Writing and Plotting a Short Story on the hoof

A regular exercise in my Creative Writing class is a story swap.

Between us we decide on a subject idea and write a short story of about 1500 words and then bring our story to class for feedback from our peers. The subject can be used as loosely as we choose and we often do a spider chart in class to get us started.

Spider charts are a great way of coming up with writing prompts. Start with a central noun and see what the word makes you think of. Be as creative as you can. Our most recent noun was Time. Our spider chart grew and threw up words like, growing, streams, clocks, rushing, bomb, and quantum physics.

Difficulty getting started

During the week I wrote and rewrote a story idea and got nowhere. I put off writing after that and wondered why nothing would come to me. I decided it was because I’d chosen characters and a situation I couldn’t see in my mind’s eye, and that I had no feelings about. The week wore on until it was the night before class. I decided I needed to write something if I was going to take part in the story swap. What interested me was how quickly the idea came to mind and how the story almost seemed to write itself.

The beginning

That evening, part of an opening line popped into my head for no particular reason other than the use of the word Time.

“‘Time was,’ said Rook, sucking air through his front teeth…”

Time was something I didn’t have much of if I was to write this story by morning.

Developing the characters

Almost immediately I could see my character standing by a stream with a companion. The opening words seemed to imply somebody like a gangster, so I followed up with:

“… and flicking his cigarette butt in the stream, ‘when you’da got away with summat like that.’”

I had no idea who his companion was, but this was where the story seemed to take over of its own accord. The name Matty came to mind and I decided that he would be a sidekick who might be a bit nervous and in awe of his friend. The two would make uneasy companions who fit because each has something to give that suits the other.

So, I had the ‘tough guy’ and his inept sidekick. As much as Rook wanted Matty around, his feelings about him would also be ambivalent and I hinted at this by describing very early on in the story the thoughts he has of pushing him in the stream to get him out of the way. Of course, Rook needs Matty as much as Matty needs Rook, so this never happens.

Whether to inject humour into the story

The ambivalence also leant itself to some humour. For a story that seemed to flow from my fingers I found I was enjoying writing it and I think that joy showed itself in the humour I injected here and there. That I was enjoying writing the story showed me I had an idea I felt something about.

“Rook had learned this was what passed as thinking with Matty. He stopped walking too and waited. And waited. He felt the well-spring of patience drying up. There was only so much time to be had in the world and he was running out of it. He wondered more than ever why he was towing this fool along with him.”

Conflicting emotions in a character

While Rook tolerated his companion, Matty also got on his nerves. I felt early on that the two had no friends other than each other. This was a relationship borne of necessity. An underlying anger about the lack of friends would show itself in Rook in his irritation directed at Matty.

“‘And stop calling me fucking boss,’ Rook exploded. ‘I ain’t your fucking boss. All right?’”

Rook wants to be the one Matty looks up to, but at the same time he doesn’t. He wants a friend and he’s got one, but perhaps it isn’t the friend he’d choose if he had a choice. Conflict. I also show the conflict when Rook feels regret for his outburst.

“Rook found himself feeling sorry for the bumbling Matty. Matty only really had Rook and Rook only really had Matty. When it boiled down to it, neither of them had any friends except each other. Thrown together since their infant school days, they’d joined forces out of a desperate need for companionship.”

How the characters interacted was also important to me and I strengthened the conflict of emotion.

“Matty flinched with each bloody wrong with it and stared at blades of grass shivering in the breeze. That he felt a failure was obvious to Rook. It was the only way they could repair their relationship when it began to fall apart. One weakened and gave and the other strengthened and softened. Balance was needed in the world and they had learned from each other how to provide this.”

The aim of the characters – What were they doing?

Early on in the story, I hinted that these were two gangsters with a mission. I wanted this to be the hook to keep the reader engaged and wanting to find out more.

“‘OK,’ said Rook, ‘so here’s the score. You’re going ahead to keep an eye out.’

‘Yes, boss.’

‘And you make the signal we agreed on if the coast’s clear.’”

A simple enough idea but I hoped it would work. I wasn’t going to tell you what they were doing, I just wanted to give you enough to know they were up to something. You would want to read on and find out more. Even I wasn’t sure what they were going to do at this point.

The muddle of the story

Once I had the beginning of the story I then had to put in a middle that developed the characters and led the story forward. Dialogue was a great way of doing this and I used it to show the relationship between the two characters. This would also take the reader on a journey with Rook and Matty through the fields towards the destination of their intended crime.

“He walked off as purposefully as he could through the thickets of long grass.

Matty ran after him. ‘Wait for me. Rook, wait for me.’”

How was I going to end the story?

I actually didn’t know how the story would end. Here were two characters on their way to commit a crime and I didn’t know what it was going to be. I wasn’t even sure I was going to tell the reader. It seemed that this was going to be purely a window onto a tiny part of their world and you, the reader, might dip out before they got to their destination.

As I was coming towards the end I had an idea borne of something I’d written near the beginning.

“That was half the trouble, he was like a little boy; never sure where to put himself or what to say; always a bit too eager to please; always getting in the way as a consequence.”

The key words were like a little boy. I didn’t want to end abruptly and shock the reader; I wanted realisation to surface relatively quickly so there might be a couple of aha moments. Aha moment number one would be a hint at what their mission was.

“The trees were groaning under the weight of apples and they were practically falling off the branches for the taking.”

This was obviously not a major bank raid they were on. The last lines would show who these two characters really were.

“Rook stopped and waited. Pulling his fag packet from his pocket, he peered inside, sucked air through his teeth and pondered how many he could smoke before his mother noticed when she got home from work.”

In conclusion

This was a story written on the spur of the moment. I have learned again and again that I am able to write something at very short notice with little editing. There is always scope for editing and rewriting and making this story into something else, but I feel it would take away the immediacy of it. I decided to leave it alone.

Do you have any writing experience where a story gallops off your fingers (or the keyboard)? How did you come up with the idea for the story and how did you develop it?