Saturday, 24 November 2012

Getting to Grips With Short Stories - Part 1

Writing a short story might sound easy – after all, it’s only a few thousand words, right?

Actually, the process is just as complicated and as technical as writing a full length novel.  It still needs a lot of thought, planning and preparation. 

Short story writing doesn’t come naturally to some writers.  This might be because they’re not sure how to even tackle one, and because some have never written a short story, they naturally think they’re no good at it.  That means lots of opportunities like short story competitions and submissions for magazines pass them by, simply because they won’t attempt to write one.

Sometimes they’ve failed to get to grips with it for one reason or another, and subsequently they translate that as not being able to do it.  And of course, to a writer, not being able to do it automatically means failure.

But it’s mostly to do with fear.  Some writers just fear tackling the short story.

These are common psychological barriers. To overcome them, writers first need to stop fearing the short story and instead tackle it, because by understanding how to plan and structure the short story, writers break the fear.  It then becomes a pleasure to write them, rather than a chore.

So, how do you tell a story in, say, 1000 words?

The same as you do in a 90,000 word novel.  That’s because the principles for planning and writing a short story are the same as a novel, but they’re just merely condensed.  That means you take an idea and roughly chart a beginning, a middle section and an ending, and then add some prospective key scenes/ideas. 

With a novel you simply have more pages at your disposal to tell your tale; you have more tools and writing devices and you have more time to explore your themes, your characters, their situations and subplots, and you have more time to cover a lot more description and narrative.

With a short story, however, these types of writing devices are somewhat limited. But it’s what makes up the short story that counts - how it’s written, and the most important thing with short stories is getting the structure right. 

As with novels, balance is key to a good story structure, and that means using the right amount of description, narrative and dialogue.  It also means you should roughly sketch out the following as part of your planning and preparation:

·         Whose story is it? Who else is involved?
·         What is the story about?  What themes are there?
·         Why is it happening? What is the meaning behind the story?
·         Do I have ideas on key scenes?  What sort of action do I want?
·         What happens in the end?  What happens to my main character?
·         Is it a happy/satisfactory ending?

So, set aside the fears of the dreaded short story, and let’s take a step by step walkthrough.

Structure - The Beginning

The Set-up

The beginning should start right in the heart of the action or intrigue, or an important moment in your protagonist’s life, or a crisis point, just as a novel would do.  But you don’t have the luxury of the amount of words that a novel affords, so it’s important to set the scene from the outset so that the reader has a clear understanding of what the story is about. 

This is the basic premise of the set-up.  You need to set up the theme and tone of the story straight away.  This can actually be accomplished in a couple of lines or a paragraph, for example:

Fuel dripped from the ruptured petrol tank. The flames grew; he knew he had to escape from the wreck before it exploded.

From the outset the tone is clear, and the set up is established – a man trapped in a car wreck, desperate to escape before it explodes; leaving the reader to wonder whether he will make it in time.

Had there been any more tears, Annabelle would have cried.  But she didn’t.

This type of first line poses the reader questions: Why doesn’t she have any more tears?  What has happened to her and why?

Great First Liners

It’s also important to hook the reader from the first line, if possible.  A great opening line does this effectively.  It might pose a question, it might lure, it might intrigue, it might horrify or pique the reader.  It might make them laugh, or it might move them to tears. Whatever you choose, think about your opening line and what you want to convey.

Once hooked, then the rest of the narrative should ensnare your reader.  Great opening lines can be a few words, or even one word.

Here’s some first lines from some well known short stories:

‘It was late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.’ - Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

Hemingway also wrote the shortest story of his career, at only six words long: ‘For Sale: Baby shoes, never Worn.’  There are countless questions that need answers, just from these six words.

‘There aren’t many hitchhikers on the road to Hell.’ - Dead Run by Greg Bear.

Introduce your main character straight away and drop them right into the action (and other characters where necessary) so that the reader can immediately get to grips with who your characters are.  You want the reader to get to know your character from the outset.

Even though you are writing a short story, a good writer will ensure that the reader identifies and empathises with the character, just as they would with a novel.  If you achieve that, then the reader will want to know what happens next and therefore will keep reading until the end of the story.

Don’t spend 600 words describing something in great detail and then introduce the main character halfway through, (especially when you only have 1000 words or so to write the story), otherwise you risk ruining the story completely and thus putting the reader off.

Set the Scene

Something else the beginning should do is set the scene so that the reader feels part of it – where is the action taking place?  What can the character see?  What are they feeling? What is the conflict in their life?

