Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Who Loves Short Shorts?

 We are pleased to offer this guest post by, Lila Bolme

I love short shorts.
No, I'm not talking about clothes, I'm talking about stories – like WNI's short, short story contest – "A Picture is Worth 500 Words".
But squeezing a story into a five hundred word manuscript is a little like shimmying into a pair of short shorts:
  • You have to be bold
  • You have to be lean
  • You have to be careful how you move

It can also make you a better writer.
Last year, WNI offered a contest to write a short mystery, just six sentences long. That's about as short as you can get. I wondered if I could do it. I didn't plan to submit – but I did.
It turned out to be an incredible writing experience.
So how do writers go about writing something so short? Here's the process I went through to develop that contest entry. (My thoughts during the process are in italics.)

Put Both Feet In

I started with basic questions:
  1. What does a story need, to make it a story?
A protagonist and a problem. An antagonist would be nice, but no sense setting the bar too high at the start.
  1. Who is my protagonist?
A guy. Yup, I only had a picture in my head - a drunk in a trunk. I had just watched Water for Elephants.
  1. What's the character's problem?
He's drunk.

Shimmy, Shimmy

  1. But I need a mystery.
A drunk man is no mystery. How about a drunk woman?
Voila – I had a drunk woman.
Then I remembered some writing advice I read somewhere that said – throw your protagonist off a cliff.
So I did.
Presto! I had a drunk woman falling off a cliff.
  1. How did she get there?
Kidnapped...Skiing...hmmm...OK, maybe she doesn't fall off a cliff, maybe she falls off a train...an elephant...her bed – Her bed (lots of giggling) Wait – To a drunk with bed spins, falling off a bed might seem like falling off a cliff.
Now I have a drunk woman falling off her bed.
That's not a mystery but...what if I don't tell the reader she's drunk till the end. Ta Da! Wait – Is that a mystery? I knew I should have looked that up. OK, what if I don't tell the reader she's drunk till the end AND I don't tell the reader it's a bed that she falls off of, until the end? – SHA-BAM!
That was my story kernel.

Work It

Time to get the story moving, but short, shorts only cover so much. I needed a plan.
Here's how I laid it out:
  • Sentence 1 & 2 - Introduce the character and the problem.
  • Sentence 3 & 4 - Make the problem huge and the character struggle .
  • Sentence 5 & 6 - Let the character win or lose and reveal the mystery.

Squeezing into the story limits forced me to drop flab and muscle up my words. I started with my character already in crisis. The character struggled, then lost, revealing the mystery.
What I Learned:
Everything that I thought was a limitation, actually helped me write better.
  • Each sentence had a specific job.
  • The conflict had to be inflated immediately.
  • Every word had to be deliberate.

I challenge you to enter this contest. Try some short shorts for yourself. Who knows? You might decide you love them too.
If you like, you can see how my Six-Sentence Mystery, turned out, right here on Writing North Idaho.



Jennifer Rova said...

An excellent post, Lila. Thanks for writing about how to write short short stories so succinctly and with such fun. Great to have you as a gust writer.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Thanks for adding to our conversation, Lila! Appreciate your insight into the writing process, especially from a WNI contest winner (Lila's short story, "The Golden Veil," can be read on WNI's Showcase page.)