Short Story Formula

I like to break things down so I can do them more efficiently. So it seemed to me there must be a formula for short story writing, particularly really short stories. I’ve written enough other forms that I didn’t see why this should elude me. I’ve also been writing in the Clarion West Write-a-thon:

Haha. Funny story. So I was poking around in my email, and I hit some button. It looks like I hit the sign-up button for the Clarion West Write-a-thon! Okay, so whatever. If it’s writing, I can kick its ass, right? I mean, I beat nanowrimo in 12 days last year or something. That’s 50 thousand words in 12 days. So all I do is set some outrageous writing goal–and you know damn straight I can do it–then I pester all of you to sponsor me.

Here’s the link where you do the sponsoring:

It looks like they’ll take any amount! (This really is a worthy organization you guys.)

I’m about 1/3rd of the way down, on the left, looking kinda spooky and washed out.

It’s a six-week deal, and I think I’ll write six short stories, at 3-4 k per week. That’s a big thing for me because to be honest, it’s easier for me to write a book in a week than a short story. I’m really a distance writer. I’m trying to learn to pare it down.

Well, I don’t know how I got into this, but what the hey. Sponsor me for Clarion West!


As a result of this challenge, I’ve had to find a method. It’s not that different from writing a chapter of a novel, I discovered. And if this works, I can be like Chekhov and write billions and billions of these little suckers, just for fun. Here’s what I discovered.

Start with an element. Some kind of premise or situation. It does not matter what! Just pick any kind of stupid thing. Write about that for a few, doing a mini-scene with some dialogue and scene setting. Don’t try to make it too BIG or IMPORTANT. No big concepts or jeremiads. Just mess around.

You can introduce your main character here, do the voice, or tell some about the POV character. Keep it loose.

I also suggest doing what I call “form breaking” which is to put a form in there that is not of the short story. That is, it’s not narration, dialogue, scene setting, or action. That is, it’s something other, like a letter, a song, a legal document, a newspaper article, a piece of folklore, a script… get the idea?

The form break allows you to set it up quicker, like they do in comic books. Think visual. You want to collage the story, kind of surround the wagons with images and ideas type of thing.

This should have quickly set up the first part. Now you add element number two. Again, does not matter what it is. Pick something at random. Something about the main character that sets them apart, is a special skill, burden, power, or problem. Pro tip: just like in Chinese where danger also means opportunity, so in the short story, the character’s special burden is also the character’s secret weapon or hidden strength. And note how efficient that is, too! I do appreciate efficiency.

Do some illustrate-y stuff next about how the POV character relates to the world or other characters. This is a great place for dialogue, a mini-scene between two characters. Of course in the dialogue, you do all the usual stuff like character development, plot movement, and you’re amping up the problem of the story. But I figure you know to do that.

OK, action. Generally right here, I move the POV character to a new location to find out new information and possibly meet a new character. The previous scene probably gave them good reasons to move. The character they meet may be the antagonist, or turn out to be an ally. Sometimes I will use two characters here so it keeps the reader guessing.

This is a good place to showcase (again) the POV character’s hidden strength. It may be just a hint or more obvious. You don’t go “This was her hidden strength.” You just show it, how cool it is, or make it noticeable. Sort of developing the strength, making it grow through the story, by repetition and change. Sometimes this is known as resonance.

Pro tip: while internal monologue is neat, it’s more efficient to have characters for the POV character to talk to. POV characters develop faster with other characters to bump up against. Just as in real life, the stress of dealing with other people causes them to grow.

Action: shocking information is gleaned by the POV character! A bad scene! Also, around this point, POV character might be re-evaluating their life choices, realizing they didn’t know all they thought, realizing they are more like someone else than they knew, or making a decision or choice to be strong. Don’t make this too overt. Show it by facial gestures, body language, little remarks they make. If they have some kind of key phrase they say, you can rework it to mean something different to show how their mentality is changing.

Now you can work on the wrap-up, because this is two-thirds done. You can either finish in one scene or you can also have a denouement on the end. Remember we are keeping this at 3 to 4 k. (3,000 to 4,000 words)

The wrap-up is the hardest part, because it’s like tying off knitting that is all tight and everything pulls on everything else. You have to work hard to get it. Just muscle through and get it done, is my advice.

Climax scene: action. The antagonist will now threaten POV character with the special burden or the problem they had in the beginning. All the fit is now going to hit the proverbial shan. Things look bad for POV character. You know, do scene, dialogue, make sure to throw in cool setting that gives poignant hints of mood. I like to have things glitter in the air a lot.