This is where the use of colours, aromas and sounds can convey the atmosphere of the opening scenes.  And the weather also adds to the overall effect, so don’t neglect it.  It can add important layers to your description.

Once you’ve got your opening line, set the scene, introduced your character(s) and jumped right into the action with the hook, you’re ready to move into the middle section, which we’ll look at next week.

Next week:  Setting to grips with short stories - part 2

Saturday, 17 November 2012

How Writing Evolves

As writers, we never really think too much about how our writing develops or progresses as we write, but it does. 

Writing is an ever changing, continual fluid process; there is always something new to learn, there are better ways of approaching writing and there are always different ways to improve our skills. 

But how does how our writing evolve?  Do we notice it?

Over the course of writing a novel, for instance, you will notice how your writing develops during this process if you were to compare later chapters with your earlier chapters.  You will see a significant difference between them – the writing at the beginning might seem raw and unstructured or a little less cohesive, but towards the end it is much better – it has better structure, it’s more unified and more refined.  Descriptions might seem fuller, characters might seem deeper and more complicated, dialogue has improved and the general writing structure is enhanced. 
Also, you will notice that more complex things like metaphors, similes, symbolism and subplots have emerged.

This happens because in the time it has taken to write the novel – anything between 12 months to several years – the standard of writing has visibly improved because of this ongoing fluid process of writing, learning, improving and therefore evolving. 

Even over the course of writing a short story, your writing still evolves. That’s because everything develops naturally, and writing is no different.  So over the course of many years, the quality of writing and the standards of practice get better as you learn the craft and thus become more proficient. 

As well as the need to learn and progress, the other thing that helps writers evolve is constant writing. This helps you find out what works and what doesn’t, it helps you settle into a rhythmic ‘voice’ that is unique to your narrative; it also helps you understand the limitations of your writing.
And just like anything in life, it’s true that the more we do something, the better we become. 

Therefore it makes senses that the more flash fiction and short stories or poetry we write, the better we become in general.  The standard improves and the writing becomes better.  And that’s what every writer should aim for.

Think of it as a painting – the more brush strokes you add, the more layers you include to the overall effect, which eventually creates a beautiful picture.  You want to achieve the same with your writing.  Lots of brushstrokes and layers.

Compare the standard of writing when you first started to write, to the standard now.  There will be a significant difference between your first attempts and the writing you produce now, and it may surprise you.  If the standard hasn’t changed, however, then there is something fundamentally wrong and your writing skills need to be addressed. 
This often happens when writers don’t want to learn and therefore they never really improve their writing skills. The reason for this is simple arrogance – some writers think they already know it all, and are not open to advice and skill sharing. 

These writers will never evolve.

Writing is a constantly changing subject – it never stays static – because there are always new things to learn, new avenues to take, new ideas to explore and better writing to accomplish. 

As writers, we all start in the same place – at the bottom – but where you want to go is down to the writing.

So in order for your writing to evolve positively:-

·       Take on board good advice
·       Take the time to learn about the craft
·        Read as many authors as you can, learn from the best
·        Write constantly – short stories, flash fiction, poetry etc.  Practice makes almost  perfect.

To evolve is to improve.  It’s entirely down to writers whether they want to.

Next week: Getting to grips with Short Stories


Sunday, 11 November 2012

General Fiction Cliches

We’re all aware of different narrative clichés which creep into our writing, and we know ways to avoid them - phrases and words such ‘all of a sudden’ or ‘or hell broke loose’, ‘just then’ and ‘suddenly’ etc, but there is also another kind of cliché which crops up from time to time without a writer even realising.  These are general fiction clichés.

So what are they?  Unlike the usual hackneyed words and phrases, these general clichés can be situations, characters, places, events or even set scenes.  The best way to illustrate this is to give you some examples of common fiction clichés:

a) The creepy/haunted house/log cabin in the middle of the woods or near a lake, enveloped by a ghostly where have we seen that one before?

b) The hard-bitten cop with emotional problems, who doesn’t conform to the many books and movies have this kind if main character?

c) The woman alone in her house, who for some inexplicable reason forgets that the light switches work and instead insists on using a torch while calling out, ‘Hello?  Who’s there?’ Like anyone lurking in the shadows is going answer her, and why would anyone ask such stupid questions to a lurking burglar/murderer/,monster etc, in the first place?

d) The climax of the story always takes place in a factory or foundry, a warehouse or docks...always somewhere where all the workers have mysteriously vanished into a fictional black hole, so there is no one about while the bad guy and the hero slug it out.  Sound familiar?

e) The antagonist corners the hero, it looks like he’s going in for the kill...but then spends the next four pages explaining why he’s so evil and horrible and intent on taking over the world, and then goes into great detail about how he’s going to kill the hero.  Why do the bad guys always insist on telling the hero everything beforehand?  If you are a cold calculating killer, you kill; you don’t hang around chatting happily to your victim.

f) The main character tells his girlfriend to stay put while he goes to investigate the noises what does she do?  She stupidly ignores him (obviously) and goes off on her own and quickly (here’s a surprise) gets into trouble...

