Over the long summer holidays, parents struggle to entertain their children and end up arranging activities for them. For example they might arrange a painting day or a cooking day. This expands the child’s interests and encourages them to be creative. I’m going to be like a parent today and encourage you to be creative and expand your interests over the holidays. I’m going to set you a task over the Christmas break – I want you to write a short story.
In a recent blog I recommended some summer reading but if you read my blogs you clearly have an interest in writing so it’s time to do some for yourself. Fiction writing is challenging but also a fun way of improving your word-smithing!
To prepare this writing lesson I’ve gone to friends who write fiction and got advice on how to write. I’ve done my homework.
There needs to be a story structure
To write a short story you have to follow the conventional story structure. Basically you want to introduce the characters, set up a problem (or mystery or conflict) and then resolve it by the end of the story. What I’m saying is that something needs to happen in your story. The wolf has to menace Little Red Riding Hood and try to eat her grandmother. Jack and Jill have to fall down the hill, but then recover. Most stories establish the scene, introduce a problem, the action rises, there is a climax and then a satisfactory conclusion.
Storytelling is an art form, but there are also the basic building blocks to every story (establish the scene, introduce a problem, the action rises, there is a climax and then a satisfactory conclusion). The beginning and end of the story are the crucial parts and you need to introduce the problem as soon as possible to hook the reader in. Make sure your opening line compels people to keep reading.
What is a short story?
Short stories are fiction. Articles and essays are not fiction. Traditionally short stories are between 1,500 to 5000 words. There is another new genre called Flash Fiction. Those stories are 500 to 1,000 words.
To plan or not to plan, that is the question?
Some writers just sit down and write a story. These are usually experienced writers and they have probably been playing with the story in their head for a very long time! If you are just starting out I’d suggest planning the story before you start writing it. Ideally you should know how the story will end, then again there are experienced writers who say they let the story finish itself. They start writing and the characters come to life, and influence the ending! But, if you are a novice write down the beginning and ending. Identify the main character and only write from one viewpoint. You can be a narrator outside the scene or you can write in first-person, from the main character’s view point.
In your planning notes identify the problem, the motivation, the action, the resolution and also the ‘lesson learnt’.
Bring the main character to life and make them flawed
You need to know who the main character is and you need to make this character flawed and very human. Are you going to write about a corrupt politician, a wealthy but unhappy mother of small children, a depressed policeman or a doctor with a secret drug problem? There are going to be other characters in your story, but first you need to identify the main character. That is who the reader needs to relate to and to some extent like. Main characters must be flawed. For example the policeman’s problem is his depression, the politician’s problem is that he is corrupt, and the doctor’s problem is his drug taking.
Now something needs to happen …
The focus of your story is not the main character’s problem. That is pre-existing, but something is going to happen that will send that main character on a journey. The journey will either be a catalyst for change or you may decide to kill off your main character. Perhaps the corrupt politician will be bribed by bikies who ultimately murder him. The doctor with the drug habit meets a new troubled patient, whose lifestyle is so terrifying it scares the doctor and he stops taking prescription medication. Maybe the unhappy mother meets a charismatic older man and considers having an affair but this man is not who he appears to be. From this unsettling encounter the mother learns that she is lucky to have a loving family and feels more satisfied with her life. You are essentially explaining what motivates the main character and the ultimate result. The reader will also be able to see the change in the main character.
Short stories cover events that appear to only impact the main character but they conceal deeper emotional meaning and also make broader comments about society. For example when writing about the corrupt politician you may actually be making a comment about the shabby state of politics in Australia today. When writing about the dissatisfied mother you might also be commenting on the challenges working women face.
Short stories can make big statements.
Write the first draft in one go
Once you have made notes about what the story will be about, sit down and write it in one session. Spend about 90 minutes writing the story from beginning to end. Once you have done this, give yourself a pat on the back! However later you will need to polish and refine your story.
You might want to walk away from your draft for a few days.
I suggest you do some reading. Read short stories. Read Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro and Tobias Wolff. Read short stories by great Australian writers like Robert Drewe – for example Bodysurfers or The Rip. Read Tim Winton’s magnificent book of short stories, The Turning. Many writers tell me that you have to read Chekhov if you want to master the art of writing short stories.
Return to the first draft
Begin by re-writing the opening and closing paragraphs. These lines have to sing.
Good films capture us at the beginning. Your opening line needs to establish the voice of your story, be clear, captivating and alluring.
Next you might want to look at the entire story and break it down into scenes. By breaking the story down into scenes, you will be able to better recognise the structure of your story and show which parts need more work.
At this point, do more research. It is usually easiest to write about what we know. As a public speaker I refer to my time as a youth counsellor, I tell you about things that happened to me while travelling in America or New Zealand. If you work in the insurance industry, set a story in an insurance company. If you are writing about a subject you don’t know well then you need to get online and do some research. If your story is set in a Viking village it’s time to go online and read as much factual information as you can find about Viking villages. Put small telling details in your story to show the reader that you do know what you are talking about.
Write then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
From here on in you just have to polish the words. Don’t over-write. Many writers like short active sentences or they vary sentence length, moving between short and long sentences. Don’t get bogged down telling your reader about the main character’s past. Just suggest his or her history, don’t detail it. Be prepared to cut and edit your story. You might want to get feedback from friends and see what they think is working or not working.
If you have enjoyed writing a short story, consider joining a community writing group. Look for them on Facebook. And enter your stories in competitions but be warned there is a lot of competition out there – still you might be Australia’s next big thing!