Monday, May 23, 2005

The Structure of a Short Story

How to Write a Short Story
Presented by Louise Bergmann DuMont
At the NJCWG – 5/23/05

Average Length of Various Pieces of Fiction
Short Short (aka - flash fiction) - 500-1,800 words
Short Story - 3,000-4,000 words
Novella - 20,000-40,000 words
Novel - 80,000-120,000 words

There are many ways to structure a short story - this is only one of them. Some writers prefer to conceive their characters in step one and others write the story as a whole rather than divide it into scenes. These are differences of opinion and style. I chose to list a simple format that works well for most new writers.

1. Start With An Idea
To a trained writer, this idea comes like lighting across a blackened sky. But the seasoned writer knows that to create a story, they must cultivate this momentary flash into something permanent and useful. An idea is not a story.

Most writers know a part of what they want to say. You may, for example, want to write about your trip to the Grand Canyon.

2. Focus, Focus, Focus…To begin creating a story from your idea you must ask, "What is the focus of my story?" or in this case, what was it that made my trip to the Grand Canyon unique or significant? Was it the perilous trip to the canyon floor that impressed you, was the breath taking view from the top that made the trip special, or was it what you found at the bottom of the canyon that made the trip worth every penny? You must narrow your focus and you should not write everything that happened. In the case of fiction, do not write everything that could happen.

If we select as our first focus that the trip to the canyon floor was what we want to discuss, we have narrowed our focus down to the perilous trip down to the base of the Grand Canyon.

Do this again. What specifically did you find unique or special about that trip down to the base of the Grand Canyon? Let us say that it was the sure-footed, but not very bright, burro that got you to the bottom. Now you have a story about the surefooted, but not very bright, burro that took you to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

3. Figure Your Angle
Angle is a journalistic term meaning -- significance. Finding your angle will narrow your story even more.

In the case of the Grand Canyon story, you need to decide the angle or significance of the burro who took you to the bottom of the canyon. Your story could be about how the burro reacted to the trip into the canyon, how he was chosen and trained for this job, or about what you learned from putting your trust into this simple animal.

If you can't determine an angle, return to Number 1 and/or 2 and tinker with your idea again. Maybe you need a new idea or your focus needs to change.

Let us say that this time you came up with: The gift of the simple burro and how putting my trust into this animal changed my life when he took me to the base of the Grand Canyon

4. POV
Chose a point of view. 1st person is very easy to write (too easy), 3rd person a bit more challenging but still not too hard for a beginner (it is also well received by the reader), and Omniscient is rarely used (because it is not well received by readers). Let us say that you will write this story in 3rd Person.

5. Understand the Conflict
Every story must have conflict. In our story there will be both external and internal conflict.
External - rocks sliding, narrow passage, fright of other passengers
Internal - fear of falling, anger at the burro because he remains calm despite the obvious danger

6. Outline your Scenes
Once you have an idea, your focus, the angle, the conflict and your POV, it's time to map out your scenes.

First determine how long this story should be. We will use an average length and say that this story is approximately ten pages long. That means you will need three good scenes. (Writing scenes as opposed to writing the story as whole is controversial in some writing circles. For the beginning writer, writing scenes is easier than trying to swallow the whole story at once.)

Using our Grand Canyon idea, we might create these scenes:
(Scene 1) getting to know the unique attributes of your traveling companion -- your burro
(Scene 2) the narrow passage, the rocks that tumbled down the mountain and the never wavering animal that seemed unflustered as the earth slid beneath his feet
(Scene 3) gaining confidence in, and learning to trust the experience of your burro
The outline you make can be loose and general, or it can be as precise as an agenda. The type of outline you choose will depend greatly on your personality and writing style.

7. Determine Your Characters
Main Characters - For a ten-page story, three main characters are sufficient. More than four becomes cumbersome, and less than three doesn't allow for significant dialogue and conflict. characters. The three main characters in this story might be: (1) you, (2) your burro and (3) one of your traveling companions. Some writers create a character sketch for each main character. Minor Characters - You can have a number of minor characters, but they should not get in the way of the story, be positioned to feed information or detract from the action. Each character, no matter how insignificant, must be either an irritant or an ally to one of main characters.

8. Write
You should swing into this with the enthusiasm that you had when you first learned to play a sport. You knew you weren't Eli Manning (QB for the NY Giants), but you had fun anyway. Don't worry about mistakes at this stage of the game -- you will edit those out later. Allow your enthusiasm to seep into your words. Strive to evoke emotion using the five senses.

9. Edit
Editing is not simply fixing the mistakes. You need to make your story shine. Remember that flash of lightening? Some of that energy and brilliance should burst through your story. If the surface is lack-luster, your reader will not stay with you. Stories need to spark something inside the reader. A shining piece comes not from stellar writing, but from excellent editing.

It's not unusual for some professional writers to take their stories through 30, 40, or 50 editing cycles. You will learn to sense when you've reached the Point of Diminishing Returns. This is the point where further editing may change the story but will not appreciably improve the story. That is when you let it go, and get to work on your next story.

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