You can use one of your secondary characters for surprise help here, or as someone for the POV character to protect. Resonate your POV character’s hidden strength again. Cast doubt on whether the POV character can do it. The POV character must re-realize their change of mentality from above, which now comes to fruition and pushes them to take action!

Then have the POV character pull the wild card out of the pocket!

This wild card is generally two of the previous elements combined. That is, hidden strength + something else. Sometimes it’s even three elements combined, but the combo is important because it’s both surprising and not surprising, which is what readers expect. Therefore satisfying. (Don’t forget that hidden strength is often the flip side of special burden. Very important.)

Pro tip: do not use a deus ex machina! That’s what this whole method is set up to avoid. Use combined elements from earlier in the story, developed or applied in surprising ways.

Denouement: the quickest is a form break. I.e. a newspaper article or outside convo that tells what happened. It has an aura of authority to it, too. But you could also slap on a little commentary at the end, a true denouement, that re-states just for clarity and resolution, what the situation is NOW. As opposed to when the story started.

The end!

Finally, there is a element of magic to this, I don’t deny. Sometimes it works because you’ve done so much practicing, you’ve basically tried it all, and so you instinctively know how to line the elements up and execute them effectively. So I always advocate the “writing until your eyeballs nearly fall out, for around two hours a day for ten years” approach. It’s extremely effective, and surprisingly efficient, compared to the alternative, “writing once every six months, and half finishing a story.” I’ve tried both methods. Guess which one got results?

Happy short story writing! I’ll gladly answer any questions anyone may have. I could talk craft for a week and never be done.







The Greatest Master Move

The greatest master move of all. There is something beyond for us to listen to. When we hear that, all other moves fall by the wayside.

I was in a wave pool once, and noticed that if I floated at the deep end, I could hear the mechanism of the wave maker, grinding along, making waves. I was transfixed. “Listen to this!” I said to the people with me. “You have got to hear this!” They listened, but weren’t that impressed. “But it’s like listening to the back stage area of the universe,” I insisted. “It’s the connective tissue, the stuff behind the scenes!”

Of course it wasn’t really that. It merely represented that to me, at the time. Although I still find the sound of a wave maker to be eerie. But the back stage area of the universe–that’s a real thing, a real shortcut, something accessible. I used to think it was like puppet strings, that if I pulled the right one, I’d be able to control my life, my art, outcomes. It’s not like that. This is a dimension you access by surrendering to it, and you do this by stopping thought.

Sounds too easy, or maybe too difficult, in turns. It’s both. It’s easy to start and to see it, but hard to keep it going, as thought has a tendency to return in full force. Still, these little glimpses into the infinite have incredible impact. Some people call this practice meditation, and some call it yoga. Either of those will work to begin the practice of stopping thought for the sake of creativity, for mastering writing.

And oh, what you see, when you stop your thought! Oh, that shiny, shiny world! It creates both ecstasy and extreme positivity, to the point of spontaneous grinning and laughter, and THAT is what allows the something-beyond to whisper through.

Of course, it can get through without such extreme measures. Most creative people do stop their thoughts briefly to let inspiration take hold. But it works better the longer you do not think. I try to stop thought any time I can, sometimes as long as half a day. I would like to do it most of the time, but I’m not really advanced enough yet. And you would assume this would screw up my life, that I would make mistakes and everything would fall apart. Quite the opposite. Things fall into sync, and I’ve done things like found creative solutions, noticed and fixed broken things, evaded car accidents, experienced astonishing insights, gotten places early, impressed people far and wide, and all of it while I’m blissing out from an unreasonable level of happiness.

I’ve been a thinker for most of my life. I’ve got an advanced academic degree; in the past, I pushed thinking pretty far. Far enough that I found its shabby edges. Far enough that I began to suspect its limitations. And when I heard that thought might actually be the problem, I listened, because it rang true. It was one thing I had not tried. With all my thinking, I’d never come to the conclusion that maybe I should STOP.

By the time I realized this, I was in pursuit of creative goals. Creativity teaches us in little ways to stop thought, to let go of ego. I began to experience the truth of it. Not see, or believe, but experience. And that is the greatest master move. The practice of letting go of thought, of listening to the beyond. Hearing the great ineffable silence, and all that is transposed on top of it.

