Friday, 5 March 2010

Writing Short Stories Part 2

Structure

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.


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.


Characterisation

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.

3 comments:

  1. Damn! I was gonna use Tracey Snotbottom in my next short story... ah, well, back to the drawing board!

    Good stuff, and very generous of you, AJ, to share your extensive knowledge.

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  2. Yes, thanks AJ. This is all extremely useful advice.

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  3. Lol Col, the Snotbottoms are well known in these parts...

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