Writing a short story, part 2

Yesterday I explained the premise of a short story I intend to write; today I’m going to turn that idea into an outline. You might want to read yesterday’s post if you haven’t already. You might also want to read my 7-Point Structure article, or watch the videos on YouTube, because I’ll be using that system extensively.

The first thing we need is a resolution, and I already talked a little about what I wanted that to be: my hero, who I’ve decided to call Silas, will come to terms with his powers and use them to defeat a necromancer. So we start with that:

Hook:
Plot turn 1:
Pinch 1:
Midpoint:
Pinch 2:
Plot turn 2:
Resolution: Silas defeats the necromancer and his minions

Next we need a hook, which is our starting state, and usually opposite from the end state. Since Silas ends in a position of power, we’ll start him weak:

Hook: Silas is an introverted outcast who thinks he’s cursed by God
Plot turn 1:
Pinch 1:
Midpoint:
Pinch 2:
Plot turn 2:
Resolution: Silas defeats the necromancer and his minions

The midpoint is the point at which he starts moving from reaction to action; when he moves away from his starting state and starts building toward the resolution. In this story, that point seems obvious:

Hook: Silas is an introverted outcast who thinks he’s cursed by God
Plot turn 1:
Pinch 1:
Midpoint: Silas learns that his powers are a gift from God, not a curse
Pinch 2:
Plot turn 2:
Resolution: Silas defeats the necromancer and his minions

This sets him up to use those powers at the end, but I worry that it comes too early, and I might want to save it for Plot turn 2. I’m not sure yet. Anyway, the next one we add is Plot turn 1, which is where we introduce the conflict. The hook already introduced the character conflict (“my powers are evil”), and in novel I might try to spread those out and maybe build two plot arcs, one for character and one for action. Here, for a short story, I’ll just leave it and let the first plot turn introduce the action plot:

Hook: Silas is an introverted outcast who thinks he’s cursed by God
Plot turn 1: The town is menaced by a necromancer.
Pinch 1:
Midpoint: Silas learns that his powers are a gift from God
Pinch 2:
Plot turn 2:
Resolution: Silas defeats the necromancer and his minions

So far so good, but now I have to deal with that tricky Plot turn 2 again. Plot turn 2 is where the heroes get the last piece of the puzzle they need in order to make the resolution happen. There are two ways to do this here: first, I could move the midpoint discovery up to Plot turn 2, and change the midpoint to something like “Silas joins a posse to hunt down the necromancer.” This keeps the superpower thing until the end, which could make it a nice surprise if I want one. The other option is to leave the midpoint as it is and make Plot turn 2 into something like “A friend gives Silas the encouragement he needs to use his powers and save the day.” This method introduces the superpowers earlier, which makes them more of a story element and less of a plot device. I kind of like this option, but we’ll need a good reason for Silas to require extra encouragement in the moment of crisis. I think his general insecurity will work here, coupled with his sense of secrecy—ooh! I just got a great idea! What if he’s determined to conceal his secret identity, but he gets captured and thrown in with the rest of the prisoners, so he can’t just hulk out while everyone’s watching. The prisoners find a way to help one person escape and go for help, and he insists that they choose him (maybe risking looking like a coward in the process). He slips out, turns into a giant stone guy, and comes back to beat up the bad guys.

Hook: Silas is an introverted outcast who thinks he’s cursed by God
Plot turn 1: The town is menaced by a necromancer.
Pinch 1:
Midpoint: Silas learns that his powers are a gift from God
Pinch 2:
Plot turn 2: Silas talks to the other prisoners and finds a way to escape
Resolution: Silas defeats the necromancer and his minions

At this point our pin he’s are already falling into place. Pinch 1 is where we apply pressure and force the characters into action; we’ll do this by having the necromancer attack the town and kidnap some people (for use in a sacrificial ritual, of course):

Hook: Silas is an introverted outcast who thinks he’s cursed by God
Plot turn 1: The town is menaced by a necromancer.
Pinch 1: The necromancer attacks and kidnaps some of Silas’s friends and/or family.
Midpoint: Silas learns that his powers are a gift from God
Pinch 2:
Plot turn 2: Silas talks to the other prisoners and finds a way to escape
Resolution: Silas defeats the necromancer and his minions

It occurs to me, seeing it written down that way, that the villain’s necromancy should be saved as a surprise until this Pinch; when we see or hear about him earlier, we’ll just make him unidentifiably spooky. Pinch 2, of course, will be the part when he gets captured, probably while trying to raid the necromancer’s lair to rescue the other prisoners. This means we should expand the midpoint a bit to include Silas joining the rescue team (which we actually considered earlier, and it turns out is a good idea):

Hook: Silas is an introverted outcast who thinks he’s cursed by God.
Plot turn 1: The town is menaced by a spooky bad guy.
Pinch 1: The necromancer attacks and kidnaps some of Silas’s friends and/or family.
Midpoint: Silas learns that his powers are a gift from God, and leaves with the posse to rescue the captives.
Pinch 2: The posse raids the necromancer’s lair but is ambushed and slaughtered, and The survivors are captured.
Plot turn 2: Silas talks to the other prisoners and finds a way to escape
Resolution: Silas defeats the necromancer and his minions

