Hi Story Nurse,
I’m working on a series of short stories that follow the same set of characters. Each story is about 5,000 words and needs to stand alone as an episode: a conflict needs to be introduced, the characters need to react to that conflict, and some kind of resolution should happen by the end of the story.
As I write more stories, I’m noticing that the way I introduce the conflict of the month is getting repetitive. Since this series follows the crew of a spaceship as they do odd jobs across the galaxy, each story starts with them either getting a new job or picking up a distress call.
I feel like I’m endlessly repeating the scifi equivalent of “So this dame walked into my office…” How do I vary the way I introduce the conflict that sets a new story in motion?
—Keeping It Fresh (she/her)
Dear Keeping It Fresh,
This type of challenge crops up a lot in episodic work. Fortunately, that means there are some well-established ways to handle it.
- Double down on repetition. Make all your openers exactly the same. Have the crew comment on the sameness in a humorous way: “Aw man, distress beacons for dinner again?” Integrate it into the description of the series: “The Beaconeers travel the galaxy in search of people in distress.” This also lets you make the opener very brief, to the point where the reader will barely notice it at all. When you’re short on space, a cliché or trope can be the most efficient way to do what needs doing and move on to the real story.
- Follow the expected with the unexpected. There’s a distress signal BUT it seems to be coming from all directions at once. There’s a new gig that will pay really well BUT it involves dealing with a robot that broke the heart of the ship’s AI. How can you take your familiar opening in an original and surprising direction?
- Focus on character motivation. If your character’s motivation is the same for every episode, the motivator will be too. It sounds like right now your characters have two motivations: help people (the distress signal) or make money (take a job). What other motivations might they have to take action of some kind? How would an episode start if you’re motivating the characters to take revenge on someone who double-crossed them, cope with the malfunction of vital equipment, or resolve an interpersonal quarrel that’s divided the crew into factions? Your characters have histories, ideas, and lives that go beyond this odd-job existence. That isn’t just window dressing; it’s there for you to use in the service of story.
- Weave in subplots. I know 5,000 words isn’t a lot of room for this, but try to work a subplot into at least some of the stories. The @TNG_S8 parodies of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes are a series of primary plot/secondary plot jokes (“Picard must debate a copy of himself… to the death. Geordi and Data really want to find their snake before anyone notices it’s gone.”) because that pattern worked over and over and over again for TNG. It can work for you too, and if you occasionally start with the equivalent of Geordi and Data hunting their missing snake, you’ll create some nice variety in your intros.
- Mix up the mood. Make some episodes exciting, some funny, some tense, and some emotional. This will both help you vary your openers and create the impression in the reader’s mind of a story that was unique from start to finish, even if it actually started and finished more or less the same way as all your other stories.
- Have a larger arc. Your stories can stand alone while also fitting into a bigger story. Creating that story will encourage you to have more complex characters (see #3 above) and tackle more complex ideas instead of keeping your crew stuck in a rut.
I also want to emphasize that readers really don’t care about this nearly as much as you might think they do. No one complains about Holmes and Watson’s stories always starting with an interesting client or a call from Scotland Yard. Noir readers don’t roll their eyes at yet another dame walking into yet another office. They just wait to see what exciting new thing the author will do with the comfortably familiar setup—a classic mix of surprise and reassurance that keeps your story moving and your reader engaged.