I tease one of my critique partners because her number one thing to do is change the order of things. Sometimes it makes me crazy. But sometimes it's exactly what's needed. The other day, I showed her a couple of short stories that I like but that just weren't getting the kind of responses I wanted to see, despite numerous submissions. With all my other shorts, I'd at least had a nibble here or there, but these two? Nada. It was time to get some fresh eyes on them.
My CP did her usual order switcheroos and, as we discussed the whys and wherefores, two things came clear in my mind, both related to the process and where these stories were in their development. When you "pants it," writing without an outline and exploring an image or character or idea for the first time, as I tend to do on my short stories, the structure and order of the story is at first driven by that exploratory process. There's some scene setting, some getting-to-know-you as you ease into the beginning of the story. Sometimes, the crux of your theme may be right there from the beginning, because that's the nugget of idea that got you started on the story in the first place. All of that is fine, but it doesn't always create the most effective experience for the reader.
Take the beginning. A short story doesn't always have to have the kind of high-impact hook that you want in a high-concept novel, but it still needs a sense of tension from the get-go. Instead of easing into the moment on one of the stories, my CP pulled a line from the bottom of page 1 and said "This is your opening. This is where your tension is." Spot on.
On the other hand, you don't want your beginning to give away the whole story. You're going to build the conflict and build towards that thematic lynchpin that pulls you through the middle and brings the pieces together. Get there too soon and your story turns redundant, covering that thematic ground over and over until your reader is, well, bored. That was the fundamental problem with my other story. Said my CP, "This whole section seems like it belongs closer to the end so you have somewhere to go." And she was right.
In both cases, the original structure of the story had solidified too soon in the process, getting stuck at that exploratory draft stage so it wasn't serving the forward pull needed for the reader's experience, rather than the author's discovery experience. Something to keep in mind when you're a "pantser."
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