Jeanne: It’s All About the Plot, ’bout the Plot, No Subplots!

sign-3228713_640Last week I started work on a short story, a prequel to my Touched by a Demon series. It features Dara’s grandparents and explains how Esther and Lonnie met and how they came to start the demon-fighting ministry that plays such a major role in Dara’s life.

I’ve had it in mind to write this story for a while, so that I’d have a free taste of my Touched by a Demon world to offer potential readers. I’ve written short stories before, even won awards with them, but they were women’s fiction rather than romance. (If you’re interested, you can find a couple of them at www.jeanneestridge.com under the Extras tab.)

As discussed previously in this post, romances are inherently more complex than other forms of genre fiction. Because you have a main plot arc, a romance arc, and character arcs for both the hero and the heroine, even the bare minimum is a lot to juggle. Because I write paranormal, there’s an additional layer of complexity with the necessary world-building.

I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how I’d do all that in 10,000 words or less, so I signed up for a short story writing class through OIRWA, the online international chapter of RWA. In the first lesson the instructor handed me the solution, which is so obvious I’m embarrassed to share it: No subplots.

If you’ve read either of my books, you know my subplots tend to abound. Every time I introduce a character who is more than a walk-on, I want to give them their own little story. If my short story is to stay a short story, that can’t happen this time.

My first task was setting up parameters for my story.

In The Demon Always Wins, Esther is 94, which means she would have been born around 1920. That makes her 21 as World War II begins, so it made sense to set the story during World War II.

Because The Demon Always Wins takes place near Jacksonville, FL, I decided to make Esther a welder at a shipyard in Jacksonville, helping outfit ships bound for war in the South Pacific.

Since I know absolutely nothing about what a welder at a shipyard would see/hear/ feel/smell during the average workday today, never mind 75 years ago, research was indicated. Google located a book titled Shipyard Diary of a Woman Welder, by Augusta Homes Clawson.

Augusta worked for the U.S. Office of Education in the area in charge of training women welders. By 1942 lots of women were completing the 8-day training course and going on to work in aircraft factories, munition works, and shipyards. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the shipyard workers quit almost immediately.

Augusta was sent to Oregon to find out why. Working undercover, she attended welding school and then went to work in a shipyard. If you’re a WWII history buff, I heartily recommend this book. She tells the story of her adventures with so much empathy for her fellow workers and she paints such a vivid picture, not just of the shipyard but of the U.S. during WWII, that the book is fascinating.

I, of course, immediately started weaving a story of a woman confronted with the situations that made the dropout rate in shipyards so high but I had to rein myself in. This is a 10,000 word short story about Esther and Lonnie fighting demons, not a 100,000 word novel about a woman welder during World War II.

I decided to make Lonnie a sailor who’d been in the Battle of Midway and sent home as an injured war hero. He comes to work at Esther’s shipyard suffering from a bum leg and what would now be referred to as PTSD but was called battle fatigue back then.

Can you see how easy it would be to create a whole drama just around that?

But no. The plan is: limit this story to:

a) The main plot–demons are trying to help Hitler win the war by sabotaging newly-built ships.

b) A woman who can recognize demons spots them but no one believes her so she has to figure out how to stop them on her own.

c) A guy who doesn’t believe in demons winds up believing her, helping her and realizing he can spot demons, too. In the process, he channels his PTSD toward a new kind of war.

d) They realize they were made for each other.

Any other advice for a would-be short story writer?

10 thoughts on “Jeanne: It’s All About the Plot, ’bout the Plot, No Subplots!

  1. i once attended a workshop where one of the panelists talked about the difficulty of writing a romance short story, because there’s not enough space in 10,000 words to have the characters meet, become attracted, have conflict, and have resolution. The suggestion at the workshop was that the author find a way to shortcut the meet and attraction stage; for example by having them meet up again after a separation of several years so that the old flame could still be there and you wouldn’t need words to get there. Not saying you should do that, but with such an ambitious external plot, you might have trouble sticking to your proposed word count. The devil’s in the details, so to speak. But you might find that you need more than 10,000 words to get the job done. Good luck! It sounds like a fun challenge.

    • I’m okay with it turning into a novella. I just don’t want to let it grow to a full-length book, with all the attendant expense, when I’m planning to give it away.

      BTW–my parents met in a setup very similar to the one I’ve described (minus the demons, of course, and in an aircraft factory rather than a shipyard). They married six weeks later and stayed married over 30 years, till my mother passed away. So one of the things I can do to speed up the courtship is play the war card. People did marry a lot quicker back then because of that sense that tomorrow they may die.

