* This is an Amy's Lane article, also found cross posted in the RRW Forums.
Make it Short
For most romance writers, writing anything short is not a good idea, and we know it.
Usually when people ask me “How long should I make this story?” I answer, very Yoda-like, “As long as it takes.” I’m sure people want to smack me with an old shoe when I do that, but seriously—you develop the things you need to develop and skim the rest and trust your betas with your life. I tend to develop everything, and I enjoy that. Knowing the backstory of the people I encounter means a lot to me—I like my worlds as complete as possible.
But that doesn’t mean that the short story or novella isn’t an art form all it’s own. In fact, back in the time of the fiction magazine, writing short fiction was how writers broke into the publishing industry, and it was an acknowledged art form back then. Writers like Ray Bradbury, William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Heinlein would sharpen their talents on bite-sized masterpieces that have since been used to torture schoolchildren for decades, and most of us spent our high school years being fed a steady diet of literary petit fours in order to learn the basics of what constitutes literature as a whole.
The age of the magazine passed and this sort of writing went out of style, but I think that with the advent of the e-book, when length and publishing size didn’t matter as much, it began to resurface. Novellas sell well—not as well as novels, but very often, when someone wants a quick bite from the literary tree, they’ll go with a sub-50K story to satisfy their appetite. Sort of like a Snickers Bar or afternoon apple, a novella can take the edge off our craving for fiction without sucking time we don’t have, and that’s a very marketable idea.
Which means that sometimes for us it’s necessary to write short. Whether it’s for a specific submission requirement—an anthology or an advent calendar or such—or a pending deadline with only enough time to write a novella, writing short is often part of a professional writer’s career. Fortunately, there are a couple of things we can do to make it easier and create a complete work in smaller number of words.
Let me share with you my limited bag of tricks. Think of it as a short-fiction writer’s universe in a nutshell.
· Thing the first: I stick to Freytag’s pyramid like fat cells stick to my ass. Freytag’s pyramid is the basic blueprint for what I call the “heartbeat” of literature. It’s the basic structure that we expect to hold up a story, any story, from an animated short to a two-hour stage play to a 500 page literary masterpiece. It establishes a foundation for the story, follows up with complications that lead to a rising action and a climax, then ends with a denouement or resolution. The complications may be a surprise, the climax may be unpredictable, the language may be fresh and the characters may be new and unusual, but the progression of their story is not something we can mess with in genre fiction—not if we want people to continue reading. (If you are reading this on my website, I have uploaded a graphic of Freytag’s pyramid as the photo for this installment.)
· I narrow my Freytag’s plot focus to a laser like intensity. Now if you’ve read my longer works (say, Forever Promised or Ethan in Gold or Under the Rushes) you know that I can develop enough side stories to make my Freytag’s pyramid look like a tree-root with the mange—but not when I’m writing short fiction. When I’m writing short fiction, I ruthlessly laser off all teasing plot hairs, all desires to take a detour, all “Ooh, if this guy knows this guy then maybe they can do the thing here” moments. I stick to the two heroes and how to get them together, unless…
· I’m using a frame. If I Must, Going Up, and Do Over are all examples of stories with a frame. In If I Must it was the device of having Joel recount his relationship with Ian through vignettes told to his sister at the holidays. In Going Up it was the frame of two guys who met on the elevator every day. In Do Over, it was having an inept guardian angel trying to keep Engall alive long enough to see he was meant to be with Chandler (or the other way around). A frame is a set of circumstances that handily does not let us deviate from the basic plot structure. Most frames, in their way are decorative, and the really good ones enhance the story going on in their view. The really good ones are organic, sort of like tree bark framing a picture of a tree—which means it’s hard to see where the lover’s plot begins and the frame ends. And speaking of frame, there’s always the ultimate frame of the…
· Fairy Tale. If you think about it, fairy tales were our first exposure to short stories. No matter what outlandish, horrific, entertaining things happened within the frame of the story, the story usually started with “Once upon a time…” and ended with “…and they lived happily ever after.” Just the suggestion of a fairy tale gives the reader an expectation of a story made simple, with most of the trappings of a full-length novel trimmed down. By giving a hint of “once upon a time” readers will forgive the paring down of secondary characters and the simplification of setting because they understand that it is the vanquishing of demons and the happy ever after that counts. And speaking of characters in a fairy tale…
· Limiting the number of fully fleshed out people in your frame. If you look at the work of some of the greatest artists, from Brueghel to Monet, you will notice that when they portray a crowd or large group of people, you may get a focus on a few of the people in the group, but many of the rest are allowed to fade into the background with only a few defining characteristics. That is the trick to writing a short story and keeping it short. Your primary characters need to be focused upon, and on or two others may stand out from the crowd. Everybody else needs to be a thumbnail sketch—and most of that needs to be direct characterization. You have room to develop your primary characters by showing us who and what they are, but most of your other people need to be blobs of color on the canvas. However, that does not mean that the colors can’t be distinct and intriguing and make us want a closer look. I am continuously surprised that Chase, from Chase in Shadow actually started out as a thumbnail of a douchebag from Super Sock Man. I just needed to focus on that boy in another painting, that’s all. And speaking of paintings…
· Save the scenery for the long tour. That doesn’t mean skip setting entirely, that just means to remember that a setting can be covered by two words: Time and place. If you are describing your setting in too much detail, people will expect those details to matter somehow in a story of limited words. Remember why you’re describing your setting. There are a thousand things to describe in San Francisco (one of my favorite cities) but in Going Up, we mostly got the view from Zach’s penthouse apartment. Why? A. We needed to see that it was very cold and very sterile. B. We needed to see that it was also very beautiful. This created the conflict when Zach had to decide whether or not he was willing to risk his place in the world. Again, think of it like a painting—describe only the things you want to stand out, and allow the rest to be brush-stroked into the background, otherwise, you’ll lose readers in the action.
So far in our effort to write short, we’ve covered plot, character and setting—there’s only one thing left and it’s the most important.
· Theme. The thing with writing short is that the theme of your story needs to act like a shining beacon in every word. Every character description, every bit of dialogue, every mention of the setting, needs to show the colors from the gentle glow of the theme lantern, or too much of your book is going to be in the shadows for the reader to make out its shape. Again, going back to Going Up--Zach’s parents were beautiful and cold, his secretary was ordinary and warm. Zach himself was perfect and lonely, Sean was ordinary and happy. Everything from his apartment to Sean’s apartment was described to contrast those two ideas, to show us that ordinary and warm was far more important to Zach than beautiful and cold. Even the plot frame began by getting Zach out of his tower and on to the everyday elevator, and that’s when his life began to change. If keeping a short story short is a challenge, then sticking to the theme is your cleaving sword of verbiage—it’s the thing that cuts the extraneous stuff away and leaves you with the picture you want the world to see.
So there you go—my limited bag of tricks for writing short, in a nutshell.
Now, I do have to warn you of something—something prosaic that nobody likes talking about when they’re talking about writing but that we all think about:
We all look at GoodReads, we all try to ignore amazon.com—but that doesn’t stop the frustration with novella ratings from trying to claw its way inside our assumed cloak of indifference. The fact is, English majors were really the only people paying attention during sophomore language arts class when the teachers were trying to drill Freytag’s pyramid into our pointy little heads. Most of our readers aren’t reading from a driving will to appreciate literary merit, they’re reading to be entertained, and even the most perfect, most preciously turned out short story is going to get shortchanged by the review systems that are used now. There will be comments like, “rushed the ending” or “felt underdeveloped to me” or “the characters needed more fleshing out” or even “needed more/less sex in such a short work”. It’s inevitable.
But that doesn’t mean we did a bad job. We wrote a short story. We fit the essentials of exposition, conflicts, rising action, climax, denouement, character development, setting, and theme into an externally limited frame and made the picture pretty to boot. If the story was entertaining and the characters felt real and, most importantly, if the theme rang true, we have done our homage to Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ernest Hemmingway.
We’ve encapsulated the universe in a grain of sand, and lived to write again.