Story-a-Week: What I’ve Learned So Far (Pt. 3)

For writers, there’s nothing more frustrating than dumping buckets of energy and love into a story, typing the last sentence, then hearing that fear-mongering gremlin in your brain whispering two dreaded words: “something’s wrong.” It’s worse when you can’t figure out what exactly that little bastard is talking about.

It’s as useful as that beret-wearing writer in your workshop that scrunches up their face like they’re swallowing a mouthful of bile before pointing to your story and saying “it just didn’t quite work for me.” Thanks, Gustave, you think. That really narrows it down.

To solidify this issue, I’ve spent the past five months digging into what makes some short stories click. What at first felt amorphous and slippery is now…less amorphous but still somewhat slippery.

The five months started as a manic dash to write a short story a week, but that soon evolved into a much more plodding, purposeful look at what was making some of my stories fizzle while others felt, as Goldilocks might put it, just right.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d created a working template for outlining short story ideas. That outline evolved over the last six weeks as I attempted to use it, failed, figured out what went wrong, then fixed it. Here it is in all its glory. Behold!

It’s like Mad Libs but useful!

So what was the biggest takeaway? The thing that produced the “just-right-ness” I was looking for? The balance between external and internal goals.

You’ll notice in my outline that I have the blanks for the internal goals highlighted, and that’s because it was the element in my stories that kept gumming up the works. It would either be lacking entirely or would be too underdeveloped to offer the reader that OH GOD, YES catharsis we all want when we finish a story.

“Don’t you have an MFA, Matt?” you ask. “Isn’t that, like, one of the first things covered in Creative Writing 101?”

Well, yeah. But here’s the thing. It is so easy to get lost in the world of a story when you’re writing it. Consider this brief, incomplete list of what you’re juggling when writing a first draft: world-building, characterization, dialogue, conflict, and pacing.

That’s a lot of chainsaws to juggle. If you’re not careful, you’ll get so caught up trying to keep both hands attached to your arms that some integral elements will get left out. Then you’ll be left scratching your head (with a bloody stump), wondering where it all went wrong. And that’s exactly where I found myself time and again in stories that felt off. My internal conflicts were lacking or vastly overshadowed by external conflicts.

Like I mentioned in my last post, the genesis of most new stories for me is an intriguing concept. 99% of the time, that concept is directly related to the external forces in a story, and I get so excited about developing that aspect that I generally forget to examine its internal impacts on the characters I’ve written. Not good.

K.M. Weiland, on her terrific website Helping Writers Become Authors, has an entire post on making internal conflicts work. Check it out here. Her post offers fantastic advice on fleshing out your internal conflicts so they have more resonance and depth. The last thing you want is for your characters to come off sounding like an emo kid scribbling break-up lyrics into their bullet journal. Well, maybe you do want that, and I’m not here to judge if that’s your thing.

The part of this topic that is still slippery for me is finding a balance between external and internal conflicts. Each story is different and requires a slightly different ratio of the two. Read any of last year’s Hugo Award winners, and you’ll see how widely the ratio can vary. Although their ratios may be different, I would argue their stories all contain the essential elements from the outline above: external and internal conflicts, complications, and some sort of realization (or lack thereof).

I tend to require a lot of structure when I write. Thus, the outline. It’s a roadmap I can use to check that I’m at least driving down the right highway and not getting distracted by advertisements for THE WORLD’S LARGEST HAIRBALL. Seriously, I’d swerve across three lanes to make that exit.

The outline is by no means a rigid structure, but I wanted to share it in case you’re struggling to figure out what’s missing in your story. Feel free to bend, break, or rearrange the outline. I hope it gives you the tools to flick that nasty fear-mongering goblin off your shoulder and get your story juuuuuust-right.

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