If you read my previous post, you know that I am excitedly working on a short story to submit for publication to Sherrilyn McQueen’s (formerly Kenyon) upcoming Dark Hunter anthology, Sanctuary. Also mentioned in my previous post, I have never actually finished writing anything. But, wait—it gets worse! I don’t know ANYTHING about writing a short story. Like, nothing. I am a book editor, emphasis on the book. I know what should be in a novel, but how to get a full story into a short story? Nope, I’m clueless. Okay, maybe not clueless, but still, I’m not super confident in my short-story knowledge. I REALLY want to get picked for this anthology, so I need to know how to write a good short story.
As I debated different ways I might go about educating myself, it hit me: Who better to learn from than Sherri herself? This revelation led me to reread and analyze my favorite short story from Sherri’s Dark Bites, Winter Born. I broke it down the way I would a manuscript that had been submitted to me for editing, except instead of looking for ways to improve the story, I tried to figure out what all she did, and why the story just works.
I edit manuscripts using the Story Grid method. For those of you not familiar with it, the Story Grid focuses on the five commandments for each Act and scene, plus genre-specific obligatory scenes and conventions. What I didn’t know: Do short stories (Winter Born is about sixty pages) have all of the obligatory scenes and conventions, or do they cut some to save space? What about Acts? Most novels have four Acts, but what about a short story?
The answer to these questions surprised me. In its brief sixty pages, Winter Born contains all of the Love Genre’s obligatory scenes and conventions. It also has three full Acts! Clearly, the key to a successful short story is to include all of the pieces of a full-length novel with none of the fluff or subplots. The only major change I saw was that almost all modern novels have four Acts (two middle builds), whereas this short story has three Acts (one middle build).
Now that I am armed with this new information, I feel confident and ready to move forward into plotting out my own Dark Hunter short story. I hope that all of my hard work here can help you with your short story writing as well!
For those who are interested, I have included an explanation of the five commandments, my obligatory scenes and conventions breakdown of Winter Born, as well as the five commandments for each Act. This is the same template I will use to outline my own story. Feel free to use it for yours as well!
If you have any questions about any of the obligatory scenes and conventions, or would like to see a complete Foolscap analysis of Winter Born, feel free to drop me a question in the comments or check out my editing page!
The Five Commandments Explained
These 5 elements should appear in each scene and Act. For those who can count, there are actually six items listed, but “stakes” are considered a subset of the “crisis question”.
Something happens, either caused by a character or a coincidence, that changes the protagonist’s day/moment.
Example: A boy joins the army.
Something else happens, either through character action or a revelation of some type, which changes the protagonist’s view of their current situation and forces the protagonist to make a decision on how to move forward.
Example: The boy who joins the army finds out his dad has cancer.
This is a best bad choice or best good choice that the protagonist needs to make. It is crucial that the protagonist makes the decision, not a secondary character or Act of God. When a character makes decisions, the reader sees what kind of person they are and understands them better. This causes your reader to empathize with them.
Example: The boy needs to decide to either go ahead and join the army or resign for hardship, and stay to take care of his father and family. This decision will affect the plot and future decisions he makes.
This is what the character risks with each option. To ensure that the crisis question is between a ‘best bad’ or ‘best good’ choice, the stakes should be comparable in their gravity.
Example: Joining the army will fulfill his lifelong desire to get away from his small town, travel, and see the world, but his family will be upset that he abandoned them in a time of grave need. Staying means being able to help his family through his father’s illness and spend time with him during what may be the end of his life, but he will also have to give up, or at least postpone, his dreams.
This is the actual decision made by the character, but it can be changed by outside forces.
Example: The boy decides to stay home to take care of his father, but when he tries to resign, the Army tells him that he can’t because he qualified for a high demand job. The reader knows what kind of son the character is, even though he wasn’t allowed to stay and take care of his father, his intent was pure.
These are the results of the specific decision made by the character.
