Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Short Fiction on the Fly

Here's something I'm asked about often: Writing short stories.

The most common question put to me is "Where do I start?"

Of course, the flippant answer is "at the beginning." This response helps no one, and provides nothing useful. Yet, it is perhaps the most cited answer to the question.

Instead of that response, I tend to say you start with character and a narrator. This confuses some people. Some feel that the protagonist is the narrator, while others feel the narrator is the writer.

For me, fiction is about the protagonist. And how we learn about the protagonist is through the narrator - at least that is one means.

So, of you start to tell someone about your short story and you start with: There's this guy who...

Stop there.

"This guy" is not a character; he is a place holder for the missing protagonist. First, find the protagonist. Do this by creating a life around him - a past, family, likes, dislikes, parents, siblings, habits, traits, everything you can think of to make this character interesting in the adventure he's about to undertake. You may even find that he starts to write his own story.

Next, you need a strong narrator. But that will be another post.

I wonder what other ways writers stumble into stories? Regardless of what books on writing state, there I'd no one method to writing. Everyone develops an approach with practice. The one I cited works for me, and has helped many others.

Anyone have a different approach?


Voland said...

Hi William - great to have you back!

When I'm writing a short story I tend to start from one of two points. The first is a "snapshot", a still-motion imagining of a particular scene, usually a pivotal scene in the story. I find myself looking at that, wondering who the people are, what they're doing, how on earth they got there. Sometimes the scene has no people; it's an object, a location, with an atmosphere which is triggering my thoughts.

The other way is a phrase or sentence, something which has lodged in my head like a song lyric and won't go away. I pull it apart, live with it for a while, try and work out what it means, and from that a narrative unfolds.

I guess this often means the "idea" in a story comes before the characters for me. There's always a danger that the characters will get subordinated to the story, rather than remaining "free individuals" who are just "passing through" the story, but I find if I'm aware of that I can usually spot the most egregious failings!

Interesting topic!



ps did I say it was great to have you back? :-D

Matthew Baugh said...

I often start with a good scene and work backward. A scene can be inspired by any of a number of things from a line in a book to a dream to a 'what if' conversation.

Once I have that germ, I ask myself what kind of characters would work well in a situation like that. I wonder about how they became the sort of characters they are and flesh out their backgrounds accordingly.

After I've done all of that, I usually find that the plot is already nearly complete.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that I have a set method. One of my stories ("Running in Place") was born from the final image. I then had to write the beginning of the story in order to bring my protagonist to that final scene.

Another story ("Where the Sea Meets the Sky") was inspired by a Lovecraft tale and began with a "What If?" question. What if something happened during a short interval that HPL mentioned in his story?

My story that will appear in TALES OUT OF MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY ("Admission and Expulsion") began with an image: A young man pushing a body into an incinerator behind a medical school. I wrote the rest of the story to explain why he was doing that.


William Jones said...

Sarah - Many thanks! Good to be back. Although a bit of Internet that wasn't on a wireless device would be nice. :)

I too develop stories from scenes or images. (Now I attempt to re-direct you) But those scenes are always centered around someone, and that someone is usually the key. For instance:

A werewolf jumps from the shadows, snarling, barely visible in the veil of night.

"Posh!," said Sean Connery. "Go ahead. Go on your way. If you don't, I might insult your mother."


A werewolf jumps from the shadows, snarling, barely visible in the veil of night.

"Ha-ha-ha," laughed Vin Diesel. "You do not know who you're ****ing with."


So, for me, that scene with the werewolf and the character varies greatly with the type of character encountered.

Still, I agree, I often come up with an idea first. I think what I'm driving at is, for me, there is no story (idea or not) until I have a character(s) to move it forward.

William Jones said...

Matthew - Yepper. I do that as well. And I don't want to give the impression that I DO have a method that works every time.

For me, stories come from everywhere. Images, sounds, events. Sentence fragments.

You say you work backward from a germ. Does that reverse engineering lead to a character? Or can you start writing before you have a character?

William Jones said...

Jeff - Many people call that sketching a story. Using the writing to develop a character.

With that said, characters usually develop as the writing goes along - we learn more about our characters as we create the story.

Some authors, including me, actually use short stories to develop characters (giving them a history). This allows the next story to move ahead with a well developed character.

Actually, the Pearson book was an experiment in short stories with the goal of a novel. However, I wrote the stories out of order, so I needed a timeline to keep track of Pearson. And after I had written enough stories, I understood the character and the direction of events. Not to dissimilar to your approaches.

As for the man pushing the body into an incinerator - that is a great image. :)

Anonymous said...

William - Thanks!

I like what you said about using short stories to develop characters. In the back of my mind, I have a notion to write more stories about Gus (the maintenance man from "Admission and Expulsion"). I could do a prequel when he was a young man just starting out at MU. I definitely had the most fun with his dialogue and would enjoy learning more about him through the writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

I like the advice, "In media res" but I don't always do that. I personaly like to get grounded in a story with a little description of place and character before the action begins.

Matthew Baugh said...

I'm not really sure. Sometimes the character does come before the situation, sometimes it's the other way around. Often the two seem to grow out of the same process and it's hard to say which came first.

I agree though. When I've tried to write something without having a good feel for the character first it's always been a disaster.

John Goodrich said...

As previously said, welcome back. Glad to be reading your blog again.

My stories tend to come from ideas. I have ideas, I let them bounce around in my head until two or three clump together and start to form a story.

Ideas can be anything--a good scene, a goos character, a piece of dialog, a moral, a theme, whatever. And I've had some strange ones.

Then I develop. Think about it, basically until I have a full story. Often, it gets changed as it gets written, and often at least one of the original ideas is dropped from the story. I usually have to know where the story is going before I can begin it.

Rick said...

Since I've never consciously used a system- or really ever thought of it before- I'm going to try what you're saying for awhile and hopefully it will work brilliantly.