Tag Archives: short stories

A Serious Influence

To the extent that I’ve been consciously influenced by any writer, it would be Ray Bradbury.

When did I first encounter Bradbury’s stories? I don’t exactly recall, but it was a long time ago. I read his short story “A Sound of Thunder” in either eighth or ninth grade. That was during my family’s brief stay in Sacramento, California, and is the earliest clear memory I have of his work.

Also about that time, my English class screened the 1963 TV documentary Ray Bradbury: The Story of a Writer, which in part follows the author through the development of a short story called “Dial Double Zero.” That story never appeared in print, but the documentary provides a solid glimpse of it through Bradbury’s musings, dramatic presentations of portions of the story, and his reading of the ending.

When I grow up as a writer, I’d like to be Bradbury. That thought has been stuck in my head for many, many years. Of course, in a literal sense it’s impossible. Authors have to find their own voices, their own styles. We each have a unique life, a unique set of experiences upon which we draw, so none of us writes exactly like anyone else.

But if I write even a third as well in my own way as Bradbury did in his, I could be pleased with the results. Sometimes I think I come close. Example: in October 2015 a story called “In the Butcher Shop” spilled out of me in a single hour. I suspect he might have given me a bit of help that day.

October, anyway, was his time of year…

The End

I’m terrible with names, but I remember clever comments, even if not always verbatim. I had to look this one up: author Jonathan Carroll likened a short story to a  sprint and a novel to a marathon.

Although it can take a long time to write some short stories, it’s possible to complete one in a day, or even in an hour if it’s “flash fiction.” Novels are a very different matter. Planning and writing a work of that length and complexity chews up a great deal of time.  I need eight to twelve months to finish the first draft of a novel.

Minimum. Sometimes it takes much longer. Life can get in the way. Other projects can get in the way. The dreaded writer’s block can get in the way. So you can imagine the thrill of crossing the finish line by typing the words, “The End.”

I did so a couple of days ago with my SF/humor novel, Space Operatic. This marathon was longer than usual; it took about three years. I had a lot of fun writing it, but time and again I had to shove it onto the back burner, while at other times it simply stalled. But now it’s done!

Done being, of course, a relative term. After a brief hiatus to gain some distance from it, I’ll launch into the revision work, and after a two or four passes through it will land in the hands of my editor-wife. More revisions will follow. Eventually it will be ready to send out into the world.

This one we probably won’t publish under our own imprint (Serpent Cliff). I don’t think it fits with our publishing program. Instead, I’ll probably look for an agent to represent it.

That could be a whole ‘nother marathon . . .

 

It’s the End

In my last two posts I explored two parts of a story’s structure:

  • The beginning, where we encounter main characters, the setting, and the challenges the characters face.
  • The middle, where things become complicated for the characters and tension mounts.

Now we’ve reached the end.

Like the beginning, the end is a relatively short, but for a different reason. Whereas the beginning hooks readers and draws them in, the end resolves the conflicts that carried the reader along. Actually, let’s qualify that. Some conflicts may be resolved in the middle. But the primary conflict can only be resolved at the end. Often a few lesser conflicts stick around until then, too, particularly in a novel. Short stories may only present a single conflict, but longer works will have more.

By definition, the resolution of the primary conflict is a story’s climax, it’s most important and exciting moment. All the tension built up through the middle is released in the climax. In action/adventure stories, this moment is the point when the threat posed by the primary antagonist becomes overwhelming. If the protagonist doesn’t succeed right here and right now, an irreversible catastrophe will result. The terrorists will blow up the building or the aliens will take over the world or the meteorite will crash into the Earth, triggering a mass extinction. In a mystery, the climax often pairs the resolution of the principal crime with mortal danger for the detective or for someone close to them. In a drama, the climax could even be triggered by the protagonist’s own flaws; if they fall victim to their failings, they will loose something important or others will be hurt. In all cases, the climax is the biggest, baddest, most danger-fraught moment in the whole story.

The story’s lesser conflicts can trigger moments like this, too, but generally they are less critical, less intense, and therefore not climactic. They can therefore be resolved in the middle of the story, but if so are usually replaced by larger conflicts or an intensification of the main conflict. The author can give the reader a moment to breath, but only a moment. Tension can’t decline for long, or the reader will wander off in search of a sandwich. But what happens when a lesser conflict persists right up to the climactic moment? Must it be resolved before the main conflict, or can it wait?

In some cases it can and indeed should wait, but order is important. Bear in mind that once the tension is gone, the reader has no reason to keep reading. Conflicts that persist beyond the climax have an inglorious name: “loose ends.” They must be tied up, but because the principal source of tension is gone, they must be tied up quickly. When the business of tying up loose ends drags on, readers rightly get bored and feel that the book should have ended sooner. In the worst case, they may suspect the book was “padded” to make them pay more for it–a feeling that also arises from middles where too little happens for too many pages. Conversely, a book that suddenly ends after a strong climax may leave readers feeling like they were dropped off of an emotional cliff. The less intense resolution to a loose end or two affords  us time to “come down” gracefully rather than plummet. On the other hand, the author of a series might leave something unresolved as a “cliffhanger,” a way of inviting you to the next book in the series where, one hopes, the remaining conflict will eventually be resolved.

You may sense a theme here: writers play on your emotions through story structure. The good ones do it so well that you’re left clamoring for their next book!

By way of illustrating these concepts, I’ll invoke my novel The Fibonacci Murders. Therein, a series of murders takes place, with tension ratched up through an increasing body count, the cryptic nature of the killer’s notes to the police, a mathematical switch he pulls mid-stream, and the discovery that his final crime must be one of horrific proportions. Along the way, a second series of crimes occurs. Less severe than the murders, it nevertheless causes a PR nightmare for the police and is resolved only when the murderer kills its perpetrator. That’s one conflict removed, but it hardly decreases the tension–just the opposite. And then a new wrinkle develops: Tom Kaneko, the mathematician who has been assisting the police, privately devises a plan to find the killer and strikes out on his own, unwittingly placing himself in mortal danger. The killer captures him but must execute his final crime, so he trusses Kaneko up and dumps him in the woods, planning on dealing with him later. Now the climax arrives: the killer is stopped mere seconds before committing a mass murder.

End of story? Not quite. Kaneko is still out there in the woods, injured, bound, and gagged. That’s a loose end: I couldn’t leave him there. Moreover, the detectives had a couple of loose ends of their own to tie up. Keeping Kaneko in hot water until after the killer is foiled allows the tension to drop somewhat less than precipitously and transitions towards resolution of the other, lesser, loose ends. The result, I hope, is that when you’ve read the final sentence, you feel that order has been restored and all is right with the world.

The end.