1. Soup
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    Soup New Member

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    Dealing with word limits - hitting a wall

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Soup, Jun 24, 2009.

    I've read a lot of advice from more experienced writers than I that it's generally a good idea to let the characters tell your story. Unfortunately, that isn't working for me. I'm meticulous. I get overwhelmed if I haven't previously created notes on setting, characters, plots, and scenes.

    I'm currently working on an entry for a writing contest. It has a word limit of 1500 - 4000 words. I also have a deadline. I set a personal deadline for Wednesday, but the contest ends at the beginning of July. Because of these two conditions, I have to be as efficient as possible.

    Therefore, I can't see how I can afford to let my characters hijack scenes. The more things they introduce into the story, the more loose ends I have to tie up at the end of my word limit. Besides, I'm happy with the story I have outlined and confident that it would make a good entry.

    After I'd outlined setting, characters, and plot, I began writing. Trusting my instincts, I allowed the characters to behave and solve problems as I felt they truly would. Unfortunately, this took the scene in directions I hadn't planned on, and introduced new elements that would complicate later parts of the plot. It also took up valuable word space.

    Is this a problem of not planning enough? I thought I was thorough, but perhaps I should've outlined every individual beat and scene before writing?

    Or is it a problem of trying too hard to adhere to my script?

    How do I meet my word limit and use my time most efficiently while still telling the story I planned? I'm looking specifically for advice from others who do at least some planning beforehand.
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I think it would probably help you to step back from your writing for a second, forget about your characters and their "lives", and think about what the story is about, like really about. Then go back to your story, see where what you've written diverges from that, and rewrite/remove those bits.

    Planning your outline is a good way (well, theoretically at least to make sure you don't go off on tangents. If you feel that you are, stop yourself and realign yourself to where you wanted to be going. Ultimately, your characters are your creations. They're modelled on real people, but you don't have to treat them as ethically - if they get out of line, do whatever you need to do to get them back on track.
     
  3. Cheeno
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    Cheeno Contributing Member

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    Allowing your characters scope to develop their own direction must be seen in the context of short and long fiction. With short fiction, I believe there must be a stronger control of the reigns to enable the writer achieve the required objective within the given word limit. There's less opportunity to play around, as opposed to longer fiction where the time and landscape is available to explore and even tangentalise scenarios. In respect of your present work, I would suggest being as brutal as possible, as an exercise, and cutting it to the bare essentials. By putting this one down to experience, you will be developing your short-fiction writing skills, and you never know, you may be in a better position, next time, to make your mark in competition. Good luck with it.
     
  4. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Soup,

    Letting characters tell the story is a good thing (as opposed to strict expository telling).

    Writing a novel or novella is different in this respect than writing a short story, which you're attempting to do. While there is crossover skills and techniques, some things such as pacing, characterization, scope of conflict and plot development are different when comparing the longer forms of fiction as opposed to shorter forms.

    With a short story of 1500 to 4000 words in length, the number of characters has to be limited, especially those developed. Possibly 1 or 2, maybe three at most. The number of intertwining conflicts and/or goals of the character(s) is also limited.

    The way I read your initial post, it appears that your story is going off focus, indeed creating too many elements and plot threads to tie up in so short of a time span.

    Try to find some short works published in the genre of your story, or if the contest has examples of past winners, read and study those examples. See how the writer accomplished telling the story. Note where opportunities to add information and characters/goals could have happened (as in your current story) and how it was avoided. Watch for how the story was developed and paced, how the characters were involved in this, etc.

    There are plenty of quality online ezines/magazines that where you can find stories to assist you with this. There are also anthologies and short story collections at libraries. Your search and reading may also introduce you to additional markets to submit to in the future.

    Good luck.

    Terry
     
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  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Practice helps you develop an instinct as to how much story you can tell well in a particular word range. Then just go and write your story without looking at the word count until the initial draft is complete. Even then, look over your story and gecide how well balanced it is. Does the ending feel rushed? Did you shortchange the beginning?

    Now, before you start making chages, look at the word count. Depending on that, you know whether you need to expand on the rushed portions, tighten up the slower parts, or a combination of both.

    Now that the story is more balanced, look at the word count again. If you're coming up short, don't try to pad it. Instead, tighten it up, and then add some complications. You want to add meat, not starches.

    Aim high on your word counts. It's nearly always better to tighten up your story rather than load it with filler.
     
  6. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree with Cogito about experience helping one learn how many words it will take to tell a particular story one has planned.

