Lesson #53: Writing Different Lengths
Before we dive into today’s topic, you need to be familiar with a few terms and concepts previously discussed. First, GMC (aka, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict); second, basic three-act plot structure; and third, the hero’s journey including his/her lie, knot, or whatever else you call the character flaw the hero must overcome (aka, character arc). Every story, no matter how short or long, must have all these elements—but how you carry them out will vary.
The longer the story, the more time you have to flesh out GMC and the character arc; the shorter the story, the less time. Obvious, right? But how do we put that into practice?
The trickiest part of GMC is the G…the goal. The character’s goal must be strong enough to sustain the entire story. In “The Sound of Music,” Maria’s goal is to do such a good job being a nanny for the VonTrapp family children, she can make up for past mistakes and become a nun. It’s a goal with several moving parts. At various stages of the story, she will be succeeding at one part but failing at others. Ultimately, of course, Maria is forced to acknowledge that what she really wants is a family. She’s been so focused on becoming a nun, on being part of that family (her Motivation), that she’s missing the family right in front of her because it looks different than her original goal.
In my novella “Waiting on a Promise,” my heroine’s goal was to remove all the obstacles preventing her from marrying the man she loved. It’s a single-minded goal that allowed me to throw a few conflicts in her path on the way to her happily ever after. A short story should also have a single-minded goal that can have even fewer conflicts—or maybe only one good conflict—thrown at it to keep the tension through the story.
Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Let’s use a very short story to illustrate…the Prodigal Son parable.
When we meet our prodigal son, he lives at home with his father and brother but is unhappy. He wants his inheritance, and he wants it now. Act 1 (the beginning) ends when the father gives his younger son the inheritance and sends him on his way. Act 2 (the middle) is everything that happens before the son goes back home: squandering his money, the pig sty life, and deciding he would be better off being a servant in his father’s house. This is the journey that brings him to his senses. Act 3 (the end) is when he gets home and dad throws him a party instead of shunning him. Note how the story starts and ends at home. This is called “bookending” a story.
An example of a longer story that does the same thing is “The Wizard of Oz” movie. Everything that happens in black and white also happens in Dorothy’s home. In story terms, this is her “ordinary world.” The story circles back to her ordinary world but, because of everything that happened in the middle—in the colorized portion of the movie—Dorothy is a different girl when she gets back home.
The difference between the parable and the movie is show vs. tell. The parable does a lot of telling; the movie shows. In general, you want to show everything in a story. You want to immerse your reader into your character’s heart and mind. However, in a shorter story, you might need to “tell” a few things to bridge one showing scene into another. Skillful telling is a lesson in itself, so we’ll leave that for a later time. For now, be aware that you might have to utilize it to move your story along and keep within a specified word count.
The Hero’s Journey (Character Arc)
People don’t change without immense pressure being put on them. In a longer story, you can gradually turn up the heat on your character to bring him to a “boil.” In a short story, you still need to work in stages—otherwise the story feels “fake” or “rushed” to a reader—but the heat dial goes from 1 to 5 to 10 and skips all the numbers in between. Every character must start with a flaw, lie, or knot that’s revealed in Act 1-The Ordinary World. During Act 2, you turn up the pressure.
Going back to the parable of the Prodigal Son, he begins with the flawed thinking that happiness is “out there” (like Dorothy thinks happiness is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). Flawed thinking leads to flawed action, and his heat dial gets turned on at low when he runs out of money and all his “friends” abandon him. The dial goes to five when he looks for work but can’t find any. His dial quickly turns to a ten when he’s eating pig slop with the pigs—something all of us can see ourselves wanting to get out of no matter what it takes.
Longer stories tend to develop multiple characters. Short stories might be able to handle two mild character arcs or one deeper arc. In my latest novella, “Beside Still Waters” (Barbour, May 2017), my hero has barely any character arc at all so I could focus more energy on my heroine. In “Waiting on a Promise” (Barbour, February 2015), both the hero and heroine have equal character arcs but they aren’t deep. I started the story with the pressure already turned up on both of them so I could bring them to a boil quickly.
1) A longer story can handle a multi-faceted goal, a novella or short story needs a single-minded goal.
2) Every story needs three acts, but some will “show” less and “tell” more.
3) Characters need to grow and change, but how fast they change or how much focus you put on one character vs. on multiple characters will depend on the story length.
Are you writing a short story or a novel? What do you have time for? Remember: Balance is key!
With pen to paper,