Now that I've got my explanation of where I've been out of the way ... as promised, let's get back to notes! By special request, here's my first set, straight from the most recent Surrey International Writers Conference. We'll start with a bang: the wonderful Mary Robinette Kowal's very useful Master Class on writing short stories.
* * *
Master Class: Short Stories Explained
Mary Robinette Kowal
How Puppetry Affects her Creative Process
- When learning, there are four principle ideas to make the character look alive.
- With writing, there are certain consistent principles for creating believable characters, too, regardless of novel or short story.
- Puppetry: break things apart into small steps. The goal is that the technique is internalized so you just think about the art.
- Applies to other arts, too. Drawing, violin, etc.
- As writers, there’s a tendency to say “I’m going to write a novel” and try all the things at once. Pacing, description, character development, should be learned separately.
Principles of Puppetry That Work
- Indicates thought. What the character is looking at/thinking about. True also for what you’re writing. The thing you’re writing about, whatever you’re putting down is what they’re focusing on, paying attention to, regardless of POV.
- Don’t think about the little things that don’t matter. If the aliens are attacking you are not thinking about how the car you’re riding in reminds you of your parents, not
Controlling your character means controlling the focus of your audience.
- Order in which you present the info to them. The theatre spotlight shows you what to focus on. In writing, the order of information you present to your readers is imp because you are presenting your work to your readers one word at a time and they have to build an image in their heads.
“The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting in the chair.”
“The man walked into the room. In the chair was a blonde.”
The first thing is the first they think of, the last is what they last focus on. Anything else in between doesn’t matter as much, just the first and last thing. They’re subtle differences, but very much changes your perception of the things. Order of info is incredibly important, and part of focus.
2. Breath and Rhythm.
Breath: You don’t notice it unless it carries information. The only time you notice someone breathing unless it carries information. Sneeze, sharp intakes, sighs, exhalation, laugh. Speed of motion reps how much we should engage with it. But don’t over use it.
Rhythm: the speed with which the motions happen
Relates to how long, how much time you spend on something. “Action scenes should have short, choppy sentences” – because that mimics what happens when you’re breathing faster. Also, sentence structure and punctuation show this.
Focus tells you what character is thinking about, breath tells you how your character feels about it. This is how you can get a lot of info without a lot of chatter/explainy stuff.
3. Muscle/Internal motivation.
With writing, you need it to look like your characters are making the decisions rather than it looking like the author is moving the character along the page. It’s not just about the plot itself, but to put the words on the page to explain it.
- Free indirect speech: Take a thought and write it in third person.
- The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting in the chair. “He lifted her out of the chair because it was broken.” vs. “he hadn’t seen her since California. My god she looked beautiful.”
- Word choice: Lifted vs. Jerked. Free indirect speech shows internal motivation.
- Can use it when things are ambiguous.
- When used for emphasis: to make an action stronger. “Hell no she wasn’t going down like this.”
4. Meaningful movement.
Head bobbing. NOT when a puppet bobs its head with every word.
Body language reads very clearly. Meaningful movement to remove ambiguity or emphasize something. Pick one movement per phrase.
- “What did you say?” Aggressive movement, passive movement, and regressive movement.
- Aggressive: things you want to engage with further. Curiosity, happiness, delight, possessiveness, etc.
- Regressive: things you don’t want to engage with. Revulsion, anger, disgust. Different sense depending on how the character moves.
With writing: the body language you give your character can not only make your character come to life. “What did you say?” followed by: putting hands on hips, removing paddle from drawer, or leaning away from speakers blaring too-loud punk rock, etc. There’s lots of double-duty doing this. Don’t do it all the time, but include when you want to disambiguate who’s speaking, emphasize a tone, etc.
What are the Story Parameters?
Parameter: Size of the theatre.
So you know how much scenery you can have on stage, and how big your audience will be and how much they can see. For writers: How long will your story be? How many scenes you can have, how many characters, etc.
