Plotting the Short Story: How to Diet a Story Into a Tight Fit
NaNoWriMo Getting Ready Series 2
Note: This excerpt from “Plotting the Short Story” by S. C. Chunn was originally published in 1922. While the plot is the bone-structure to the story, the flesh must still fit on the frame and into a tight-fitting suit. Some sage advice for authors to diet their wordage. Enjoy.
The plot is the story-idea boiled down to the very bone, or, in other words, the synopsis of the story as we have evolved it in our minds and as we hope to see it materialize when we put our pens to paper to give it definite and immortal form.
It has been said, and truly, that the plot bears the same relation to the story that the bony system bears to the human body.
The writer who follows our method and commits his plots to paper, may at first view the result a little dubiously. The working plot is so short, so concise, that its importance is apt to be overlooked unless one has an exact understanding of the part it plays in story-writing.
On first appearance, indeed, a working plot may seem to have been created for no OTHER purpose in the world than to shackle the writer’s pen and hold him down to a definite word-length. A three-thousand word story from a two-hundred word plot!
Possible, of course; but what is the great idea? thinks the novice. Why waste time carving out a series of threadbare ideas when the story itself is begging to be written? These questions are soon answered when the author begins the not always easy task of writing his story.
Only by experience will he learn to appreciate what it means to have a definite route mapped out for his pen to travel over when he begins to write.
Experience is a hard teacher, and in the writing game it has taught us that writing a short story without a working plot to lend us material as well as moral support, is a very difficult task indeed — like eating tripe the chef forgot to cook, for instance.
Needless to say, the working plot is not designed to cramp the author’s style of writing or limit the scope of his ideas. Far from it. The function of the working plot is to keep the writer’s stream of words flowing along in the right direction and make the ideas those words seek to express cohesive.
Without a working plot, an unwritten story is an unexplored wilderness of hazy ideas, and it is the duty of the working plot to blaze a way through that wilderness and keep the writer from wandering around in circles after he enters its confines.
Compared to the story itself, the plot of even the longest story is very brief indeed, but it is elastic and subject to different degrees of expansion.
The word-length of a story to be written around a given plot depends entirely upon the author. Some writers have a diffusive style of writing, others are very sparing of their words; and an author is sure to adhere to his own particular style when he begins the process of elaborating a plot into a story. Give two writers the same plot and the chances are they will produce stories varying many hundreds of words in length.
Although we have at this time no intention of entering the sacred precincts of story-writing, except in its relation to the plot, the word-length of stories falls, we believe, well within our sphere of consideration, and, as the subject is an important one, it might be well to comment further upon it.
The modem short story calls for speed and snap. We have made this remark before, but, if one is to judge by the number of spineless manuscripts that swell the average editor’s daily mail, it will bear repetition many times.
The story must be placed before the reader with trip-hammer strokes. Readers who seek mental relaxation in short stories are usually busy people who read in much the same manner that they eat — “quick-lunch” style. They have not the time to wade through pages of rambling descriptive matter or absorb weighty paragraphs of philosophic reflection. They refuse to be instructed; they want to be amused, and like their stories served up piping hot, as it were.
In writing the short story, therefore, the author should be succinct, but never, of course, to the point of sacrificing clearness. If his style of writing is diffusive, he should either try to cultivate a more direct and pointed style or turn to one of the literary forms offering a wider range for expression than the short story.
With some exceptions, of course, short stories by novelists are apt to bore the reader to the point of distraction. The reason is that most novelists have a diffusive style of writing, and verbiage is out of place in short story writing.
The beginner should not ignore this fact. It is one of the secrets of successful short-story authorship that has cost many a writer dearly to learn. “Brevity is the life of the short story,” O. Henry said, and he knew whereof he spoke.
The short story should not be confused with the novelette. At the very outside, the short story is limited to eight thousand words, while the novelette may nm up to twenty-five or thirty thousand words.
If the first draft of a story runs over the prescribed number of words, as it often will, the writer should steel his heart and wade in with the pruning-shears — or, rather, pencil. Most experienced authors revise their stories several times before they submit them to magazines, and consider that they have done a good day’s work when they succeed in cutting a five-thousand word story, say, down to three thousand words or less.
Revising a manuscript is a heart-rending task until the writer learns to look at his work from an impersonal and critical standpoint. It is hard to rip out beautifully formed sentences and paragraphs one has labored and sweated over, but at times very necessary; and the writer may expect no mercy from the unfortunate editors he inflicts with his manuscripts until he learns to weigh word values accurately and impartially.
There are, of course, a few magazines that publish nine and ten-thousand word stories which they are pleased to term SHORT, but an analysis of these stories will show that most of them are either novelettes or very verbose short stories which only the exalted names of the authors succeeded in “putting over.”
It will be seen, therefore, that while the working plot itself places no restriction on the word-length of a story, the writer should always endeavor to keep himself within the established bounds: nor should he ever leave the word-length of a story to chance.
The author should study the plot and come to some decision in regard to the matter before the story is begun. This calls for good judgment. Each part of the plot must be weighed separately, because the word-lengths of the different parts vary. It is simply a matter of values that can be learned only by experience.
The most finely proportioned plot can be made into a very lopsided story by a careless writer. Proportion in story-writing, be it said, is as essential as it is in plot building.
In trying to determine the proper word-length of a story to be written, the author should first size up the plot as a whole and decide what is, in his opinion, the least number of words it will take for him to write it into an interesting and convincing story.
He should then try to determine the proportionate value of each part of the plot and estimate the number of words it will take to give it expression. If his judgment is frequently in error, let him not be dismayed.
Even the trained writer cannot always SENSE the proportionate values of the different parts of a plot before he begins to write, but when he gets the story in rough draft he is able to see the plot in perspective, so to speak, and can then judge the importance of each part accurately.
This applies to the beginner as well as the old-timer. Which means that the writer must expect to revise, and revise, and revise.
Then, after he has done his best, he can only commit his story to the mails and leave the rest to fate — and the editors.