I asked this question over in the feedback section, and I figured I'd post it here to see what type of responses are forthcoming...
For those of you who have more experience than me in writing short stories, how do you make the plot gain intensity? What do you use to keep it action packed and interesting? In short, how do you avoid making it boring?
I My World, I consider writing to consist of two things. The first is the stylistic, mechanistic stuff that regards the way the story unfolds on the page. For me, this is the easiest stuff to fix when it is wrong. This involves basic things like grammar, writing clearly and concisely, to more advanced stuff like use of metaphors, characterizations, symbolism and so forth.
The second part of writing is the story itself, pretty much everything that could be stuck under the headline of plotting or story structure. This involves what happens, in contrast to the first part which is how the events which happen are described.
For example, a basic fairy tale like Cinderella has multiple tellings. Each change is pretty much a stylistic change of the story. But the story itself is distinct from, say, Bambi.
My question here regards that second aspect. I think I already know how to write prose that keeps tension and interest when (and this is the key) when I have something to say... I am trying to figure out how to get my short stories to have more intrinsic tension/action/suspense, etc...
Broadly, the same as for novels. Up the stakes. Throw in twists (plot twists, not "a-ha!" twists). Slam obstacles in your MC's path. Depending on your target wordcount you'll be limited in what you can do, but part of the art of short stories is making every scene, indeed every word, do more than one job.
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There are a lot of things that make a story interesting. Lots of draws. But having others tell you what makes interesting content may or may not help because each person is a bit different.
My suggestion to you is to take 10 - 20 stories you love (any type, length, or genre) and start listing out to the side what made them interesting. What did you love about each? Were there certain things about the plot, setting, or character? About the story premise/problem? Were there certain effects--dread, tragedy, humor, etc.? Certain types of stories (types of problems--romance, adventure, etc.) Then step back and look for the patterns. You'll find the same things popping up over and over. You've now identified YOUR sweet spot--the things that jazz YOU.
BTW, that sweet spot may be boring city for any other given reader. But you're not looking to write what interests them. You're looking to write what interests you and then share it with as many people who have the same sensibilities.
So, you have your sweet spot, your list of draws or favorite types of reading experiences. Your next question then can be more specific. You can come back here and say, "Geez I love love love high-octane shoot-em-ups; all those who love these, what are some ways to increase the octane?"
Do you see?
If you just ask what makes something interesting, then you're going to get a million answers. Somebody might be thinking you need a thoughtful exploration of character, because that's what interests them, but that's nowhere near YOU.
You need to figure out the type of content that jazzes you. Then you can start searching for principles that apply to those types of experiences.
Make the character someone the reader wants to root for (I have a real issue with unsympathetic characters...just doesn't work for me as a reader so i don't write them.)
Then make the character have to go through a lot to get to some end goal.
Make the end goal somewhat clear (the "story question") in the beginning.
Make the character's actions seem related to the goal (he can keep referring to the story question. "Ack! How am I going to get the Jewel of the Zaraaaa to the Temple of Deeflu with this giant tailless alligator in my way? Guess I need to fight the alligator.")
Make the character go through reversals - where it seems like all is lost, then it seems like he's on the right path, then seems like all is lost again (not too much with the all is lost - just at major crisis points in the story.)
Up the stakes. Make it that he doesn't just have to get the jewel to the temple, but before sundown. Not just before sundown, but in order to rescue his one true love. Not just his one true love, but his mother as well.
Think about the internal/emotional stakes as well as the physical/external stakes. He has to bring the jewel to the temple to impress his one true love and prove his worth to her (because earlier in a reversal he did something boneheaded and she seems like she hates him now.) And he needs to apologize to his mother for abandoning her on a rooftop with a goat to keep her company. And show her he's grown up and is willing to take on the family responsibility of farming crickets now.
You ever hear that conflict is the blood of a good story? There's the answer. I try to have a couple of main conflicts that traverse the whole story with the main character steadily making progress. (keeps steady pacing) Then I have several if not hundreds of conflicts jumping up and resolving down, some by themselves, most crossing over to others. (to keep interest) I keep this up, increasing intensity, till they all are resolved at the end.
