THE (SHORT STORY) PLOT THICKENS
The question is: What is the message…the thread of meaning that will be running through your story? This will be your theme and the theme is the skeleton…the framework…on which you, the author, will hang your plot, characters, setting, etc. Every story needs a good skeleton to hang the plot on. We all learned in high school about the Woman pulled up the tree by the Snake, the Snake tried to eat the Woman, and something (or the Woman made something) happened to the Snake and the Woman got away.
Here’s your skeleton (framework), so let’s start at the head—the situation/the problem your protagonist (the woman who was pulled up the tree) must resolve.
The backbone of your skeleton represents the problems that are going to occur (the Snake is trying to eat the Woman). So, list the problems the protagonist will encounter: misunderstandings, mistaken identity, lost opportunities, etc.
You’re working your way down to the legs and feet of your skeleton now…it is the final step: SHOW (do not tell) how the protagonist solves the problem (get the poor Woman out of the tree—safely): love triumphs/good conquers evil/honesty is the best policy/united we stand.
“Know your story in 10 words before you write it in 1000.” John Steinbeck
FOCUS: One of the most difficult parts of writing is, as you write, ensuring every word is related to your theme. Novice writers get caught up by temptation and want to show off their talent at characterization, or descriptive writing, or maybe they believe their forte is dialogue, or whatever… Go back and look—What’s the point of your story? Okay, now we’ve mended that broken bone on the skeleton and we know not to digress or insert a bunch of bones that just do not work. Everything you put in your story needs to be integral, to reinforce the theme. If you stray from the straight and narrow subject line, you will end up with a manuscript that is beginning to look like a novel or it will be nothing but a mish-mash of ideas that just do not add up to anything.
JUST HOW OLD IS YOUR SKELETON?
Guess what…no one cares. If you want to write an effective short story, remember to cover a very short time span. Yes, it can be a single event or point in time or an experience that is momentous in your protagonist’s life, or perhaps the story takes place in one day or even less time…one hour. Use these events that you are depicting to illustrate the theme of your story.
GET RID OF THE FREE-LOADERS:
Some of the most frightening settings for thrillers are not cemeteries or lonely allies but normal places where readers can imagine themselves.
This is a short story and because you have a limited number of words to convey your message, you should choose your setting(s) carefully. Write to appeal to the five senses of your readers and that will make your setting real.
TOO MANY COOKS SPOIL THE BROTH:
Every new character and every new event adds another dimension to your story; like the saying above, too many diverse dimensions (i.e., too many directions) also dilutes the theme of your short story. In a short story, remember not to provide detailed backgrounds for your characters and remember to have only enough characters and/or events to illustrate the purpose of your story…around three main characters is about all a short story can deal with effectively.
Decide what characteristics of your main character are important to the story’s theme…and stick to those. What? You’ve fallen in love with your character? Well, that happens and if it happens to you, use him or her as the basis for a possible novel later on. In the meantime, to make your characters come to life in just a few words…maybe they have a quirk or a limp or a scar. Imagine you have just opened a “magic box” full of ideas to make your characters memorable.
TO SPEAK OR NOT TO SPEAK…
Dialogue has such power…it can convey the character but it must contribute to the main focus of your story. Dialogue is never padding for any character. Each word from your character’s mouth should contribute to revealing the theme of the story—if it does not, be ruthless…cut it out like a cancer!
Vivid imagery rather than dialogue draws your readers into your story, too. You want to paint such a vivid picture that your reader will imagine herself or himself right there in the scene. Capture your readers’ interest and you have an empathetic reader…a reader who is living the fictional dream. Convey the tone and mood of the character at that moment; select specific details to create and convey emotional impact that you, the writer, want to convey. Here’s an example from “Upon a Mystic Tide”.
“Sitting in her old, red rocker, Miss Hattie turned on the large, antique radio behind her. Big band era music drifted through the kitchen, and she softly hummed along with it. Her head bowed, she studied the embroidery in her lap. She was sewing the Seascape Inn logo into a new batch of crisp, white napkins. Yellow thread. Was the colour significant to women of her age?”
Can you see how incorporating the specific, concrete details creates a vivid description of Miss Hattie, rocking, sewing, humming? She obviously is not stressed; so, just by the type of detail you select for your short story, you will create the mood, set the tone. Don’t write tree;write oak. Don’t write emotion; write fear, sorrow, guilt, shame. Don’t write dog; write Bassett Hound or Pug or Chihuahua. Don’t write chair; write rocker. Create pictures in your readers’ minds exactly like the pictures you see when you close your eyes and go there yourself.
Remember earlier, I suggested strongly appealing your readers’ five senses. Well, use the same trick…don’t neglect them; they are vital. Breathe life into your characters. In the scene above, consider the soothing images that reinforced the emotional mood and tone…perhaps the scent of the sea spray, or maybe of blueberry muffins or peonies. What do your characters hear? See? These sensory perceptions breathe life into humans…characters emulate humans. So, don’t be afraid to project yourself in the situation mentally and take the reader there with you.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
If you have never sailed a ship, don’t try to write about sailing…remember, your readers might be avid sailors and you will lose ground with them. If you have never engaged in anything other than vanilla sex, don’t try to fool your readers into believing your character is involved in sexual bondage or bdsm or is a prostitute or a pimp—you’ll be spotted for the phony imagery immediately. If you have never killed an animal or a human, do not waste your or your readers’ time trying describe how it felt to kill. REMEMBER, vivid imagery requires specific and concrete details.
BEFORE YOU PUBLISH YOUR SHORT STORY
Don’t kill a potentially great story with spelling errors and bad grammar. How many times have you stopped reading after the first few sentences you encountered errors in the story/book/novel? If you leave careless errors for your readers to stumble on, you are making a silent statement: you don’t care enough about your story to have proofread it. Well, then, why should your readers care enough to bother reading it? BEFORE YOU PUBLISH, dot your i’s and cross your t’s.