If you ask me how this helps me to write, or to live, I can only present my first tarot card from a reading I had last week: “unknown.” But it does, by leaps and bounds, by moving through the back stage area of the universe, and so turning to the ineffable silence, the luminous emptiness, is what I call the greatest master move.

And this is not a belief of mine. Nothing so grand. It is merely an experience. I’m sure to some, this does sound very woo-woo and airy fairy, but I challenge you to try it nonetheless. It’s not like it’s going to hurt you to stop thinking for one minute.




Recipe for a Leap of Faith

Here I shall list my recipe for a leap of faith. Actually, I have designed an entire outline for how to write an epic-type book. I wrote it out the other day when I was trying to avoid writing a certain touchy scene wherein a favored character betrays his father. My books all follow what is known as the Levi-Strauss or possibly Joseph Campbell line (yes, I read academic studies of folklore from time to time. I came within inches of a career as a folklorist). You’ve probably heard of this, though. The Hero’s Journey (it’s worth memorizing):

  1. The hero is presented with a challenge, rejects it, and is forced or allowed to accept it.
  2. He/she travels on the road of trials, collecting powers and allies, and confronts evil, only to be defeated.
  3. This leads to a dark night of the soul, after which the hero takes a leap of faith that allows him/her to confront evil and be victorious.
  4. The student has become the teacher.

That’s it. Epic-style book in a nutshell. The rest is all in the details. Should the above prove too abstract, just think Star Wars and you’ll have it.

Since as usual, I’m supposed to be doing five other things right now, I’ll just list my recipe here and be off. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Recipe for a Leap of Faith!

Leap of Faith = old power + new power of mythic deepness

Yes, the answer was within them all along, but how do these leaps of faith work, precisely?

Take 1 (one) old power:

–wamprat shooting

–good with animals



Using visions or a long night of the soul, combine with 1 (one) new power of mythic deepness:

–the Force

–Lion turtles

–Lexiverse manipulation

–vision of what to carve

Results vary, but expect not only triumph over the forces of evil, but deep insight. Can be shown different ways:

–The Force will always be with me. I can trust it.

–Found a new way to fight back, but not kill opponent

–Imagination triumphs over control

–Magic is letting things be what they want to be


For A+ presentation, word the deep insight as a pithy saying.

That is all! You now have a home-baked leap of faith!


Master Moves

I’ve had an intention for awhile now to blog about the craft of writing. Above and beyond anything that happens with my fiction, craft is an area of massive geeky interest to me, something I never tire of discussing. Crescit eundo is the state motto of New Mexico, and it means roughly, “It grows as it goes.” This is how I’ve experienced learning craft, for every time I think I’ve hit the heights, I see that I’ve only reached a level that allows me a view of still higher possibilities. So mastery really eludes me still, and is probably decades off, if I ever get there. But from here, I feel I can at least identify what mastery is.

This is my informal list of what I consider to be master moves in the craft of writing. I’m sure many won’t be represented here; this list really is about moves I’d like to learn myself. I may add more as I go along. I’m always discovering new things in this infinitely fascinating pursuit of better craft.

