WIR #25: Creating Short Fiction

creating short fiction-125I have liked Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction since the day I bought it. I've read it several times, and this time around I've been finding and highlighting lots of new gems. That's just one of many reasons, I think, in favour of reading some books several times over.

Thanks to Knight's methods for generating ideas, I've written a short story titled, "The Limnades." However, it's longer than I intended it to be. It's 8400 words.

While reading Creating Short Fiction last night, I came across a very useful passage:

Madame de Staël once wrote, "If I had more time, I should have written you a shorter letter." She meant, of course, that she was working out what she wanted to say as she went along, instead of thinking it through and then saying it briefly. If you are writing short stories this way, they are probably running to seven and eight and ten thousand words, and editors are probably sending them back. Compression is a matter of planning and method — like packing things carefully in a suitcase instead of throwing them in helter-skelter.

This is one of my favourite books on writing. That may be because of Knight's conversational tone, or it may be because he's not as dogmatic as some. I think it's because his instruction is relevant, workable, and reliable. It's also practical. Here's the instruction that follows the paragraph above:

Before you begin your next short story, make a list of the scenes and episodes in it, and write down the number of pages you think each one should have. Now you have a series of compartments into which you have to pack your story. If the total tells you that the story will be more than six thousand words long, go back over the list and reduce the number of pages. When you have written the first scene or episode, if it is spilling over its compartment, you are either going to have to reduce it somehow, or else trim down another section to make room for it.

Look at the scenes or episodes that make up your story. Are any of them unnecessary? Out with them. Have any necessary sections been omitted? (...) What is each section intended to do? Is there anything in that section that does not contribute toward its principal function, or that actively works against it?

In a short story, every scene must contribute to the pattern. If any scene or incident, or even any word or sentence, has no function, it must be pruned. In fact, the problem of compression in a short story is so acute that every passage must perform three or four functions at the same time — advance the plot, add to the characterizations, introduce background information, and so on — like a juggler keeping three or four balls in the air at once.

If you are having trouble with this, try listing in advance everything that you want to accomplish in each scene. First determine what the main purpose of the scene is. (If it has none that you can find, maybe the scene doesn't belong in the story.) Then ask yourself what else the scene can be used for. Will it carry more information if you move it from one setting to another? Introduce an additional character? Make something else happen that will strengthen the plot, or add to the background, or reveal character?

If you think that rich with advice — and I do, I assure you — the exercise Knight gives at the end of this discussion of "Compression" is even more so.

I've another 50 pages to read, and then I'll've finished this book.

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