Over the last few years I have been dabbling more and more with writing short fiction. Generally I am most comfortable writing non-fiction, but one summer day the inspiration struck me to write a short story. Since it was nap-time for my two-year-old I took my seven-months-pregnant self downstairs to the computer to try my hand at short fiction writing again.
I’ve never been officially trained in short-story writing or any kind of fiction. I surfed the web and found a site that explained the typical components of a plot. I mulled over the definitions of the lead-in, the precipitating incident and the rising action. Climax and falling-action seemed understandable, though tricky to write. I had to look up denouement on several sites to get a clear idea of this concept.
I knew I needed to take baby-steps to learn to write short fiction. The thought of starting with the lead-in and writing the climax and denouement without a plan made me slightly short of breath. I only had about a half an hour before naptime was over, so I knew I couldn’t write for very long. With all of this information swirling around my head, I developed my own short fiction writing exercise that I could complete in about half an hour.
Here’s what I did. I told myself to write one sentence for every basic plot structure component. That meant only one sentence for the lead-in, the precipitating incident and so on. Here are the plot components I used and here is the first paragraph that I came up with (color coded of course):
When I was a child I lived in the mountains of Colorado. One summer we went away on vacation for a few weeks and came back to find our house robbed and ransacked. As a child I couldn’t understand why some of my larger, more expensive toys were gone. My mother circulated the rumor that my brother’s friends, knowing from my brother that we were out of town, had been the perpetrators. Nothing came of those rumors, however, at least nothing concrete that brought my toys back. So I did without my toys and eventually forgot about them.
I was surprised by how things turned out. It seemed like I expressed an idea very completely and in a more satisfactory manner than my usual fiction ramblings. It also surprised me because, though had its own mini-plot, it seemed like this piece could be a small piece of a larger story.
Later that week I did the same exercise again, only this time I had two sentences per plot element. This is what I produced:
In a cold, quiet forest, a small squirrel ran up a lodge-pole pine tree, skipping from one trunk to another, gripping the bark with its claws. Below the now sky-borne squirrel, the lumbering of a brown bear on its water path broke into the quiet of the forest with snapping of twigs, the rustling of leaves and the bear’s own heavy, rumbled breathing. The bear descended the hill in front of him, following his normal route to the small silvery pond for a drink of water. But the bear stopped; no ordinary animal possessed that smell. Through the trees at the edge of the pond a man in a red and black plaid flannel shirt and jeans was squatting, filling his silver water canteen. The man turned suddenly, sensing the nearness of something; in what seemed like the same instant the bear sprinted and lunged at him. The man fumbled at his waist, trying to get something free. His gun went off, the sound reverberating through the trees, through the silence, shattering the stillness. The gun was flung from the man’s hand at the onslaught of the brown bear’s attack. The man attempted to fight the heavy bear with his fists and with swift kicks before the beast was upon him, pinning him to the forest floor. The two creatures resisted each other in a few tense moments of struggle before the man was overcome. The last sound the man remembered before fading into blackness was the bear’s lumbering breathing at his throat.
I hate writing stuff that twinges of tragedy, but this is what came to mind that day (interesting how mood can affect our writing). It was satisfying to me to being able take baby-steps to understand how my own writing style can interact with plot structure. This exercise challenged the way I thought about writing fiction but it also stimulated my creativity and excited me about the possibilities that fiction might hold for me.
Am I touting this as a way to write short stories? No, not really. For me these were exercises, ways to slowly but surely push me out of my non-fiction comfort zone into a new world of short fiction.
-Susan L. Eberling