I’m putting together a class on the differences in form between a short story and a novel, so I thought I’d share some of my pearls of wisdom with you. Lucky you!
Some thoughts on the basic construction of short stories.
This is not the last word on storytelling. It is however, a starting point for constructing good, sturdy short stories. Once you’ve mastered these suggestions (I’ve won short story contests and I haven’t even come close to mastering these suggestions) you may find that you want to bend and break the rules, in the name of innovation and experimentation. But you have to learn the rules in order to break them.
Start in the action:
Try starting your opening scene in medias res. It’s a common writer thing to over-contextualize a story at the beginning. How often have you written an opening paragraph, and then cut it out later because it all it did was outline what was about to happen? That crescendo of action that we use for storytelling still applies here; it just starts a little further along the continuum.
You’ll find that you can add detail and set the scene later on in the story, but try starting with action. Some writers still try to get around this by having the starting action be kind of bland: sitting on a couch considering life etc… Or they still feel the need to begin the story at a point that universally signifies a “beginning,” like waking up first thing in the morning. Try setting an opening scene somewhere a little more intriguing, and providing just enough context so the reader feels grounded. Imagine this: a guy, on a boat, with two cell phones in his pocket, and a hostage. Or this: a middle-aged woman who has just been busted for something at the mall, wondering what kind of a buzz she’d catch from the energy drink on the security guard’s desk. In both cases, the reader’s response is more “What the hell? Who is this? What’s going on?” than “What an intriguing landscape, I wonder what is going to play out here.”
Exercise: Look at a couple of famous short stories, then choose one of your stories (the opening of a novel or chapter will also do) re-write the opening scene so that you start right in the action. Take a look at any material you’ve cut in order to do this, and read through your story. Do you miss these details? Is there somewhere else they could fit in? Ask a friend to read both openings and tell you which they prefer.
Flashbacks aren’t verboten, but if you really want to impress a reader, try writing a short story entirely in one time frame. It’s hard! Most of us think that the only way to really get to know a character is through their history, and since scenes are considered more effective than exposition, flashback scenes seem like the only way to fill in a character’s background. But a character’s dialogue, and their choices in a given situation can tell us nearly everything we need to know about them.
Try reading some Raymond Carver, he does not deal exclusively in the present, but most of his short stories don’t use flashbacks. Or they are brief— just a few brush strokes.
Try writing a story from beginning to end, all in one time frame if possible, and then worry about back story and whether the character motives are clear. If you really know a character, the choices he makes will be clearly motivated. This is why profs want you to do those character sketches before you start writing, not just so you can come up with the quirkiest possible character traits. This is why I like writing about people (or conglomerates of people) I know in real life. Some of the characterization work has been done for me. Know the character, decide what they want, give them something to do, then throw problems at them.
Exercise: Imagine that a character has 24 hours to achieve a goal, and then write his story. Or re-write an existing story with this constraint. You don’t have to use the full 24 hours. But limit yourself to a day. The day should be the PIVOTAL moment in the character’s experience, not the weeks or years before or after. The moment when the character arc occurs. This is why I love short stories so much. Cut the crap, and give us the climax. No disrespect to novelists! The journey can often be more rewarding then the destination.
But short stories are all about DESTINATION. Start with this constraint, and soon you’ll find yourself filling in and polishing up the journey.
Get a hold on your characters/ subplots.
If a character (call her Annie) wants to foil her best friend’s attempts to win a beauty contest, that’s a workable plot. If Annie realizes that her total hatred of beauty contests is holding her back from truly accepting her own personal shortcomings then that’s your subplot. If there is some subtext going on throughout the story about how feminism can sometimes be kind of judgmental and exclusive, awesome.
If Annie also has a dying grandmother who was a beauty contest winner in the forties but had her leg shot off by a jealous boyfriend and has never really recovered and has been trying to set Annie up with a nice young pilot named Zero who has a buddy that collects guns and suggests gunning down the beauty pageant contestants and Annie must foil his diabolical plan while nursing her grandmother back to health and convincing her best friend not to take part in the pageant, you may have too much material for a short story.
When beginning a story we often think we aren’t going to have enough material, and we’re not going to maintain the reader’s interest. More characters and subplots will not solve that problem. Dig deeper into the story you do have. Give the character more obstacles, not more goals.
Keep it simple. Whenever possible, combine two minor characters into one. Don’t introduce Mom, Dad, and sister, if Mom is the only character who contributes to the plot. Be ruthless! If your story ends up being 1500 words, fine. You’re not being paid by the word, anyway.
Let your description do double duty.
Particularly important in short stories. Stick to relevant character details that also tell us something about the character’s desires or emotional state. Instead of a character who is blonde with freckles, six feet tall and wearing red shoes, maternity jeans, a floppy hat and a raincoat, tell us that she towers over the other women in the room, and at four months pregnant, is just beginning to show.
Wearing heavy red lipstick and laughing loudly may suggest a woman who is trying to impress. A man with a shark tattoo may be predatory. Unique details are also good, blonde-haired and blue-eyed people are everywhere, folks with mohawks, stutters and a face tattoos are not. Use unique details sparingly, and make sure they contribute to the picture of the character that you’re painting. Don’t give a kindergarten teacher a face tattoo, just because it’s edgy.
Some goes for setting. A rusted out skeleton of a tractor suggests a farming community that has fallen on hard times. An isolated town surrounded by clearcut suggests loss, or a triumph of commerce over nature. A small rip in the wallpaper in the corner of a room isn’t exactly evocative, unless the story is about a perfectionist home decorator who is losing their touch.
Think about the saw mill in Twin Peaks. It’s used fairly extensively in the plot, but the shots in the opening credits show saw blades whirring and sparks flying, which creates a suggestion of violence and a feeling of unease in the viewer. Both location and atmosphere detail are communicated.
Exercises: Do a character sketch or use an existing character and come up with 5 details about them that also say something about their desires or emotional state. Also come up with two unique details about them.
-Think about a setting you’ve used in a story and come up with three evocative features in that setting.
-Some details will have universal significance to readers, and others will be contextual. What do these character traits suggest to you?
A crew cut
Smokes a cigar
A paunch (beer belly)
Drives a Camaro