In my time at the Geek Mart, I’ve produced 15 booklets, each with a short story in them similar in style to Wrong Side of the Bed and I’m often asked two things: 1. ‘Did you write all of these?’ (usually by someone just passing the table) and 2. ‘How did you write these?’ (usually by a writer who struggles to write short fiction, because all their ideas seem too big.)
Where the ideas come from is a whole other thing, but my advice is always the same to those who want to write short fiction: focus on one moment. Maybe it’s a result of teaching 11-year-olds to write short stories, but I became aware years ago that short stories don’t need an explosive ending, so long as they tell the tale correctly, reach a conclusion, and – all things going according to plan – have a twist.
The twist is the thing some people struggle with within a narrative arc, because we’re used to the Soap Opera version of an out-of-the-blue shock to the reader. What we need to remember, as writers, is that the twist works just as well if the reader can see it coming, if the point is to affect the protagonist. That was the approach I took with Wrong Side of the Bed.
Keep reading to see my plan for the story. (But it might help to read it first, to see how what I planned and what I wrote compare to one another.) Everything in italics is additional at the time of writing this.
Wrong Side of the Bed: Behind the Scenes
- Last time she slept: 48 hours ago. Stuck at home, afraid of what will happen. Specifically, afraid of what will happen if she falls asleep. The one-line abstract is ‘A girl teleports whenever she falls asleep.’
- Sleeps, wakes up in France in someone’s bed. Has to flee. Tries to fall back asleep. A story needs a problem, or nothing is really happening. Before letting my protagonist get to the ‘What if someone finds out and I become a lab-experiment?’ train of thought, I focused on placing her in uncomfortable scenarios.
- Wakes on a desert island. Heat causes her to fall asleep. A problem with other people is one thing. A problem alone is another. I chose to cut her off, make her face a bigger problem – life or death. Sometimes being cruel to our characters is a choice we have to make, other times it’s just for fun.
- Wakes up in a museum after-hours. Stares at the artwork. I had Ferriss Bueller on the mind, I think.
- Wakes up in the scene of a painting (IRL). Sleeps again. Finding herself less tired. Change the problem: she’s waking in places she’s thinking of, and she’s going to find it more difficult to get away if she wakes up somewhere she doesn’t want to be.
- Wakes at her mother’s house. Tells her she’s feeling unsettled. ~
- Spends day with her mother. Sleeps. Wakes in the same bed. A story needs a conclusion, and a problem has to go away. If this was a superhero story, she’d need to learn control over her superpower. Going for something closer to ‘Problems manifest in reality’ rather than ‘having a unique ability’, she had to get rid of the teleportation.
I won’t claim that it’s the best story out there, and maybe I didn’t follow all the typical rules of storytelling and flash fiction with it. At the very least, though, the approach to planning should help others who worry that an idea is too big or too small for a short story. In my case, Alexa’s waking hours were spent trying to get back asleep.
Knowing how much you’ll write for each point is a good way to judge how long your story will be. I was aiming for a thousand words – I ended up at 1145 – and knew that anywhere between 5-7 points would be enough to get me there, depending on how much detail I included in each one. I used this approach when planning A Death in the Family, writing down every point of action and the smaller details in new settings that needed to be addressed.
Every month, I’ll have a new short story up, and follow that up with another post like this. With a bit of luck, someone will learn something new about storytelling – that someone might even be me. What’s your approach to storytelling? Do you plan your stories in advance?