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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Short Story Structure--And How It Can Make Your Novel Better

Many times (and many different places) I've heard that writing short stories can help you become a better novelist. For that reason and that reason alone, I've tried to write short stories. Some have been 500 words, most around 1000, and one was up to 3000 words. Every one has received the same response.

"This feels like the beginning of a much larger story."


Although that could be seen as a good thing, it means I haven't quite nailed the short story. In an effort to improve I continued my internet search for tips. Let's start by building on yesterday's post on Story Structure.

Philip Brewer

So how does the short story relate to a complete story?
With short stories, the writer doesn’t have room to “show” the entire journey. It’s okay to just mention/tell/imply that parts happened so you can focus on the story you’re currently sharing. For instance, maybe your short story is simply the inciting incident, but the reader must finish knowing the road of trial and error and final resolution will come.


Maybe your short story is simply the dark moment in the hero’s journey. There needs to be just enough for the reader to know that he has been through lots of challenge and failure to bring him to this point even though we don’t get to experience all of it. Here the ending needs to give the reader a sense that the hero has reached some conclusion or epiphany that will help him be successful in the next encounter with evil—even though the reader doesn’t get to see it.

The essential core of a short story needs to:
  1. Require the character to make a choice,
  2. show that choice by actions,
  3. and those actions must have consequences.
Larry Brooks from (Storyfix.com)
"Only the short story writer has to approach the task from a different perspective. While those elements need to be there, they don’t always need to be on the page. 
Conflict. Stakes. Need. Journey. Opposition. Characterization. Setting. Arena. Sub-text. Voice.
They all need to be there.
Even if they’re not." 
In order to do all of this, the short story writer has to focus on the plot/theme/reason/purpose of the story. Why does this story have to be written? What’s the point in telling it? There must be one and the writer must take conscious and careful effort to always be working toward that goal. There’s no time to get sidetracked.
“When you do choose a sub-set of the larger story paradigm, the part you isolate should be written from an unspoken context of the entire architecture.
Which means, your character came from somewhere… something changes… they respond to that change… something else changes… they attack their problem or goal… something else changes yet again… and then things resolve.
Where you jump into that sequence is your choice as a short story writer. One that the novelist doesn’t have.” 
So that's how writing short stories can help me as a novelist.

Every word MUST do something for the story. There is no space for extra words that have no purpose. And I have to know what that purpose is from the very beginning.

Let's Practice:
Choose/make up/whatever a character and write a three sentence synopsis of his/her story based on the central core points. This is the beginning and focus to your short story.
  1. Require the character to make a choice,
  2. show that choice by actions,
  3. and those actions must have consequences.
Share by posting them in the comments! 

Examples from my shorts:

Gareth must choose between accepting a mission to the planet’s surface alone or staying on the ship. He states he’s capable of killing the other candidates if necessary to be chosen, and after he’s chosen he steals extra supplies hoping they will help him survive on the planet. Gareth finds the earth habitable but his mission objective is waiting to deal death if he can’t answer one question correctly. (The Sleeper)

Linda must decide between continuation or dying a slow death by age. She leaves everything behind and goes to the continuation facility. Once she’s a part of the collection of human minds she learns it was never a choice and there are dark forces at work on earth. (Continuation)

Come back this afternoon to find our photo prompts and practice some flash fiction.


Sean McLachlan said...

Some good advice here. I must admit I'm more of a novelist than a short story writer. Perhaps it's because I prefer to read novels over short stories.

Charity Bradford said...

Sean, I think this is probably my problem too. Every once in a while I'll try and read some short stories if I know I'll be really busy, but mostly I want to get lost in another world.

mshatch said...

Yeah, my ideas tend to be big for the most part. I've written a few short stories but I'm more of a long story kinda gal :)

Huntress, aka CD Coffelt said...

You've been holding out on me.
I remember Continuation. The ending surprised me and that is saying a lot.

But The Sleeper? Okay, where has it been? Did I read it? Are my brain cells fading?

*great tips btw*

Charity Bradford said...

Me too Marcy!


LOL. Thanks Carol! I've been trying hard to work on these and I STILL can't sell them. It's hard on the ego so I'm afraid I don't share as much as I used to. *sigh*

And the Sleeper walked a certain line I think. ;) Glad you liked them though.

Liz said...

I'll have to post something when I'm not in my get-the-reader-cleared mode. I have a few short story ideas kicking around.

Charity Bradford said...

Awesome Liz! It's good to clear the reader too.

Angela Brown said...

I think I have a lot of work to do when it comes to short stories as well. I remember the A Picture is Worth 1000 Words thing done and mine got that same reaction of "being great as the beginning of a story" So I appreciate the advice shared here. Gives me some things to work on.