I mostly plan it out in my head, but I've written down a conflict plan/outline before. What might help is do like what johnbrown said and go through some stories you enjoy, but take special note of when certain conflicts begin and end. Internal or external, reader conflict or character conflict.
A short story I just read by Ray Bradbury called "All Summer in a Day" is a great example of reader conflict. *SPOILER* Almost makes you want to kick little kid butt when they lock a little girl in a closet. Grrr ~_~"
I believe it was Mickey Spillane who recommended having two guys burst in with guns firing.
Of course, you have to have the train blowing up or the two guys firing guns make sense in the story, but throwing something in from left field can often give you just the idea input you need to get a story really going again.
I tend to agree with tchernabyelo, and johnbrown has very good points too.
You are looking to maintain the story's interest, so by-in-large you are looking to preserve the tension of the dramatic forces, and often intensify them. It's usually helpful if you have a good awareness of what those forces are: who want's what, what's preventing fulfilment of the want, what are they doing to overcome the obstacles, and what happens if they fail? Keeping those forces moving (something could raise the cost of failure, an obstacle could grow more formidable, or new obstacles appear, they can take a new avenue at attacking a stubborn obstacle, etc.) is the traditional way of doing that.
I agree with all these comments. For the most part, I needed a kick in the pants to remember the stuff I already believe in...
But let me play Devil's advocate for a minute to get at the heart of what I am asking about here.
Shouldn't conflict be tied in with the integral plot of the story? Having an explosion or a guy with a machine gun pop up can certainly add tension to the story, but it really doesn't do much for raising the stakes by itself.
I recently saw a really bad movie called Red Planet about the first astronauts to Mars. It had the potential to be really good, but it was rather the opposite of good. According to some of the ideas here, it should have been great. There was an explosion in space, a zero-g fire, a crash landing, a rogue probe bent on killing people, habitat destruction, inhospitable landscape, crazy bug thingies which killed in seconds - all kinds of conflict. But while any one of them may have made for a good story, the inclusion of all of them overwhelmed until soon the story just dragged on and had NO suspense.
In other words, it was not merely a problem of execution, or believability (of which it did poorly with both...) but that the conflict didn't serve to advance any sort of story. It was just obstacle after obstacle thrown in the characters' way. According to some here, that should have made it good.
In a novel, there is more space to add in side plots and build up conflict with smaller issues. But in short stories, there is less wiggle room. As the great and powerful and all wise and respectable tchernaby said: "part of the art of short stories is making every scene, indeed every word, do more than one job."
That struck a chord with me. The emphasis on every word was a nod to the importance of telling the story, where the mention of scene was aimed toward the importance of story structure (which I believe are the two main things I need to work on...) So an extension of my question would be how do you finesse every part of a story to do more than one job? Namely, how do you find ways to structure your larger story so that each scene moves forward while adding to the overall tension/suspense/intrigue or whatever?
Yeah, you shouldn't have random events happening just to add tension to the story. Everything should connect to the main story line.
I think what most people who have commented are touching on the idea that the MC's goals are accomplished too easily.
This happens because the antagonizing force is too weak. To make the story more interesting you need to make the antagonist stronger so that there are more challenges to the MC. But everything you throw at him directly relates to the plot.
Personally, I like the antagonizing force to be so much stronger than the MC that the reader has no idea how the MC can win, and when he does, on his own and not by deus ex machina, it is amazing.
Easier said than done.
[This message has been edited by MAP (edited April 17, 2010).]
I'm going to go off the reservation and say that conflict is not the thing that keeps a story going. It's necessary for there to be a plot, certainly, but it's not necessary for me to turn a page. As you pointed out, Red Planet had conflict all over the place, but it was not enough to carry it. It certainly has not been enough for me to ever sit through that whole movie. I've started watching it a dozen times, and I still have no idea how it ends, and no interest in finding out.
