photo courtesy of Don Ford
Are you plodding along in your short story or plotting your story?
Plodding stories are often preachy stories. For example, a disobedient girl finally gets in so much trouble she has to get help. Or a small animal learns he can't do what he wants at the expense of others. Or a child who is different from everyone else finds out it's okay to be who she is.
Does that mean you can't ever teach something in a short story? Of course not. But it can't be the whole point of the story. It can't be something that only adults are interested in (i.e. children minding or having clean rooms). Nor can the lesson learned be a moral tagged on at the end. Instead the child character must have a problem that is important to him to solve.
Plodding stories can also be a day-in-the-life-of-the-main-character or what we call slice-of-life stories. First this happens, then that, etc. etc. But the child does not have a problem, nor does she solve it. Often these start with the child waking up in the morning and end with going to bed at night. There's no plot.
Following a child through imaginative play or a dream is also usually a plodding story. Again, no problem or solution is involved. No plot. In a blog post, freelance editor Mary Kole compared these to having to listen to someone's fantastic dream. It's really only interesting to the teller.
So how do you turn a plodder into a plotted story? It's fairly simple: you need a problem, an obstacle or two, and a solution. Sometimes, the obstacles are a failed solution, so another solution, and maybe even another is needed.
Think of a situation or a problem appropriate for your main character's age. Yes, I mentioned age. A problem that a five-year-old experiences is not the same as one a ten-year-old experiences and definitely different from a teen's. Think of mistakes made, fears, etc. for that age. These are not usually major life issues, but are a big deal for the child. What does your main character want right now? And what is preventing him from getting it? What can he do to get it?
Having trouble with ideas? Think back to that age when you were a child. Can you remember your fears, disappoints, mistakes? Do you remember getting in trouble? Remember wishing you'd done something different? Take one of your problems and win with it. Mine those memories and feelings for your characters. Examples often help me learn so here's one for you:
Once as a teen I gave into peer pressure and regretted it. I wrote a story with a character in the same situation; she also gave in and had the same regret, but instead of doing nothing about it as I did in real life, my character goes back to her friends and does something to make it right. Was my goal to say "don't give into peer pressure?" No. Did the story perhaps help some teen when they were facing peer pressure? I hope so. It might have also encouraged a teen who'd made another mistake. But mainly, it presented a story of a teen with a real life problem and her solution.
Okay, so what if you can't remember anything from your childhood? Do you have children, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, friends with children? Pay attention to what is happening with those kids.
My daughter told me my middle grandson got to learn a life lesson recently. His second grade teacher gave them an optional homework assignment. Each student who did it, would get a root beer float the next day. Our second grader has quite the sweet tooth and a root beer float was motivation. However, despite Mom's reminders that he'd better start on the assignment, he kept playing and putting it off. Dinner came--another reminder. Bedtime came and he still hadn't done it. Uh oh! There's his problem--no finished assignment, therefore, no root beer float tomorrow. Could he solve the problem? Yes. His solution: he asked his mother if he could stay up late to work on it. He did for a while, then got too tired. That's an obstacle. His next solution: he asked if his parents would wake him up early. They did, he got the assignment done before school and got the reward. Notice whose idea it was to stay up late and to get up early. In real life often the adults give these ideas, but in your story, the kid needs to come up with the idea(s).
Life is full of problems. We can't always solve those problems, but are encouraged when we hear how others have solved a problem. It gives us hope. Hope is part of the purpose of a short story. When the main character resolves her problem, the reader feels hopeful and the writer has accomplished something important.
Perhaps this article has given you hope about turning plodders into well-plotted stories.