Writing Short Stories – Part 1
So where do you start? Well, you start with an idea. Think of it as a wire frame from which to add layers and elements of your story, but remember, your idea is NOT the plot. The plot is the situation of your story; the idea is the thought process used to bring the story to life.
The short story is concerned with a small but significant incident in the life of your main character. This will involve him or her solving a problem or achieving an important goal, and how he or she does this. ALL stories must have this.
Your story will also need cohesion and structure, and an understanding of the mechanics of writing - elements that encompasses plot, theme, conflict and motivation. We’ll look at these in more detail in Part 2.
In essence, all stories should follow a basic structure – The beginning, the middle and the end. Let’s look at these separately.
• Introduce the Main character to your story.
• Set the tone – Is it romance, horror, thriller, fantasy etc?
• Set the scene – where will your story take place?
• Show the Main character's problem or goal.
You should introduce your main character early in your story. Don't bother with long introductions or great blocks of narrative explaining everything, because this tends to slow the story to a complete stop. The art of good story writing is to jump straight in and then feed snippets of information to the reader gradually. Start your story midstream, close to a crisis point. This is known as The Hook. Grab your reader’s attention immediately so that they want to know what happens next. If you don’t, then your story could end up becoming a chore to read, or worse still, unlikely to be published.
Setting the tone works effectively with a great hook. A good writer can establish the tone of the story immediately, and do so within the first paragraph, for instance:
‘He watched as blood spilled from the wound, the gun nearby...’
‘Jane leaned over and kissed Christopher softly, her eyes gleaming like quicksilver, anticipating what he was about to say...’
‘Phil knew the moment he stepped out of the pub and fell into the only pile of cow dung in the entire village that he’d had too much to drink...’
You can see from the examples that the tone is immediately set, without the need of long drawn out descriptive passages. You can start your story with dialogue, a piece of action, or through statement. The hook should be a surprise, provocative, or maybe thrilling/exciting. The general idea is to grab your reader by the jugular.
Read back through the opening of your short stories - does it surprise, shock or intrigue? No? Then re-write it.
Does the story starts in the right place, or does it start too early? If it starts too early and you have a page and a half of boring narrative even before any action taken place then get rid of it and start again. Always be honest with yourself when looking back at your own work, don’t be afraid to be self-critical.
Again, analyse the opening paragraphs published short stories - look at how and why they work.
This part should show the motivation for the character’s actions – the reason they are striving to solve their problem, the path they take to reach this goal, and what they do to overcome barriers and complications in their way until the climax is reached. These barriers should be a coherent series of events (or just one event) the main character undergoes before reaching the story reaches its conclusion. This should be done logically, and should never be contrived or forced. There should be lots of ‘what ifs’.
For instance, here’s an example of a simple plot for a short story:
David wants a new car, but can’t afford it on his meagre wages. He wants it to impress his friends and be accepted by his peers, but his girlfriend won’t be too happy. He’s desperate, so he robs a bank. He thinks he’s got away with it. The girlfriend finds out and is angry, but she knows she has to tell the police, and he will end up in prison. But she loves him...
David’s story has the following goals and barriers:
He wants a new car - His meagre wages can’t support it
Acceptance of his peers – His girlfriend won’t like it
Money for the car from the bank robbery – he’s now a criminal
Getting away with the crime – his girlfriend will tell the police
See how the structure works? Just as David thinks he’s okay, another barrier pops up to scupper his dreams.
Every story should evolve logically. If it doesn’t, it will show in your writing and the resulting story could end up forced and convoluted. You have to make the narrative, the dialogue and the description run smoothly together, without sudden jumps or disjointedness, and the resulting cohesion will ensure a smooth transition from the beginning of your story to the middle and through to the end.
This is where you bring your story to a close in a way that leaves the reader satisfied. Don't be tempted to explain too much prior to the dénouement, because then you may be in danger of dragging the story to an anticlimax. Make your ending swift and effective, especially so if it has a twist in the tail. A good short story would have kept the reader guessing to the outcome right to the end. Again, I would advise studying published short stories to gain insight how endings work, and why. Above all, endings should right.
It’s All in the Detail
Know exactly what your story is about. Plan your story, ask the ‘what ifs’ and ‘suppose thats’. Make sure that you observe at least two of the three Greek unities in your story. Without them, your story will not work. The unities originated from Greek drama, and consist of time, place, and action.
A sense of time - don't make it too long for short story. Most short stories cover a period of 24 hours, some even covering less than an hour. The longer the time frame, the weaker the story.
A sense of place - most short stories will have just one location, where the action takes place. More than one location is permissible, but too many may unnecessarily overcomplicate your story.
A sense of action - this is pretty self-explanatory and involves the viewpoint of your Main character. Stick to one point of view (POV) within each scene. Many new writers make the mistake of flipping POV between characters within the same scene. You should avoid this, because it only serves to confuse your reader.
So you have an idea for your story, now you need to decide whose story it is. This sounds easy, but you may have several characters within the story and it may be possible to tell the story from each of these characters’ viewpoint. Most short stories only have two characters. This keeps things tight and cohesive. The more characters you have the more complicated you make your story, and it may become difficult to find out whose story you're trying to tell.
In short, keep it simple. A short story really doesn’t have the time to work with too many characters. Two or three characters are sufficient and will enable you to provide some attention to each of them without losing the integrity of the story.
It's worth experimenting with your characters to make sure you know whose story you're telling. It's very easy to start writing your story only for it to change half way through. This is not uncommon, so play around with characters and ideas so you understand the perspective.
In part 2, we’ll look at the next elements to your short story structure...themes & conflict, motivation, sentence structure,charaterisation and description, and more.