Friday, March 25, 2011

Structure and Nuance in Fiction: Long Story Workshops

A "short" story is typically less than 7,500 words (around 25 or fewer double-spaced pages.)  With out long story workshops, we pass well beyond flash fiction and the short-short story into fully-developed short stories and the early chapters of novels.


This Week's Focus: Workshopping "Long" Stories

Previously, we've workshopped pieces in the 4-8 page range - for IFP I, you've probably workshopped stories in the 2-4 page and 10-page range, so you've had some experience with workshopping the longer form.

Although we call this the "long" story workshop, that is somewhat misleading.  All you'll note from this Wikipedia article on story word counts, an actual long story (a novellette or novella) would be anywhere from 7,500 to 40,000 words - once you pass beyond that, you're reaching into the range of the novel.  With this workshop, even stories that clock in at twenty pages (about 6,000 words) are still solidly in the range of the short story.

Nevertheless, there are definite differences between these short stories and the shorter works you've submitted so far.

Flash Fiction and Short-Short Stories: Technique Over Structure
With stories that are four pages or shorter, there is a strong focus on language and style - the techniques of writing.  In a way, stories of this length are rather similar to poetry.  Given the compressed length, it's difficult to have fully developed characters or intricate plot structures.  At most, we might have room for one conflict, an intense flash of setting, and a good twist at the end.  The shorter length places a great deal of weight on each sentence - because of this, the flash-fiction workshop is ideal for developing grammar and style.

The downside, of course, is that we have less of an opportunity to comment on the plot of a story.  Even the best, fully-developed works of flash-fiction feature a very limited number of scenes and characters, and thus we cannot get a complete picture of the author's mastery of structure.  This is one reason why I encourage you to write a given story to the natural length rather than try compressing the ending into the page-limits of the given workshop.  For the shorter workshops, I feel it's more productive to develop your abilities by combining sharp dialogue with solid details (e.g. setting, blocking, and context).  In writing, I feel it's more productive to workshop a single well-developed scene than it is to evaluate the skeletal outline of a completed plot.

Short Stories: Searching for Unity through Structure and Nuance
As we pass the ten page mark for stories, the greater complexity of the work places higher demands on the structure of the story.  It isn't enough to have memorable setting details and intense emotional scenes - we must have context for each scene, and this requires coherent transition from one scene to the next.  In workshopping, you'll want to look at how the end of each scene sets up the beginning of the next scene.  In a story with a single core conflict affecting one main protagonist, we essentially have only one plot.  This is generally the case for short stories (25 pages or fewer), and this means that each scene must lead us directly to the following scene.  (Note that this applies whether the story is linear or nonlinear - for nonlinear stories, jumps to the past or the future must still be introduced by the prior scene.)

Note that novels and novellas have room to develop multiple characters facing intricate conflicts.  Although a novel will almost always involve one overarching central plot in which the primary conflict is resolved, it will often also feature several subplots in which individual characters face their own secondary conflicts.  In order to maintain the tension across these longer works, authors will often begin to develop a subplot in one scene, and then leave a cliffhanger at the end of that scene before switching to another (seemingly unrelated) scene involving a different subplot.  In this case, the new scene must begin with more context details in order to re-center the reader.

As the structure of a story becomes more complex, we are better able to reveal nuance in our characters and situations.  We don't want our stories to cast the world in terms of simply black-and-white cliches, but rather as a continuum of motivation and experience.  In sophisticated, well-nuanced stories, the world is neither all-good nor all-bad.  "Good" characters are flawed and "bad" characters have redeeming qualities.  This is particularly important in writing your protagonist - "cookie-cutter" characters who are "too perfect" will not be believable enough to maintain the reader's suspension of disbelief.  Although you might not need nuanced secondary characters in your short-short stories or flash fiction, you should always avoid using cultural stereotypes as a replacement for character development.

In workshopping longer stories, look at whether or not you can relate to the characters on the page.  Have you met people who think and behave as these characters do?  Do these characters have conflicting emotions?  Do they question the world they inhabit?  These aspects of character are often more important than whether or not you've written the ending of the work - they provide us a better understand for why a given conflict is important for the protagonist, and thus make the story (as well as the character) more interesting.

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