That’s a pretty good outline, and I think it will make a good story. Looking over it I note two things: first, it has no female characters, and it probably should. We can add in a love interest and say that she’s one of the people who gets captured, which will help raise our tension and personal stake in the story, but I don’t want to do a standard damsel in distress, so I’ll make her a crack shot—maybe the best shot in town—and give her a big role in the final fight, when she finally gets her hands on a gun. The other thing I notice about the story is a lack of interaction, but that’s an easy fix with both the girlfriend and a mentor character of some kind, who can a) give Silas religious advice, b) lead the posse, and c) die in the ambush when Silas is captured. It’s kind of a common archetype, but that’s good in a story like this because everything is so weird. A familiar archetype can help ground us in an otherwise wacky story.

Any thoughts or comments? Keep in mind that the story will include more than the seven scenes described in this skeletal outline, though probably not too many more since I want to keep it short. I’m predicting somewhere around 40 manuscript pages, but I could be way off. I’ll start actually writing it next week and we’ll see how much it changes: no plan, after all, survives contact with the enemy.

14 Responses to “Writing a short story, part 2”

  1. T.J. says:

    That is well done. I like your 7-step process and try doing it with all my work since I heard it. Dan, Would you be willing to review (and hopefully make a comment or two) on a 7-step process that I’ve come up with for a story that I’m working on?

  2. admin says:

    If you’re willing to post it here, and have the comments public, go for it.

  3. Fascinating to see the Story Structure in action. I’m contemplating entering the Monsters and Mormons… this is encouraging me. Thanks.

  4. Robert says:

    Might the captured mentor be the doorway to discovering that the “creepy” villain is actually a necromancer? The mentor, having just fallen off his horse, clearly dead, gets up after a flash of power flies from the necromancer to the corpse. Said corpse then helps capture/hold the survivors…

  5. Chris says:

    Dan,
    You totally rock! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Nifty story idea.

    Even niftier outline approach. Going to take it for myself and create all kinds of evil little story lines now. I think I’ll use this every time a story occurs to me.

  7. Writer Dan says:

    After watching the YouTube videos of your structure presentation a while ago, I put together my first short story based on what you taught and sent it into the Writers of the Future contest. Was amazingly cool to watch everything come together when I followed your suggestions. I’m madly smitten with this process.

    Also, a story that I’ve been rolling around in my head for the last 3-4 months has landed solidly into place and I find that it will fit perfectly within the Monsters and Mormons criteria. Thus, I believe that I will humbly be offering the slightest modicum of competition for your Greatness.

    This is an awesome idea for blog posts, by the way. Keep ’em coming.

  8. Brinestone says:

    I watched the whole set of videos on YouTube last week, and the one question I had was whether it would negatively affect a story to have three plot turns and pinches, or even four. Would it make it feel like the story was dragging on with no end in sight?

    I really like what you’re doing with the story, by the way. I just wonder how you’re going to have Silas figure out his powers are a gift from God if nobody knows about them. Will this be discovered through personal revelation? Reading the scriptures and discovering something there? Thinking about it a lot and reaching a decision on his own? Talking to someone in vague terms and getting the answer he needs? I guess I’ll just have to RAFO!

  9. Robert says:

    Brinestone: reading up on golems could work. From wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem), they “were a creation of those who were very holy and close to God.” From there, I can see either Silas as a holy man trying to make a golem to protect the city from the unknown evil then thinking he’d been cursed when he became a half-golem or some other holy man trying to make the protective golem and failing when Silas did something (accidental? purely coincidental?) to interrupt/affect the ritual.

    Either would allow Dan to play around with some religious mythology and look at some aspects of hubris and sacrificing for the good of the community, or hand-wave them off if the story would be too long that way… (which, Ender’s Game comes to mind; the short story that turned into an 8+ novel – and counting – epic).

  10. Nicole says:

    I plan to use this method to get started with writing. I’ve been false-starting a lot and I’m hoping this will give me a better chance.

  11. Patrick Sullivan says:

    Brimestone: think of it this way. You can have as many extra pressure scenes/plot twists/etc as you want. But it is really hard to have more scenes with the buildup/emotional impact that comes from the major ones that make up Dan’s list when done correctly.

    The trick is to think of these as the skeleton you are hanging your story on. They build a foundation from which everything else hangs.

  12. Patrick Sullivan says:

    Actually I should qualify myself slightly. Per plot, it’s hard to have multiple of those specific scene types (pinch 2, plot turn 1/2, etc).

  13. Andrea says:

    Female characters are always nice. Maybe he has a wife/girlfriend/sister/mom/old lady he does chores for, and he’s worried about how she will see it? Or maybe she finds out about it and helps him realize it’s a gift, not a curse? Maybe that’s a little much for a short story . . .

  14. […] Mountain of the Lord, the “Mormons and Monsters” short story I talked about here and here. With a solid outline and some good brainstorming in place, I sat down to write with some specific […]

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