My first really big "Ah-Ha!" moment happened at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, which I attended when I was finishing up college. Before that workshop, I'd been writing short stories and had sold one, but I had no clear idea of why my other stories weren't selling.
I'd taken a couple of creative writing courses in college, and the instruction there had focused largely on the quality of micro-writing and on things like dialog and theme and metaphor. All good stuff, but the fundamental mechanics of what makes a story a story -- namely the plot -- were treated as something that just sort of happens.
During the week that author Joe Haldeman was teaching our Clarion class, he started talking about the five-point plot as it relates to short fiction. As he explained it (and you'll see different explanations around the Internet) this type of plot starts with a character (point 1) who has a problem (2). He or she tries to solve the problem … and fails (3). He or she tries to solve the problem again, and fails or succeeds in a way that fits with his or her characterization and the themes of the story (4); for instance, if the story is a tragedy, the character will fail due to some tragic flaw in his or her character. In the wake of the protagonist's success or failure, the story comes to a conclusion (denouement) that will be satisfying to the reader (5).
This, of course, is not the only way to structure the plot of a short story. But nobody had ever before taken me around to a story, popped the hood, and showed me how it works. Seeing that type of story engine explained was an enormous "Ah-Ha!" moment! And I finally realized why my stories weren't selling -- my micro-writing might have been good, but the plots needed serious work.
Later, I got a second and equally big "Ah-Ha!" from Gary A. Braunbeck. He made me realize that good plots aren't prefabricated obstacle courses you march your characters through as though they're contestants in some game show. Characters and their conflicts have to create and drive the plot. But to fully understand the lessons Gary taught me, I first had to understand what Joe taught me.
Since then, I've made over 100 short fiction sales, and I recently received the Bram Stoker Award for my short story "Magdala Amygdala". So, these were definitely lessons worth learning.
A little about the author:
Lucy A. Snyder is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the novels Spellbent, Shotgun Sorceress, Switchblade Goddess, and the collections Sparks and Shadows, Chimeric Machines, and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Hellbound Hearts, Dark Faith, Chiaroscuro, GUD, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. She currently lives in Worthington, Ohio with her husband and occasional co-author Gary A. Braunbeck. You can learn more about her at www.lucysnyder.com.