Saturday, 20 March 2010

Short Stories – Part 3

The Three Elements – Dialogue, Narrative, Description

The stories you write will be nothing without good dialogue and sentence structure. New writers tend to do two things with dialogue: they write too much, or they write too little. Finding the right balance isn’t easy, but it will come with practice. Having the right amount of dialogue balanced against your narrative and your descriptions will make for a better, tighter story.

Let’s take a closer look at Dialogue.


Your characters help drive the story forward, and what they say and how they say it is vital. As already pointed out, too many novice writers make the mistake of writing too much dialogue. This tends to make the story clunky. This not only slows the story, but it can hinder the entire piece and deter a reader altogether.

The idea is to keep the reader interested, so dialogue is also there to help characterize and impart necessary information. Incidentally, revealing information through dialogue cuts down on huge chunks of overloaded description as you try to explain things to your reader. Conversely, you don’t have to overload your story with dialogue. Learn to economise, especially if you have a set word count to work towards. Good, effective dialogue will speed up your writing (as opposed to bad dialogue bringing it to a complete stop), so pace is important.

Bad dialogue makes a bad story. So what is bad dialogue? It is the kind of dialogue that could bore your reader into a catatonic state, with 5 or 6 lines of speech that tell the reader nothing and is so badly set out that it could belong in a bad romance novel from the 18th Century. Avoid irrelevant waffle. Keep it pertinent. Remember, move the story forward, characterise and impart information.

To illustrate the kind of dialogue to avoid, look at the following example:

Molly approached her neighbour who was tending to her flowers. “Hello, Jane. How are the flowers you’ve been tending?”

“Oh, hello Molly. Aren’t they lovely? I’ve used a new feed for them. You pop it in the soil once a week and before you know it, they’re in full bloom.”

“Yes, they are rather gorgeous. I especially like those roses.”

“I got those at the garden centre. I bought two trays for a £1. Mind you, every time I go there I’m served by a very suspicious looking assistant.”

Bad dialogue like this slows the pace of the writing. Is it vital to the story what plant feed Jane used, or how lovely the flowers are? No? Then cut the superfluous dialogue and tighten the sentences. It is much better like this:-

“Wow, look at those flowers,” Molly said.
“Two trays for a £1 at the garden centre,” Jane replied. ‘To be honest, the assistant is always acting suspiciously.”

The second version is tighter, sharper, with less waffle. Clever use of narrative and dialogue should help move the story forward, not hinder it. When it comes to dialogue, narrative and description, a new writer will always ask – how much is too much or too little?

The simple answer is to look for a balance. Do this by varying the length of each element. Too much narrative may bore your reader. Conversely, too much description can slow down your writing, and by adding too much dialogue, you could irritate your reader.

Beware the Dangers of Purple Prose!

Many new writers fall into the trap of writing flowery, over the top narrative, and then overload it with overly long descriptive passages, because they wrongly assume editors and readers want to read this, but not so. Keep your writing clear and simple. Flamboyant over-the-top writing is known as ‘Purple Prose’ and is easily done.

Here are two examples:

Example 1

The wind gushed through the trees with maddening harshness, each leaf wavering as though caught in a maelstrom, and provoking the branches to shudder with a heavy, malicious sigh.

Example 2

The wind swept through the trees, made them shudder. Leaves rippled and fell to the ground.

The first example is over the top with description and is instantly contrived. The second example is tight and less flowery, just by keeping it simple and concise. Remember, you are looking for quality, not quantity. Avoid trying to be arty. If you keep it simple, the flow of the story will be easier to control, and you can convey the mood concisely while allowing the structure to remain tight. That said, do try to add a touch of poetic depth to the words and sentences you use.

Narrative and Sentence Structure

You are the narrator, the storyteller, so you need to keep your narrative interesting. You can do this by varying the length of your sentences to suit the pace and tone of the piece and avoid tedium.

Pace creates immediacy. Short, staccato sentences increases pace, especially for fast moving action scenes. Like this. It’s edgy. Punchy. Short, concise. But use them sparingly so you don't go over the top.

Longer sentences, on the other hand, will slow things down and allow the reader and your characters to reflect, and is very useful to allow the reader to breathe after action packed scenes. In essence, prose should naturally speed up and slow down. If you don’t vary sentence rhythms, then your story is in danger of becoming monotonous, and will lose any effect.

As well as rhythm, try to vary the construction of sentences. In English, the natural sentence order is subject-verb-object, for example: Jim pushed the bike. You should maintain this as much as possible to keep a certain amount of readability, but you can change the structure to add some depth to the writing by adding a subordinate clause: As Mark had pulled his back, Jim pushed the bike.

One thing I will say - avoid too many hanging participles in your work. Example: Turning, Maya saw the figure in the window.

This can make sentence clunky. Better to say: Maria turned, saw the figure in the window. This keeps immediate tension, whereas the first example loses all tension. My advice - use them sparingly.

Here are some useful tips on what to avoid and what to include.

10 Things to Avoid In Narrative

1. Cliché - avoid all hackneyed phrases.
2. Too many adverbs
3. Passive voice
4. Too many adjectives
5. Double adjectives - i.e use of two adjectives within a sentence.
6. Too many modifiers – “she rumbled”, “he snapped” etc.
7. The word ‘There’ - use a better choice of a verb, other ‘than there was a light in the doorway.’ Instead, try ‘a light flickered from the doorway.’
8. Double negatives – We don’t need no shopping.
9. Purple prose.
10. Simple grammar mistakes.

