Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The plot is the king to catch the spirit of the thing

But, it’s a short story! I hear you say. But I don’t have to plot a short story!

Well, maybe you don’t my pretty. Maybe you do. In my writing life, I’ve had to plot some stories, and others have poured out of my fingers without my even thinking about them. In fact, I go through entire phases where I plot the entire thing in advance, and then others where I just write them... and back again.

I want to emphasize, before I give an example of a worksheet I use/have used at times, that this is not the only way to do it, that it doesn’t mean you should do it this way, and that your mileage may vary... considerably. Short stories more than novels are very subjected to a personal style and a "way of doing things." Mine, for instance, tend to include a mirror moment, where the character finds what he’s been pursuing is not what he wants. This is not true in a lot of other stories, some very good ones. It all depends on the author.

Okay, the first things you need to remember, is that all stories – not just shorts, though in shorts you have less time to introduce them – are composed of three elements: character, problem and resolution.

Other things that are nice to find roaming around – though some magazines don’t seem to require them – are setting and plot. The setting is, natch, the place where the story is set – and it can range from very important (story couldn’t happen anywhere else) to just a way to make sure your characters don’t float out into space... or sound like it. The plot should be the coherent actions that your characters take to effect the resolution of their problem, as well as to happens in reaction to them. Some of the more literary magazines, btw, omit the "resolution."

Now, the worsheet I use – for sake of brevity I’m going to use one of my own short stories (as happens, unpublished) for the example.

Title: The Private Wound
Character: Princess/Lady Elizabeth, in an alternate world in which Henry VIII reconcile with Catherine of Aragon and Mary is the undisputed queen, while Elizabeth ends up in a convent (as in Edward never existed, and this is the way to keep the succession uncluttered.)
Problem: Elizabeth is not remotely suited to the convent and is bored out of her gourd/looking for escape.
Goal: To escape being a nun.
Action: When Robert – Robin Dudley – Elizabeth’s childhood playfriend shows up in the choir, Elizabeth eagerly runs away with him. She wants to marry him, yes, she wants to be free from the convent, she even wants to fight for the crown if it comes to that.
Mirror moment – as she escapes with him (and this many years after, I don’t remember the details of the action, which is good for keeping it brief) she apprises herself of his situation – widower – and how it came about, and she starts to get a bad feeling. Then she finds he’s arranged everything to marry her quickly. Suddenly, she realizes that if she marries him she’ll be putting herself in his hands. Just like her mother was in father’s hands. She’ll only be exchanging the prison of the convent for another and more dangerous prison.
Resolution – she stabs Duddley and goes back to the convent claiming he tried to kidnap her. She realizes that her understanding of what happened to her mother – her private wound – makes it impossible for her to trust a male and that the convent, boring as it is, is safe and preferable to an illusory freedom in which she’ll be ruled by a man who will have power of life and death over her.

In retrospect, I know why the story didn’t sell – because the freedom Elizabeth longs for at the beginning of the story is no part of the resolution, which makes for a very "down" story. (I’m more than willing to send it to whoever wishes to read it, btw.)

I hope this makes sense, as I’m recovering from a minor illness that piggy-backed on the flu and I might not be particularly coherent. (Which accounts for my not having been around, yeah.)

Does it make any sense? What did I leave out that you need to know? What do you think the plotting should include? Is your preparation for short stories much different?


C Kelsey said...

It makes a good deal of sense to me. I'll have to try it and see if it helps with writing my various shorts. It is certainly more organized than my approach to any form of writing (best summed up as the character sitting on my shoulder and telling me what happened to them).

Anonymous said...

When I get a story idea, I tend to start writing, and when I start floundering, I finally stop and organize things.

Generally my problem is that there isn't a problem. So I have to invent one, and then figure out how my floundering Character is going to fix it.

Fortunately the stop-and-organize spot is rarely more than a couple thousand words in, so I don't have to rewrite too much.

Brendan said...

Does anyone come up with the conclusion to their stories first. You know just how the story should end but nothing that comes before.

Anonymous said...

