Plots, Voices, and Short Stories, Oh My!
Originally posted on Xchyler publishing's blog as:
Featured Friday: Plots, Voices, and Short Stories, Oh My!
BY AUTHOR J. AUREL GUAY
The American Dream
Like 80% of Americans I’ve dreamed of publishing a novel, and like most of that 80%, I don’t have a background in literature or English. But, if we are honest with ourselves, degrees (or lack of them) aren’t really what stop most of us. Why is it that so many of us wannabe authors never get our ‘novel’ ideas published?
To quote Bill Murray, “Baby Steps... Baby Steps... Baby Steps...”
I’m not a professional writer. However, I’ve spent the last several years on writing forums and in writing groups reading every level of writing, from novice preteen rants, to sure-to-be-published works of art (though more of the former).
There are three major issues I’ve learned from my time in the aspiring author trenches that I believe keep many would-be authors from completing their goals. They can be summed up in the following: 1) you need a solid plot, 2) you need a relatable narrative voice, and 3) you need to practice 1 and 2 a lot.
It seems like a no brainer, but these basic writing musts are more difficult than you might expect. That is why I think that writing short stories is invaluable practice for any aspiring author. Short stories hone your skills in a way that novel writing can’t. But, before getting into that, let’s talk just a little about plot and voice.
So, what's the story?
We all know what a plot is. It consists of an introduction, a conflict, a climax, and a resolution. You would be surprised how many people leave out one or more of those critical components from their story. I’m serious. Go check your writing project right now to make sure you’ve got them all, and in the right order. If you can’t readily identify them, then you have a problem.
Notice that I didn’t say you need an ‘original’ plot. There is no such thing. If you don’t believe me, google ‘The 7 Basic Plots’. Most of us have a top secret plot, or idea, that we are sure is going to jettison us to the big leagues (I don’t listen to my own advice much and still have several). But, let me tell you, plots are a dime a dozen, and they are not enough on their own.
Don’t be afraid to let go of your secret plot ideas, condense them into short stories and share them with friends or, even better, a writing group. The practice will be well worth it, and if you share it online and therefore can’t publish it, don’t worry. I promise you will come up with another great idea (probably an even better one).
The plot keeps readers coming back to the book and begging for the next installment (what makes us all want to write a series anyway?). A strong and slowly developed plot tantalizes the reader and keeps their mind dwelling on the story, even while they are not reading. It is the key to great writing, but not the only key. While a good plot keeps the reader coming back to your book, it is the author’s voice that keeps the them on the page.
What do I mean by ‘voice’? It is the style you write in. More than ‘third person limited’, it is how you string your words together in a way that engages the reader and keeps their mind active and moving from sentence to sentence. Read a few paragraphs of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events for an example of a narrative voice that leaps off the page.
Without a well-developed voice, your reader will get bored quickly and you may not even have the chance to pull them into your amazing plot. The problem is, developing a voice is one of the hardest challenges in writing, at least in my experience. The key is to write, and write, and write some more. Experience is the best teacher out there.
But, while you slave away at the ink and quill, take time to think about a few things that should influence your narrative voice. The most important factor, especially in short stories, is the point-of-view (POV) character. Whether first-person or third, most readers need a character’s perspective to anchor them in the story, to give them something to which they can relate.
I find that writing from deep inside my POV character’s head, even in third person, helps me avoid many other issues including info-dumps, static pacing, and blatant plot exposition. So, even when indulging in a little ‘info-dump’ on your sci-fi technology, be sure to filter it through the limits of what your POV character knows and cares about. If done well you can have your readers getting to know and empathizing with your main character through your prose instead of just their words and actions.
Related to this is keeping your voice within the story’s setting. If you are describing something in terms of its size, don’t automatically go with feet and inches. Think about the world in which your POV character exists and frame it accordingly. Perhaps meters, cubits, or hands are a better fit for your tale. If you don’t quite know what metric to use, you can always make a creative comparison; ‘nearly a head taller than his peers’.
Likewise, be careful of modern colloquialisms, and phrases that are not consistent with the world you are building and with the character that lives in that world. They sneak in when you least expect it, and since they are so much a part of the way you think, they can be hard to spot. A good writing voice helps develops your world without you having to say anything about it.
Now, on to my real point: short stories are underrated. If you want to perfect the two necessities described above, short stories are THE tool. I’m sure you could pontificate for pages upon pages with flowery prose, but if you don’t have an engaging narrative voice to draw your reader into the character and the world, your book will be forgotten the first time it hits the nightstand.
Similarly, anyone can make a point in 80,000 words, but without skill in careful plot development, no one will read past the third chapter. Short stories are the baby steps to perfecting your novel writing skills.
Short stories are great for a lot of reasons. Most importantly they are, well, short. The upside of short is that you get a marvelous sense of completion when you put that last line into the resolution of your story, and an even greater endorphin rush when your friends and family tell you they actually read the entire work!
This is good for more than just your ego. The excitement you get from completing a story and getting feedback drives you to write MORE. It pushes you right back to that most excellent teacher named Experience, and starts the upward cycle that will make you a better writer.
More importantly, short stories force you to perfect the skills of plot exposition, and writing voice. One reason I believe many would-be authors never finish their novels is because their plot becomes overly complex and leads them down so many rabbit trails that they get lost in a sea of subplots.
Fitting all the requirements of a plot into 1,000 or even 10,000 words is tough! It forces you to think seriously about what is important to your story, and what is a distraction. This is critical in writing a large novel because there are exponentially more opportunities to distract yourself and your reader from where the story is going.
A limited word count also allows you to see the whole picture of your story more easily, and this helps to find the appropriate voice for the tale. Who is the POV character, and how does he/she see things? Is he quirky? Then your prose should be quirky. Is he calculating and stoic? Then your prose should be detail-oriented with unemotional. Do you ‘head-hop’ (i.e. switch POV character)? Is it appropriate to do so? (it’s probably not.) Is your voice consistent with your setting?
A short story, of necessity, has a smaller cast and a more limited setting than a novel. This affords fewer distractions in refining the voice for the story, and a smaller scope in which to ensure consistency.
Remember, it is the narrative voice that keeps the reader in the moment, glued to the page, empathizing with your characters. Meanwhile, an engaging and carefully developed story-line keeps the reader’s mind in your book, even after they’ve set it down. Voice and plot work together to keep your audience reading. These two aspects are much more difficult in short stories, but they are more easily identified and fixed when wrong. That is why short stories are such invaluable practice to us as aspiring novelists.
Don’t forsake the short story. Take your precious secret project and see if you can write it in 10,000 words or less. If you are really stuck in your writing, up the ante and write it in 5,000 words. Then go share it with another writer, or two, or an Internet full. You may learn something about your project that you didn’t realize, and I guarantee you will improve your writing.
Who knows? You may write a short story that gets accepted by an indie publisher and included in their quarterly anthology.
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