"I know nothing, Mr. Wilde."
There was a time when I read up on all the minute rules and structures of short story writing, but I forgot them. Whoops! So I have cast aside the search for lost knowledge and have chosen to share with you my own approach on the subject.
The clueless make new clues. Do you dare follow them?
"I am glad to hear it."
I have divided the act of writing a short story into seven pieces. This is my approach and may not work for you but I encourage you to give it a shot. It is inspired by the Three Act Structure used in film script writing (which I originally learned of in Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger) but three large parts that need extensive filling don't really work for the short story process. Seven smaller, tightly knit parts are much better for this medium.
For this workshop you can take an existing short story you want to improve or just an idea you want to develop.
Let’s get started...
You’re probably familiar with the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and yet people still do it. I know I do. What isn’t as widely acknowledged is that if you can get people to look past your front cover and onto the page, you will be judged by your first sentence. Always.
“Unfair!” you say.
“Suck it,” says the reader. “I have more thrilling first sentences that require my attention.”
Oh yes, even when I have devoted myself to reading an entire short story, I often have to force myself not to run away at the sign of a mundane, sleep-inducing first sentence.
That’s right. The first part of your story is the first sentence. That’s it.
"Why is this important?" you ask.
Simply because if I read the first line of your story and am already thinking, This story is not short enough, then it is all downhill from there.
Exercise: Write out the first sentence of your story, whether you have one already or are making it up on the spot.
Go, go, go!
Next, see which structure your sentence is most like:
A) "It was a bright and sunny morning."
DULL! There is absolutely no intrigue in this sentence. Why should the reader care about the weather? People care about characters first and foremost. It helps them to identify with someone and get involved. Even if you do not describe a character in the first sentence you should at least show the voice of the narrator.
Is your first sentence anything like A? Then you are in the danger zone. Read on.
B) "There was only one thing to do on a bright and sunny morning like this."
Ooh, better. There is a narrative voice here and a little intrigue...but still not enough. Dull!
If your first sentence is something like B, you have a spark to work with but you still need more.
C) "There was only one thing to do on this bright and sunny morning and that was to throw an kiwifruit at Harry."
Better – but prolonged first sentences are not your friend. The reader begins to think, When is this story going to end? before it has even really started. Also, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of "telling" the reader things instead of "showing" them, especially in your first sentence.
If your sentence is something like C, you are getting somewhere. Hang in there, though. We’re not done with you or your sentence.
D) "I threw a kiwifruit at Harry."
It’s short. It’s action. It has a narrative voice. It’s unusual. The narrator throws something at Harry, not to him, and it isn’t a baseball or set of keys it’s a...kiwifruit?
This sentence provokes the reader to ask the question "Why?" which then prompts them to read on to find out.
If your first sentence has this sort of oomph and intrigue, read on. If not, take your time to work on that sentence until it does.
Remember: A narrative voice. Not too long. Show, don’t tell. Intrigue your readers.
2. Inciting Incident.
"What is the inciting incident?" you say.
It is the moment where something changes for your protagonist. Maybe they get divorced, get in a car accident, start their first day at school, or acquire super powers.
Whatever it is, it has to be something different to what usually happens to your character, otherwise it wouldn’t be a story.
No one wants to read about Everyday Joe, making a cup of tea, working at his job as per usual, or scratching his head or his nose – or anything else – as life goes on as normal around him. If Everyday Joe saves a baby on his way to work, something different has happened and you have a place to start your story.
The same goes for characters who aren’t an Everyday Joe. Even if your character is already a superhero, something has to change. Maybe he saves a baby and gets stuck with it. A superhero with baby baggage makes for a more interesting read than the same old save-the-people-in-the-bus-before-it-runs-off-the-recently-broken-bridge scenario.
Either way, this should be the point where your story starts. Do not begin with back story and say "Joe was a superhero" (which is "telling" again) or show your character's entire route to work before the heroic moment. Just start at that moment.
Do not explain the hook away, either. It kills the intrigue.
For example, if you follow “I threw a kiwifruit at Harry” with...
"It was because he was sleeping around again."
"It was because he left the toilet seat up."
"It was because I really hated his fuschia shoes."
...you don’t give the reader any reason to read on.
This is my continuation:
I threw the kiwifruit at Harry. I could have ducked or turned my shoulder but I didn’t. I just glared at him.
This extends the intrigue as the reader still doesn’t know why the protagonist has taken this action.
This is the inciting incident. Why? It throws the story into motion. It shows the protagonist doing something different, making a change. It is also the best place to introduce conflict. After all, how is Harry going to react to being hit by a kiwifruit?
The inciting incident doesn’t end there. I have to show Harry’s reaction.
He clutched his head, looking like a fielder who hadn’t been watching for the ball. Rubbing at the spot that had been my target, he crouched down and picked up the fruit.
‘Cheers,’ he said, raising up the kiwifruit in a mock toast and grinning at me. His tongue poked out from between his teeth.
‘The cheek,’ I said, and turned back to attend my stall.