Which then leads us to probably the worst cliché in the history of fiction – women ALWAYS need rescuing from danger by the hero, because they’re weak and pretty dumb and can’t do things for themselves, and more importantly, they’re there to make the hero look...well, heroic. 

If your story has any of these, especially the last one, it really needs some brutal editing and maybe a dose of reality.

These familiar examples are all fiction clichés and happen with regularity.  Why must a creepy or haunted house be in the middle of nowhere?  Why must your crime novel have a cardboard-character cop so predictable that the reader will see through him?  Why do TV series, movies and books always have characters searching through a house with flashlights when most of the time they can just throw a light switch?

And why are women portrayed so dismally in fiction and with such stereotypical influence? 

Writers settle into these clichés too easily, and without realising it, so to avoid them is to be different in your approach.  It is a matter of carefully reading through your story and being able to spot obvious these types of general fiction clichés, and if you do spot them, be judicious with your editing.

Think carefully how the story begins, how it will open out and how it might end.  Think about how your characters fit and work together into this framework.  If there are female characters, have you made stereotypes from them?  Why not switch the gender roles and have the female rescuing the male, for a change.

Don’t be afraid to be different with your characters so they are not so predictable or turn into cardboard cut outs. Be different with your settings - set your ghost story somewhere other than the clichéd creepy forest/lake, and instead choose the middle of a bustling town or city, or perhaps it takes places on a ship or in a factory.  Challenge your reader with unpredictable events rather than predictable, hackneyed ones.  

Try to be different with as many aspects of your writing as you can, this is what makes ideas fresh and inventive, but be different, especially when it comes to fiction clichés.

Next week:  How your writing evolves.


Monday, 5 November 2012

Are there such things as Flashforwards?

We all know about flashbacks – the often used device for writers to tell a back story or fill in gaps of information for the reader by dipping into the past, but what about flashforwards?

The case of the flashforward is debatable among writers. But there are such things.

Flashbacks tell us what has happened in the past. Flashforwards, on the other hand, tell us what happens in the future, but since most writing takes place either in the first, second or third person, flashforwards should not exist because you can’t predict what might happen in the future. Or can you?

This is the sticking point. Logic tells us that we can’t talk about the future, simply because the future hasn’t happened yet, so how can writers write about future events that are yet to take place without making the story sound trite and over the top?

There are some circumstances where a flashforward is desired and wouldn’t seem out of place – science fiction and fantasy writing for instance.  
These genres allow the writer to bend the rules where fiction is concerned, because sci-fi and fantasy relies on that ‘out of this world’ element, where the normal binds of reality don’t exist, so there could actually be a sequence where a character sees into the future, i.e. a time-traveller story maybe, or perhaps there is a dream scene where the character imagines the future. Or you might have a scene where the character who possesses the gift of prophecy  ‘sees’ into the future.

Within these genres, the flashforward is not out of place.
Of course, in most conventional genres however, the writing doesn’t contain flashforwards, simply because those events have not yet happened - the events largely take place either in the present or the past (i.e. first person or third person), and writers who try to attempt to do it risk making a complete mess of the whole thing unless it’s skilfully done, it’s pertinent to the entire story, it’s logical and it’s necessary and believable, and most of all, it’s expected.

If it’s none of the above, then it isn’t going to work.

Many writers also confuse foreshadowing with flashforward. These are not the same devices. They work on separate levels. Don’t confuse one with the other.

Foreshadowing simply hints at things that might happen later in the story, where the writer plants clues or uses symbols or metaphors. The flashforward is a specific moment in the future that the writer focuses on within the narrative, which, like flashback, still logically tells part of the story.

Unless you are writing a science fiction based or a fantasy based story, steer clear of trying to insert a flashforward into the narrative because while flashbacks can be notoriously difficult to write, think how strange flashforwards might be, where you are writing about events that haven’t happened yet.

If this kind of literary device is necessary within your story, then study other writers who have managed this – Flashforward by Robert J Sawyer, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or the Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, to name just a few.  

So, there are such things as flashforwards, but only in special circumstances.

Next week: Avoiding fiction clichés.