On Short Stories: Part 2/3
By Cassidy Ward
Welcome back. I hope you enjoyed reading about Handsome and Wednesday as much as I enjoyed writing about them. Now, let’s autopsy that thing and take a look at its insides.
Right away we introduce the main character, the setting, and do a little character building through back story. Stories, regardless of size or shape, typically have some exposition tossed in at the beginning. It’s the base of our soup. You need it there to hold all the really good stuff, but it shouldn’t be overpowering. Less is more.
We meet Handsome, this broken cat who’s seen the very worst parts of humanity. Handsome has suffered at the hands of people and was rescued from it. As such, he loves Old Woman without question. He's broken in just about every way a person (or a cat) can be physically broken. But he's whole in the ways that matter.
When I wrote that story I was limited to 1500 words. There wasn’t a lot of time to hook the reader and make them care about Handsome. And care they must.
Kurt Vonnegut had some rules for writing which were (and still are) quite good. As with all rules for writing, they don’t always apply, but they’re worth considering.
His first rule was to use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. When it comes to this story, that is up for you to judge but I’ll hope to have passed muster and move on.
Bear it in mind, however, when crafting your own tales. Especially when writing short fiction. If something feels like a waste of time, it probably is. If it doesn’t advance the plot or tell you something important about a character, cut it. Real estate is at a premium.
Rule number two was to give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. That’s why it was important for people to care about Handsome right away. Presenting the reader with a broken and abused cat, rescued by an Old Woman is like using a cheat code. You can’t help but like him.
No matter how different our lives are from one another, we do have a lot of shared experience. There are events everyone understands with little or no explanation, use those things to your advantage.
All of us have a lifetime’s worth of experience absorbing stories, through books, radio, movies, comics, television. Human beings are storytelling creatures and even if you struggle to build a story from scratch, you know a good one when you see it. There are things that simply push our buttons, that move us, make us care, make us feel angry or sad, happy and satisfied. As a crafter of tales, your job is to find those cheat codes, those hidden combinations of button-presses that will make the reader feel what you want them to feel. This is more important than ever when telling a short story, your reader’s willingness to let missteps slide is lessened.
Sucker punch them. The old wisdom is that all stories, novels included, should grab the reader from the jump.
And that's true. But novels have more wiggle room. You can lasso them with the first sentence or first few pages and then dial it back, loosen your grip on the leash, let them get comfortable before reeling them in. Writing a novel is like reeling in a big fish. It's okay, even expected to slacken the line so it doesn't break. Short stories are more like fighting a bear, your only chance is to hit them fast and hit them hard. Or run your ass off. Either way, you've got to move.
Next, we introduce the antagonist and foil, Wednesday. She's not a villain, exactly, but she's everything Handsome is not. The only thing they have in common is love for Old Woman.
Vonnegut also said every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. Wednesday’s function is two-fold. She introduces the genre elements of the story, demons disguised as cats, and necromancy. But she also illustrates Handsome’s desires, by being the antithesis of them.
She represents the threat to what Handsome wants most, to be left in peace to enjoy the twilight years of his life. She represents a constant danger that is both fantastical and mundane. Her machinations involve the murder and resurrection of other beings, but to Handsome, they mostly represent the disturbance of a good nap.
She also serves to cement to the reader how much Handsome cares for Old Woman, in that he’s willing to endure this other person who, to him, is insufferable, because they make Old Woman happy.
Once exposition is completed and all the pieces are on the board, you can focus on rising tensions and actions. That is, of course, relative. Many famous stories involve the fate of the world. Huge stakes. Big, insurmountable odds with resounding, rippling consequences. Handsome just wants to nap in the window. He just wants to watch the birds flit around the yard without being disturbed by dark magics.
In the big scheme of things, they aren’t high stakes. But we know what they mean to him and we sympathize with his position. So they’re enough. Besides, as you saw in the story, simple beginnings can lead to bigger and badder things.
So, the tension rises when Wednesday sets her sights on him. The thing he wants is taken away. This is where Handsome’s quest begins.
Wednesday disappears through a portal in the yard and Old Woman returns home. Handsome is relieved to discover that the day has taken a turn for the better. But you and I know that is simply the calm before the inevitable. A moment to breathe before the plunge. This is another trick often employed in stories, usually in novels. The moment, mid-story, when the main character thinks that maybe their struggle has ended.
This is Frodo arriving at Rivendell. He’s delivered the ring to the elves. He can pass the problem along to those older and wiser, more equipped for the job. He can return to his life of leisure. The reader knows this reprieve won’t last forever. They can see how many pages, or in the case of short stories, how many paragraphs, are left. And it adds to the tension. This moment of calm feels ominous in itself because they know something the characters do not, that the moment must end.
