A while back I wrote a post in which I first introduced the concept of Joe’s Sandwich. I’ve been working a lot in the short story format and I find myself returning to the idea, and also to some ideas I outlined in a post about making me care about the action.
Here I want to outline what I am going to call The Joe’s Sandwich Method.
I’m not going to claim that this is the One True Way of plotting short fiction, just that this is a tool that I have found useful. I’m throwing it out there for anyone who wants it.
The Joe’s Sandwich Method has three elements: Joe, the sandwich, and whatever it is that keeps the twain apart.
Joe is just this guy, see? He’s the stand-in for the reader, everyperson. We want to lead in with the universal–Joe is hungry. Anyone who is reading your story knows what it’s like to be hungry.
This is particularly important in stories where the setting, persons, and situations are fantastic in some way. The fantastic needs to be understood in the context of something familiar. You can tell me the borogoves are mimsy and the mome raths outgrabe, but unless I have some way of understanding what those things are my Sense Of Wonder will be a State Of Confusion.
Joe, at least, needs to be relatable. He has to have a motivation that is universal. I use hunger as an example, but many others will work. Joe could want to go home to see his family, or to finish his day’s work and get paid, or get a beer and relax at the end of a long day. The goal is to allow the reader to think, “Yes, I’ve been in that situation and felt that way,” even if the story is set on the dark side of the moon.
Next, the sandwich. I use “sandwich” and not “five course steak dinner”. The goal should be a reasonable one. Joe’s not looking for something special here, just a regular meal. Something ordinary and expected. Again, while the setting can be fantastic, the goal should be one that the reader understands.
And I want my readers to feel that Joe’s goal is not only reasonable, but an earned goal. Joe deserves his damned sandwich. If life were fair you’d expect him to sit down and dig in to a nice roast beef and cheddar on marble rye with a glop of spicy brown mustard. That’s what should happen.
But life’s not fair, is it? At least not in interesting stories. So that leads us to the obstacle. The obstacle is completely unreasonable. It is something that the reader feels should not be happening, and that Joe has every right to make it stop happening, with a big stick if that what it takes.
Now, I am using “reasonable” and “unreasonable” in an ethical and esthetic context here, not necessarily in reference to the fantastic. Joe might be an alien shapeshifter who wants to get to his spaceship and go home, and the obstacle might be the employees of an amusement park who have the spaceship on display, but the goal is what is reasonable–though fantastic–and the obstacle is what is unreasonable, though mundane.
The obstacle is some damned thing that blows up out of nowhere and ruins an otherwise good day–or at least a reasonable day. A day that made sense up until that point. But now the rules have changed, and not for the better. It’s the X factor, the fly in the ointment, the monkey wrench in the gears. It doesn’t have to be explained or justified and in the classic tale of the Uncanny, it isn’t. “Suddenly, zombies!” for no reason. It just happens.
Last point–does Joe ever get his sandwich? Well, that’s the point–we don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that drives the story. The reader keeps reading to find out. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he gets a five course steak dinner instead or maybe he goes to bed without any supper at all.
The story ends with the answer to that question. Maybe not the exact last line (although I do like that method) but at least on the last page. What follows is just wrapping up lose ends. The important question is answered.