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.
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).
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.