He follows her out to the barn, a place he associates not only with present danger, in the form of the horses, but with the cold and frightening world from which he was rescued. This illustrates to the reader his willingness to sacrifice his own comfort for Old Woman. Something that comes around at the tale’s end.
The bottom falls out. The ladder breaks and Old Woman dies. By now, the reader should be hurt. If you’ve played the game well enough, they are living through your character, experiencing all of their joys and tragedies.
Handsome is bereft. His world is turned upside down. All at once, the thing he wants most in the world is Wednesday. She would know what to do. She could fix the problem without blinking an eye. But she's not here. In attaining his wish, he's sealed his own fate. He's left with a choice and, because of his nature, it's no choice at all. Of course, he'll save Old Woman. She saved him once before and now it's his turn. So, he engages in an act that would ordinarily be entirely outside of his character. He does something he knows full well might kill him, but it's worth the cost, if it works.
These are, for better or worse, the types of stories I tell. More often than not, they aren’t happy. But they’re true. This brings me to the final rule of Vonnegut’s I want to touch on. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
This is the rule that made me trust him because it felt so true to me. It mirrored so closely the rules I had laid out for myself. Stories should make the reader feel and feel deeply. If you can make your readers laugh or make them scared, you’ve won. If you can make them cry, you’ll never leave them.
The stories of mine which have been most successful are the ones that accomplish this. And, for my money, the best way to make them feel hard emotions is to kick them in the heart. It’s the Konami code of stories.
You should figure out what your character, and by proxy, your reader, wants most, and take it away. You should do this in the most painful way possible. We’re not going for a quick and painless death here. Be brutal.
The common wisdom is that characters should lose something and spend the rest of the story trying to win it back. But I don’t think that’s true. Your characters should lose something and never get it back. They win, not by regaining what was lost, but by finding the strength to live without it.
Luke’s adopted parents were burned to death. He discovered their still-smoldering corpses. He doesn’t get them back. He can’t get them back. Instead, he gets mad, he finds a new family, and he strikes at the heart of evil. He learns to live with the loss and is better for it.
Frodo loses everything. Sure, he still has his friends and family, but he’s lost his innocence. And even when he returns home, he finds that the home he once knew isn’t there anymore, because he’s changed. He’s never really happy again until he boards the ship and leaves forever.
Let’s look at Infinity War, one of the most successful and widely regarded of all of Marvel’s movies. Maybe it’s because it was the first part of the big climax a decade in the making, but I don’t think so. I think it was so well received because we saw characters who always win, being utterly destroyed. We saw them lose and lose big.
Whatever it says about us, we like to see characters suffer. Or at least we understand it.
If you examine the most successful and beloved stories of all time, this is almost always true. When things get wrapped up in a nice little bow, you feel cheated.
I won’t get all maudlin but life doesn’t often wrap up nicely. Things are gained only to be taken away. We’ve all felt heavy loss in one way or another. Life comes with an inherent level of pain. It’s just the way it is. And, yes, we don’t want our fiction to be absolutely true to life. It should be more poetic. Everyone should be more clever, quicker with a joke. Everyone’s a little braver. They are the best (and worst) versions of ourselves. They are people as we imagine people to be. But we still want them to suffer, because we suffer. And we want to see them come through it, either by overcoming it or by accepting it because we want to know that we can get through suffering too.
So, punish your characters. Your readers will relate to them. Then let the reader see what they’re made of.
Anyway, that’s my trick. I hope you liked it and I hope I was able, in some measure, to show you how it was done and how you can do it too. We’re going to meet again to talk about the rules I use (or at least consider) when writing short fiction. Before we come back, I want to encourage you to read a few more short stories and pick them apart.
Look for the cheat codes the author employed. How did they introduce you to the world and the characters quickly and efficiently? How did they make you feel something without using a lot of real estate?
Think about the ways you can borrow from the authors and stories you deem successful, and make note of the tactics you can employ in your own work. Refill your well.
Cassidy is a journalist and author of fiction. As a journalist, he has written for Syfy, Observer, StarTrek.com, and Big Shiny Robot. His popular Science Behind the Fiction column has been read more than a million times. As an author, his award-winning short story “One Among the Flock” was published in the anthology A Little Wrong. His debut novella, "Ravel," is available now. You can keep up with all of his stories and journalism on his website, and find his shortest writings (by virtue of character limits) on Twitter.