Thursday, May 31, 2012

Love is Murder: the Art of the Short

This week is the release of the International Thriller Writers' ITW’s  new romantic suspense anthology Thriller 3: Love is Murder.

Edited by Sandra Brown and Allison Brennan, featuring stories by Lee Child, Heather Graham,  Sherrilyn Kenyon, several authors some of you will know from Murderati: Allison, Rob Browne, JT Ellison, and a whole lot of other great authors.  And me.

As you can see from that lineup, it’s going to be a bit more heavy on the suspense than on the romance!

I’ve said here before I very rarely write short stories. For me it’s every bit as hard to come up with a great idea for a short story as it is for a novel, so my feeling has always been: why not push through and MAKE it a novel (or script) which will serve as an income stream instead of just a fun advertisement for your books that ARE income-producing?

That may sound pretty crassly commercial, but writers have to be practical if we want to eat.

(And I don't think that it's a coincidence that the art of the short was at its zenith back when short story authors were paid an actual living wage for their efforts. An older author friend told me what she was paid for a short story in the 60's and OH MY GOD. Seriously.)

But maybe I’m just a long-form writer by nature. I wrote my first short story, The Edge of Seventeen, only because I was asked to contribute to an anthology I thought was a really cool idea – stories about marginalized superheroes (people of color, women), and I thought I could probably manage a dark story about an alienated high-school girl who has to become a heroine in horrific circumstances. She’s dreaming about a terrible massacre at her school, and becomes convinced that she can stop the shooting with the help of a popular boy, her secret crush, who is having the same dream. I wrote it, loved it, and it went on to win a Thriller Award for Best Short Fiction. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and the situations and it just kept nagging me that there was a lot more to it, and last year I finally just gave in to that pull and adapted the story as a VERY dark YA thriller, The Space Between.

I was right – there was a whole hell of a lot more to it, including quantum physics and parallel universes, and I’m actually now going to have to continue the whole thing as a trilogy.

And now that I’ve written my dreamlike Bahamian cat-and-mouse encounter In Atlantis for the Love is Murder anthology, I’m having the same thing happen – I can’t stop thinking about the characters and what happens for them next, and I know I’m going to end up expanding the story into a novel which may actually turn into a series.

So my very infrequent attempts at short stories seem to turn out to be springboards for future novels.
Yet people are always asking me to talk about how to structure a short story. And even though I don’t have much experience writing them myself, I can look at them analytically and come to conclusions that may be helpful (you know my prescription for everything by now – MAKE A LIST of ten of your favorites and see what the storytellers are doing and how they do it.)

I don’t read many short stories these days but I grew up compulsively reading Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies, and actively sought out stories by my favorite authors: Shirley Jackson, Daphne Du Maurier,  Ray Bradbury, Poe of course, and Stephen King.

The ones that spring to mind instantly are the horrific "They Bite", by none other than Anthony Boucher, for whom the unpronounceable Bouchercon is named;"The Yellow Wallpaper" - even more horrific in a feminist kind of way, by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore; "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, to which The Hunger Games owes, well, just about everything. "The Birds" and any number of shorts by Daphne DuMaurier, she is just electrifying. Just about everything in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. And Stephen King's "The Mist", really more of a short novel, but we've already established that I like long. In fact, every single one of my list (except, I think, The Lottery) are shorts that have been adapted into full-length movies, so it's pretty clear what my taste is. 

I've noticed that ones that I love not only have enough going on to make a whole full length novel - they also have that great high concept premise, which usually includes a huge twist.  I really think that the essence of a short story is the twist, and once you have that, you can set up the story with a basic three-act structure: You have someone who wants something very badly (The Act I setup) who is having trouble getting it (The Act II complications) and eventually DOESN’T get what they think and say want, but they get what they really need instead. (Which creates the Act III twist.)

Because of the restriction of length, often all a short story really does is take a premise and set it up (Set Up is generally just Act I of a novel or film) and pretty much cuts directly to the chase: the final battle and TWIST. The Edge of Seventeen was basically that set up and then the twist. As a matter of fact, when I actually sat down to write the first draft of the novel, I found I used most of the story almost directly as written as the first act!

So with a short story, you have a beginning and an end, but not much of the vast middle section that comprises a full-length novel or film.

I think that's why shorts are so seductive (and arguably good practice) to more beginning writers.  It's pretty easy to write a first act.  It's the middle that's hard. (I may just have gotten myself in a world of trouble, we'll see!)

Another thing I think a short has to deliver - every bit as much as a full-length novel does - is the genre EXPERIENCE (or maybe you've noticed  I'm just a little obsessed with this aspect of writing, these days).

