Today's chapter from Writing Short: The Craft and Commerce of Short Story Writing
, which I'm working on whenever I don't feel in the headspace to write fiction. In consequence, I'm largely finished, but I do still need to go through and apply this to one of my own short stories as an example.
Here, I take Dan Wells' Seven Point Story Structure and generalise it to other forms of development apart from plot, and also discuss a diagnostic tool that you can use when your story isn't working.
The tool I call the Multi-level Outline is a diagnostic for when things aren’t working, rather than a requirement in order to develop a story from the beginning. It’s also a way to analyse a story you admire and figure out why it works.
I call it “multi-level” because you’re potentially analysing a few different things at once: plot, character, setting, situation, theme (Knight’s “map”), but also language, imagery, motivation, viewpoint… anything that isn’t working, anything that contributes to or reinforces the structure of the story. You don’t have to—in fact, you shouldn’t—analyse all of these elements every time. If your setting, for example, isn’t making Fred uncomfortable, and if it’s not a key part of your structure or doesn’t change significantly over the course of the story, leave it off the outline.
Often, two productive things to put on the outline are the outer events, what’s sometimes called the plot (my editor refers to these as the “face story”), and the inner events for the character (the “heart story”). The two of these should perform a little dance together, and if they’re tripping over their own or each other’s feet, laying them out in outline form may help you figure out why.
Point of view changes and multiple character arcs are more likely to go on the outline for a novel than for a short story; short stories should have a consistent POV, and usually don’t have room for more than one character to change and develop. Likewise with subplots.
The physical form of the Multi-Level Outline is up to you. Use whatever tools work best for you: spreadsheets; index cards, sticky notes, or other stationery; a whiteboard; online tools or software. I’m a digital guy, so I use spreadsheets, but index cards in rows and columns on a corkboard are also a tried and true method, as are sticky notes on a whiteboard. Or you can use a big piece of paper, like J.K. Rowling (http://www.openculture.com/2014/07/j-k-rowling-plotted-harry-potter-with-a-hand-drawn-spreadsheet.html
The typical way to structure the multi-level outline is to have each column represent a different thread (or “level”), whether it’s the face plot, the heart plot, the locations, or the imagery, while each row represents a significant event or change, in the order that they occur in your story. The events may or may not correspond to scenes or chapters; there could be several significant events within a scene.
Rowling’s “spreadsheet” has columns for the subplots (prophecy, romance, two significant groups, and two significant character pairs whose relationship evolves over recurring encounters). Basically, if something changes over the course of the story and comes up repeatedly, it’s a candidate for a column, and if change or conflict or anything else that will get the reader’s attention happens, it goes in a row. If one of these things impacts several columns simultaneously, which it should, you fill in as many columns as apply.
The different levels can play off each other; when they reach a significant point together, you get extra power (for example, at the climax). Look for opportunities to line up story points like this, especially in a short story, where every sentence carries proportionally more weight than in a novel. Look over your outline and make sure that you don’t have, for example, all the interesting stuff at the beginning, or at the end, or in the middle, with a big area of wasteland in which nothing much is progressing.
Now, think back to the Seven-Point Structure I talked about in the previous chapter. Remember that I said that the point of it was to give each key element a gradual enough change to be believable? The reader accepts that, in the art form of the short story (or novel), we as authors show significant moments that stand in for, summarise, or represent a much longer and more gradual process of change. We can’t go straight from lonely singleness (the hook) to happily ever after (the resolution) in a romance story; not only is it not credible or comprehensible, but it’s not satisfying as a story. The reader wants to experience the process, which is also why we show instead of telling.
Let’s see if we can abstract the principles of the Seven-Point Structure away from their origins as a way of constructing plots, and make them useful for the development of story elements in general.
Dan Wells, like Stephen Covey, advises us to begin with the end in mind. Where do you want this element to end up? That’s your resolution, and it’s the ideal starting point. Now, I don’t always do this. I’m still somewhere in between an outliner and a discovery writer, so I don’t always know the end until I’ve finished at least the outline of the story. But once we do know the end we’re heading towards, whether we discover it early or late in our writing or outlining process, we can work backwards from it and make sure that the hook, where the element is first introduced, provides a contrast to that ending.
By the way, when you’re looking at story elements, not every one will be introduced at the beginning, and not every resolution will happen at the story’s end. That would be ridiculous, piling all the elements up together. As I’ve mentioned, having more than one thing resolve at the same time punches up the significance of both of them, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Once you have the two ends of the string, it’s time to place some beads on it. The next element to be written in Wells’ structure is the midpoint, the key moment of decision or change in between the starting state and the ending state. In the kind of plot Wells is talking about, the midpoint is typically a decision to pursue a goal that will end up leading to the resolution (whether or not that’s the character’s intention), but we’re abstracting the principles away from the plot-driven story to something more general. In general, then, the midpoint is where a significant shift occurs that leads logically away from the starting state and towards the ending state.
If you were looking at the arc of your imagery, for example, and the story started with night imagery and ended with sunshine, this might be the first hint of dawn, or even a formerly dark place being lit with artificial light. It might be as small as a match being struck. If the arc you’re interested in is to do with setting, the midpoint might be a decision to leave the place where the story starts and go to where it ends, or, if it starts and ends in the same place, it might be the decision to turn around and go back there (with the significance of the place at the end being different from its significance at the beginning). It might not even be a decision at all, but an outward event that takes the characters to a different setting whether they want to go or not—but in that case it needs to be powerfully marked as significant, given weight by extra time spent on description, by the characters’ emotions, by heightened language.
All of these points of change, in fact, must be marked in some way, clearly significant in the story, not just throwaway lines (even if the full significance only comes out later). This is what gives the event enough weight for the reader to believe that a transition is happening.
What about the next element of Wells’ structure: the plot turns? Obviously, if our analysis isn’t about plot, we’re not going to call them that, but they are still turns, events which carry the audience along the arc. The first turn begins the movement from the starting state towards the ending state, though it may not yet be obvious that that is where it’s going to end up. The second turn makes the ending state finally possible, or even inevitable, given the momentum built up by that point. These aren’t necessarily things that a character does or decides or realises, even in the original plot structure; they can be external events. The key thing to remember is that the first makes it seem possible that the starting state can change, and the last makes it seem possible that the ending state can be achieved.
Finally, there are the two pinches. Remember the function of those in the original plot structure: the first pinch demonstrates the character’s potential by showing them confronting a problem (not necessarily successfully). The second pinch demonstrates their determination, what they are willing to do in order to get to the end point, and/or shows the fulfilment of the earlier potential or the character’s growth from potential to true ability—again by showing them confronting a problem (a harder one than before). So the pinches are there to signal, first, the possibility of change, and second, that that possibility is going to be fulfilled, both under conditions of adversity.
Here, then, is the arc in its more general form:
1. Hook: Show the reader the starting state (opposite of the ending state).
2. Turn 1: Show the reader that there can be change away from the starting state.
3. Pinch 1: Show the reader that change will not come easily, but increase their belief that potential exists for the change to happen.
4. Midpoint: Show the reader a significant shift that leads away from the starting state and towards the ending state. The midpoint signals a commitment to the change.
5. Pinch 2: Show the reader that, though change is even harder than you indicated earlier, the potential for it is going to be fulfilled because of the commitment you signalled at the midpoint.
6. Turn 2: Show the reader a final shift that makes the resolution possible.
7. Resolution: Show the reader the ending state.
Again, just as with the plot structure, it’s not essential to have every one of your story elements go through all seven of these steps, or indeed any of them. However, if the arc of change in a story element isn’t working, this is a diagnostic you can use, or a repair you can potentially make.