzzer. His teammate is in a great position to make the winning shot... does the protagonist pass the ball to his rival (and letting him win the game for the team), or does he try to sink a risky shot himself?  Maybe he takes the shot himself, and just barely makes it -- but the coach, who knew he was hogging the ball, chews him out in public.  Or maybe he passes, and watches as the team carries his rival off to the locker room on their shoulders.)

    : The milk-money bully confronts both Frankie and Doug. Does Frankie hand over the money as usual, thus losing Doug's respect, or does he stand up to the bully -- and risk getting pounded? Do Doug and Frankie together defeat the bully?  Maybe Doug offers to pay the bully, or maybe Doug betrays Frankie, offering to hold Frankie's arms while the bully beats him up. Or maybe instead of making this moment the climax, we can make it just another step; perhaps after Frankie pays, the bully orders Frankie to hold Doug's arms so the bully can pound him. What does Frankie do now?

  • How does it end?  Put all the pieces into an unexpected final position.

    Example: Our dejected basketball player goes back to the same spot in the court, and effortlessly sinks the shot he chose not to take during the game.  Maybe the girl sees this, and puts two and two together. She says, "When you passed the ball today, that was the most selfless thing I've ever seen," and kisses him.  (That's a surprise ending! Let's make it even more unexpected... he passes the ball to his rival, who misses the shot! How would that change the emotional impact of the girl's praise? Would he welcome it even more, or would he suspect it was insincere? Oh, the drama!)

    Maybe the bully makes Frankie watch him beat up Doug. Maybe the bully orders Frankie to help him beat Doug up. Maybe Doug surprises everyone by beating the tar out of the bully, and then when Frankie goes to congratulate him, Doug orders Frankie to hand over his milk money! With Doug established as the new bully on the playground, does the story have a surprise happy ending, now that Frankie is no longer alone -- he has something in common with the deposed bully. (The last line in the story could be Frankie saying hello to the deposed bully, using the same words he had used earlier in the story to say hello to Doug. We come full circle.)

  • What can you cut? In a short story, every detail counts, with no room for subplots or extras of any sort.

    Do we really need a scene in which our basketball player shoots hoops on his driveway, telling his father about how much the game means to the team? (We don't need to be TOLD details that we can infer from the scenario -- it's big game, so we can assume the players on both sides really want to win.)

    Do we really need a scene in which little Frankie asks his mother for an extra glass of milk, but can't manage to bring himself to confess that that the reason he wants the extra milk is because he knows the bully will take his milk money, but that even even this daily humiliation would be bearable if only he had a friend?  (No! Adding the mother to the cast of characters is wasteful, and the whole scene simply TELLS information that the reader can easily get from events the story is about to SHOW.)


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» Ex 1-2: Short Story from Intro to Literary Study (EL150)

About 800 words; 5 pages maximum. There is also a peer-review exercise in Turnitin.com, due Feb 13. For this assignment, you may choose to expand a dialog that you began as a workbook exercise, but note that I may have... Read More


Sam Gillispie said:

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