Example: Since the boy decided to stay, but the army didn’t let him, the father/family would be more understanding and receptive, and mad instead at the system. Had he decided to join anyway, the father/family would be more apt to be mad at the boy and hold that against him when he came home on vacation.
Obligatory Scenes and Conventions: Love Genre
Dante follows Pandora’s scent to her room.
First intimate connection:
They have sex.
Confession of love:
They say ‘I love you’ before they bond.
Lovers break up:
First Time: Pandora offends Dante by disparaging the fact that he is Katagaria.
Second Time: Pandora leaves to go to a resort with her sister, presumably to spend the next year roaming away from Dante.
Proof of love:
Dante: Gives Pandora a spelled ring that will allow her to always return to him. Also, he allows her to leave despite his phobia.
Pandora: Returns to Dante after only two days and asks him to bond with her, saying she will never leave him. Also, Pandora lays with Dante in his panther form after he is injured despite her fear.
First Time: Dante comes right back after leaving.
Second Time: Pandora comes back to Dante after spending only two days at the resort with her sister.
Triangle (rival person or ideal):
Pandora does not want a Katagaria mate due to her fear of them. Dante does not want a mate at all because of watching the experiences of the males in his family.
Helpers and Harmers:
Romeo and Acheron work to bring the couple together.
The males from Aristotle’s pack try to steal Pandora away.
Pandora needs to escape her captors.
Dante needs to find new musical talent for his club.
Pandora initially rejects Dante due to her prejudice against all Katagaria based on her experience with on pack.
Danta initially rejects Pandora because he does not want his happiness to be tied to anyone else.
Aristotle’s Katagaria pack seeks to steal Pandora.
Dante gave Pandora a ring to always allow her to return to him. Pandora gave Dante a bell necklace so that she could tell him apart from other panthers.
Dante is 6’6” and muscular. Pandora is barely five feet tall with more delicate musculature.
Dante does not tell Pandora about his childhood or phobia.
Pandora does not immediately tell Dante about the pack that kidnapped her.
Act 1/Beginning Hook—Scenes 1–5
Romeo, a mated male, finds Pandora, a virgin pantheress in heat, at Dragon*Con and offers to spread her scent around, so that his unmated brothers will not find her.
Dante catches Pandora’s scent on Romeo and suddenly knows right where to find her.
Will Dante and Pandora have sex?
Dante risks being mated, something he very much does not want, and Pandora risks being physically harmed, but both of them are being compelled, by their hormones and her being in heat, to have sex.
They decide to have sex.
They both enjoy it. Dante does not harm Pandora as she had feared, and she does not attack him when she climaxes as he had feared.
Act 2/Middle Build 1—Scenes 6–9
Mating marks appear on Dante and Pandora.
After being accosted by Mike and Leo, Pandora realizes that Dante would protect and educate her if she accepted him as her mate.
Will Dante and Pandora accept one another as mates?
If they refuse, neither will ever be able to have children, and Dante will become impotent. If they do accept, Dante risks having a mate who wanders all but two days a year and dumps litters of cubs on him to raise, and Pandora risks being used and abused by a male who is both physically stronger and psychically more powerful.
They decide to mate.
Because of the need for a quick decision, they are not yet ready to bond.
Act 3/Ending Payoff—Scenes 10–15
Eight males from the pack that kidnapped Pandora from her time attack Dante and Pandora while they are in bed.
Dante goes to Aristotle’s pack, tells them to never threaten Pandora again, forces them to free all the Arcadian females they have, and makes them promise not to take any more.
Will Pandora go with her sister to the resort or stay with Dante?
If she leaves, she will miss Dante, but if she stays, she will not know if he will truly allow her freedom.
Pandora goes to the resort with Sefia, her friends, and Leo and Mike, who were sent to guard all the females.
After two days, when Pandora learns of Dante’s phobia, she returns to him and they bond with a promise never to part again.