So I have my inspiration, (thank you Miley), I have my idea, I've had a long car ride to flesh out the idea inside my head. Now it's time to finally put things down on paper and really take a look at it.
There are two schools of thought on this stage of the process: pantsing and outlining. I outline. Sometimes I pants (as in fly-by-the-seat-of-my- and not remove-the-trousers-of-unsuspecting-high-schoolers). Generally, I have to sit on an idea for awhile and really let it brew for a few days before I have something I can bring to the empty page. Occasionally, I'll have an idea that arrives fully formed and ready for paper. Most ideas require a maturation process. There's yeast involved. Maybe some media. Some mash. Some hops. Music. Sometimes I add ingredients from other ideas. It's a unscientific and messy process, but by the end of it, I have something tangible. Having an outline helps me mold that ungainly mental brew into something that someone somewhere might one day actually want to read.
Much has been said about story structure. There is the 7 Point Plot structure, the Hero's Journey, the Save the Cat minute-by-minute guide... all of which seemed tailored to either novels or movies. Short stories are something different and while it does help to have an understanding of these schools of structuring, I find them to large and detailed for the light agile animal that is the short story. So, I came up with my own 5 Structure Points, and it goes like this:
Hook Hold Seduce Surprise Satisfy
If I can achieve these five points, I'm fairly confident that I have at least a decent short story on my hands. Let me go into more detail on each.
Hook: This is the quick sentence of paragraph intended to get the reader through the first page. Something to grab their attention. Something to keep the story out of the slush pile until I can introduce the main conflict. This is no big secret, but there are plenty of unread short stories out there that don't have a good hook.
Hold: Okay. So I hooked the reader. Something blew up on page one and I successfully convinced the reader to keep going on to page two. Now what? Conflict! I hook the reader with curiosity but I hold them with the conflict. This is the "What is this story about?" This is the time I remind myself that even the best hook has a short shelf life. I've pulled the reader on to page two, but if I haven't answered "What is this story about?" by page three... into the slush pile she goes! To be clear, I will have had to establish the following things: Who is the protagonist? What does he/she want that she doesn't already have? Who/what is in the way of the protagonist achieving their desires? That's conflict in a nutshell. Seduce: Sounds odd if we're not talking about erotica, which I'm not. What I mean by "seduce" is a way of woo'ing the reader, of grabbing their heart, of making them care, or failing that, answering the "So what?" question. By now, I've brought the reader along, introduced them to the characters in the story and thrown in some plot. This point isn't a piece of actual plot and doesn't need to come along specifically after establishing the conflict. Done right, its woven through the entirety of the story. Not that I won't sometime have a scene that is specifically crafted to make the reader care about the protagonist. At the end of the day, I just need to ensure that the reader is invested in the story and wants the protagonist to win. Surprise: This is simple. I need a twist. A hiccup. Something to foul up the protagonist's perfect plan to resolve the conflict. Or, following the try-fail cycle format of the protagonist trying and failing three times before succeeding, this is the point where the protagonist finally succeeds. Whatever it is, I've built a new status quo that has to be destroyed before I wrap up the story. Here is where that is done. Satisfy: Give the people what they want! This is the end of the story that makes the reader glad they decided to hang around. A story can't succeed if it's all hook and set up. This is the pay off pitch. By now I've set up not just the plot, but I've set up the reader to want to see something. And I either give it, or I specifically deny it. I don't believe that every story needs a happy ending. Tragic endings seemed to work great for Shakespeare, right? I'm also not adverse to vague, uncertain endings, just so long as they leave the reader feeling glad they picked up the story to begin with. Time to wrap everything together, pay-off your set ups, and nail home the ending. They say the ending is the hardest part so you should write that part first. I tend to agree. Or to say it slightly differently, don't start writing until you got a home run ending waiting to burst out. If your story isn't there yet, there's nothing wrong with letting your mental mash brew for a few more days.
And that's my checklist/outline format for writing a short story: Hook, Hold, Seduce, Surprise, and Satisfy. What do you think? What do you use when building a short story? How does this model compare to other structure formats? Let me know what you think and comment below!