10 June 2009


We had an intriguing discussion about short stories at our critique group last time we met, and I've been meaning to post about it ever since. We were discussing how we go about writing our stories. Some of us discover through drafting. Some of us write detailed plots. I live somewhere close to plotting, but I let drafting guide my hand once a plot's on paper. I tend to chart my stories on a line with crosshatches to indicate turning points and crisis points. I've taken far too many scenic routes and wrong turns to trust myself entirely to meandering in drafting. Some of my plots are more detailed than others. But one thing I do, which I tend to do with all my stories be they novels or short stories, is to write a tagline.

The tagline is the sales line, a pitch if you will, used for films and also to sell novels. Short stories don't require taglines because frankly, most short story editors don't care about anything other than how long the dang thing is when we first open the file.

I don't think it matters when you write the tagline, either. You don't have to start with a tagline if all you've got is a character with a problem and that's how you operate. But what taglines do, whenever you write them, is give you focus. Then, whether you have the tagline at the start or write it after your first draft, you can make sure every scene supports the main idea. Yup. It's that five paragraph essay, come back to haunt you.

For instance, on my personal blog I plotted a short story, real time, online. It took me some days to complete the plot, and I ended up with something a little more detailed than usual because of all the thought writing the posts inspired. (The posts are here if you want to read them). But early on, I wrotee a tagline. That way I'd know immediately if I started to stray off path while plotting. It read like this: Kaelin is ordered to murder the woman he loves in order to save her from a fate worse than death.

Not even the most original of problems. You'll find many story problems, at their heart, aren't original at all. But basic works. Basic raises all sorts of questions. That's rather the point, actually. Why, who, where, what, when, how? Why should we care about Kaelin? Unoriginal problem, so what makes him so different? Why is this story about HIM and not some other flunky? What is this "fate worse than death"? Where is this crazy thing happening? When does it happen? Is it particularly timed for ultimate cruelty to Kaelin, my protag? If not, how can I make it more so? What stands in his way? How is he going to survive it, true love intact? Will he survive it? If not, why and what does it mean to my point in writing the story.

And so on. Questions upon questions circle around the plot and my character in an ever tightening noose. I know when I'm through I'll have something that's focused and tight.

Incidentally, the story is about half written. I got waylaid by another project and editing for this issue, but I anticipate putting it on the market by August.


David E. Hughes said...

Sometimes I wish I had a more coherent way of doing this, like you do Betsy. Intead, how my story works depends on how the inspiration comes. Most of mine arise out of a concept or idea, and I have to build the characters and problems around it. Others start with characters in search of a problem. The best is when the story comes to be whole, in one big lump. Those tend to be my best stories, but that does not happen very often.

writtenwyrdd said...

Perhaps this would be a useful tool for shorter pieces versus the longer ones? I'm not good at writing a linear plot line for longer fiction because I have lots of subplots in my head, wanting to escape, and so many things can depend on one event, it's a tangle to draw out. But the practical exercise of writing shorter fiction is that, yes, I am discovering a lot about streamlining plot and focusing on what's important. Left to my own devices, my imagination goes wild and I have 400k novels.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

It's taken me a long time to get here, Dave, as you know, and I don't know if it's all that coherent but it seems to work okay for me.

Wyrd, I think definitely short stories aid authors in figuring out focus. In fact, it might be the most valuable thing it offers.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Hi -I run a little blog project on Fridays where writers and readers talk about books they think are forgotten or neglected. More than 150 writers, reviewers and readers have recommended a book. I wonder if you'd be willing to do one for July 17th. Your review doesn't have to be long or complex and you can see it at http://pattinase.blogspot.com
The entire year’s worth is at http://patti-fridaysforgottenbooks.blogspot.com
Any book you choose is fine--even if it's already been reviewed.
If it's not your thing or you’re too busy just now, I understand. Best, Patti Abbott