I'll occasionally see that the state of affairs I started writing about are the end, not the beginning. But I usually start with a character walking into my brain like it was a stage, and jumping right into action and speech.

It's usually the first scene, but it can be the last act. Once I start corralling it with something resembling "Start, Problem, Solve Problem, Kiss the Girl" it could be anything.Including something that gets cut.

C Kelsey said...

Brendan... Certainly. One of my latest shorts resulted from an ending that just "happened". It made no sense at the time. It might make even less sense now, but that's my insistant sense of humor at work.

Kate said...

It depends. Sometimes I know what a short story has in it and where it's going. Other times, I start somewhere and hope I'll find a plot in there.

Chris McMahon said...

Interesting approach. I think the character and their goal are definately crucial. I have probably considered the settling as more integral, but I don't let this stop me too much.

I might try thinking about the mirror approach, which would give some good opportunities for a twist. Although I don't think you necessarily need to have the mirror - i.e. I think the outset goal can be enough to carry the story.

This has an echo with McKee's conscious/unconscious desires. Where the character starts with a conscious desire and somewhere along the line they realise they have a deeper desire that is really driving them.

Anonymous said...

Mirror moment, a sudden realization, epiphany, a major change of perspective. I'm trying to think of all the ways short story writers throw in a sudden twist. I shall have to go back to my three WIP with this in mind.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

well... most of the time Chris, that's how I write too. It's just when I'm tired or out of sorts that I feel the need for a more detailed outline.

However, in this field, it never hurts to know how to write by numbers. Deadlines hit at the oddest times.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Um... I hope that's for a novel, not a short? My shorts are often in the thirty five hundred range.

Odd. I've heard of people having issues with plot, never with PROBLEM. You and I need to have a LONG talk. Maybe next time I come down to TX.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Sometimes. The da... I mean darn things have the oddest ways of presenting. Sometimes butt first or head first, or sideways. Lately, since I've started drawing, I get IMAGES. It's very disturbing.

Well... what you have to do is ask, what happened just before this? And then just before. Theoretically you could write the whole thing back to front, like my younger kid who learned to write before he could read.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam -- that's EXACTLY how most of my stories start. There's character, in middle of my brain. And sometimes he/she/it won't TALK.

And yeah, the problem on page one does NOT need to be the main problem of the story. Important to remember, that.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


And sometimes you scream the voices should shut up already. Fortunately, they rarely obey. :D

Anonymous said...

Yes, novels, not shorts, although most of what I write tries hard to end after twenty or thirty thousand, also forcing me to write subplots, and romances and whatevers.

Umm, I have fun with Characters and World Building. Then suddenly realizing there's no story, because there's no problem in need of solution. So I have to toss something in the spokes of my Happy World . . .

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

well, Chris, I think I have a dozen or so stories where the goal DIDN'T change. Or at least where the character didn't look at the goal differently, by the end. Maybe that's a feature of my mind? But... go look at Cold Equations, arguably the best sf story ever written. The goal doesn't change, exactly, but the end, where he gets the meds to the planet, "tastes" different. Or Midnight Mass (the short story, not the book) by F Paul Wilson, also arguably one of the best short stories ever written. His goal to begin with was to stay alive. In the end, he's enlarged it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

go to the free library, where they have my collection, Crawling Between Heaven and Earth (Free!) Read Thirst. The mirror moment is the last line. It was actually one of the most terrifying writing experiences I ever had. I'm sitting there, writing the story (High as a kite on morphine, because I'd delivered a week before and had a raging uterine infection. I DRAGGED myself up the hallway to the office and it took me eight hours to type that thing in. Thank heavens now we have laptops. Not that I'm having another kid -- no such luck -- but...) and... finished it. I thought. But it didn't feel right. It needed... something else. And then my fingers type in the last sentence. And then it was done. Only I didn't know what the heck I was typing, as I did. I blame it on morphine.

Anonymous said...

Easier to pull it off the shelf . . . Yeah, that's the one I thought it was. A real beaut.

It's that jolt that really gets the reader. I can see where I need to do that with my cargo cult spaceship. My other two, one's got a bit of a twist, the other needs a bit of rethinking.