Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Writing Novels and Things #9: Short stories, Part 2

So my last post may have been all about how pointless it is to write short stories, but this post is all about how to write short stories! I am breaking you down in order to build you up. Using a combination of my own experience, my creative writing history and the internet, I have compiled a list of five rules that you should always obey when writing short stories. They are, I am happy to say, quite prescriptive.

The rules are in no particular order, so I haven't numbered them. Please do let me know if bullet points aren't enough and you would prefer them in numerical order of importance. Onwards!

Try not to feature too many characters
    I hate this rule, personally, because I like to have loads of characters in all my stories; I love them (and they love me). However, editors like this rule, I think, and so do readers. There needs to be one main character and one significant foil character and that's about it. You can, of course, have other plot-piece characters come along, but the idea is to keep these to a minimum and don't give them undue narrative attention. The longer your story, the more flexible you can be with this rule but I think it serves as a good guideline when you're creating a story. You are, of course, in charge of the story, so if you really try, you can keep the character tally down to publishable levels.

    [The last short story I wrote had three main characters and two prominent supporting characters. I wanted it to be a novel, really, which is why it will probably never see the light of day as a short story.]

    You don't need to resolve everything
      But there does need to be resolution. Short stories are often small moments in time, little windows into the characters lives, that you know are going to change them forever. But we don't need to add epilogues or neatly sew everything up in order to satisfy the reader. They will get that things are different now, if you have laid the correct groundwork. There does need to be a resolution, of course, and all the better if it links back to the beginning, or moments throughout the rest of the story (thematically, with imagery, or dialogue, however you like), but this isn't a novel, where all plots, sub-plots and so on need a proper ending. In a novel, the couple may end up getting back together, whereas in a short story, we can be satisfied if the potential for this is alluded to without, you know, a big sloppy kiss. That's a crude example, but hopefully that serves as a decent example.

      [I can think of a number of strong examples that disprove this rule, but I don't think any of them would have been harmed by following it. So... I stand by it.]

      Know what your characters want (at the very least)
        We should, we fiction writers, know our characters intimately. Or, at the very least, we need to know them better than the reader. You can find forms online, to help you create a character, and it's usually two pages of things like hair colour, age, hobbies and pastimes, middle name, birthplace, pets?, and so on. For a novel, I think these are a great idea, and moreover, I think it's good to write first-person monologues for all your main characters, so you start thinking as they think. For a short story, that feels like quite a lot of effort (and I see no need for physical description, almost ever, but that's a preference, not a rule). The most important thing you must know about a character is what they want, and why, and write it down and stick it somewhere visible while you're writing. It's the driving force of your whole story.

        [In the first short story I had published, I knew nothing of this but subconsciously, I had a very clear idea of the main character's motivations, so it worked. It does not always work, believe me. Eventually, it will become automatic, but until then it's something you should force yourself to remember.]

        Tell a story

        Which is my way of saying that you should structure your story like it's a story (see handy diagram). This is called the Five Act Structure and was invented by some guy called Freytag. It's a perfectly good structure to follow and, to all intents and purposes, still allows for an infinite number of story possibilities. However, in a short story, the Exposition bit should be super short, if non-existent, because you don't have time to waste. You should, really, begin at the point of Rising Action, though sometimes a little scene setting is required, so I will be lenient and say that you don't have to if you don't want to (but you should). There is also the Three Act Structure, which was invented by Aristotle and is comprised of the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution. Everything I said above still holds, but with two fewer acts.

        [I find structure the hardest bit about writing but this is likely because it is probably the most important aspect of story telling. You should always be thinking about it, even if it's not a predefined one like I've given above, you can't just put the words down in any old order. Unless you're writing a blog. Self-zing!]

        Try to get it published

        You might as well. You also may as well try to get it published by the most well-respected, high-profile publisher of the kind of short stories that you write. If it's literary, for example, just send it to Granta Magazine. You never know! And then when you have experienced rejection (which will lead to most excellent personal growth), try other publishers who are more willing to take a punt on a newcomer. It's best to go for the ones that pay, but not vital (or even possible, depending on what kind of story you are writing), and I think the joy of getting published will doubtless override... um... poverty.

        [Please see previous post for depressing news about writing short stories.]

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