Every character or scene implication you add to a story adds 500 to 1000 words even before you get to story.
- 5K limit: 3 characters, 2 scene implications (scenic locations).
- Scenic locations: when you have to move the “camera” into another room.
- Time of day can also count as a scene implication. Can change the characters’ reaction to the same setting.
- Plot structure can double or triple those numbers.
- If your character has a name, they’re typically a main character. Otherwise, they’re spear-holders. Very proportional.
- When writing short fiction: the moment the character speaks, they’re a character.
- Named pets count, even with nonverbal communication.
- Don’t allow characters to speak unless they’re a key element. So proportional and so dependent on what story you’re trying to tell.
- THESE ARE NOT HARD AND FAST RULES. JUST GOOD RULES OF THUMB.
- Typically, the initial story choice when writing shorts is that it’s too big.
Parameter: Length of the show.
How many scenes you have. With a very long show, people welcome the intermissions. But to stop in a 45 minute show halfway through for a 20 minute intermission – you could lose the audience.
- When writing something that’s only 4000 words long, and it’s split 3.5k/0.5 K, there will be a sense of let down because there won’t be time to build up the scene again.
- Why did I have that dip there? Check your scene breaks.
- Difference between novels and short stories: you have to keep things in proportion. With a novel, you can spend 3k setting up the story before you get into it. In a short story (1k-7.5k), your setup length is much shorter. Bear in mind the percentages. Don’t think in terms of absolutes, but in terms of percentages.
- Every scene break is a reset. Every scene break is the brief moment where the audience gets to reset. In a novel, there’s not much impact. In a short story, too many don’t work as well. Be mindful of proportion because scene breaks throw the reader out of the story.
- Short scenes don’t get into the character as much.
Parameter: Style of Puppetry (Voice).
- 2 choices to make: technical style and aesthetic style. With writing, that means technical (POV), and aesthetic (voice: like Austen or Southern character, or educated middle class white person, etc).
- Erase “invisible prose” or “transparent prose”, the idea that you can be neutral, and don’t think about the words and do think about the story. There is no neutral/invisible prose. There is prose that fits into the Western mainstream narrative. But that’s not the only way to write.
Senses and Character
- You have ingrained aspects of yourself that you bring to your character’s POV. So try to make sure that whatever your character’s POV is matches who they are, to inform your reader without taking up a lot of space in the short story.
- We are all experiencing the room at the same time of day in distinct reactions based on our life experiences.
- When we talk about POV, it’s not just about where our character is standing now, it’s where they were standing in the past.
Exercise: In 3 sentences, describe the room from a specific POV. Pick a person with a certain job, and we should be able to tell their job based on what they notice. Depending on what they notice, the point of view and focus, you can convey what their job is.
Now, with same character, use three emotion. Resetting to zero with each emotion. Can include their physical reaction, but just use their reaction. How long they linger on something, the words they choose to describe it. Anger, delight, fear.
Within 3 sentences, the reader should know where they are, who the character is, how they feel. Shortly after that comes the plot.
Plot and Structure
The MICE quotient: how you decide where your story stops and where it ends.
- Millieu: the place where things happen
- Idea: the questions you have during the story
- Character: who’s in the story
- Event: the things that happen
The thing that drives the story is going to be one of those elements. One of these is the most important.
Where stories start and where they end:
- Milleu – driven by the pace – these stories start when you enter a location and end when you leave it. About the place. Gulliver’s Travels, Wizard of oz, etc.
- Idea – the question your main character has. Starts when question is raised, ends when it’s answered. Mysteries, e.g. Sherlock Holmes.
- Character: Begins when your main character is dissatisfied with their role, ends when they are satisfied/reconciled. Reconciliation in different forms. Transformation into something better, better understanding of their current role, e.g. Coming of age stories. Romance stories: character story – dissatisfied with being single, ends with “now I’m not!” (though that’s a gross oversimplification). Character stories are very much about an internal conflict. The character wants for themselves to be something they’re not.
