Monday, February 20, 2012

Short Stories and Tomato Surprises

Well, I've decided that since my work is currently focused on short stories in my continuing effort to win a place in the coveted Writers of the Future contest, short stories would be a good place to start my blog on writing. Not to mention the fact that I have yet to actually finish a novel...

The notes for this entry come from the panel "How to Write a Good Short Story", from LTUE 2012. The panelists for this panel were, Eric James Stone, Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury, Heather Frost, Suzanne Vincent, and Dan Willis. Please visit their sites if you haven't already as they are each a vault of knowledge and wisdom.

Ok, so how do you write a good short story? Let's first look at what makes a short story good, or interesting. Why do we read short fiction? Is it simply that in our ever-increasingly hectic lives fiction that can be read in one sitting is all we have time for? Or is short fiction all that our shortened attention spans are interested in? Although I do think there's some truth to these ideas, they're not the whole truth.

One thing I personally love about short fiction is the immediate setup and payoff. A novel is a serious investment of time and energy. Most people don't read a novel in a day or even a week. It takes time to introduce the characters, to develop a relationship between them and the reader, to develop the setting and plot surrounding the characters, and to show those characters' emotional and sometimes physical growth throughout the story. And, after all this, the reader expects the story to have a satisfying conclusion.

In short fiction, the author can sort of cheat. There are many short cuts that can be taken to skip some of the time consuming events I just listed. One of the ideas presented by the panel was the idea of Unity. Unity in a short story is the concept of One; one character, one problem, one setting, and perhaps even one effort. To expound on these:
  •  One Character doesn't necessarily mean only one character in the story, but only one Point of View. In short fiction you barely have enough time to get to know one character, let alone several. It's best to stay focused on one person's thoughts and actions. If you split story time between characters it can get confusing and also make your characters shallow.
  • One Problem could also be listed as One Plot. If you have your character(s) facing too many problems or subplots, it will not only make your story too long, but also will make it more challenging to reach a complete and satisfying conclusion.
  • One Setting, like Character, doesn't mean only having the story in one room of a house, or even one town or city. You can visit different places in your story, but remember that the more complex you make your setting, or any of these points, the longer your story will be and the harder it becomes to close it all up satisfactorily. Typically my short stories have been focused within the personal bubble, as it were, of the main character. (I couldn't find an appropriate term for "personal bubble", but it is essentially the idea that everyone lives and works within so many miles of their home and rarely venture out from it. If anyone knows a term for that area, please let me know.) In most of my short fiction, the setting is within the characters' job, home city, or family. But that doesn't necessarily limit the locations. In one story, the setting is a college campus, with a few different dorms and offices used. In another, centered around a space race, the setting is within the protagonist's space ship. The setting may cover lightyears of travel, but still only takes place within one setting, the ship.
  • One Effort for the most part means forgoing try/fail cycles. If you're unsure of what this is, it's the idea that, in order to build tension in the story, your protagonist(s) must try to solve the problem and fail at least a few times. Only when it seems like there is no other way for them to accomplish their goals, and then they do, is the ending as powerful as you want. In short fiction there often is not time for try/fail cycles, or perhaps only one. Unlike in a novel, a short story protagonist can solve the problem on the first try, provided the story is setup properly and maintains its interest.
In short fiction you can often skip essential elements of a novel such as backstory. (This can be done in long form as well, but is more difficult and more suited to short works.) In short form you can simply start at the climax of your story and leave the backstory to the imagination of the reader. In fact, this is one of the more provocative ways to tell a short story. Don't get caught up trying to fill the reader in on everything that has happened to lead the protagonist to this point. Simply provide the essential details, and leave the rest for the reader to dream up on their own. This creates a certain collaboration between author and reader and can make your story more powerful.