Exercise: Figure out what the inciting incident in your story is. What is the moment where something changes for your protagonist? What sets your story in motion?
If you are tackling an already written story, go through and see if you can pinpoint that moment.
Doesn’t exist? Make one.
Is there conflict introduced? No? Write it.
If you are writing a new short story from scratch, don’t sweat for perfection. My example isn’t perfect. It’s only a first draft. The point is that we work through all the parts and write them out. Refining them comes later.
So do your part and write that inciting incident.
3. First Turning Point
This is a major moment. Something happens that changes the course of your story. Your character takes action, drastic or less so - but equally significant - that propels the story.
Character driven stories are key, particularly in short story writing. Your first turning point should probably be where your character decides to take some form of action. Perhaps they are faced with a choice. Most likely it will be something they are propelled into after the inciting incident.
- Joe plans to look for the baby’s parents but in the mean time decides to take it out on missions with him as he’s actually a broke superhero who can’t afford a nanny.
- The protagonist decides to go undercover to spy on Harry who is actually a businessman whose franchise is threatening to put them out of business.
- A recently humiliated character sets out to get revenge using the World Wide Web as a weapon.
"Well gosh, I just don’t know."
Who is this stumped idiot? Well, it’s usually me. I get stuck a lot and usually in the very very beginning. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve started a story and gone, "MWAH, perfection!" Then I've reached this stage where my character had to do something and gone, "Ehm..."
So, for those of you who are stuck or just haven’t written this part yet, do it with me now. Go on. Blab something on the page. It doesn’t need to be perfect.
"Easier said than done..."
I know, but just give it a shot.
Exercise: Write about your character taking action. Write about them doing something that excites you and encourages you to write on. Try to translate those same feelings to your reader. You can refine it later.
This is where your story changes direction. That doesn’t mean it does a complete 180. Oh no. Maybe the tone of the story changes, or the pace quickens and becomes more intense. Something to switch it up so that your character isn’t plodding along on the same sluggish path.
- Joe ends up becoming more interested in the baby than superherro work, and soon the city is perishing because of it!
- The protagonist who has infiltrated Harry’s franchise ends up developing romantic feelings for him.
- The character who set out to humiliate people on the web has gained positive support from people like them over the internet, and instead of operating out of hate, turns it into something positive.
"No, don’t throw it at me!"
Exercise: You need to pinpoint a moment where something changes.
For instance, I wrote a short story where the protagonist was nervous about something but it wasn’t clear what. I built up the tension and then BAM his mother mentions a name and he can’t take it anymore. He runs out of the room. This leads to a change in the pace, in his mood, and also propels him into taking further action so that the story can move along.
I also have a screenplay where a man quits his job half way through the plot to be a stay at home single parent of a child he hasn’t been connecting with.
It doesn’t have to be major. It just has to be a point in your story that shows that there is a change of course in the plot, however subtle.
Pin pointed? No?
Do it now.
5. Second Turning Point
Now this is major. Perhaps things have been going well for your character but then a complication arrives.
- The baby's parents come to take him back, but with no accomplishments as a superhero, Joe is reluctant to give up his new-found joy.
- Harry learns that the protagonist meant to infiltrate his company and now feels betrayed. He shuns him/her. (I don't think I ever classified the character's gender, something you should probably have done earlier unless necessary.)
- The character running their agony blog on the net is facing backlash because of all the slander they originally posted.
Exercise: Find a point in your story (or in your mind) which could be a possible second turning point. In fact, write more than one. This is a great time to bust out the "What If?" question. Come up with as many possibilities that could propel your character in different directions and make the climactic moment all the more powerful.
Even if you think you have the perfect second turning point already written, come up with something else, even if you don't use it. Work those little brain cells!
List one, two, three scenarios!
The peak of your story. The moment where you want your readers' eyes to be glued to your words.
Your character must take action.
Think about the second turning point and what your character will do now that they are faced with this situation.
Exercise: Remember I told you to list three scenarios for the second turning point? Well you should be able to list three climactic points for each of those.
Just experiment. Think about the rise in tension. What is going to make your reader keep their focus and exclaim "YES" or "WOW" or "FASCINATING" or "OH MY?" You want them to feel like they are enlightened or exhilarated by the end.
I can't give you a miracle answer. I can't tell you how to write your climax or what should happen.
All I can say is this:
Show, don’t tell. Captivate your readers. Tension, tension, tension.
This is where we come back to the beginning.
"Why?" you ask.
Simply because I believe that the rules of a good resolution in a short story are the same as that of the opening.
In fact, I believe that if it can be accomplished, a short story's resolution should be no more than a sentence. Just like the first part.
So I repeat to you once more...
A narrative voice. Not too long. Show, don’t tell. End with a snap.
It won't come perfectly. In fact it may not come along at all in a first draft.
Exercise: Just give it a shot. You can refine it later. Write that resolution.
At least now you have a structure to work with in your short story writing endeavors. It may not work perfectly for everyone but it's how I write my short story outlines.
Who knows, maybe it will stick with you as well.
In the mean time...