10 Things to Include in Narrative

1. Context - Make it meaningful; otherwise, it can lead to over writing.
2. Rhythm of sentences – vary sentences to keep the flow.
3. Reveal your characters through dialogue
4. Aim for clarity and simplicity.
5. Viewpoint – stick to it.
6. Obstacles and conflicts.
7. Indirect Exposition (Show, Don’t Tell)
8. Atmosphere and tension
9. The senses – remember to include the senses when writing.
10. Use metaphor and similes, but use them sparingly.

Next Time: Theoretical and critical reflection. Yes - get out the red editing pen!

Friday, 5 March 2010

Writing Short Stories Part 2


In the second part of this look at short stories, we’ll examine their structure, themes and conflict, motivation and characterisation.

As already established, every story requires a beginning, middle and an end, and this is particularly true for longer stories such as novels, but a tight structure is just as important when constructing short stories.

The easiest way to define a story structure is to think of a mountain range which your character has to climb in order to reach the summit – he has to journey through peaks and troughs, highs and lows, before he reaches his goal. This means as he climbs towards this, he’ll come into conflict or a barrier to prevent him from reaching is goal, then he’ll climb a bit further, another barrier, and so on, until at last, that final moment when he achieves what he set out to do.

Short stories don’t necessarily need this kind of in-depth configuration, but with a basic structure in place, you can open your story. Remember, introduce your main character early – but as already stated, don’t use huge blocks of description for them - use snippets of information, or layering, to help your reader build up a picture of your character. (More on characterisation later). Never forget that a reader is very astute, they will mentally build the character in their mind if you allow them to.

Set the tone of the story, and make the setting clear.

Move on to let the reader know about the character’s motivation, and how he or she will overcome/solve their problem. You can do this by adding strands of information, clues, to add to the tension, little by little, until you reach the climax of the story. Your ending might have a twist, although modern short stories don’t always rely on this, while others are dramatic, and some are understated. Whichever you choose, don’t overdo the ending.

Themes & Conflict

Every story has a theme, a message; whether that theme is love, death, or revenge, but you need to make it subtly clear in your story. As with life, all themes are emotive, but when joined with that other element every story must have – conflict – you will have a great story to tell. Without conflict, you won’t have a story.

Conflict needs no explanation. For instance, someone desperately wants something, but there are obstacles in his way...he knows something terrible will happen to his town, like an earthquake, but no one will believe him. This has potential to create conflict is so many ways.

There are two forms of conflict – external and internal. These can be further divided into the following types:

• External - Man against man
• Internal - Man against himself
• External – Man against nature

Using just one type of conflict is perfectly acceptable, but if you can use both internal and external types of conflict, you will strengthen your story significantly. Remember, conflict can arise between many different people and groups - family, friends, strangers, different races, cultures, even the elements.

More importantly, conflict feeds directly from your character’s motivation.


So what drives your characters? What makes them do the things they do?

Motivation is an integral part of characterisation. You need to understand what motivates your characters and what they do to achieve their goals. Let's take the example of the man who learns that an earthquake will soon hit his town, but despite telling the authorities, no one will believe him, because he's not a scientist.

So what is his motivation? To save lives, to avert catastrophe. From that simple thread, we have motivation, and from that, we can create emotion linked in with the character.


Never overlook one of the most important elements in fiction.

Central to your story, the characters you create will provide the reader with more than just dialogue. They need to be believable, have depth, flaws, breadth, scope...they need to be three-dimensional people, not one-dimensional sketches.

Characterisation is about showing the character's appearance, demonstrating the character's actions, revealing the character's thoughts (to the reader), revealing the character through dialogue and, lastly, getting the reactions of other characters, and the reader.

The key to a good character is to portray them just as real people are; people who carry emotional baggage around with them. There is no such thing as a perfect character, i.e. someone who is whiter than white and cannot possibly do wrong. A great character requires a great deal of investment in terms of background, likes, dislikes, their family, their psyche, what they did as a child to make them the way they are now, events that happened to them, incidents that changed them, and so on.

So you have a character, what is the character's name? Choosing a name is an important part to characterisation process. The right names tell the reader something about your characters, and must fit the style of your story. For instance, would you have a lead character called Malcolm in a romance story? Probably not. Something a little more fitting is required – say, Antonio or Philippe. If you have a story about life in a quaint English village, then names like Kylie and Wayne are unlikely to fit because they conjure someone in their teens or early 20’s, rather than gentle, sedentary country folk in their 50’s or 60’s.

Of course, it’s not just first names that are important. Surnames are, too. Michael Farowby-Smythe will be very different from Tracey Snotbottom. Both these surnames conjure different backgrounds, so it’s important to remember this when picking the right name to fit your character’s social background, and to help them fit in with your story.

Here’s a simple character checklist to help layer your characters. There are many more you can add for yourself.

Character checklist:

1. Age and characteristics.
2. Mannerisms and behaviour
3. Clothes and style
4. Family background
5. Character traits
6. Accents and dialects

To help get to know your characters, try writing a mini biography for each of the major ones. This will help you get to know your characters before you start writing.

You should know things such as:

1. Likes and dislikes
2. Taste in music or art
3. Hobbies and pastimes
4. Career path
5. Attitudes
6. Ambitions

These are just basic pointers – there are dozens more. You can add your own as you learn more about your characters. Some writers go to the trouble of writing checklists, or full biographies, complete with drawings or photos of the person that best fits the character. Do whichever feels best for you. Above all, make your characters believable.

In part 3 we’ll look at sentence structure, dialogue, narrative and description and more.