Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, along with Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, and Art Taylor. All of us are finalists for the Agatha Award for traditional mysteries in the short story category. Art is the author of two of the nominated stories. You’ll find links to read them all at the Malice Domestic website. Just click on “awards” and scroll down until you come to the short story nominees.
I’m the only one of us who persists in calling this a rolling rally. No, we don’t have the duck boats used when Boston celebrates championships with the Patriots and the Red Sox, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re all winners. As a group, we’ve been on a blog tour, talking about short story writing. Today we’re here at Maine Crime Writers to answer the following question:
One piece of advice often given to writers of short stories is to keep it simple by focusing on one situation, one setting, one point of view, and only a limited number of characters. How hard is it to stick to this “rule” and what were the results when/if you’ve broken it?
Keeping it simple can be good advice in many ways—especially when writing within the often unforgiving constraints of a short story, which doesn’t provide much room for error—and I personally love the tightness of a good single-setting, single-situation story with some tense interplay between just a couple of characters. But more often I find myself trying to stretch the boundaries a little bit, trying to weave together multiple perspectives on the same situation or fold in significant bits of a character’s distant past (or imminent future) or pile on extra layers to what might seem like a straightforward situation. With “The Odds Are Against Us,” for example, I started out with a simple conversation between two old friends, told solely from the perspective of one of them, but I hope that the way the other man keeps keeps thwarting the narrator’s goals and intentions, keeps shifting the direction of the story being told, and keeps bringing up forgotten bits of their shared past—I hope all of that complicates and deepens the “one situation” of the story and adds even more to the already hefty moral weight of the decision the narrator faces, the choice he makes. The success of a short story, to my mind, isn’t just how tightly you can trim it down but more importantly how much can be packed into that little bit of space— not just the precise detailing of what happens during the story but those key glimpses of the characters’ lives before the start of the story and after the end of it too, all those necessary hints of the larger world beyond the edge of the page.
I don’t find it too hard to stick to this rule—but let’s call it a recommendation, shall we? My Agatha-nominated story, “Just Desserts for Johnny,” has one point of view, one essential setting, definitely one situation, and exactly two named characters, so that was pretty easy. I wrote a story a few years ago (“Yatsuhashi for Lance”) that started in Japan and ended in the US a decade later, but the single POV made it work. It was also only one situation, that is, one crime, whether real or perceived.
In my first historical short story, “A Fire in Carriagetown,” I did have to rein in the number of characters. What I didn’t realize when I wrote it was that it would turn into a full-length novel (Delivering the Truth, coming out next year from Midnight Ink). Maybe I was subconsciously setting up for a longer work. I’ve written two other historical shorts set in 1888 Amesbury, Massachusetts, but they haven’t gone overboard, character-wise, maybe because I already know I have everybody I need in the book. Come to think of it, “Pickled,” a kind of pilot for my Country Store Mysteries series, which debuts in November under the pen name Maddie Day, also initially had too many characters, and also ended up as part of the first novel, Flipped for Murder.
Most important, the story needs as many people as it needs. If there’s anybody who walks through but isn’t critical to the story, you first remove their name, and then see if their action can either merge with someone else’s or be deleted entirely.
As for crimes/situations—I’ve never written a story with more than one. And while I’ve also never written from more than one point of view, even in a book-length work, I plan to try that out. I doubt a short story could tolerate more than two, but hey, I would love to be surprised!
I’ve never heard this “rule” expressed this way before, but it’s good advice. Limiting the number of characters, for instance—each character should have a job to do. If a character isn’t there for a specific reason, cut him. And if one character could do what you have two doing, merge them.
Sticking to one situation is smart, too. When I write a short story, I come up with a conflict (a “situation”). My main character reacts to the conflict and drives the plot. For instance, in my Agatha-nominated story “The Shadow Knows,” Gus hates long winters and believes his town’s groundhog, Moe, is responsible for them. That’s the story’s conflict/situation. Gus reacts to it by deciding he needs to get rid of Moe. And the plot unfolds from there. If, in addition to hating winter, Gus also was low on cash so he decided to rob a bank, that would be an entirely different situation, which should result in a different story. I wouldn’t have the two things occur in the same story—that split focus would annoy the reader and undermine the story’s focus—unless Gus figured out how robbing the bank would enable him to both get cash and get rid of Moe. In that scenario having two situations/conflicts would work because they would become entwined. More power to an author who can do that.
As to how many settings and points of view are in a story, I think—as with characters—you should have as many as the story calls for, but no more. I wouldn’t have characters jetting from one city to another for no reason, but that’s because characters should do things for a plot-related reason, not because multiple settings are inherently bad. In my story “Murder at Sleuthfest,” my main character travels to and from the Sleuthfest convention. Attending the convention is vital to the plot, so she goes. If it weren’t vital, there would be no reason for her to attend, so she wouldn’t go. Similarly with point of view, if I needed two points of view to tell a story, then I would use two points of view. But I wouldn’t have more than two unless I needed them.
Ultimately, every decision about story structure should be driven by the plot. (Character should drive the plot, but plot should drive the structure.) Don’t try to be fancy. Try to write the best story you can, keeping things as tight as you can, by limiting your conflict (situation), setting, point of view, and number of characters to just as many as you need for your story to enfold. I haven’t broken this “rule” myself, but I’ve seen it happen. I edit for a living, and when I see it, I ask the author, “Why is this here? Why is it happening? How does it serve the plot?” By helping authors focus, I help them create tighter, better stories. And that is the ultimate goal: good stories.
Kathy Lynn Emerson:
One of my first published short stories came out of my affection for a fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” In “The Reiving of Bonville Keep,” included in the anthology Murder Most Medieval, I created a backstory where an English baron kept marrying to get himself a son and ended up with twelve daughters, the youngest of whom would have been seriously hurting for a dowry and therefore lacking in marriage prospects. Then I threw in a Scottish knight who was married to one of the older girls and came back to Bonville Keep after her death to collect their daughter, who was being cared for by the younger sister. Throw in an evil stepmother and a couple of greedy henchmen and you have a heck of a lot of characters, as well as a complicated situation. To make matters worse, since I didn’t know any better back then, I used two point-of-view characters. Short fiction doesn’t usually get as much feedback as novels, but one of the reviews for this anthology singled this one out as a favorite and another historical novelist, someone I greatly admire, emailed me years after it was published to tell me that it was one of her all-time favorite short stories, so I guess I must have done something right.
I’m pretty sure I make things a lot harder on myself by not keeping things simple, but when characters take on a life of their own, what’s a writer to do?
If you’d like to read what we’ve said at the other stops on the blog tour, here are the links.
February 20 at Criminal Minds
March 6 at Wicked Cozy Authors
March 17 at Writers Who Kill
and still to come, April 20 at The Stiletto Gang