Saturday, December 15, 2007

Commandment Numero Dos.

First things first: A new six of mine is up at Six Sentences: A Wolf at the Door. In case you missed it, JED has one up there as well: Sky Lighting. Check them both out. Oh, and have I shamelessly plugged my piece on Ideomancer yet today? No? Well, there you go.

So on to the Second Commandment of Short Story Writing: Thou Shalt Hold Thy Reader’s Attention Vigorously.

So you’ve obeyed Commandment #1 (Thou Shalt Grab Thy Reader’s Attention Immediately) and have written an opening that immediately makes the reader go “wow, what happens next!” and dive into the story. Great. Now you just have to duplicate that feat for every other sentence of the story. Have fun!

Seriously, this Commandment is very closely linked to Commandment #1, in that it requires you to keep writing interesting things. There are some new considerations, however: First, the Good: You build up what I will call “interest capital” throughout the course of the story. That is to say, the more interesting, compelling, captivating material you have, the more you can afford to stray a little and still hope to maintain the reader’s attention. Don’t get me wrong, the goal here is that every last little words that digitizes from your fingertips will send chills of ecstasy down the reader’s spine all on its own. But those of us who write and those of us who read know that this really isn’t possible for even the best stories. Interest capital is what you’ve earned throughout the story that you can spend to get the reader across the filler material.

What is filler material? This is the stuff that’s in a story that isn’t serving the purpose of capturing the reader’s attention and imagination. There are two types of Filler Material: Waste Filler, which is just the junk that grows around a story like a strangling skein of ivy, and Progressive Filler, which is the stuff that isn’t terribly interesting or compelling in its own right, but is necessary for the story to advance. The two can be and often are easily confused-- sometimes, that bit of exposition where Guy Hero learns about Girl Intrigue’s past and they grow close together can seem like a critical point for establishing their relationship, but one day you realize it can be condensed to a sentence or cut out entirely and no one’s the wiser. Learning to tell the difference is a critical skill for the short story writer, because all filler material burns interest capital; to de-buzz-word that, leaders lose interest as they read filler, whether the filler be necessary or not, and if you haven’t excited them enough to make them want to slog through the boring parts, you will lose them.

I believe that to properly fulfill Commandment #2, your reader must never, never think about putting the story down. They must never find that they have been actually thinking about something else when they’re half-way down the page. In case I’ve been a little underemphatic up to this point, you should never try to get it so that, as I said earlier, the reader “slogs through the boring parts.” In reality, they need to bust through the areas that are less interesting like a fat man busting into a Krispy Creme when the Hot n’ Ready sign comes on. A large part of this, which I have difficulty with, is building a compelling plot. A large part of it is keeping the conflict up, keeping the tension rolling. A huge part of this is making sure that you keep your filler to an absolute minimum, and keeping all the waste filler out. You’ll be surprised at how little Progressive Filler you actually need by the time you’re done.

Moral of the story: the reader’s attention must not drift. If it does, the reader, especially if he is a slush reader, is going to drop your story so fast that rejections have actually been known to travel back in time and arrive before the story is sent. Build interest capital and keep it strong to bust through the filler like nothing was ever there. This is especially critical in a short story, as I am of the firm belief that interest-capital-inflation is at a premium there… a little interest buys a lot more mileage in a novel. So start ‘em off with a bang, and keep em running all the way to the end. What to do once you get there… well, that Commandment #3.