      • That was going to be my suggestion — playing up the war card. I think the idea for your story is awesome! The only other suggestion I’d made for the short story is to have small jumps in time. We don’t need to see every day or week that happens from their initial meeting until they are a pair. You can have them meet/initial attraction, then have a jump in time and one of them doing a real simple backstory reminisce of the number of times they met for pie at the diner at the end of a shift or something like that, so we can see that they are spending time together/growing together, but save the meaty, see-the-devil sort of stuff for the actual story. I can’t wait to read it!

      • Congratulations to your parents! You’re so right about the war-time marriages. I think in times of great national stress, war being the big one, people do tend to marry quicker. That definitely will work for your project!

  2. LOVE this premise! Love it.

    You’ve won short story contests, so you already know, good writing is good writing. I have no advice to give. But, if you want to talk to someone who has welded, you know where to find me 🙂 ok, so, really, I only did the machine welding–but I can describe the smells to you, the colors (as long as she wasn’t welding underwater). I might even be able to give you some technical details, based on my dad’s welding shop of 50 years. If she doesn’t talk about the view from under the hood, I can help you with that. and how HOT welding gets when you add Oxygen to your noble gas.

    I hope you’ll offer the short story up to your current blog subscribers!

    • The plan is to give it away for free on the Zon as a loss-leader to lure new readers into my web of intrigue and passion. Or something like that.

      I will definitely keep you in mind as my go-to person for welding questions!

  3. (-: Sorry I’m so late to the party.

    I think it’s important to have sub-subplots. YOU need to know about all this trial and tribulation, but when you write your short story, you reduce all the info to one or two sentences when it’s a “subplot”.

    It really helps if the subplots are kind of cliché, or very common knowledge. Or, that you keep it super-short to that people who don’t know kind of blip over it.

    In the Golden Years of Nixie Voss, a secondary character made shoes with false bottoms for a drug dealer; the false bottoms fell apart and the drug dealer lost a lot of heroin into the Danube as a result. So, he sends goons after the secondary character, a short subplot which moves the main plot forward. It’s maybe three or four paragraphs?

    I’ll add that that little subplot is doing a lot of work. The secondary character is an important character in my longer WIP. It reinforces some stereotypes about leprechauns, gives the antagonist a chance to show her guts and gun skills, and also gives the protagonist a chance to show that even though he’s not the manliest man in town, he’s got some principles and backbone. It also gives both the secondary a reason to want to get the heck out of town.

    The subplot surfaces for a minute, then sinks back down.

    Although . . . now that I think about it, that particular short story is not a romance. It’s the opposite — a failed love story that sets the stage for the real love story.

    Anyway, I think one reason short romances are so hard is that we don’t see a whole lot of examples of good ones. Heart’s Kiss magazine has some really nice romantic short stories (but it’s been so long since I’ve read them, I can’t remember one in particular that will help you). There’s a very nice romance in Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series, but it unfolds over the course of two (three?) novellas, and as such, takes up as much real estate as a whole novel.

    OH, “Winterfair Gifts” is a short Bujold romance that combines romance with a mystery plot (and has to give fan service, as well, since the backdrop is Miles Vorkosigan’s wedding). HEA-For-Now.

    If I remember any other ones, I’ll shoot you an email. I’d love to see more romance shorts out in the wild, too.

    • Ooh, I’d love to read that! (Less crazy about spending $3.99 from my already stretched book budget for a short story.)

      According to Robert McKee, there are four subplots in Casablanca. I don’t remember them all, but the one that sticks out is the “Romanian wife” subplot. It only has five scenes in the movie, but it’s the subplot that tells us that beneath Rick’s external “Rick Blaine sticks his neck out for no man,” personality there’s another, more idealistic man. A young wife and her husband are stuck in limbo in Casablanca. Captain Renault offers to help her in exchange for sex. She asks Rick, in a scene that’s a masterpiece of indirect dialogue, if it would be a terrible thing to be unfaithful to her husband in order to help her husband. Rick fobs her off, but winds up doing something to help them get out. In addition to revealing Rick’s true character, it also emphasizes that even through Renault is charming and the closest thing Rick has to a friend, he’s also corrupt.

      To your point, adding a subplot that is a handful of sentences in a 5 or 10 scene short story is analogous to adding a 5 scene subplot to an entire movie.

      My conflict lock is between Lilith and Esther (aka Nana many years later). Lilith has no character arc (although she will in Book 3), but Esther and Lonnie both do in order to come together. So that’s already one subplot.

      We’ll see what happens!

      • Oh, that Romanian wife plot! I really, really liked that one. Even as a teen, I could see that Rick was an ol’ crusty with a heart of goo. He tried to reject the call to be honorable, but had to be good in the end, because he was a good, though broken, person.

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