So, what makes me want to turn the page? Mystery. I have questions, burning questions, and the book promises or hints at answers further in. Sometimes those questions are straight forward and tied up in conflict: how is the protagonist going to defeat the evil sorcerer? But there are all sorts of question related to character motivation ("why did the villain hesitate when he saw that woman's necklace?") or setting ("who built this giant sphere, and why?") or world mechanics ("where does this power the characters wield come from?"). Answering these questions may or may not further the plot, but having them makes the story alive.
To keep my interest, it's important that there are always questions, and that I know some of the most important ones will be answered.
Now, beyond that, I will tell you that the fastest way for me to lose interest is to have all my interesting questions answered, with nothing nearly as fascinating waiting to take their place. Once that happens, that's not simply the end of the book, but it's the end of the series.
There are also some questions that should never be answered. Remember, just as in real life, familiarity breeds contempt. If you have an ancient spacefaring race of incomprehensible power, don't let your present day humans start hot-wiring their ships or fixing their flying cities or picking up the vacuum energy experiments where the ancients left off... It winds up demystifying the whole mythos for me. Those powerful, god-like aliens seem small, over-hyped, and typically human, simply because it's a human being that's constructing them.
I think a lot of what I would say, has already been said. Conflict within the context of the story is key, and the path just needs to keep having more complications, each one becoming worse until your MC reaches the point of failure, or near failure at accomplishing his goal.
Having an emotional investment in the MC has already been mentioned as well, and I totally agree. The only thing I could add is that the antagonist cannot be a one-dimensional, cardboard character. Readers won't care as much about a bad guy who isn't just as well-rounded as the good guy.
J - I like that interpretation. I've been "studying" miniseries like V, 24, Prisonbreak, Lost, etc. I've mostly been watching them for entertainment, but at the back of my mind the whole time when I am watching is that I am trying to figure out what makes them so amazingly addictive. There are times when I have to know so badly WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? that I forgo my other responsibilities (like studying, sleep, etc) just to watch another episode. I would really like to harness whatever technique those writers use.
And, and this is the point, I have notices that creating a mystery is one of the main ways they do this.
Then again, they also rely heavily on obstacles in the way of the MC, especially 24 and Prisonbreak...
Mystery is a form of tension and of dramatic conflict. Someone needs to know something and is unable to find out. If they just google the answer, it's not much fun. When they go to seek the answer and it proves a struggle ...
It is probably too narrow a view to see conflict as fisticuffs and contentiousness normally popping up via duex ex machina, like the apparently poor movie mentioned above. In stories conflict is what opposes/prevents a character from reaching a goal. It can be a physical obstacle like having to slay the troll that guards the bridge, but it can also be more subtle, like say a woman who has desperately needs to keep her job and on an important day at work her babysitter is sick and has to cancel.
Mystery is a form of tension and of dramatic conflict. Someone needs to know something and is unable to find out.
Not necessarily. It could be something the characters have no interest or need in finding out. It might be a question that the characters would never even think to ask, but the reader wants to know. More commonly, though, the characters may pose those questions, but they don't have the time or resources to even attempt an answer. There's no conflict when one side surrenders immediately.
Really, how can you have "questions that must not be answered" if answering them is integral to the plot?
" In stories conflict is what opposes/prevents a character from reaching a goal."
So, what about goal shifts? Stories rarely start out with the character wanting to save the world. Usually they want something else. Something shifts along the way and their priorities change... This may be due to J's idea that they are discovering something they didn't know before...
Conflict for conflict's sake annoys me in stories. It's the "but then" phenomenon I see in stories a lot. Aggravating!
She's almost to the end of the race but then a snake slithers across her path. She leaps over the snake but then an alligator chomps his jaws at her. She uses her alligator-deflection shield that she conveniently remembered just now that she has, but then a muskrat jumped out of the bushes and waggled his whiskers at her in a threatening way....
In my opinion, the best sorts of conflict come from the raising of stakes in the story. You have to know what's at stake for the main character, and the conflict that comes up needs to go after what's at stake for the character. Public (obvious external) stakes and private (not as obvious but easy to share via deep immersion in 3rd or 1st POV) stakes.