- Event: about an external conflict. Begins when the status quo is disrupted, and ends with restoration of status quo (or new status quo). Begins with disruption, ends with restoration.
- Usually these things are mixed. It’s rare to see a story that is just one thing.
- This concept can shape the story you’re telling. Know your POV character and how they’re affected.
How to use these elements when dealing with more than one:
- You deal with these like they’re nested code.
- You start with one type, then add a different type, then must close the different type. Must close each type in the reverse order you open them.
- Wizard of Oz: Starts Character, then event, then Milleu, then Idea. Idea is solved, then milieu is solved, then event is solved, then character is solved.
- When you end these out of sequence, the big question that is pulling the reader thorough the story, if it is answered too soon there’s not enough time to build tension for the next release point. Usually, the ending tags are out of order.
- Narrative tension can be lost if it’s not done out of order. Can cause a sense of letdown.
- Epliogues, depending on the novel: a classically-structured epilogue is a very tiny short story tacked onto the end that has is a brief repeat of the initial theme (e.g. code).
- In short fiction, you’ll have two, maybe three types of story. Because of length. When you add another type/element, it has the potential to double or triple the length of your story.
- Could have a tiny arc closed out before you start the next element.
- You can also have a story that is predominantly a character story with a light event frame.
Because Math Makes Everything More Fun: The Equation To Remember
Length of story = the sum (characters + scenic locations) × 750 (the average) × number of MICE elements
- The bulk of your story happens in the middle.
- The reason it’s important to know what the elements are is because each of them comes with a different sort of conflict.
- Sometimes you think you’ve identified the story type, then all the conflicts are character-based conflicts, so you’ve chosen the wrong frame.
- The beginning is the question gets asked. The middle is the character trying to answer that question and being constantly stymied. The end is when it gets solved.
- The middle is all of the setbacks along the way, and touches on all of the MICE elements you’ve included.
- If a conflict will serve multiple functions, it will shorten the length of the story.
- Often two try/fail cycles, then success on the third, but that’s a common trope. Three try/fails shows the character has earned stuff.
- Conflicts: A series of questions. What does your character want, and how do they go about getting that, and do they get it.
- Answer: Yes, but; No, and; Yes/No.
- Where people are running into problems in their stories is they’ll introduce information related to a different part of their story, or changes the type.
- Middle conflicts may have been related to something else.
- Look at it and decide what’s the smartest way to achieve their goal, and systematically deny them. Look for conflicts related to the story questions you introduced in the beginning.
- Milleu: systematically keep them from leaving the place.
- Idea: about answering the question – keep them from answering the question.
- Character: dissatisfied with their role. Stop them from achieving a new role.
- Event: character is trying to restore the status quo. Keep them from restoring the status quo.
- You must deal with your chosen elements all the way through.
- If your character is not dissatisfied, they don’t need any growth, and the story can be something else.
- Short stories typically need more than one element. Otherwise it’s a very short story.
- All of these elements are going to be present, but it’s about how many are major drivers.
In an ideal world, every scene should advance the plot, establish the setting, develop the character, and most importantly, entertain the reader. And if you fail at entertaining the reader, the other three don’t matter. If you were bored while writing it, chances are it’ll be bored for your readers.
Exercises and Further Discussion
Exercise: Write a synopsis. Think of the middle first. Then figure out what frame you need to support the MICE quotient element you’re interested in. Just one element.
Exercise: Little Red Riding hood has been told many different times and ways. A scifi/horror is very different from a kindergarten puppet show. Are you interested in the defeat of the wolf, or who the wolf is? The rescue of grandma, or the seduction of Red?
Me: Microbiologist Rebecca “Red” Jones’ has devoted the last five years to The Grandma Project, in an attempt to discover the chief DNA sequence for predisposition to knitting sweaters and baking cookies. When she encounters a particular sequence, she thinks it’s a breakthrough, except not everything is what it seems. Turns out they cause other problems – they affect the eyes, the teeth, and elements that don’t fit her needs. But after a late night in the darkened Huntsman’s café, she makes her breakthrough: the code involves the same genes that affect touch and scent.
