Call this the companion chapter to Knowing a Character. Whatever you choose to relate and reveal about your plot, there’s a whole lot more you could have written…
The first thing to say is the most basic: a writer can’t help to tell the whole of what “happened” to his character. It follows then that a crucial matter in constructing the plot is the relevant selection of incidents to recount.
The obviousness of this point only serves to reassure the beginning writer that they can’t possibly make any mistakes in selection. Throw out the boring stuff, hook up some reversals, add a dash of cleverness and a back beat of violence and cruelty and voila: a rip-roaring plot.
Because any story profits in pace by having the boring bits excised — where the boring bits are those moments that do not lead to or depict an explosion (think about it) — the tendency among young writers, and particularly young writers reaching for formulas upon which to steady their shaky legs, is to reduce everything to a symphony of show-stopping twists and turns. Laced together with a minimal amount of other stuff grudgingly acknowledged as necessary, this constitutes the conventional ideal of good plotting.
The problem, of course, as discussed in the previous section, is that plot does not equal meaning. If you don’t take the time to prepare your moments then those moments will fail. If your characters are flat you can mow them down with abandon and nobody’s going to feel anything when they die.
If selection in a novel is important (it is), then selection in a short story is mission-critical. Fortunately, as with characterization, plotting affords almost infinite flexibility. Some events can be rendered in detail, in what Hills calls the “close view”; others can be summarized in the “long view”, or from any vantage point between the two.
As mentioned in an earlier section, writing short stories profits the novelist (and every other form of storytelling) precisely because it hones skills that might never be truly tested. Deciding what to add or cut from a novel can be almost pedestrian. Five extra pages for a scene in an old lighthouse? Sure! Five extra pages in a short story? No…but maybe you can get the lighthouse in another way:
There are in fiction a million ways to do everything, but the important thing is that they be done. What is important in the story should be emphasized (or so played down that it is somehow accentuated — there are a million ways) and what is unimportant must be summarized or skipped entirely so as to permit full dramatic rendering of what is of consequence.
Writing short stories forces an author to consider every essential element and reject the inessential. Maybe not on a purely logical basis, like chess moves on a fluid board, but as learned instinct — the learning coming with practice.
One of the great seductions in writing is to stick with one’s original concepts. The visualized scene, the imagined moment. Yet these initiating thoughts may not be what’s best for the story as it evolves. Writing short stories demands that every aspect of a work be called into question, including any darlings you have an emotional connection to. Novels will rarely force you to make such decisions.
Hills fills out the bulk of this section with extended passages on just how wide-ranging your plot-selection options are. It’s an instructive survey, and a reminder that writers often hem themselves in unnecessarily when workable solutions abound.
Next up: Scenes.
— Mark Barrett