[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]
“If it was boring to write it, how can you expect it to be exciting to read?”
– C. C., esq.
That’s my friend and sometimes editor, C.C., talking. He was razzing me ever so slightly about an article I wrote. But he was doing it to make a point. Granted the article was on a technical subject, but the problem was, I just kept it there. I didn’t bring in the people and the story behind the technology that would have made it interesting, that would have made it gripping. And you know what? C.C. was right, it was boring to write and probably boring for readers too.
That incident happened with my writing-for-a-living job a few months ago, but it’s just as applicable to my fiction writing. Even more so. And here’s a recent example I’d like to share.
I was writing my latest story, a story called TMWSE. It’s a horror short story. The first chapter was great, gripping. Full of grip, one might say. So, I started writing the second chapter. It started well, but about half way through, I noticed the characters had spent a good deal of the chapter talking about mechanical issues and getting bogged down in a rather fruitless philosophical discussion. Now, there’s nothing wrong with philosophy, but if you’re going to put it in your SHORT story, it better serve the plot, hit its basic points and move on. Mine didn’t do that. Here’s a sample of the dialogue:
“…At that time, man was obsessed with demons. They were thought responsible for all sorts of maladies. In this more…rational age we tend to blame demons less and mechanistic causes more.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“What if I told you that all this is an illusion?” Caldicott raised his hands to indicate the room, the skies and all the firmament beyond and above them. “All. That neither the world’s religions, nor modern science truly understands the Ground, the world as it really is. What would you say to that?”
“But you do?” Don leaned forward.
“No, no I wouldn’t claim to that. I know how little I—or any man—will ever know. And how blissfully ignorant the mass of men are. But I—thanks to an accident of heredity and lineage—know more than most.”
There’s nothing wrong with what’s above, it’s just sort of long-winded and doesn’t point to anything, doesn’t drive the characters and plot anywhere. At least, that’s what I felt when I reread it later that day.
So what did I do? I hemmed and hawed and thought about what to do. I realized I had not plotted out the short story before I sat down to write it. The more I write short stories, the more I’m convinced this is a horrible mistake. Why? It’s essentially because of the economy of this medium. It’s best to plot out each chapter, even if it’s only one sentence on an index card per chapter. (I find that’s all I need). This way, you know where you’re headed and where the action should go, generally speaking. (Novel writing is completely different and I’ll get to that later).
As a result, I stopped writing, pressed the pause button. I essentially stole a device from playwriting, coming up with a five-chapter plot in long hand on a piece of paper with:
- 1 chapter for the set up. To introduce characters in conflict with one another (the plot) in a setting.
- 3 chapters of rising action, with the final climax in chapter 4.
- 1 chapter of denoument or wrapping up.
That was enough, just one line per chapter. I rebooted my word processor, deleted all of the old chapter 2, but retained chapter 1 because the setup was solid. Then, I started chapter 2 over from scratch, only retaining a chunk or two of old chapter 2 that still worked. The new chapter 2 had much more “grip” and it ended on a mini-cliffhanger, unlike the earlier Chapter 2. That little mini-cliffhanger not only can keep the reader interested, but it acts as a perfect break in the writing process itself. Using that as a guide, the writer can return to a piece a day, a week, even a month later and know exactly where the action left off and know where they need to go next.
So, in the end, ‘grip’ is not only about drawing the reader in and keeping them interested. It’s also about keeping the writer interested and, more importantly, driving the story where you want it go. And in a short story, that’s what you want to do. Grab the reader, pull them in and drive them and the story to a fulfilling conclusion. It’s very much like a sled ride or a roller coaster. You have to lock them in at the top, draw them up into the story and only let them go at the very end. (This is weak metaphor, but you get the idea).
In the following weeks, I plan to finish the story. Right now, I think it’s well in hand. I simply have to write Chapter 4 and 5: the final conflict chapter and the resolution chapter. But now, I’m excited to just write and see the end result. And I know if it’s exciting to write, there’s a good chance that it will be exciting to read too.
Wish me luck.
Until next time. Keep reading, keep writing,