Story Elements in Short Fiction

I recently revisited two flash fiction pieces I wrote last year. They both feature characters from my portal fantasy novel, but I tried to pick incidents and themes that didn’t overlap with the plot or character arcs of the main story. I submitted one for publication and received feedback from one magazine, and the other I shared with beta readers but then left to sit on my hard drive.

Rereading them was informative. I still liked the prose itself: the description, the dialogue, the voicing.

But there was no plot. No conflict. No decisions to make. No character growth.

I had to sit with my flash pieces for a few days to admit these facts to myself. After all, I’ve been writing for twenty years. I have eight full-length novel manuscripts under my belt. I spent eight years in college and graduate school studying literature and reading some of the best books written. I’m a professional editor and conference speaker and literally get paid to tell other writers how to strengthen the narrative tension, characterization, and dialogue in their books.

And yet, I had completely neglected to include a real storyline in either flash piece. In one of them, a secondary character has an aha moment at the end and learns something, but the main character doesn’t see that growth or grow himself.

This is probably why short fiction intimidates me, and why, after realizing the problem with my stories, I promptly went online to look at short story collections from Suzanna Clarke, Ted Chiang, and Neil Gaiman. Because short fiction requires all the same story elements as a full novel, but instead of spreading the work out over ninety thousand words, you have to fit it all in in four thousand words. You have to have telling bits of description and dialogue to show characters and their motivations, and real conflicting character desires, and action, and plot progression, and resolution—all in twenty or fifteen or ten or five or two pages.

And I don’t know about you, but I sure like to write long paragraphs of description and drawn-out, slow-burn interpersonal tension.

Slowly, grudgingly, I’ve been outlining a fresh short story. Starting with the “epiphany” at the end and double-checking whether it reflects real character change, whether I have a clear plan for how to show readers the resolution of the conflict rather than implying it. I’ve scribbled a few paragraphs about what each character wants and how they are at odds with each other or how they misunderstand one another. I’ve written a line about each scene so I can see where I’ve doubled up plot work or included a scene that doesn’t pull enough weight.

Of course, I haven’t written it yet, and it’s the execution that’s scaring me. But then I’ll share it with my beta readers and get feedback and look at it hard again and edit out the parts that aren’t working and rearrange the rest and look at it again and fiddle some more until I’m happy with it.

And maybe this one will even have a plot when I’m finished with it.

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