Goals shift, yes, and the story question can go through refinement as the plot unfurls, but if you find the story concluding with a totally different story question answered than the one you originally posed, then you might want to go back through and make sure that original story question was resolved via subplot earlier (which is usually the case with shifting goals - the original story question becomes null due to some event, but that event or some other event raises a new story question that the mc now has to pursue.)
Do not underestimate the power of disbelief to take any threat and turn it into ho-hum. I suspect belief issues had more to do with what was going on in your reaction to the movie than anything else. Maybe not. But once you see the danger as hokey, you CAN'T feel stress for the character. It's impossible. The threat MUST be clear (enough) and believable. Your hard-wired emotional system requires it.
As for conflict, even if totally believable, it means nothing. It adds nothing really until it does one of two things.
1) Affects the hopes the reader has for the character, or 2) Affects the solving of the mystery the reader is intrigued by
I think this is what KayTi is talking about. Maybe you see it different, but here's what I see at work. There are two broad types of stories. Happiness stories and mystery stories.
In happiness stories the happiness of a character is at stake. It may be the character is facing a threat or danger. It may be they have a lack and have an opportunity to fill that lack, become happy. These are flip sides of the same coin.
We as readers become involved in the happiness that is at stake. We sympathize with a character, root for them (or root against someone). We have to have a character who isn't totally despicable. If the character is, then we will think he deserves what he gets and we stop to root for them. So we have the character we can sympathize with, and then we have to have something vital to his happiness at stake.
That vital element may be life, limb, property, relationship, self-respect, meaningfulness, love, beloinging, etc. A kid is kidnapped (danger), a single woman meets a man who just might be Mr. Right (opportunity/lack), a guy is ostracized or ridiculed at work, etc.
The point is that conflict means very little until it affects the quest for happiness in this type of story. The reader has to see the conflict as a real wrench in the works. It helps to make it something logical but unforseen because as the character is surprised the reader will be as well and think, crap, what would I do in that situation or, at least, what's he going to do? This logical bad surprise puts the reader on his heels. He doesn't have a pat answer to solve it. It poses "real" problems. It doesn't always have to be totally surprising, but it does need to be real.
The kidnapper has the daughter and is leaving the parking lot and hero races to his car to follow and finds his car tires flat--the kidnapper deflated them. Crap, the kidnapper is leaving, he's at the light. . . HE'S GOT THE DAUGHTER!!!
Conflict is a tool, not for it's own sake, but to reduce the odds of our hero achieving happiness.
Look at Prison Break. You believe the danger. The conflicts ratchet it up. Teddy finds out you're escaping. Teddy is vile, but he'll tell. It's gnarly. It reduces the odds of obtaining happiness just a bit because how can you achieve the one goal without doing something terrible. It makes it harder. And therefore increases the reader's tension. Or you have just a few minutes and the door to the doctor's office is locked. But you need to get through to get to the window. . .
That's happiness stories. There are others that rely more on the effect of curiosity. There's a puzzle or mystery to be solved. Now what I see most often is that the mysteries are paired with happiness in some way. Solving the mystery is the key to the happiness issue. Not always, but often.
But either way, the conflict here needs to make the problem, the mystery, harder to solve. There are many things that make puzzles more difficult--red herrings, not understanding the real problem, sabotage, etc. But the conflict only becomes useful when it does that to one of your main story lines.
There are other draws in stories--humor, wonder, wish-fulfillment, etc. You can make it interesting in those ways. But if that's all you rely on, usually the reader gets impatient and begins to wonder when something is going to start to happen. The core of the story is the happiness or mystery problem.
You pose the problem, the hero creates a goal to deal with the threat or seize the opportunity, and the reader automatically forms a questions in her mind about it--what's the nature of the threat, will the hero solve it, crap what would I do, etc.
So the key isn't in conflict per se. It's in the various conditions required to make the reader care and then start making the odds worse.
So it might be a story has perfect conflicts, but the characters are annoying or despicable. Tweaking the conflicts won't help because the other conditions aren't present. Same with clarity, belief, etc.
I would look to identify the essential conditions required for the effect you're going after and then see if the story has those conditions.
[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited April 19, 2010).]