I’ve often said that one of the joys of being a writer is being able to work on different sorts of projects. While the basics of telling a story remain the same there are different challenges inherent in crafting a short story, novel, audio drama, script or some background text. If variety is the spice of life I have been fortunate lately to enjoy a curry-ful.
Moving from one project to another can be a difficult transition, particularly from long-form (novels) to shorter pieces and back again. Short stories are a great way to explore a narrow set of ideas and characters without all of the baggage of a long narrative, but it can be hard sometimes distilling that idea into a few thousand words if one has got into a frame of mind that has chapter after chapter to explore characters, sub-plots and setting.
Conversely, remembering that one can go off on little tangents and let loose a bit of narrative freedom comes slowly when one has been penning tightly-written text without room for wavering or indulgence.
Similarly, the needs of a script for an audio bring their own small obstacles; remembering to focus much more on snappy description and using dialogue for the most part. And when one gets back to writing prose it can feel awfully clunky remembering to put in all those identifiers and stretching the description at a more leisurely pace.
These challenges are worth it. Not only does a change of length and format freshen up the imagination and writing muscles they allow different creative itches to be scratched. Quite often I’ll talk to aspiring writers who have their mind fixed on a particular format and a particular story but the two are not matched up. They have an idea that would work well a short story but feel that they should be writing a novel and don’t know how to stretch it out, or they have a grandiose narrative they want to fit into a short piece and can’t find the room.
Big to Small
There are things that can be done if one is determined to push an idea in one direction or another. If your idea is too big for a short story you need to focus laser-like on the essential elements. Try to render the story down to one all-conquering dramatic scene. Get the essence of the story and the characters in a few hundred words.
This is probably going to be the ending; if it’s the beginning you probably have trouble ahead. From this scene, work backwards, filling out the bare minimum needed to for that scene to have context and meaning. Use subtext and allow the reader to join the dots rather than spell out every tiny step needed to reach the conclusion of the story and start the action as close to the dramatic finale as you can.
Every scene preceding that last one must earn its way into your manuscript. Focus on the reader’s experience and crush it all into a tight, emotional blast. Break it down into the classic beginning-middle-end and make it as abrupt as possible. When you have this stripped down narrative you can then flex a little bit, adding in more character development or scene setting, a little more back-story or interaction.
Small to Big
On the other hand if your plan is to write a novel but you’re not sure how to spin out your core concept into tens of thousands of words, you need to approach the idea from as many angles as possible. Don’t just have one obstacle that your character has to overcome, have ten. Mix up internal and external conflicts. Add characters, even if not viewpoint ones, to assist and obstruct your protagonist’s progress, giving you a chance to explore more relationships and other parts of the setting.
For that matter, how many viewpoint characters do you need? Is it just the one protagonist, or could your theme be explored by more than one character? Could you chart their concurrent but disparate journeys to a common end?
Place different sorts of obstacles in the path of your characters. Some need to be emotional, others physical. Some might even be geographic or temporal. Strain the characters in each way you can, so that not only their skill and dedication is tested, but they must ride their luck, trust others, turn on a friend, face betrayal. Think of your worst week ever, the one that had nothing going right for you, and then turn it up a notch and throw it at your characters. It’s tough love, but the readers will appreciate the conclusion all the more for it.
Pacing is incredibly important in novels. Short stories can be a headlong rush from beginning to end while longer fiction requires peaks and troughs, escalating the conflict and tension towards the finale with increasingly sparse periods of peace to ease the reader on. There’s a term in professional wrestling: false finish. This is where one wrestler is obviously going to win the match. He or she has pulled out their awesome finisher that has won them dozens of matches before. The crowd chant one-two- as the referee’s hand hits the mat. And then the other wrestler kicks out against all expectation. Everyone goes nuts and the match continues. Some of the best matches in wrestling history draw heavily on false finishes and even a cultured, experienced smark like me can get caught out by the best ones.
(Aside – the one thing that I don’t like about modern wrasslin’ is the over reliance on signature finishers, because in 90% of all matches there is no tension. It’s either signature move -> victory or signature move -> false finish. Now and again when someone wins with a simple roll-up I am delighted. If someone actually won a match now and then with a superplex or DDT I would be a lot more attentive. I think the bookers, as well as authors, would do well to bear in mind that unpredictability equals involvement and excitement and gets attention just as well as storyline.)
You can do this with your plot too.
False finishes can be overused in writing as well as in wrestling. For a start, readers are aware of how many pages there are until the end (give or take an extract at the back of the book or some appendices). They know that the story isn’t over when they get to page 54 no matter how good or bad it looks for the character.
In wrestling there are only a few ways for the match to end, but with a novel you can change the parameters of ‘victory’ at a whim. If your character has to kill Enemy A to avenge his girlfriend’s death readers are expecting that to happen in the final few pages. If, on page 18, your hero confronts Enemy A and kills him, only to learn that he was manipulated by Enemy B all along, the story shifts and continues. Wowzo, this is gripping!
Move the goalposts as often as you like as long as the central quest –revenge, redemption, peace to all mankind – is still a factor at the true ending; or feel free just to do a switcheroo and reveal that ultimately revenge is futile and the character ‘wins’ by giving up the hunt for the killers and finds a new love because it’s a better memorial to his former girlfriend to get his life straight.
Awesome is as Awesome does.
Take the scene I talked about earlier, the last rising crescendo of awesomeness that will end the novel, and then ask yourself if there’s something even moar awesomer that is required of your character afterwards. And after that. And again. Every victory comes with a new challenge and setback and a higher mountain to climb until the end of the book has the reader wondering whether really this is going to be the Big One or not.
Just be careful that your highest peak of conflict doesn’t come before the end. If the greatest challenge is followed by a lesser challenge the narrative is ending with a whimper not a bang. Done right, the reader will be wondering what the hell your heroine is going to run into next, what torment and conflicts are going to assail her next. Done wrong and your reader will think everything in the back end of the story is an afterthought.
All of which doesn’t really relate to what I wanted to talk about. Oops.
I better make this brief now.
A nice little side project I have been working on is some background for Dawn of the Apocalypse by Dark World Creations. I have been working with DWC to craft some background to link together their fantastic large scale miniatures.
There’s no plan for a huge tome to cover all of this, so it’s basically been an exercise in writing flash fiction – 300 words per character, no more. To make this vaguely relevant to what I’ve just been banging on about, each piece has to be a pure distillation of that character, a single splurge that conveys everything one needs to know about them.
It’s been very liberating rather than frustrating. The overall concept is of a world under the pall of a zombie plague. So far, so humdrum. With DotA, the switch is that the survivors we’re focussing on aren’t quivering, terrified wrecks and the zombies are not just mindless brain-eating shuffletons. These are survivors looking for payback and flesh-eaters with an agenda. The miniatures are detailed and characterful and their backgrounds had to be the same.
My approach, other than the very brief introduction, is to unveil the universe through the voices of the characters rather than some omniscient narrator. It’s been great fun coming up with the last moments of the Code Ones and the back stories of the survivors, tying them together with a narrative subtext that, if this were a movie, we know is going to bring them all together at some point in the future. It’s world-building through the medium of brief glimpses rather than sprawling vistas, and gives us great scope to move the story forward a little with later releases and add characters as and when the urge arises.
Some of the backgrounds are up on the website now; others will be introduced through the newsletter. Go and have a look and hopefully you’ll enjoy them as much as I have.