Writing a Short Story: Part 3

Let’s start with a quick link to an interview I did with Fantasy Book Critic. It has some interesting background stuff, like my favorite authors and writing influences, but the thing you’ll really want to read are the hints for I Don’t Want to Kill You, the third John Cleaver book which comes out next Spring.

And now let’s talk about short story writing. Yesterday I finally had a chance to start work on The 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 things in mind:

1) No narrative exposition. I have a tendency to write myself into a story, letting the characters and the narrator explain everything about the background and setting, and I really wanted to avoid that as much as possible this time, so I forced myself to explain everything in dialogue, and even then to explain it as little as possible. If the characters don’t have a good reason to say it out loud, the reader doesn’t need to know it, and if the reader really, really does need to know it, the characters had better come up with a good reason to say it out loud. This, in practice, led to a more mysterious tone than I usually use, which I think is a good fit. It also resulted in a focus on atmosphere over setting, if that makes sense: the setting never gets described, but you can kind of pick it up because the characters, when not allowed to talk about the plot, end up talking about the kinds of things that are actually important to them: farming, religion, neighbors, etc.

2) Thematic names. Before writing I found a couple of good websites with lists of common pioneer names, and grabbed some iconic ones and wrote them all down on a list; whenever I needed to name a character, I just grabbed a first name and a surname off the list. Having these close at hand helped keep the writing fast, and also helped solidify the pioneer atmosphere.

3) While writing, I realized I wanted him to feel like he was constantly being judged, and yet I also wanted his powers to be a secret from most of the people in the town. This meant I had to solidify who knew about the powers (a small group), and how they knew, and what they thought. This changed a bit as time went on, so I’ll need to go back and fix the first scene or two to match what I eventually decided on.

4) Dialect. I really don’t want to start spelling words wrong, but the more I write the more I fall into a pioneer dialect and accent. I want to keep it all in word choice, though in this case that includes “ain’t,” and that opens the door for dropping the “g” from the end of gerunds, and if I decide to go down that road I need to be very careful not to go too far. It could get out of hand quickly, but if I keep it under control the dialogue will be far stronger than if I ignore dialect altogether.

5) Apparently I have a thing about mothers? I love my mom, she’s the best in the world, but for some reason I keep doing horrible things to the mothers of my protagonists–I’m going to assume the best of myself, which is that whenever I search for a way to really screw up a character my subconscious says “Hey! Mess with his mom! That’ll totally ruin him.” Anyway, this mom started as kind of a religious hardliner, to help establish some of his own religious zeal, but then when they got to the big town social and someone started telling the main character he didn’t belong, I realized how awesome it would be for this mom to step in and defend him: she’s a zealot, certainly, but she also loves her son and won’t stand for anyone attacking him. And then I thought how even more awesome it would be if the mentor character who dies were actually the mom. Sweet, that would totally break the protagonist in half! Especially if it were his fault. It’s looking like it’s going to happen in pinch 1 instead pinch 2, but it’s going to work really well; I just need to make sure pinch 2 is even worse. (Even worse than your mom dying because of something you did? That’s going to be an awesome pinch.)

I’m 13 pages into it, and the bad guy just showed up; I predict about 10 pages for the fight (because it needs to include the main character hulking out, which will involve a lot of internal stuff), and then we’ll need three more scenes: the town meeting to plan a rescue, the search through the wilderness that results in their capture, and the final showdown in the villain’s lair. Somewhere in there I need two solid scenes of soul-searching: one where the mentor teaches him that his power might be a gift from God, and one where he decides to risk everything and use his power (which will be even harder for him, now that he blames his power for his mother’s death). That puts the story at around 50-60 pages unless something changes, but I’m pretty sure something will change. That’s long for a short story, but not horrible. We’ll see how it goes.

3 Responses to “Writing a Short Story: Part 3”

  1. Spencer Pranger says:

    Wow, Dan! It’s awesome to see what you are thinking while writing this. It has to rank right up there with listening to you on writing excuses/following you on twitter.

  2. EJ Wesley says:

    Hi Dan,

    I’m working on some short stories as well, so it was cool to read about your process. I’m enjoying the ‘stripped’ down storytelling involved in writing the shorts, but I’m sure I’ll be slicing and dicing through the edits all the same …

    Saw Scott Pilgrim over the weekend, btw. Awesome flick! (Just like you said.) It’ll definitely need to be re-watched just to catch all of the craziness/funny. It took me about 30 minutes to fully wrap my mind around what I was seeing/hearing, but once I did I was totally along for the ride.

  3. Zardog says:

    Why not weave in another character or two and make a novel out of it?

    Maybe a few more try/fail cycles? ;)

    Saw your vid on youtube and has helped me a lot. Thanks.

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