I already had practice with very short stories, like with 1-3k words, writing literally first things that came to my head. The next logical step would be to write something about 8-12k words, because what I'm trying to practice here is planning the actual plot. But every idea for a plot I come up with seems to be excessively long, suitable only for big novels. I don't want to skip to that right away for several reasons. The most important one is that I'm pretty sure I won't be able to finish it. Any advices on how to come up with something short?
I don't believe there really are long ideas or short ideas. Instead, there are just ideas.
Even if you say that your plot is very detailed, it doesn't really matter. Instead, it all depends upon how you write the scenes.
Here's the entire Wizard Of Oz (by Frank Baum) story.
The year is 1935. The place, a dirt road, somewhere in Kansas. Dorothy, a teenager, is walking home on a dirt road with her Cairn Terrier, Toto. Dorothy looks up at the black swirling sky. "It looks like bad weather, Toto." She runs for the house. "Auntie Em...A tornado is coming!" Dorothy runs to her bedroom. The tornado touches down outside and her window blows open, the frame hits her in the head knocking her unconscious. *** Dorothy wakes up with Toto licking her face. Cheerful singing greets her. "The wicked witch is dead..."
"Where am I," she asks.
"You're in Oz," a high pitched voice answers.
Suddenly she is surrounded by little people.
"I must get home," Dorothy said. "Auntie Em and all my uncles will be worried about me."
"Oh, you want to get home? You must visit the Wizard."
"Who," Dorothy asks.
"The wonderful Wizard of OZ," another of the little people said.
"How do I find him?"
"Follow the yellow brick road," said Mayor Little-person.
"Wait. Hold on a second," said Lyle the little-person.
"What is it now, Lyle," asked Mayor.
"Look the shoes the Wicked Witch of the East's feet. They are glowing."
At that same moment a glowing ball of light appears.
"What's that," asked Dorothy.
"It's not a that, it's a who," said the glowing ball of light. Then the ball of light turned into a princess with a magic wand. "I'm Glenda and I'm good. Now the ruby slippers shall be yours. They will give you some kind of powers."
Instantly the ruby slippers which were on the dead witches feet were on Dorothy. Dorothy felt her feet tingle. "Oh, I don't know."
Bamf! Now an old green-faced crone appeared in front of Dorothy and screamed.
"That's right you don't know. Those slippers are mine. You killed my sister and I'll get you my little pretty."
"Oh, such a bother," said Glenda. "Now, off with you." Glenda pointed her wand and an arc of lightning erupted from it and hit the Witch and she screamed out.
"You've won for now, little girl. But I'll get you."
Glenda turned to Dorothy. "Do not worry about her. But now you must be off. You must get to the wizard so he can take you back to Kansas."
"Follow the yellow brick road," the group of little people sang.
So Dorothy followed the yellow brick road. There she found a scarecrow who could talk. He didn't believe he was too bright so he asked to go along to meet the wizard so he could ask for some brains. "If I only had a brain..." he sang. And they were off again.
Finally they came to a forest with angry trees. As they were running from the trees they ran into a tin man who had gotten stuck in a rain storm and had rusted up. They oiled him up and he told them he'd like to go along because he wanted to get a heart. Dorothy and Scarecrow assured the Tin Man that the Wizard would give him one.
Later they met a lion who tried to scare them, but who had no courage. They invited him along and he went too. Again, they all sang, "We're off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz." All their hopes and dreams were stored up in anticipation of meeting the Wizard.
After a long journey they met the Wizard but he sent them away. They had to bring him the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. She was none to happy to see them coming after her. She set scarecrow on fire. Dorothy grabbed a bucket of water and threw it on scarecrow to put him out, but some of the water landed on the witch -- who hadn't bathed in over 200 years -- and the water melted her down to nothing. Hurrah! The witch is dead. They grabbed her broom and skedaddled back to the Wizard.
He was not happy to see them. "Go away," said the wizard. "You are a bad man and you are not keeping your word," Dorothy said. "oh, you've got me," said the Wizard. He came out and Dorothy and him got in a hot air balloon to sail back to Kansas. But, before they could, Dorothy woke up. She was back in her bed in Kansas. She had just been knocked unconscious and had dreamed the whole thing. Or had she...?
~~~ The End ~~~~
This was a ridiculous example, right? It shows you something. Write your story out as quickly as possible; as short as possible. Next go back and fill in the parts of the story that will make it more interesting.
For example, I tell you how she met the scarecrow with very few details. You could add a very lengthy scene there. However, you do not have to. You could leave this story as it is and it would be short and not necessarily incomplete. It all depends upon what is important to your story.
I could tell the entire story like this:
Dorothy travels to a magical land but all she really wants is to get back home. She must find the Wizard of Oz who has magical powers and convince him to take her back home. On the way to find him she meets Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion who travel with her. The Wizard of Oz requires her to defeat an evil witch. When she does the Wizard doesn't want to help her anyway. She and her three friends convince the Wizard to help Dorothy, but in the end she wakes up and learns the entire thing was a dream anyway.
All of this should indicate a secret of writing. That secret is :
Write in layers
- Get your idea
- Write it out fast
- Add layers of detail.
There are no long or short ideas. There are just ideas. :)
Write down the ideas that are too long for later use (and to free your mind) and just keep developing new ideas until you hit on something that has the right length.
Generating ideas works best if you don't censor your thoughts, and trying to limit your ideas to the right length will only impede your idea generator. So let it flow. Eventually something will pop up.
I'll bet you can learn a lot from what you've already done...
- Write down the plots of the very short stories that you've already written. Notice how "long" they are.
- Compare your short stories' plots to the plots you're planning for your longer stories.
- How do the longer plots differ from the shorter ones?
- Sketch a few plots that seem more like the shorter ones.
Here are some of the common variables that affect the length of a plot:
- The number of characters.
- The number of settings.
- The number of subplots or plot threads.
- The number of problems the main character is juggling.
- The number of try/fail cycles before the main character finally puts everything on the line.
Short stories are great because they concentrate on a single moment: the moment after which something in the character's life has changed and they can no longer ignore it. You can keep the story short by concentrating only on how the character reacts to this change, and you know that the story is done when they arrive at a decision.
You can look to Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway to see how they handle minimalism. I would also look at Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" for pacing (technically this work is considered a collection, even though each story shares a lot of the same characters).
If complex novel-length plots come naturally, then try writing a single (or pair of) scene(s) from the longer story -- an episode in the larger arc. The challenge will then be to produce distinct and authentic voices for the characters without the back-story and world-building that the longer format would afford.