    The expanding and reducing of a story's word count by tightening up or expanding by adding complications is not necessarily straight forward or easy. It may very well require a complete rewriting. Cutting 100 words from a 3000 word short story may be proportionately equivalent to cutting 3300 from a novel, but with the structure and expanse of a novel, often what must be known can be worked in through other methods in other scenes with say 300 words vs. 3300. Where as in the same proportion, 10 words probably won't cover for the 300 lost as easily.

    Although I am changing percentages from the example above, I say this because revising a story in such a manner to cut 25% or add 25% word count can take longer than writing the initial story. And really, the storyline originally considered may not fit the expanded or reduced version.

    Of course, it depends on how tight a writer's prose is to begin with. And I agree that up to a point, cutting is easier than adding on. And generally with short stories, the shorter the story is, the easier it is to find a market and sell.

    Terry
     
  7. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    It sounds to me like the technique you're using is to allow your characters to tell THEIR story, rather than yours. This is a great idea for long fiction, because it may lead you into interesting places that may sound fresher to your reader than the ones you've conjured up at the outset. But, for short fiction, it can be deadly (as you're apparently discovering).

    It's a testament to the distinction between novelling and short story writing, really, that each requires its own kind of attention. Someone else mentioned using the opportunity to learn the benefits of "cutting," which I think is an excellent suggestion.

    What I'd probably try, though, is to have a little chat with my characters who are persisting in taking MY story off course, and see what they have to say about that. Explain to them that they simply must compromise in some way, because you're running into a deadline you need to meet. Be forewarned that they may not cooperate, but it's up to you to see that they do.

    Good luck with it.
     
  8. Soup
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    Soup New Member

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    Thanks to everyone who gave me their advice. Reading your replies has reinforced my first instinct, which is to battle a problem with more preparation. I thought that since the story itself was small, I could get away with planning less. In fact, I've decided that detailed planning is critical since I can't afford to diverge in the slightest from the theme.

    I'm going to work on this throughout today. I'll let everyone know how I progress, in case anyone runs into the same problem in the future and want to see if this works.
     
  9. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    please forgive this off-topic bit, but i can't help asking, cog...

    when did your evil twin take over your avatar?

    and when will we get your lovely old self back?
     
  10. tbeverley
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    tbeverley Senior Member

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    I'd think it's a matter of how many ideas you can fit into the word limit. If there's too many ideas, it will be longer. In a shorter piece, there'd have to be less ideas, less writing. Perhaps if you're seeing it get too long, there are too many plot ideas forming, too many character traits. Probably, trimming the intention of the piece would work: taking out plot ideas, removing new characterization, keeping it tight by means of lesser content (fewer ideas).
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    you're back!!!

    better watch out what mirror you look into... that red-eyed monster might still be lurking, just waiting for another shot at you, sweetie... hugs, m
     
  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Ahh, but which one is the REAL me? Besides, you know what they say about judging a book by its cover.
     
  13. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    hmm-mmmm....................
     
  14. Akraa
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    I have to throw in my two mites about the concept of your characters deciding your story and discarding extensive notes. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding you, but what you're talking about isn't a good idea. Always create extensive notes, but be sure not to make them overlap. Your character notes should only be profiles, quirks, traits, past events of importance to who your characters are today; your plot notes should only concern the 'events' involved in the story itself.

    This gives you a framework of 'events', conflicts, that drive the storyline. The storyline itself is rendered, and the outcomes of it, by the way characters are changed and in turn change the storyline. You the writer, deity of their universe, determine fate, but you the characters determine what storyline, the resolution of your plots through the interaction of your characters. In this way, your framework of 'plots' keeps the story under control, but the characters control the storyline. It gives you a way to keep matters from getting out of hand.

    It may also help to write out your introduction and conclusion before developing the framework connecting them, then go back and rewrite them as needed later. You then have a firm beginning and end. You don't have to resolve everything, just enough to satisfy your readers instead of frustrating them. The leftover questions will bug them - though hopefully not too much - and leave them thinking about your story long after they've set it aside.

    Once your storyline has the pattern of its plots in place you can define how many words you want to budget to stitching each piece together. Don't be afraid to go 10% to 25% over your planned word count, as it's common to wind up losing that much as the editing process brings vigor and her cousin brevity to the show.

    In summary, if you simply define the events fate throws in the mix, and then let your characters explore that domain, you gain the benefits that good planning provides without becoming rigid. When you understand your characters, your storyline will naturally emerge from the pattern of your plots.
     

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