Thoughts on story construction

I am finally back to regular daily writing. For months now I’ve been struggling with a difficult story. No matter how I’d go at the story it seemed not to work for me and eventually, I kept changing my approach and rewriting so much that I got stuck in a rut and stopped making any forward progress. But in the last week, I’ve been writing daily, making my work count goals and the story is moving forward. Not only that, I think the writing is pretty good, too, especially for first draft material. I wrote a scene last night that I really, really liked when it was all over.

Drifting off to sleep last night, I wondered what had changed that allowed me to go from frustrated rut to a creative streak. My thoughts turned to what I’d done successfully before and that let me to think about story construction in general.

I imagine that every writer who has sold a few stories must wonder at one time or another: how did I do it? You want to be able to replicate what you did on the last story you sold so that you can do the same thing on the next one. I certainly went through this, after each of the stories I sold. But what I’ve come to realize is that every story is different and the road to its creation is is unique journey. That said, there are some things for me that I’ve noticed make that journey easier. Two things in particular come to mind: the blueprint of the story, and the handling of a scene.

The blueprint of a story

I generally don’t outline stories, at least not what I think of as an outline. What I do typically do is list out the scenes in the story with a simple one line description of the major event for that scene. Scrivener is great for this because I can create a document for each scene, switch to corkboard mode and see all of the documents as index cards, and then jot down my description for each scene on the card. I can then move them around as desired until I have what I think is the right order in which to tell the story. Once that is done, I go about writing each scene in the order they occur. This helps me immensely because I know what I will be writing next; not the specifics necessarily, but I don’t have to wake up early the next morning and seat at the keyboard wondering where to start. I look at the next scene in the list and off I go.

Strangely, for whatever reason, I didn’t do this with the novelette I’m currently working on. The story is a hard science fiction space story told from two different and alternating viewpoints, and despite the fact that those alternating viewpoints need to mesh together in time in a specific way, I didn’t spec out my scenes ahead of time. In fact, it wasn’t until I finally listed out all of the scenes I needed to tell the story that I finally was able to write consistently every day.

I went into the story with three key scenes in my mind. One at the very beginning of the story, one in the middle, and finally the climactic scene of the piece. That was all I really had and I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to connect the dots between them. Why I should have thought this, I don’t know. It wasn’t difficult writing the first scene, but I wrote and rewrote the second scene half a dozen times because I had no map to show me where things were going. When I finally did fill in those missing scenes, everything got much easier. I’ve now written the first 5 scenes (out of 16) of the story in as many days.

My approach to a short story is similar to what Isaac Asimov’s approach was: (1) think of a problem or situation; (2) think of a solution or ending; (3) write the story. Of course, I am not Isaac Asimov and so my #3 is a little more involved. For instance, as I’ve said, I generally make a list of the scenes that I think are important to tell the story. One thing I’ve learned about constructing that list of scenes is how important it is which scenes you choose to include in the story and which scenes you leave out. This doesn’t actually come easy to me. For some reason, I feel the need to cover every detail along the way, but in a short story, that isn’t necessary.

Hard science fiction stories have a reputation for focusing on the science in the story and leaving the characters a bit flat. I try not to do this in my stories. I think “Take One For the Road” was a pretty good example of this. I try to make my characters real and come to life so that the reader will feel for them in some way. I suspect that all hard science fiction writers think they do this, and each of us do it to varying degrees of success. But constructing the characters goes hand-in-hand with constructing the blueprint of the story because you have to be aware of how they will react as events progress.

The scenes in the story have to be carefully chosen. Things that happen in each scene need to matter in the story, even (or especially) subtle things. They need to come back later and show some kind of added significance. But they can’t just be thrown into a scene. They have to have some value of their own and hold the reader’s interest along the way. The scene I wrote last night is a scene like this. It is essentially two characters who have been in space for a very long time, talking about what they miss back on Earth. I think it is an interesting scene (made more interesting by the events going on around them) but what they discuss in that scene (the fifth scene out of sixteen, remember) will have a significant impact in scene thirteen toward the climax of the story. Being able to pull this off successfully (and I don’t know yet if I will) is a key to making a story work.

The handling of a scene

Writing instructors will tell you that the scene is the basic unit of storytelling. I’ve learned a few things about scenes, and what makes them work and at the heart of it, for me, is the old axiom of getting in late and getting out early. That is, for a scene to really work, to grab the reader’s attention and pull them along through the story, each scene should start at the latest possible time and finish at the earliest moment.

Interestingly, I’ve had a hard time at this as well. I got it into my head, somewhere along the way, that a scene needed to detail all of the events that occurred. But really that is not the case, and often times, scenes can be made much better when some of the events are implied or inferred. I had a scene in my current story where one of the characters had to do a spacewalk. The point of the scene was to discover a problem with the spacecraft, but how I’d written it really made it drag out. It started with the character getting into her spacesuit, depressurizing, climbing out through the airlock, trudging down the length of the ship, making her discovered, and then heading back to the storage section of the ship to get some supplies and bring them back.

After I wrote it, I could tell it wasn’t right. I’d started too early and finished too late. So I rewrote the scene beginning with the character emerging from the airlock and using her point of view to fill in the gaps of what had happened before. She made her discovery and the scene concludes with her heading toward storage to get supplies. But it doesn’t show it because it is not important to the story. All the reader needs to know is that eventually the supplies were successfully acquired. The scene is much shorter and works much better this way, in my opinion.

Of course, starting late and finishing early also mean you have to handle transitions pretty well. Scene transitions are one place that I’ve noticed that makes a professional story stand out from an amateur story. In the latter, transitions are awkward at best and non-existent at worst. In well-written stories, transitions are subtle, but obvious. They leave you addicted to the narrative, wanting to know what happens next. And how you structure your scenes can determine how you construct your transitions for optimal effect.

But most important, I’ve learned that what happens in a scene has to in some way be relevant to the story. Especially in short stories, where you are being compact, each thing you emphasize in a scene has to contribute to the storytelling. Subtle description cannot just contribute to the verisimilitude of the story but has to have some kind of additional layer–added meaning that follows on in a later scene. Dialog has to draw out the characters, or fill in gaps in the story. Every part of the story has to be running on all cylinders to achieve the desired effect. This is what I love about the art of the short story.

Not all stories you read will have all of these elements. And they are certainly not all constructed in the same way. But I’ve found, for me, that if I keep these things in mind when I am writing my story, I have a much easier time with that first draft, and in the end, the story comes out much better than it might otherwise have emerged. But all of this produces only a first draft. For me, it is the second draft where the real magic happens. The second draft is my favorite part of short story writing… but I will save that topic for another time.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on story construction

  1. Paul, I’m glad it helps. I usually resort to baseball analogies but I avoided them in the post. That said, I’ve found that after I write a story that sells, and wonder what I did to make it work, I haven’t been able to nail down specific in the same way a hitting coach might have you change your stance or lower your elbow or something. But I have noted some generalizations that seem to be common among the stories I’ve sold, and you’ll note that those things are not about the subject matter in the story but how the story is constructed. For me, that is a key insight.

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