When Writers Make Elements Work Double Duty

In a short story, it’s critical for every element to pull its weight. Every character, setting, and plot point must be employed for maximum effect. There’s no room for imprecise descriptions or dialogue that rambles. But even better is when writers make elements work double duty. If you are skilled enough to make them put in triple or quadruple duty, go for it.

What Is Double Duty?

I learned this concept from the excellent book by Ron Rozelle, Setting and Description. Double duty is when an element does more that it’s obvious assignment. When the main character describes a scene, the point of his description is to give cues for readers to imagine. But I can also convey something about the main character in the way he or she describes it.

For example, the main character is describing the arrival of students at a school in the morning.

The bell rang, and the buses flung open their doors. Kids poured out, laughing, chatting, hurrying for the glass doors to the middle school. The rising pink sun caught angles of the glass, making them sparkle, and threw brilliant shafts across the dusty red bricks. I shouldered my backpack and rushed ahead.

I haven’t said anything about the character describing this scene, but the description helps readers form an image of the person doing the describing. Here’s another way to look at this scene.

The bell screamed, and the buses vomited students. Kids talked frantically, like they had to get all their words about before the glass doors of the middle school locked them in. The rising red sun speared blinding light through the glass, highlighting every crack in the tired bricks. Bending under the weight of my backpack, I trudged at the end of the line.

Other Ways to Work in Double Duty

Dialogue reveals character. The way a character talks can reveal as much as what he says. For example, a characters that starts most sentences with “I” shows something about his personality.

Character reveals plot. A plot point can move the story forward as well as show something about a character’s personality. If the town gossip gets killed because she spread a story that was detrimental to the murderer, then that flaw in her character aids the plot.

Names reveal character. If your main character nicknames people, those nicknames shows something about both the receiver and the giver of them.

If you’ve written a short story, what tips can you offer? Or what are some of your favorite short stories?

How to Write a Ten Thousand-Word Short Story in Two Weeks and Not Lose Your Mind

The best advice I can give you for writing a short story is summed up in this article I wrote for a few guest blogs when my YA mystery released in 2019. I’ve never published it on my site before, so I hope it offers you some help on how to write a ten thousand-word short story in two weeks and not lose your mind.

In December 2018, I was faced with creating a short story that actually made sense in two weeks. While I got ready for Christmas, taught Sunday School, and prepared for a visit from my in-laws. And I don’t write fast. It took me years to get my YA crime novel in shape.

But I decided to go for it. I met the deadline, wrote a 10,000 word short story, got accepted, and my YA mystery, “A Rose from the Ashes”, was published in Christmas Fiction Off the Beaten Path. Along the way, I learned some very important lessons about writing under pressure.

Know your theme and ending before you start.

I wasted one whole day because I wasn’t sure what the theme and ending of my story was. I wrote fourteen pages that were pretty much worthless. Once I knew the theme and how it would end, I directed all my efforts to reaching that conclusion. If my writing seemed to veer off course, knowing where I needed to end up got me back on track.

Write a synopsis.

“A Rose from the Ashes” is about nineteen-year-old Rae Riley investigating who tried to kill her pregnant mother twenty years before and if the attacker is the father she’s never met. Because my mystery hinges on a twenty-year-old cold case, I wrote out exactly what happened, like book report. Then I could keep straight what Rae knew and what she had to discover.

Tell your story to someone.

After I’d wasted a day, I sat down with my husband and told him my story. I am blessed to be married to an engineer. He looks at my plots logically, which is so important when writing a mystery. He was able to tell me what made sense and what I needed to work on.

Write the basic story.

My first draft was getting down on paper the bare bones of the story. If inspiration hit for a description, I threw that in, but the point wasn’t to write well. I just wanted to write the story from beginning to end and see how it hung together.

Rewrite with description

After I got down the basic story with the basic plot, I rewrote it with the idea of adding descriptions, both for characters and settings. I did this several times because each time I read through the story, I saw places that needed fleshing out.

Ask readers, not writers, to read your story

Writers read a story differently than non-writers. Writers usually read with their professional hats on, diving into all the technicalities of the writing craft. While I needed to put my story under that kind of scrutiny later, what I needed first was how my story appealed to regular readers, who read simply for enjoyment. I have a good friend and several relatives who love mysteries. I asked them to read my story for things that didn’t make sense or made them pause. Two of my sisters read a description they took for an insult. That wasn’t my intent at all and completely changed the nature of a character. So I changed the description.

Get a handle on your main character.

This should probably be #4, but I didn’t get around to it until late in the process. I wrote the story in first person. My mind was so deeply rooted into my main character that I didn’t realize I wasn’t putting all those thoughts and feelings on the page. After several drafts, I realized Rae was the sketchiest of all the major characters. I needed to get a handle on her, a way to sum her up. I enjoy photography and thought amateur photographer was a good way to describe Rae. It covered how she responded to settings and saw the people around her.

Have you faced a tight writing deadline? What lessons did you learn?

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