What’s the Situation?
I have a couple of short stories stories I’m working on that don’t seem to be going anywhere. I took a break from spinning my wheels the other day and came across a little section titled “Situation” in the book Creating Short Fiction, by Damon Knight. He writes, “A dramatic situation is unstable—you know it can’t stay this way forever—and it has at least two possible outcomes, one very desirable and one not.” At the end of this short section, he provides an exercise. It is this: Choose three published plotted stories that you like, and for each one write a one-sentence description of the situation (a) at the beginning of the story and (b) at the end. Even before doing the exercise, just thinking about the situation at the beginning of my stories compared to that at the end was useful. I’m so linear in my thinking anyway, that considering how a character gets from a to b simplifies what can become convoluted in my storytelling.
For the exercise, I looked at “I Demand to Know Where You’re Taking Me,” by Dan Chaon; “The Cavemen in the Hedges,” by Stacey Richter; and “Crossing” by Mark Slouka. Here’s what I wrote:
A dramatic situation is unstable—you know it can’t stay this way forever—and it has at least two possible outcomes, one very desirable and one not.
“I Demand to Know Where You’re Taking Me,” by Dan Chaon. Situation a: The main character Cheryl is tormented by the presence of a macaw that belongs to her brother-in-law Wendall, who has been jailed for rape. Situation b: Cheryl tussles with the macaw, ultimately forcing it outside into the freezing cold, where it dies.
“The Cavemen in the Hedges,” by Stacey Richter. Situation a: The main character, a man, and his girlfriend, Kim, live in a town that has been invaded by Neandrathals. Situation b: Kim falls in love with one of the cavemen and runs off with him.
“Crossing,” by Mark Slouka. Situation a: The main character, a screw-up dad, is taking his son for an overnight camping trip to a remote woods that his own father had taken him to years ago. Situation b: The screw-up dad, who wants desperately to stop screwing up, finds himself stuck halfway across a dangerously deep and fast-flowing river with his son on his back.
Damon Knight also recommends that for each story, you look at how the writer got from situation a to situation b. What are the plot points? How many intermediate situations does the story pass through? How many times does something unexpected happen? I won’t detail the answers to these questions for the three stories above, but I think it’s worth doing it on your own with a story you really admire.
And speaking of situation, whereas Knight is focusing on the situation of the story, Sandra Scofield talks about the situation in each scene. In The Scene Book, she writes: “For each scene there is a situation at the beginning, a line of action and new situation at the end.” In both cases, the situation is “new.” Even in a story where nothing has changed necessarily, the character may still have a new understanding.
It’s worth thinking about how situations in stories change and also how each scene starts with one thing happening at the beginning and an entirely new thing occurring at the end.
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