Get to the point! — Short Story Mechanics

Portrait

This post by Craig Snider

Story mechanics. No, not short sweaty men lurking beneath the hood of your story, wrench in hand, and liberal amounts of rear anatomy showing. I mean the mechanics of creating a story that functions and runs like a dream. This is often a difficult subject for writers, myself especially. I find the concept of plotting very difficult. It is easy enough to come up with the obligatory “What If?” scenario, but when it comes to creating a tight and poignant story, I flounder. It seems there must be some kind of secret to creating the perfect story. Perhaps there is.

For my own struggle, it is the short story. I find that shorts can often be more difficult to plot than book-length stories. I don’t by any means that book writing is easy. Quite the contrary. But, novels give the writer a bit of leniency when it comes to timing. You have several more pages with which to approach story elements and plot points, often taking full chapters just to set up an impending plot point or points.

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”

But, the short story most often only has one major plot point. This means that everything that does not propel the story forward, past the plot point and on into the climax must be removed. The resulting story will often leave the reader with a singular effect, as master Poe has often proclaimed as the objective of the short story writer. I agree with this assumption, as the length of the format does not leave much time for complexity.

So, how do story mechanics come into play in such a minute scale? You have to focus on just the bare essentials.

The first is the inciting incident. In a novel, this is just the action of the plot that gets the story in motion, even to the point of being something mundane, such as the character missing their bus. But, in a short story, the inciting incident must propel the character toward the first, or only, plot point (for those who aren’t familiar with this term, it is a point in the story where the character must make a choice or take an action from which they cannot return, where they will forever be changed).

The simple plot diagram works best for short stories.

After the plot point, the story must then move to the climax, and then the denouement. As you can see, there is not much room to waste.

Well, that seems really simple…

You’d be right, to an extent. It is simple. On paper, no pun intended. But, it is within this streamlined format that the writer must be able to instill artistic expression, to imbue the words with the magic poignancy that embeds the story in the mind of the reader, forever.

I bet you can immediately name a slew of short stories you love and can nearly remember word for word. It is easy while reading these stories to forget the harried pace at which the writer is propelling the reader toward the climax of the story. If they have done their job correctly, you won’t notice the tactics and techniques used to do this as efficiently and artistically as possible.

You will find that the tools of the writer, such as foreshadowing, metaphor, imagery, symbolism, to name a few, are used more, proportionally speaking, than in novels, save for maybe the most literary of them. This is because the short story is often more like a poem than a novel. Like a poem, the short must tell a story in a minimum amount of words.

So, you must plot a short story much differently than a novel. In a novel, you do not focus on trying to impart a singular “moral” or effect of the story, though this can often happen. Novels tend to be layered, complex in their effect on the reader, covering a gamut of emotional responses. But, when you plot your short, be sure to focus on that singular effect, and in doing so, make everything in your story point toward that goal. Do not have anything that distracts the reader from this objective. Doing so in a novel can be overlooked among the many layers, but in a short story, it can sink your story faster than Lance Armstrong‘s popularity dive.

Perhaps the best way to attain this conformity in your story is to write your first draft, always keeping your singular effect in mind, and just write freely. Then, once this is done go through the story looking for opportunities to create some symbolism, or using a metaphor to tie into that theme. Doing this will create a continuity and poignancy in your story.

We could go on for a while about this, but for now, try reading your favorite short story, and pull out some of those Literature 101 tactics of breaking the story down by theme and symbolism. Note there will be little time spent on character development for the most part. But, as you break the story down you will begin to see the architecture built to support the singular effect of the story’s theme and execution. Try mimicking this story’s architecture in one of your own stories, and you will begin to understand each part’s purpose.

There is your homework for next week. Until next time, write on.

 

20 thoughts on “Get to the point! — Short Story Mechanics

  1. Very interesting post Craig. I’ve only written one or two short stories and they were in my childhood, but as a songwriter I can see the points you outline apply as well. This post is informative and interesting – I’ll keep it for future reference. Thank you!

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  2. Thank you Craig. I love short stories and other than haiku is my preferred form of writing. Your post covers the joys and pitfalls of making your writing the best it can be. Doris

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  3. Great tips Craig. I admire cartoons that are complete in three frames, or jokes. It’s an art. I wrote a 500 or less flash fiction for our Wyoming Writers Inc. contest this year and boy is it hard to get your point, setting and mood into a few words. I think I managed my scene in 499 and placed second, and it was a fun challenge. Thanks for the article.

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    1. Neva, you are absolutely right. And 500 words is such a hard format!! You almost need to completely forgo any in-depth development, resorting instead to large broad strokes of scene, character, and plot. Thanks for reading!

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  4. Thanks Craig. I write novels rather than short stories, but always admire the short story that keeps me intriqued to the end. A few ideas for short stories float around in my head now and then, but with no action taken, they fade away. I’ll save this for the “maybe someday I will.”

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    1. Eunice, glad to have you reading our blog. I prefer novels too, but I do have a few short stories, some of which have won contests, and I enjoyed writing them, but at heart I’m a novelist. Cher’ley

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    2. Eunice, nothing wrong with siding with one format or the other. I think most writers are “built” to be either short or long form writers. Nothing bad about that. And, as a novelist, I could see how switching to the short form could actually hinder your development if not done properly.

      Thanks for reading!

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  5. Craig, nice form and nice photos. This is a great blog with lots of meat for all writers. To me each chapter in a novel is like a short story. You explained the concept very nicely. Cher’ley

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    1. Cher’ley, I couldn’t agree more. You have to approach novel chapters in the same manner, trying to keep the reader interested throughout the entire chapter, and even leaving a cliffhanger at the end to keep them reading. Great point! I’m sure much could be/has been written on that very subject! And, what a great way to approach the writing while using both the long and short form concepts in mind! There’s a future post there!

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  6. Great post, Craig. I don’t get around to reading short stories often (though I should aim to more often since my reading time is so limited just now) and find that writing them a nightmare. There is definitely a skill and a knack to success.

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    1. Hey Nancy, I wouldn’t fault you for not reading shorts. You have your preferences, and if you are a novelist, you would prefer to read within your form. But, I do think that there is as much to learn when reading a short as there is in poetry, in regards to reading outside your form.

      Thanks for reading!!

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