Monday, May 04, 2009
A Crash Course in Short Story Writing
I was inspired to publish this here today after sending someone an e-mail about short story writing.
The main points I've learned over the years are:
* Give your main character [protagonist] a problem that needs sorting out
This doesn't have to be something huge like a fire or a flood, it might be something like a newly married woman who wonders how she will cope when her mother-in-law comes for Christmas dinner.
* Go immediately into where the action takes place
If your story involves the bank getting robbed for instance, then there's no need to start it where the main character is pouring milk on his cornflakes. Go straight into where the action takes place where he is queuing up to deposit some money and two masked men with guns burst in.
* Don't have too many main characters
3 or 4 is enough [max] and perhaps a couple of 'walk on parts' of unnamed characters like the postman or taxi driver.
* Ensure there is a definite beginning, middle and a satisfying ending
A story needs structure. Think of a chart when someone's temperature starts off normal, then goes through the roof. That's how your story should be with a climax at the end. Don't let it go on well after the punch line. Leave them wanting more.
* Make Use of Setting
Setting can become one of the characters in its own right. Think about the dark, brooding house in a horror story or a white, sterile, clinical waiting room. Make use of it in your story.
* Allow the main character to have solved his or her problem by the end of the story
The character needs to have learned and or/grown from it as a result. [Character Arc].
* Ensure you are showing more than telling
Ensure you use lively dialogue where the characters exhibit their mannerisms. Also make use of the five senses. However, sometimes a story might have little dialogue because it's more about going into the character's internal thoughts and feelings. This can work out okay if it is well written, but sometimes sounds a bit 'self indulgent'.
* A 'black moment' can work well before the story reaches its climax.
The moment when things seem impossible: there's no solution to the problem, everything is bleak, etc. However, something then happens that turns it all around and brings the story to its final, but satisfying conclusion.
* It's usually best to stick to one point of view.
Most magazines seem to like third person, although I have read some stories in certain mags that accept first person. I recently read a story in Candis where multi viewpoint was used and it worked very well! I have never seen that used in a short story before, but it goes to show if the writing is strong enough then you might get away with breaking a lot of rules!