Monday, September 30, 2013

Man Up to Your Lazy Ways - Writing Short

After reading through many contest entries, I began seeing the same mistakes being made again and again by the writers of short stories wondering why they never win. Or, maybe they come close but can’t quite get there. There are plenty of craft books that will teach you all the elements of good writing, short story writing and mystery story crafting but most people just jump right in and think they can whip out a short story. Much like running a race without warming up first. This is my perspective without a lot of fluff.

Sometimes the path of learning is making the mistake—then seeing what you did wrong so you don’t keep doing it. The important part of that is the “seeing” part, understanding the what you did wrong part—acknowledging it. It would be nice to be told what to do and just do it, but unfortunately as human beings we can be a stubborn species. In Part I we began this process of what not to do. Today we have a little of what to do, concentrating on mystery and suspense.

Part II

      Tell the story – story first, writing second
Some people are plotters (they lay out the story ahead of time) and some pantsers (they write by the seat of their pants—whenever and however it comes). Whichever you are, you still will need to lay the story out in a planned format eventually (or you don’t have a story).

Pantsers lean heavily on being inspired and that can be a good thing if you hold what inspires you in front like a carrot to get your story down. It can be the element that shines through and makes it a winner. But eventually you need to pull it together. Think of it as the bones of the story. Be clear on these points and you will be less likely to get distracted or side-tracked—wandering down that yellow brick road getting distracted by the non-essentials. Build flesh on the story bones (without a lot of unnecessary fat). And who doesn’t love that?

When writing a mystery (or suspense). You will need to decide:
1.      What is the crime (or suspenseful incident)?
2.      Against whom (victim)?
3.      Why was this done (motive)?
4.      How (by what means)?
5.      By whom? (antagonist)
6.      Who reveals the crime, or triumphs in sorting out the suspense (protagonist).

Important to keep in mind: 

  • The hook: up the ratings on your story with a good hook. The hook is the first few sentences or paragraphs that draw the reader right into the fictive dream, without breaking his attention (with an info dump), so the reader wants to know what happens next. It is the appetizer or aperitif that whets the appetite and draws the reader right into STORY (See Part I, A).
It doesn’t have to be some car chase or explosion—any over-the-top action, but it must capture the imagination. Take some time reading first pages of successful short stories, and source out what makes them work so effectively. That will be time well spent.

To be fair, what works for some will not work for all because of subjective reasons—we are not all interested in the same stuff. But, if you can find that commonality we are all interested in, you will rock it.

  • Who discovers the crime? Under what circumstances? (your protagonist? A side-kick? A stranger who ends up important in the story?)
By the way—all characters in a short story should only be there only if there is a need for them to be there. They tend to clutter the landscape if they are not essential to the story.) You can’t have ten people on page one of a short story. We don’t have time to get to know them as we do in a novel, so eliminate them, or don’t give them names and let them be part of the scenery.

  • What clues point to the doer of the deed (or reason for the problem in suspense)? (you must sprinkle carefully throughout and not slam us with an ending we could not foresee coming) Readers of mystery want to figure out the puzzle part and you will fail if you don't provide the clues. The suspense reader wants to remain on the edge and needs clues to keep the suspense alive.
  • Who uncovers/reveals the connections? Why that person? (part of the puzzle or the suspense?)
  • The tie-up. A nice bow at the end to tie up your story can be very effective—corresponding to the hook at the beginning if well done. It can be a twist or the unexpected for greater impact.

The fastest way to learn these tips is to study good short stories. Take the bones apart and see them in isolated pieces (the hook, the ending, track the mystery, the clues, the characters). If you take the time to do this you will quickly learn to effectively write these elements into your story. A short story is not a novel in short form. Get familiar with the form to be effective.

Learn what you are doing wrong or not doing effectively. Man up and admit you can't get away with lazy writing.

Have I missed some important piece? Do you study short stories to see why they work or don't work?


Tam Francis said...

I may be one of those you are speaking about. I always seem to make the finals, but not the top three (which is what I'm going for), top ten sure... It seems to be there are two kinds of short story writers: those that are terse, not much character development, but lots of plot, and those that develop character and back-story in the small confines of the short story format. Which is more effective? Which is more effective for what genre? Does it matter? These are the questions I do not have answers to. Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

I would add, "Know your audience." You slant a short story differently for a contest than for an editor or for popular appeal. Guess that would be because often people who are chosen to be judges immediately become lofty in their ideals of prose. Throw in a bit of literary aspect to appease them for having enjoyed your story. An editor wants a story that will appeal to most readers and unless it is a literary publication, they could care less if it is written in gangsterlese as long as it is entertaining.

Cora said...

Your question is excellent and I probably will not do it justice in this small space, but here is my feeling. Character is most important. We need to feel connected to the character to care what happens. Whenever I have worked on plot to the detriment of character, I only came close as you say you do. Of course we want to achieve both, ideally--a good plot and compelling characters. I don't think it matters what genre--the genre determines the plot elements, though.

I see a lot of mysteries based more on plot getting published. But you don't know what other stories they are competing against, If those stories are competing against ones where character is strong, they will lose out. The contrivance of plot cannot overcome weak characterization.

Cora said...

Absolutely. Find out what you can about past contests like the one you are sending to, what type of stories they like. If you know who the judges are for a particular contest, read up on them and find out what they like (it gives you the edge). If for a publication, read past issues to find out what kinds of stories they print--some like a hard edge, others not so much. After writing the best story you can, tweak it to appeal to the publication, contest, editor you are submitting to for best results. I agree STORY is king-less important is writing perfection.

Carrie Padgett said...

Great post, Cora. Thanks!