Updated: Oct 17, 2020
If your office is in your house, keeping your work and home life separate can sometimes prove challenging under normal circumstances. Right now, with the bubble of the Covid-19 lock-down where homeschooling, work, exercise and entertainment time all operate from within the same, singular hub, and for a prolonged period now, the days seem to be slugging along. Sometimes rather aimlessly. Too often, the days are so similar in tincture, it's hard to differentiate one from another while we all wait for something to happen. Something to change. When is it going to change? When will we hear something on the news, TV, social media that isn't about the virus?
It got me thinking about the slush pile and how comparisons can be drawn in some instances when it comes to stories. I'm referring to stories that have no plot. Because when reading a story with no plot, it feels very similar to what I just described about lock-down: When is something going to change?
Have something happen in your story. Seems obvious, yes? And yet, we receive so many stories at the mag where this is not the case. There's nothing more frustrating for me than to pass on good writing because nothing happens.
Put yourself in my shoes for a moment. I read anything from ten to thirty stories per week for the mag. They might be short, but the beauty of reading flash fiction is that I get to spy through the windows of so many different souls back-to-back. The majority of what I read is nowhere near ready for publication, so when a story begins where the author displays obvious control over their prose, with an active voice and with characters that seem to act rather than contemplate, I get pretty excited; hopeful - where is this going to lead? What will they have to overcome?
When nothing happens, the feeling of deflation is worse than if you started a story where you know from the beginning it isn't yet up to the task.
If you've been trying to get any of your short fiction published, you might have come across journals and magazines that stipulate they want stories with complete plots. You might also have scratched your head over this, wondering what they mean and just chucked at them whatever piece fits their word count and genre. Our upper word limit at FFO is one thousand words, but we still expect a complete plot within that sphere. And, yes, it is doable.
Short fiction doesn't require a complex plot. What it does require is an authentic central character, an authentic setting and, as stated already, something to happen. This latter item on the list basically means you need to have at least one event that will affect the actions of the character(s). You might need two. These might come in the form of an inciting incident at the beginning (to trigger the plot) and one turning point somewhere through the middle (which creates a problem the characters need to overcome). Framing your short piece around one major event should be enough to create the structure for a complete plot.
The full structure of a complete plot is:
The resolution cannot come about if there was never a problem to solve in the first place. Not having a problem in your story for the character to tackle makes for a flaccid second half.
This lack of something happening in a piece is often most found in certain formats, though it certainly is not exclusively so. If you have a piece that is continually rejected, consider if it falls under any of the following:
1) List Stories -- these are popular and often good fun, but nothing usually happens in them. They tend to follow the tone of a manual, to instruct rather than dramatise. They also don't usually have any characters in them. No character? No plot. No main event? No plot.
2) Wandering around a setting, contemplating. Often in a futuristic or fantasy setting, these pieces involve one character who is maybe lost in some kind of dystopian world or situation, often reflecting on the past, or maybe on a menial task in front of them, but nothing happens to, or they do nothing to, change the situation; Witch stories often fall under this area too -- the village hag is led out of her home, hands bound, forced to walk the length of the village, reflecting on all those neighbours she helped out with her remedies, only to find they accused her of being a witch. She arrives at the stake where they will burn her and END. Nothing actually happened other than some backstory and a walk to her doom, which never took place on stage; People looking wistfully out to sea and then one day realising they are actually a mermaid and go and live in the sea also fall under the (standing) around a setting, contemplating remit.
3) World-building stories. These are pieces where the onus is all on the world-building (funny, that!). Sometimes, we get some GREAT and unique fantasy, sci-fi or magical settings with intriguing social and cultural systems and we truly do want to know more about this new world we've been introduced to, but so much of the word count is taken up with that aspect there isn't enough room for an actual plot. If this is the case with your piece, and you really can't scrub out some excess to create the space, consider if you need to write a longer piece and develop it more to enable the introduction of an event that will change the situation and see it through to its natural conclusion. Unfortunately, we might not get to read it if does need to be longer than one thousand words, but this is about improving your chances of getting published, whichever market that is.
4) Conversation stories. It's hard to write a story that uses only dialogue. I've attempted it once myself and it came out as more of a vignette. I love it -- it's about dragons -- but not enough happens to create a full plot, unfortunately. Conversation stories often leave us slush readers feeling as if we are in a room with no walls, with subtexts and contexts we are not privy to. Most often, it seems like fun banter between two characters, but that's as far as it gets.
There are probably more examples of common story types where nothing happens, but I can't think of them right now. Let's move on to how you can remedy pieces that lack plot.
1) Consider your framing. Are you focusing on the right point in time in your story? See if you can identify any backstory where a dramatic incident has already happened to affect change in the character. Would that be a better point in time to illustrate? How could you make it fit in with the theme you have already pursued in the current draft?
2) You have presented your character in a situation. Now consider what it is they want to change about this situation, what they need to overcome to do that and how they will go about it. Or, think about what the worst thing is that could happen to them right now and do it! Throw a spanner in the works. Make them work hard to get around it.
3) If you are really keen on getting a list story published, then consider how you are going to give it some purpose. What is the point of the list? Whose objective is it and why is it important? Giving meaning to the instructions will give context to them on why they will resolve a situation.
4) Stakes. What does your character stand to lose in this piece? If the answer is 'nothing' then why are they flouncing around your story space? Having something/someone they value that is threatened and that they must save will create plot.
5) The big event. Pretty much, all stories should be gearing up to some kind of main event (the climax). What's yours? This is a case of: all roads lead to Rome. Your climax is your Rome. Direct your story traffic to it.
It should be said that most of this doesn't necessarily apply to ALL stories, EXCEPT FOR #5, even if that event manifests as a seismic emotional shift . Some types of creative pieces require softer plots and structures. It really depends on the piece. But if you have some short fiction that has been bobbing about for a while and you're pretty sure your prose can hold its own but its still homeless, a lack of plot is an area worth contemplating for revision.
So, I'm avidly waiting, as I'm sure are you, in the grand plot of Covid-19, for the day when something happens to change our current situation. The set up is complete and the backstory has been covered already -- we know where it came from; how it spread. We are the protagonists in our own sagas, and soon, something is going to happen that will force us to change. It may be that our business goes belly up and we struggle to keep our home. It may be that society is going to be reshaped, restructured and designed much better than we've so far managed. Maybe we'll head into a green energy utopia and clean up our environment, the thing we all know needed to happen but were too afraid to make the leap. Whatever it is, it's coming soon. We feel it looming, and we can't wait to get active again, no matter the challenges that lie ahead. That's the same as what we want from a piece of fiction. But imagine if it didn't. Imagine if we were stuck in this loop with no event on the horizon to make something happen.
Imagine that and you might understand how it feels to read a non-event piece from the slush pile. So please, because we do want you to stand the very best chance of getting published (we really do!), have something happen.