It's like shelter cats: you can't save all of them. But if you can do something for one of them, or two or three-- and you do it-- then you've given something back. If I can give something back, then I have a reason to keep doing what I do-- even if I'm never as successful in my own work as I might hope to become. For now, I've passed on a little of what I know, and helped someone else to feel more confident in their own ability. I'm content with that.
It's easy for a writer to get hung up on that old dictum to show, not tell; some writers will end up summarizing, or rushing through, much detail which would enrich a story for fear of telling too much. The trick is not so much to avoid lingering upon certain details or moments, but to make the details count; to be specific. You can pack a lot of information into a story that way, and the story will be richer for it.
Exercise: "Implication," Le Guin 132-133. There are two parts to this exercise: first, in a paragraph or two, describe a character you've been working with by describing in detail any place that character inhabits, or visits regularly: we should infer from the details you provide what sort of person that character is.
Next, foreshadow some event, or give us a glimpse of the nature of some past event, by describing the place where it will happen, or did happen. Focus on specific details, almost as though you were a camera. Do not describe the event itself: we should get a sense of it only from what the place feels like through your description.
How do I know when I'm done?
To answer this question we could spend a lot of time thinking about things like plot structure and conflict-- i.e., what is the main problem or obstacle, do events surrounding the problem come to a climax, and how are things resolved? This way of looking at a story is often accompanied by a little diagram:
That's one way of looking at it. But sometimes a story is more complex than a series of actions or events.
Step back for a moment and think about the story you've been working on over the last few weeks. Can you summarize, in a sentence or two, what the story is about?
It's all right if you can't, exactly. Sometimes a story's central focus isn't something immediately identifiable, and only becomes apparent as you write-- or when someone else points it out. But it's always there; the story is about something. So, too, does each story move along a narrative path: something happens, something changes. If you like the diagram, you could say that exposition is the underlying reason or reasons for the rising action; those reasons spark the action, which in turn causes the climax. The climax is the thing that happens, or the change.
Personally I find it easier to think in terms of focus and change. A story doesn't have to follow a rigid pattern like in the diagram above. It does, however, need a focus, and something needs to happen.
Part of your job, as you write, is to become aware of both the focus and the change, and to aim all the elements of your story at them. This may mean adding details, or removing them, as you write and rewrite. Which you do depends on how relevant each detail is to what the story's about, and where it's going. (Le Guin calls this process crowding and leaping.)
A story is told when you can say no more about it: whatever was meant to change has changed, and narrative path ends up in a different place than it began. A story is finished when you're satisfied with the way individual story elements bring the reader to that place. Figuring out whether or not the story's actually there can take a while. You may need feedback. It will rarely happen in a single draft.
Exercise: "A Terrible Thing To Do," Le Guin p. 147.
First, finish your first draft. Don't do this before.
When you come to the end of your first story draft, open up a new document and paste the story into it. Check the word count. Now reduce the word count by half. Do whatever you must to reach it.
You may find yourself having to cut out things you're in love with to reach the new word count, which is why we open up a new document to do it. It makes the process a bit less painful: you can always go back to the original. The point is to step back and really look at what you have on the page. Be honest with yourself: does that scene, that paragraph, that section of dialogue, that sentence, that word, really need to be there to move the story along its narrative path, or to maintain its focus?
Once you've done that, look a second time. What's missing, now, which really ought to be there? Is there really no more you can say about the story which would help it maintain its focus?
Your ongoing assignment:
- Pick up a short story collection by an author you've never heard of. Read it. Report back with your impressions.
- Push ahead with your short story. When you get stuck, try re-visiting some of the exercises in Le Guin. Take a scene you've written already and turn it on its head. Invent a new character. Throw two of your characters into a new situation and run with it. See where it takes you. Be open always to new possibilities.