By Elle Fredine
I was in the middle of answering a comment (thanks, Julie) and an idea took form — well, actually several ideas. But once I got them sorted and finished the comment, I realized I had something more to say on the subject.
I have long admired writers of short stories. Those talented people who can tell a story in a only few short page — a story so compelling it grabs you in the first few phrases, and doesn’t let go.
Cleanly-drawn characters with an intriguing story to tell, usually with an excellent plot twist you never saw coming — they leave you breathless.
My usual efforts run from 10,000 words plus to full-length novels of about 70–85,000 words. I’ve always just started wherever and kept going ’til it felt finished. Sometime I write from both ends to the middle, and once in a while a story will actually start at the beginning. Most often it comes in chunks or scenes, that need to be woven together.
I’ve always just used as many words as I needed to tell the story. I was more concerned with having enough extra, a bit of padding, to ensure there’d be a high enough word count after the final edit. So, the idea of writing a complete story in few pages was initially pretty scary, let alone telling a whole story in a thousand words or less.
Of, course, I didn’t know I could write a full-length novel ’til I tried. So, why not give it a shot?
I’ve learned a fair bit about the process, both from reading other works and from writing my own short pieces. And I’ve found there is a method to the madness. There are a few simple steps you can take to drastically improve you short pieces.
Your plot — whatever it is your characters actually do — may not be the first idea to tickle your mind when you start your story, but it requires careful attention. You don’t have a lot of time to meander around in flash fiction. A thousand words goes by fast.
Once you have your plot sorted out, you can usually navigate through your story pretty effectively.
The story starts with an action. Something you character needs to do, or wants to do, or must do… or find, or discover…
Your character make their journey, which can be either physical, emotional or both, from where we meet them at the start of your story, and on through their struggle or past their obstacle, to their destination. This is a pretty standard “quest” plot — think Hobbits. Frodo must carry the ring to Mordor and cast it into the pit to save the world.
Make a sentence about your story. Sum it all up.
Jack and Jill must find their way to the top of the hill and return with a pail of water.
Keep it simple. This is a short story. Save the multi-layered epic for your novel.
Your Main Character
Your protagonist, or main character, is the person around whom your plot revolves. The central person in your story. I often start with an idea or feeling about a character and then figure out what she/he needs to do as I go along. But there’s no right or wrong way to begin.
However, we need some kind of stakes to make our character interesting, and for us to care about them. There must be some cost involved in achieving their objective, and some kind of growth when they do. Something big enough and important enough to satisfy your reader.
That’s your character’s arc. Their growth or change — sometimes for the better, sometimes not. They were this when we met them, and at the end they’re this…
They could have gone from being a grumpy curmudgeon to a kindly friend. Like me before and after my first coffee. Or they could change from a naive young woman into a bitter, jaded socialite — it’s up to you. But they need to change or grow in some way or your readers will find them boring.
Make a sentence about their journey. Sum it all up. This is the heart of your story — what it’s all about.
Jack and Jill must overcome their fear of what might be lurking in the the very tall grass, so they can climb to the very, very top of the hill, and return with a bucket of water, or their family will die of thirst.
So, you have your character, their journey and the stakes, and you’ve hopefully ironed out the rest of the plot — the rest of what happens along the way. Now for the payoff.
The Plot Twist
A good writer makes it look easy.
They wrap it up in a nice tidy bow without appearing to. You reach the end of the story with a chuckle, a surprised laugh, maybe a feeling of satisfaction. Maybe the ending fits so perfectly, and is so completely satisfying you don’t mind having already figured it out.
A great writer will leave you amazed, possibly in tears.
No matter how good you are at sussing things out, at keeping one step ahead of the story, you never would have conceived of the ending they just sprang on you. Not in a million years.
And yet, it was so beautifully set up. You can go back through the story and see where they carefully planted the seeds, sprinkled the breadcrumbs. But they held back that one tiny piece of information…
But whether the plot twist is completely hidden ‘til the last few words, or you see it coming a mile away, the important things is, it works. It fits the story.
The ending — whatever it is — has to be believable within the world you have created. It has to stay in context, to fit the expectations you’ve set up in your reader.
You can’t just pull something out of thin air and say, “Voila!”
The Greeks called that old trick “Deus ex Machina”, literally, “God from the machine.” Except when they did it, it wasn’t old yet.
In Greek plays of a certain genre it was common to have some god, Zeus or Apollo usually, appear from the clouds of Mount Olympus (via a crane) and descend to earth to mete out justice or settle the conflict.
In modern usage, it generally means you’ve written yourself into a corner and can’t think of a good way out, so you use some crazy cataclysmic event or an intervention by some other-wordly being to set everything to rights.
For example, your reluctant, ex-navy-seal hero is trapped on the twenty-ninth floor of a burning building along with the beautiful teacher he kinda likes, and her entire class of kiddies on a school outing. What? School outing? Never mind — just go with me…
He’s just run out of ammo, and the terrorists are only two floors below them and closing in fast. And here it comes, completely out of left field.
Suddenly, an earthquake sets off a tsunami which sweeps away the terrorists and douses the flames but miraculously leaves the skyscraper intact and all the good guys alive.
There you go — deus ex machina. But, I’ve seen worse. They could have been saved by aliens.
I’m sure you can do better.
Jack and Jill are terrified of what might be lurking in the the tall grass. Bravely overcoming their fears, they climb to the very, very top of the hill, finally reaching the well. On their way back down though, Jack slips and knocks himself out. He rolls helplessly down the hill. But plucky Jill, tumbling after him, manages to reach the bottom first and breaks his fall. She saves Jack’s life. And keeps their family from dying of thirst…
You notice, though we didn’t add an extra characters, Little Bow Peep could have been passing by, looking for her sheep. In fact, one of her sheep, in the already established context of Mother Goose land, could just as easily have broken Jack’s fall. That could have been more fun.
Also, we didn’t introduce a first-aid kit, or a passing paramedic. Remember, deus ex machina. Keep it real within the context of your story.
If your plot twist doesn’t work, then you either have to find a new ending that does fit the story, or go back and make everything else lead up to your big finish.
And now comes the really important part of your story…
Editing Your Finished Work
And I don’t mean for grammar, and spelling, and punctuation, and all that stuff. That’s a given. I mean now you’re going to go back and remove every single word you don’t need.
You can keep an eye on the word count as you’re writing. Just hit <Control> A to select/highlight your whole article and the program will give you a rough word count. When you reach six-hundred words or so, you know you’re about two-thirds done, so you better get busy wrapping things up.
Don’t stop ’til you’re finished the story, but try to stay close to a thousand words.
But then, once you’re done, re-read your story from start to finish. Looking for words you can cut.
For example, I just edited the above sentence. It used to read, “Looking for extra, or unnecessary words you easily can get rid of.” Now it reads, “Looking for words you can cut.” Cleaner. Removed five words from the overall total. Not troublesome in most articles, but they would be wasteful and excess verbiage in flash fiction where every single word must be made to count.
Look for sentences where you can say the same thing in fewer words. Say it better, tighter, and with more interesting words. The right-click activated min-Thesaurus is your friend.
Get rid of repetition unless it’s for emphasis. Highlight a phrase and click <Find> on the top menu, and your word-processing program will show you how many times you’ve used a particular words or phrase. Then scroll through the list and decide what to keep and what to change.
And please, please, avoid using “that” as much as humanly possible, unless it’s in dialogue. There are better words, stronger words, more specific words to say what you’re trying to say. Find them. Keep cutting.
Culled from The Writing Cooperative