Building Story Flow

Some writers like to make fairly detailed outlines of their stories, so that they know almost exactly what is going to happen, scene by scene. This makes some sense for longer works such as novels, where the plot can get quite complicated. We will discuss outlining for novels in chapter fifteen. But for the short story, outlines can sometimes be a hindrance rather than a help.

If the story is to flow out of the conflict between the two major characters (or the protagonist's conflict with the environment), a detailed outline might just strangle the characters' freedom of action. If the writer forces the characters to move from scene to scene and speak the dialogue necessary for each scene exactly as outlined, the end effect is generally a very wooden story.

Short stories usually do not have that many scenes, nor such complicated plots, that elaborate outlining is necessary. Certainly the writer must be exact about the background details of the story, especially science fictional elements when the story is set elsewhere from the here-and-now. And the protagonist's inner conflict must be nailed down firmly in the writer's mind before the first words are set on paper. But more often than not, a detailed outline of the plot stultifies the story. If you know your characters and their conflicts, you should let them write the story for you. Only if you find yourself drifting hopelessly at sea should you make a detailed outline for plotting purposes.

In writing stories of any length, the most important thing to keep in mind is show, don't tell. It is so important that I will say it again:

Show, don't tell.

This is especially true in the short story.

The moment you break the flow of the story's action to explain things to the reader, you run the risk of losing the reader. All of a sudden, instead of being in the story, living the role of the protagonist, the reader is listening to you lecturing. No matter how important the information you want to get across, readers are immediately reminded that they are reading, rather than living in the story. It is a risk that you should never run if you can avoid it. Never give the reader an opportunity to look up from the page.

If you find it necessary to explain the eighteen-century-long history of the Terran Confederation, find some way to have the characters do it for you. And not by having them discuss it! Putting dull lectures into dialogue form does not stop them from being dull lectures. If the story absolutely will not work without all that background history, you must personify the information in a character, and have that character's actions show the readers what you want them to learn.

In ninety-nine cases out of one hundred, all that background information can be chopped out of the story with no loss at all. The reader generally does not need or want long treatises of background information. The writer must know this information, because it will shape the actions of the story's characters. But in most cases, the story can get along perfectly well without the lecture, and the reader will be much happier without it.

If you are in doubt about this point, take a story you have written that has a large amount of background explanation in it, and remove the explanations. See for yourself if the story does not move more swiftly and keep your interest better. Of course, some of the characters' actions and motivations may be unexplained; but you should be able to find a way to explain them through action, rather than lecturing.

An important rule of thumb when it comes to imparting background information is never to allow the characters to tell each other anything that they already know. It is always tempting to explain things to the reader by using this technique, but it is always a mistake.

"Why John," he said, "you remember how the expedition team got across Endless Swamp, don't you?"

"Of course I do," John replied, chuckling softly. "They glued their snowshoes together to make a raft, and then..."

If you feel it absolutely necessary to get that particular point across to the reader, do it through action. Without even raising the question of the Endless Swamp Exploration Team, have John glance at a battered set of glued-together snowshoes hanging on the wall of his host's den. And even then, don't do it at all unless you are going to use those glued-together snowshoes later in the story. Like all background information, if it does not contribute to the story, throw it out.

Good writers are good plotters, although they seldom let a preconceived plot take such complete command of a story that it stiffens the characters and forces them into artificial situations. Mark Twain, one of the best writers America has produced, penned a marvelous essay about writing titled "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." It is funny, pointed, and contains more good advice about writing than any other sixteen pages in the English language.

Two important points that Twain raises about story construction are "that a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. [And] that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help to develop it."

In other words, a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It is distressingly true that many, many slushpile stories lack such organization. They wander aimlessly, with no clear-cut purpose or conflict to give them shape and meaning. If you set your time bomb to go off at the end of the story and start it ticking on the first page, then almost inevitably the story will record your protagonist's attempts to prevent the explosion from destroying his life.

All the scenes and events in a short story must play a vital role. You do not have time or room to spend the first few pages describing the heroine's family background or the geological forces on the newly discovered planet Whatsit. Start the clock ticking! Delete every scene and every line of dialogue or description that does not contain a tick of the time bomb's clock in it! Be ruthless with your own prose. It is painful, well I know. But it is necessary.

Even in a novel, be wary of excursions from the main line that leads directly to that time bomb's explosion. Side trips are possible in a novel, perhaps even desirable, but they should be short and they should support the main plot line. More about that in chapter sixteen.

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