It’s one of the most common pieces of advice for would-be writers: read widely, read often. Less often appended is: read thoughtfully. But that’s what it means, really. As a writer, you’re no longer just reading to be entertained – you’re reading to learn from those further along the journey than you are, studying the work of skilled craftsmen to find out how to better your own craft.
This kind of detective work is one of the best things about my own endless journey towards being a better writer: analysing fiction that appeals to me and discovering clues to improving my own fiction. Sometimes it’s a work of concentration and deep thought; sometimes, like this morning, the pieces just fall into place and suddenly I can see a picture I didn’t even know was there. This morning’s epiphany: the element that ties together the climactic moments of so many of my favourite character-driven short stories.
A big moment in a small space
One of the challenges of writing compelling, character-driven short fiction is, of course, that it’s short. As I’ve discussed before, the stories that really speak to me tend to be the ones that are as much about characters as they are about concepts – but when you only have 2,000 or 5,000 words to work with, not 80,000 or 100,000, that’s much less space to develop well-rounded characters whose passions and struggles readers can get to know well enough to care about what happens to them.
Another challenge of short fiction is creating a satisfactory climax. Again, there simply aren’t enough words to create a complex narrative arc heading towards a huge climactic confrontation or save-the-world act of desperation.
How, in so limited a space, do you create a moment that feels like a satisfying high point in the action: the moment everything thus far has been building to?
In character-driven fiction, it turns out, the answer is often: make them make a decision.
To be or not to be
In Seanan McGuire’s Each to Each, the climax of the story requires an important decision from the protagonist: remain loyal to the military and, by extension, humanity, or give in to the temptation of life in the ocean and the freedom to become a true mermaid. Grandma Harken, the protagonist of Ursula Vernon’s Nebula Award-winning Jackalope Wives, must also decide between humanity and something else, though in her case the implications are a choice between selfishness and sacrifice for another.
Although the limited space available in short fiction makes this kind of short, sharp climactic moment particularly useful, it’s impact doesn’t apply to short fiction alone. If you pay attention to the climax of N. K. Jemisin’s magnificent, multi-Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy you’ll see that that, too, revolves around decisions – and I’ll say no more, because if you haven’t read these books you absolutely should go do that.
In these stories the choice is presented explicitly to the protagonists, giving us a chance to see them wrestle – briefly or at length – with their decision. In other favourites of mine, like Vernon’s Hugo-nominated Sun, Moon, Dust, the choice is more subtly presented: the story doesn’t force a decision on anyone, but it isn’t until first Sun, then Moon, decide on new courses of action that there’s a sense of a turning point, moving the plot into its finale.
Interestingly, in this case it’s the secondary characters, not the protagonist, whose decisions drive the climax. Allpa himself as largely passive and conflict-averse – despite his protests, he does what he’s told. It’s a harder trick to pull off; even though I love this story, Allpa as a protagonist feels a bit hollow, a bit lacking in substance. He’s a nice enough fellow, but the story happens to him, not because of him.
Who are you really?
On ABC’s Q&A, author Trent Dalton talked about the concept of “choices under pressure” as a narrative device for both intensifying a story and bringing out the characterisation of its protagonists. In books, Dalton said, “that’s when you find true character” (in politicians, unfortunately, not so much).
The climactic decisions in these stories are choices under pressure, even if that pressure isn’t always explicit. The protagonist of ‘Each to Each’ is making a choice while physically threatened; for Grandma Harken, on the other hand, the pressure is internal and implied: a moment of unexpected temptation, the risk of weakening if she hesitates too long.
Either way – you can’t go away and think about it. You can’t phone a friend. The decision is yours to make, and you have to make it now. It’s under these conditions that the conflicted soldier and the tired old woman reveal their true natures, in a moment that brings the story to its height.
The pressure on Sun and Moon isn’t so immediate – as I said, the story forces nothing upon them – but it’s still there in the implied consequences of doing nothing. Their pre-existing states are disappointment and loneliness; if they don’t choose something, they will simply continue that way. It is only when they choose another path that their stories can move on.
Choice and consequence
The other notable characteristic of the decision as climax is that it defines the mood of the story’s conclusion. Hope or hopelessness. Redemption or tragedy. Loneliness or requited love.
To do that, the story has to lead up to this moment of decision. It must make it clear why that choice will be important to both the plot and the protagonist; and it must imply the consequences different options will have on the protagonist, and potentially on those around them and even the wider world. That build-up can be subtle – the decision itself may not be revealed until the very moment it has to be made – but it’s vital that in that climactic moment, the reader already knows what’s at stake.
That way, when the character makes their choice, the reader already understands the greater implications. They know what happens next. In short stories, that allows the post-climax finale to be incredibly brief – sometimes no more than another paragraph – and still feel deeply satisfying.
A structure for your stories
Of course, this is just one way to build a character-driven short story to a satisfying climax. It’s a common and effective one, but there are others that can work just as well.
Chris Winkle’s clever and compelling The Death and Life of Turing revolves around its central character, but there’s no decision at the high point of this story; rather, it builds to a reveal that fundamentally changes the way the reader sees the character. In Ken Liu’s beautiful, multiple-award-winning Paper Menagerie, although the point of highest tension is still marked by a decision, that decision comes less than halfway through the plot; what drives the rest of the story is not rising action, but falling, as the heartbreaking results of that decision unfold.
Still – if, like me, you struggle sometimes to find a satisfying structure for your stories, you might try compelling your protagonist towards a climactic moment of decision.