  1. Coin tricks, or slight of hand. Like a person who does coin tricks, a writer also must draw attention or focus to and then away from certain things. Sometimes a writer introduces X and then covers it up with distracting W, Y, and Z, only to spring X later, when it’s been forgotten. A master knows how to mention just enough distractions to throw the reader off the scent, without mentioning too many and becoming confusing or dull. That way, when the reveal of X comes, it’s not only a surprise–it’s an expected surprise. That’s because X remained in the subconscious of the reader, forgotten, but ready to be activated when the writer produced the right coin. (Writing has also been likened to a performance, or to performing magic, and I’m sure that comparison is equally valid.)
  2. Adding insights of depth. Using themes of depth. A writer can do this without being a master at it. A true master knows exactly how much insight will go over and how often. A true master might also double up the insight with another function, such as visual description. (Efficiency of that type is really more of a mid-level skill.) The true master knows exactly when to lower the blade, so that the deep insight comes across as meaningful and full of gravitas, not trite or preachy. Patience is likely the key here. This may also be a timing issue.
  3. Resonance. Resonance in writing is usually the natural and eventual result of repetition, which is a great mid-level tool on its own. But masters repeat and allow X to morph, playing with the meaning of X, playing with the form of X, letting X cross over with Y, until at last, a deeper meaning mysteriously emerges. This seems to be a case of letting go to let the thing become what it wants to be. I’ve done this one by accident, but I don’t entirely understand it, and I am eager to explore it further.
  4. Rule-breaking. There are oh-so-many rules on the ‘nernet these days that tell us how to use algebra to make a book. Which is all well and good at the newbie level, and helpful for the mid-level writer too. Beyond that, things get a little more quantum. The master starts to do interesting things like going against the rules because a better solution has become clear. The master finds ways to make going against the rules work better than following them. I’m sure it’s something that happens as a matter of course, and not because the master TRIED to do it. Again, it’s a matter of letting go, experimenting, going with hunches, seeing what happens. But generally speaking, it is often the case that the master can get a better effect by breaking certain of the rules than by following them.
  5. In description, a master might be able to describe the essence of an experience before actually identifying the experience, and yet the reader will still follow it.
  6. Forks–in stories, there are these junctures where the story might continue along those lines, and might not. This is a little different from an unfired Chekhov’s gun, because it’s more elaborate. An entire storyline might be introduced, and then abandoned, only to be picked up later. A less experienced writer might introduce such a fork, producing a lot of curiosity in the reader, and then abandon it and never pick it up again. But a master won’t do that. Generally, a master follows up, even if it’s sometime later when least expected (see coin tricks, above). Because the master follows up, the reader learns to trust the master, and therefore, the reader will follow that master anywhere. This is a matter of control–a master does not gesture toward any forks that will not be followed up. (In practice, this is a very high standard to achieve, and I doubt any writer gets 100% at this, but it can always be a good goal to have.)
  7. Exquisite control over point-of-view (POV). This is the wonderful skill to know how deep to go in POV with a character, and when to pull out and touch more lightly on only actions. When to give character thoughts by peppering them, and when to go deeply into character thoughts and experience. Also, WHO to do this with, since a true master will have enough control to get into the POV of other characters too, and will know how deeply to go. A true master can do this even when the book is in first person. How, you ask? Well, I’m no master. But I have observed that visions, framing stories within stories, and dialogue are three useful methods. There are likely others. The real trick, though, is knowing when to go in deep and when to skim the surface. That is where forms can come in handy…
  8. Forms–masterful use of them. Any pen monkey can use a glitzy form or pull a cute form trick, but there’s something different about a true master’s use of form. There’s a solidity and certainty and rightness–perhaps a gravitas–to a master’s form use. I can only say this results from heavy experience of what works. A writer cannot fake this. It is only going to come from layering of experience. A LOT of experience. Also, it’s difficult to describe this. It’s a know-it-when-you-see-it ¬†phenomenon. The cute permutations of form, often attempted by younger, “cool” writers, have a strained quality and a lack of solidity, like it is all form with nothing underneath to support it. They dazzle the eye, but do not draw you in deep.
  9. Deepening. This is my target master move, since it is related to many of the other master moves. It requires, I think, the ability to open up as a writer, as well as intellect or insight, as well as exquisite patience and timing, as well as POV control, as well as form experience. It means following a character’s POV deeply in intimate internal monologue–slowly, but without becoming boring. It means slowing down exposition to a crawl and still being interesting enough to keep readers in there. The ultimate challenge here is to strip the POV character to the essence of their being–very, very slowly–and to take the reader with them. Performed correctly, this deepening is religious or spiritual in its effect on the reader. (Yes, it is a very high standard. Possibly unachievable, but still fascinating to me.)
  10. Bonus master move. This one I’m not sure about, but it’s an idea I’ve been tossing around for awhile. Basically, this is writing on a level that affects reader behavior. It may not be master level, since a lot of ads could be said to do this. But I’m still intrigued with the possibilities. This kind of writing could cause fixations–especially with certain words or concepts. It could cause cravings for certain foods, or an obsession with the fully-realized world in the writing (fans geeking out, basically). It could be hypnotic, as some poetry or music can be, but in prose, this effect can build and build, attaining incredible power. This is writing that colonizes the mind, that creeps in and won’t leave. Could also be writing that gets readers really stirred up and moody, or produces copycat behavior. This writing pushes past the boundary of the page, and into the real world.

That’s my current list. I’m still excited to learn more about how these moves really work, because when they do work, whenever I encounter them, they strike me as so truly beautiful and masterful. They are such a pleasure to experience in reading, giving me so much appreciation for the author’s skill. I only hope that I will have time in life to learn a few of these moves, or get close. Of course, the way to achieve this is to read and to write a LOT. There is no substitute.