Thursday, October 01, 2015

short stories: P90X for your writer's brain

I'm a novelist by nature; I tell epic sagas. But at this distance, I can say I learnt the most about plot structure by writing short pieces, both stories and nonfiction essays. A story is, after all, a thematic argument, and if you don't know how to structure a convincing essay, neither will you be able to write a compelling story.

I remember distinctly the first two stories I wrote that I knew worked. It's significant to say that I wrote them after I'd taken a couple of pivotal classes in business writing and persuasive writing. Those classes impressed upon me that I was writing for an audience, and the audience couldn't see all the dream-logic explanations in my head—they needed concrete evidence.

I wrote those two short stories ("Galatea" and "The Bridgeport Job") about Quinn Taylor, a character I had already written three novels about. I did this deliberately; I knew the character and the world very well and so guessed I could be succinct with her. The plots themselves were conceived in my head whole, in thematic terms—I imagined the character's inner conflict and set out to resolve it. 

This isn't to say I knew exactly what would happen, but I had a set of possible options from the conflict I had established, and I picked and chose at every juncture. It was an eerie and awesome feeling of power, to steer the story from scene to scene instead of just wandering unsure of what would happen next. Those two stories were the first to get a thumbs-up from my writer's group—even though they had been "meh" about the Quinn Taylor novels. 

I never tried to sell those stories. They are decent, not great. But I treasure what I learned from them.

And so I say, even if you dislike short stories there is value in writing them. They are a golden opportunity to practice structure and theme and how they work together: 

1. Establish your theme (a/k/a motivating conflict, a/k/a thesis topic) at the beginning to intrigue the reader. This can be man-against-man, man-against the world, or man-against-himself.

2. Develop the theme/argument via examples (situational conflict) through the middle.

3. Resolve the theme by bringing it to a logical conclusion, and make it satisfying by addressing all possible counter-arguments (loose threads, plot holes).

Another big advantage to learning through short stories is economy. Short stories can seem much less intimidating to a beginning writer in terms of time commitment. Short stories can be read and evaluated at a gulp, which means you get more meaningful critiques from your writer's group. And fitting a story into 5000 words forces you to be efficient with characterization and description. Nothing will teach you to excise excess modifiers like a word count restriction. Every word has to count in a short story, so you learn to be precise.

So if your novel isn't getting the raves you hoped for, and you find yourself protesting, "It gets really good after the first few chapters!" take your writer's brain to the gym and push it through a few short stories. Low reps, heavy weight. You'll be amazed at the difference.

No comments: