You’re sitting in traffic, that song you loved from the early eighties that you never hear on the radio just came on. You look over at the cars around you to make sure no one is watching you sing and realize that every single person in sight is singing the same song. You just had yourself an idea for a science fiction story.
If you’re like me you then proceed to nearly kill yourself trying to write a paragraph, or bit of dialog on a slightly used taco bell napkin crammed between shift column and center console with a half dry sharpy that you never can quite bring yourself to toss out, while a backpack full of notepads and pens bounces around in the trunk. I have drawers full of half legible scrawls from moments of remote inspiration, that’s how I work. We’re going to talk in terms of broad brush strokes here as opposed to delving the minutia of narrative building so if I seem to gloss over important steps I promise I will get back to them one day (you can tell me what you specifically want to hear anytime.)
So you have your idea and now its time to start turning it into a story. If you have been reading this blog for any amount of time you will have noted my insistence on reading. Having read profusely you might have made mental notes on what story structures and narrative approaches have worked for you and what haven’t. It is time to take a structure that you either have developed or admire and run with it. For most people the older, tried and true story structure of the 19th century will serve, but you might want to go all post beat stream of consciousness. It isn’t just a choice between Bradbury or Dick. You are the creator; whatever approach you take is the right one. Sure, you may never publish, but it’s your baby.
So in preparing to write this I glanced over a few websites on writing short stories and I can tell you that most of them tried to offer formulas to “write a great short story.” I can say that, without a doubt, there is no formula for a good short story. There are structural tools that can give direction, but good writing is something you have to work at. This isn’t ad libs.
Basic structural elements to remember:
Plot is the dramatic/comedic drive of your story. The plot is your idea now interacting with the other elements of your story. Two aspects that I like to take special time with are conflict and character. Conflict is the question of your story; it’s Hamlet’s “to be or not to be.” It can be as high minded as, “what do we do with this new nonhuman intelligence that we have wrought,” or as simple as, “I need to find a way to not end up in that things stomach.” After you know your question it’s time to make the being asking that question. Don’t ever think that a conflict is interesting enough to carry weak characters, or vice versa. These two are inextricably linked in the development of your plot.
Don’t write in a vacuum. The world around you is full of details, borrow them. You must create reasonably thorough settings for your story. I often have to remind myself to slow down, enjoy the writing. You will write 99.9 percent of your words for nobody but yourself. If you can’t find some joy in taking your time and building your world then you might be in the wrong business. Don’t get hung up on word counts and page numbers (they’ll bite your butt later), just get your idea across in the best way you can.
Find a voice. Is it your voice? Is it the voice of the main character? Is it a god, omniscient and omnipresent, or just one or the other? Narration, tense, and point of view are all aspects of your voice. I find it best to pick a voice and stick with it. Switching back and forth in a short story tends to lead to trouble, though if you feel the wind at your back by all means sail on little sailer. There are stories that I have loved that I am not sure have any consistent or stable use of the aforementioned basic elements. At the end of the day you need to simply ask these questions:
1: Was my idea conveyed?
2: Did I create a work that could move someone (to cowering in fear or to hopeful inspiration, whatever)?
3: Will anyone be entertained?
It doesn’t matter what your answers are; you are the boss. But if you want this fiction to reach a wider audience then you’d best have some more populist responses.
Economy (stupid) is g0ing to be easy for some, impossible for others. You don’t need to write every detail, but you do need to write relevant detail. I know what a Mercury Topaz is and unless your story is the tale of the topaz, I don’t need six paragraphs illustrating the minutia of a topaz. Over inclusion of detail often is just a cover for a poorly conceived story. The other side of this is overly generic writing, but that is for a later time. Remember, to keep below the magic 10k word count limit you need to make your descriptions count.
A last bit of advice. Write badly! You have that luxury. Get your idea down as fast and poorly as possible, then fix it in the rinse. Rewriting will save you. If you have a rough draft and do extensive rewrites you know exactly how your story is going to end and that has advantages. Get your story down, then the real work begins.
That is the Science of Fiction
Next time: Part-3 continues with even more story time.