Exercise: Now come up with an original idea. Again, the thing that trips people up is that they have too many characters, too many locations, too many MICE quotient elements. For the purposes: two characters, only characters, and one scenic location.
Think about: Who they are, where they are, and things that can go horribly wrong.
Conflicts involving internal angst: for example, two ex-lovers, trapped in a room, have to decide whether or not to cooperate. Think about the things that interest you, and what you’re excited about, to write your idea.
Me: Some people count the exits when they get to a new place. Seismologist Nancy counts the safe spots. She knows the Big One’s coming; it’s just a matter of time. When stuck at her crotchety, aging father’s used bookstore as the earthquake finally hits, she must convince him to find a safe place to duck, cover, and hold, then abandon the building that is so not up to code before it falls on them, or else risk losing the only family she has. Only by telling him about the earthquake insurance she secretly paid for a decade ago is she able to save him—and herself.
MICE can be used as a diagnostic tool once a story is written.
Flashbacks: this framework is about how you tell it, not about the sequence in which the events happen. Sometimes a novel will start with 24hour previously/later, then jump back. Structurally, they’re moving the MICE question to a different spot. Incorporating them at different points to affect the order of info in which the reader is getting things, and the context to understand the reaction.
Character: not just about where they’ve been, but the role they define themselves as.
- When you get to the end, with a short story,
- Short stories and novels: audience is expecting different things.
- \think about it like the Olympics. A clip of a gymnastic trick should start right when the gymnast’s routine begins, do their stuff, stick the landing, and they’re done. When watching the coverage, you want to see them warming up, the emotional backstory, do the trick, finish the trick, go talk to their coach, get their maeks, watch the interview with them after. Short stories are the clip; the novel is watching the entire thing.
- Denoument: not such a big deal with short fiction. In a short, it’s usually only a couple of sentences. Stick your landing, and get out. Close your last tag. One things you can do to heighten the emotional oomph: two basic tricks – try to resolve all of the conflicts right at the same time.
- The Hollywood ending: when you get to the end, your main character needs to defeat the villain, overcome the problem, and reconcile with their sidekick/romantic interest. Sometimes the villain and the sidekick are the same person.
- Father is both villain (stopping her from escaping the bookstore), and person she loves and needs to save. She gets things happening in all the same moment. Usually in novels, it’s defeat the villain, solve the problem, and reconcile spaced a tiny bit apart.
- The closer you can get the closing tags (the big driver tags) at the same time, the bigger emotional punch you have.
- The other trick: resonance. Simply: ppl like patterns. We are pattern-seeking creatures. It’s the way our brain is wired. Children watching/reading stuff over and over: thrill of recognition.
- You can repeat something that happens at the beginning. It can be an inversion or a repetition depending on where your character is going. If you have a beautiful resonant ending at the end of your story, don’t change it; go back and change your beginning.
Remember character motivation: pick a thing that matters to your character that doesn’t need to be directly related to the plot. Something they desperately want (to do) that the event status quo disrupts their ability to do/have.
- SFF: when you are trying to decide on a market, always read the guidelines.
- Three factors to consider: 1) Money, 2) Size of Audience, 3) Shiny/Cool. Depending on where you are in your career, the importance of each will change based on what matters to you most. How much does the market pay, how many do you reach, and how much do you want to be in that market. All three of these elements *need* to be there.
- You should be paid.
- Start at the top and work your way down. Don’t NOT send something because you don’t think you’re good enough for it. Do not self-reject.
- When it hits a point that it’s a market that won’t pay you, doesn’t have an audience, and you’re not interested in, put it away instead.
- No matter how much the market pays or how big the audience is, if it’s not a market you don’t want to appear in, don’t submit to the market.