Some tips on writing short stories well:
  • Enter scenes late and leave early. This means to start the scene at the exact moment of decisive action for the protagonist, and end the scene before the calm settles in.
  • Trust your reader to fill in details you don't supply. We read to feed our imaginations, set the reader free as often as you can.
  • Cut down on the number of scenes, characters, and subplots.
  • Reduce the complexity of the main plot.
  • Tell, don't Show, SOME of the story. This goes against everything we are taught as writers to Show, don't Tell the story. But in short fiction sometimes you have to just info dump the important parts so you can get on with the current scene. But, be as concise as possible in this. Remember, in a short story every word has to count. As Orson Scott Card said, everything in a story has to fight for the right to be there. If it doesn't have the right, it is unimportant and uninteresting, cut it.
  • Finally, start the story closer to the end and just fill in backstory. Or, as we have already discussed, leave the backstory to the reader unless it plays an important role in the plot.
During the panel the question was asked, How do you know when to begin and end your story?
Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury explained one way to know is to use Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. Quotient. This is a list of four categories that are present in every story. Most of the time, one of the four dominates the story, but all four are always present. They are:
  • Milieu - This is the setting of the story; location, family, the world, weather, etc. A Milieu driven story is one where the setting is the main problem or antagonist to the characters. An example of this is Pocahontas/Dances with Wolves/Fern Gully/Avatar. Yes, these are all essentially the same story. A Milieu driven story begins when the protagonist becomes involved in the setting and ends when they either find a way home or choose to stay and join the setting.
  • Idea - This is the idea of the story. An Idea driven story is one where a question is presented and the characters must figure out the answer or solution to that idea. Most mystery stories are Idea stories. An example of an Idea driven story would be The Game. What is the Game? Is it really a game, or a life and death con? The Idea story begins when the question or idea is presented and ends when it is answered or solved.
  • Character - This is the character(s) of the story. A Character driven story is one where the protagonist is challenged in some way and must find a way to grow and overcome his/her personal challenges. Rudy is a good example of a character story as is the Lion King. The Character story begins when the character either decides he/she wants to change, or is changed by their circumstances and ends when they either make the change or accept it.
  • Event - This is a change in the status quo of either the world or the character's life and must be righted. Most disaster stories such as 2012 or Armageddon are Event stories, as are epic adventures like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. The Event story begins when there is a change in the status quo and the main character decides to get involved and ends when either the status quo is returned, or a new status quo is established, or in some cases, when the characters fail.
As I said, all of these things are found in every story to some extent. But most stories carry one in the forefront that drives the plot, while the others are simply there to flesh out the story. Especially in short fiction you will have one of these four things driving the story while the others may barely be touched upon. This a good way to keep your story focused. Decide what kind of story you are telling and make sure to keep the story centered on that.

The last thing I want to discuss about is what to avoid when writing short stories. I've already discussed things like keep it short and simple. Don't let your plot get too complex, don't let your characters run away with (or from) the story. Keep it focused on the type of story you want to tell. Also, avoid what is known as Tomato Surprises. No, this is not a recipe with eggs, milk, and breadcrumbs (though if you Google it that is mostly what you will get). A Tomato Surprise is withholding some vital detail from the reader that, if it had been revealed at the beginning of the story, would take most, if not all, of the tension out of the story. It is used often to pull the rug out from under the reader and turn the entire story into a one-line joke. 

Not to say that the Tomato Surprise can't be done well; it's just very difficult. Two movies that come to mind where this is used effectively are The Book of Eli and The Sixth Sense. Both stories have a reveal at the very end that completely changes the meaning of the story. Unfortunately, most of the time when authors try this trick it does little more than confuse, disappoint, and upset the reader who feels deceived rather than satisfied by the twist. 

That's about all I have to say on the subject of short stories at this point. I think the most important thing I've learned about writing short fiction is that you have to start with the interesting stuff. With novels, you typically have one to two chapters to engage the reader. In short fiction you only get one to two paragraphs. A short story has to have a hook. Even if it means starting in the action and flashing back occasionally to set it up, start with the hook and work your way from there.  

I'm still toying with the idea of including a writing prompt at the end of each post, and then following it up with my own works based on that writing prompt, but with this subject, the writing prompt seems pretty straight forward: Write a Good Short Story. And since that is vague and well, stupid, I think instead I'm going to post an old story of mine written in college as a bad example of a Tomato Surprise. I guess if you want, your writing prompt could be: Write a Good Tomato Surprise Story. 

Feel free to share your writing prompt results with me, either by emailing it to me at, or you can post it in the comments on this blog. I look forward to whatever you come up with. Also, as this is my first blog ever, feel free to bombard me with ideas and suggestions on how to improve this blog or my posts.

That's the end of my first blog. Until next time, write something.

1 comment:

  1. Josh, I am so happy to see you blogging! Always nice to have another blogging friend. However a nice lady at my blog passed on some advice to me that I'm going to pass on to you. Enlarge your font please. People might have a difficult time reading this and the information you are sharing is too important to lose because folks have a hard time reading it. Thanks man. Catch ya later.