I write novels. That’s what I’ve been doing since 2004: it’s what my process has been optimised around since the beginning*.
When I tried to write short stories in the past I usually ended up with a novella. There always seems to be more detail, another twist, or some intricate sub-plot that needs to be added: something else that the story needs to make it perfect.
I have been trying to change that. Short stories have the benefit of less time investment so it is easier to try new things than with a full-blown novel. My experiments with structure in longer stories have generally gone pretty poorly, but putting things in unexpected sequence is a technique I can try in a short story and have a small enough arena to be able to keep it all straight.
The story I am working on now is such a structure idea: have a decision which defines the whole outcome of a situation, but follow both paths. Then for each decision within those alternatives, do the same. I envisaged it as a great binary tree of stories: some would inevitably be pruned as the protagonist made fatally bad choices, but you’d have a tree. It would be a bit like one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories, but rather than traversing a map of a dungeon you are navigating the possibility manifold for the story.
I can’t write that. It’s too complicated, and it’s one of those things where the structure idea is stronger than the stories that I could tell within that structure.
My story now is based on a simplified form of the structural idea. I finished the first draft a couple of weeks ago but reading it back it was clear that while the structure was interesting the story still wasn’t. The protagonist was not a sympathetic character, and the whole arc of the narrative was downward. There were some things I could do to make the story more engaging, like using repeat characters in different situations and having consistent names for things, but the mood was still joyless, the outcome unsatisfying.
This was where theme arrived to rescue me.
A theme is how you unify the story-telling around a concept, how you make the narrative cohere. Theme informs your choices when you are writing and editing. The current story didn’t have a theme.
Now it does, and it tells me everything about the story: the character’s arc, how she reacts at different stages of the story, and how to signal the character’s motivations. It’s really helped me a lot.
I will probably have to change her name, though.
Back to the word mines.
[*] “optimised” may be a strong word.