Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Putting the short in short fiction

Because of baby duty, time has been at a premium these past couple of days. Regardless, at the expense of other writing assignments, I opted to wrap up a short story that I started last night. Its deadline isn't for another two weeks but I wanted to catch the muse while I could (and whether it's finally accepted or not is another matter.)

The final word count for this story is around 1,600 words. I'm actually proud of it because I managed to hit a low figure on the first pass.

This is my fifth written short story for the year (just to be clear: written, not published). As with anything involving art, the learning is in the doing, or to paraphrase Butch Dalisay, the knowing is in the writing.

And taking it a step further, the more you know, the more you know that you don't know.

So here's what I do know now: my short stories, as I started them out, took them on a trajectory that was way too long. The fault, I think, was that I took a linear plotting path, one that started from the beginning and sequentially built the story up to its end.

Wait a minute, you might say, isn't that how stories are supposed to go? Not exactly.

Two of my stories started out in that fashion, and in the end, I had to abandon the initial drafts and start all over again. One story was particularly problematic, needing three reboots. The main problem: as I saw the number of scenes that I had to write, I got bored and tired and discouraged.

If I felt that way, how much more the reader?

Short stories, at least the kind I aim to write, rely on an emotional core. This core is usually a pivotal scene which all the other scenes lead up to and from which the denouement descends from.

The longer it takes to reach the scene, the more tedious and boring the work is.

The ideal in a short story, I think, is to start as close to the scene as possible. If necessary, swing back to supporting scenes using flashbacks. The flashbacks don't even need to be sequential; so long as it makes sense and builds up suspense, the order doesn't matter.

Sometimes even the flashback technique doesn't work. This is where the other tools in the writer's arsenal -- setting, characterization, mood, dialogue -- come into play. And if some things take too long to explain, well, maybe they don't need to be explained at all.

A good thing did emerge from overwriting the first drafts. It helped me flesh out the background for the characters and the story. Even the scenes I deleted had a subtle effect on the scenes that remained. Besides, it wasn't a total loss as I still salvaged some scenes into the final output.

Anyway, just some thoughts from an amateur writer. If those two stories I mentioned ever see the light of day, I'll post the drafts so you can see the process.