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To give some background, my short story is written from the perspective of person K. His school friend A (they are both in their mid-twenties now) invites him to stay in Vegas for a short time, and K accepts the invitation, as he is taking a break from university to work on his painting.

Both characters are struggling with personal demons, K with the death of his parents while A is struggling with a gambling addiction which has isolated him from family (this isn't immediately revealed). And part of the reason A has invited him over is to take advantage of him financially, as K's family has never had problems with money. The idea is that A has lied to K, saying he works at a casino, when in reality he is spending all his time there gambling. In the story K catches him doing this and there is some sort of confrontation. I also want to explore K's changing perception of Vegas, from the riches and luxury to the poverty and suffering.

My question is what kind of scenes would be good to include? I want the reader to care about the characters and their problems by having some backstory (e.g. K and A having conversations) before introducing conflict, but I don't want to include unnecessary details. Ideally, the characters would be in some kind of danger/dilemma, e.g. shady loan sharks coming after A, but I don't want to have violence/action for the sake of it. One route to explore could be K's painting (it reminds him of his late mother and brings out certain emotions).

The big question is whether the short story could work well without any extra characters.

Another thing is how to maintain tension throughout the story. Would it be anti-climactic if once K catches A at the casino, the characters fight and then finally connect over their problems and help each other? I don't want all the stakes and tension to be lost too suddenly if that makes sense.

A might be stealing from K so I'm wondering whether something more dramatic with loan sharks, violence, etc would work better. And whether A redeems himself at all or chooses to go on a more self-destructive route.

Thanks for all your help, I appreciate this is quite a lot of info.

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  • I recommend a swimlane diagram for your 2 characters. Plot their arcs with the minimum number of story beats necessary. Adjust swimlane timing until both characters' actions hurt the other (When A most needs support, K is emotionally withdrawn; when K needs support, A is is on a manic high). Filter that information through K's pov, then filter again according to story/plot (only what the reader needs to know). The tension is in showing and hinting to the reader things (about A, about K, about their relationship) that Protagonist (K) is not ready to face. Good Luck!
    – wetcircuit
    Jun 28 at 13:01
  • Thanks, the idea of adjusting timing is a really good one, particularly for a scene where A is on a manic high. I wasn't familiar with this idea of story beats so that is also very interesting! Do you have any advice on how to decide on the direction of the natural progression and resolution (positive, negative etc) of their arc?
    – abrac
    Jun 28 at 16:12
  • I would work out each character individually as necessary scenes (beats) that move their arc, make sure they each have a solid arc, then do the swimlane adjusting so they hurt each other when lowest. From your description, A is all external, K is internal (at least until they re-unite). Important to show that K's internal negative arc is just as bad as A's external (K makes choices to reject positive behavior, isolating from support, dwelling on 1 part of painting instead of finishing). Reader needs to know K is a jerk too, before A's betrayal is revealed. Balance them as much as possible.
    – wetcircuit
    Jun 28 at 19:15
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    Robert McKee has good advice about what scenes are important to include: mckeestory.com/do-your-scenes-turn
    – wetcircuit
    Jun 28 at 19:16
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    Thank you so much. With this kind of great advice I really feel I can write the short story to completion.
    – abrac
    Jun 28 at 20:48

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