I had no premise at all in mind when I was asked to do a story for Love is Murder. I said yes because - well, seriously! It's not like I could turn this opportunity down - with that lineup of writers, I was going to do whatever it took.  But when I actually had to sit down and write something, I was in a very difficult place emotionally and I wasn’t feeling very romantic. Suspense I can do in my sleep, but love wasn’t the first thing on my mind. So I asked myself what would be a romantic escape, the kind of fantasy setting that I think really helps deliver the experience of romantic suspense? And the first thing that came to mind was my first trip to the Bahamas. We Left Coasters don’t generally do the Bahamas – we tend to go to the far closer paradise of Hawaii if we’re in the mood for an island, so the first time I was in those other islands it was truly an overwhelming experience.

I knew I could do the sensuality of that setting justice, and then I decided not to fight the emotional place that I was in, but rather use the experience of heartache and devastation as a jumping off point for the story. And once I’d put a wounded character into that lush setting, everything started coming alive – it’s just the magic of the process. I also took a huge hit of inspiration from the image of the Tarot Queen of Cups – that card was a touchstone for the main character, the Macguffin, and the whole story.

I layered water imagery and the theme of Atlantis and precious objects and art throughout, to make a kind of dreamnlike  modern fairy tale (which I won't talk too much about because it's too easy to give away a short.). I did structure the story in three acts (I'd actually say that ALL stories are three acts, that's what makes them stories), but I'm very aware that the first two acts of the short would be no more than a first act in a full length novel, and that the third act of the short would still be the third act of a novel - with many more twists and action, of course.

But I'm perfectly aware that I may just be looking at the structure of a short that way because it allows me to fit the longer-form ideas that I have into the format of a short.

I know that there are others here who are far more experienced at writing shorts than I am, so I'd like to hear from you all. Do you read a lot of shorts? Do you write them?  How do you write them?  Is my "Act I set up, then cut to the Act III chase" resonating with you (as a reader OR a writer) or do you find yourself doing something completely different?

- Alex

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Joanie said...

What's always amazing to me is that the pay for most short stories is still the same number of pennies per word as it was in the 1960s. Hard to make any kind of living when pay never increases to match the present.


Albert Tucher said...

Don't worry about "crass" commercialism. Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Mozart were all taking their best shot at prosperity, not a vow of poverty.

Thanks for an illuminating post.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Joanie, seriously! Writing shorts can ONLY be a hobby at today's pay level. I'm a MAD MEN addict and one of the things I love about the show is that it's always saying exactly how much things cost at the time, and what tax rates were, and interest rates. If Peggy, a successful ad exec, is asking for a raise that would put her income at 18,000 a year, then a price of $2000 for a short story (which my friend was making) would be more than a month's income. OF COURSE a short is going to be killer quality when you have that kind of time to income ratio involved. Elves don't really do the writing for us.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Albert, thanks. I'm not actually worried. I'd never claim the brilliance of your list, but I expect to be paid for what I deliver, and I fully expect other artists to be paid for what they deliver, too. I think it's a huge trap for writers, musicians, any artist to buy into the "If you love it, you'll do it for free" pressure. I WOULD do it for free but that doesn't mean I SHOULD or WILL.

aniko said...

It would only be crass commercialism if you took a short story and forced it to be longer than the story itself justifies. As you point out, many excellent works are perfect as stories, and are no less poignant for the lower word count. It is the false bloat that is crass, not the taking of a story and growing it into a fully-realized novel (or series).

As far as writing process goes, the middle is where I panic. It feels a little like crossing a rope bridge over a deep chasm; I hope things hold together well enough to get me to the other side. Determination comes in handy, as does letting the characters show you what should happen. It takes skill and concentration to write a middle that doesn't sag. Books that probably should have stayed short stories tend to have a middle that snaps like a rotted rope bridge with too many people on it.

Looking forward to Love is Murder!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Aniko, I hope that the story elements checklist and discussions here help make the middle easier. Understanding the classic beats of that middle journey really guides me when things get dark!

But I also think we have to feel the struggle, to be able to honestly depict our characters' struggle.

V. L. Smith said...

One to add to the list of short stories that made it big... Compare the short story "Flowers For Algernon" to the movie "Good Will Hunting".

If I remember, there is even some mention of it in the movie credits.

V. L. Smith said...

To add to the "short story inspired list" I think the movie, Good Will Hunting, was inspired by the short story, Flowers for Algernon. I "think" I remember seeing a reference to that in the credits. If not - it should have been there!

aniko said...

I'll be reading through your writing tips posts from beginning to end. Thanks for drawing my attention to them. Happy Writing!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

V.L., even if "Good Will Hunting" wasn't inspired by Algernon, that heartbreaking short story made it to the big screen in the 60's I think, as "Charly". Definitely enough there for full length. One of my favorite shorts ever.