Showing posts with label introduction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label introduction. Show all posts

Monday, July 28

The Structure of a Short Story: The Setup

The Structure of a Short Story: The Setup


Last time I broke the structure of short stories into six discrete parts: 

1. Setup
2. First Complication
3. New Plan
4. Major Setback
5. Climax
6. Wrap Up

Today, let’s discuss the first part: setting up the story. Here we need to introduce the story world, the characters and the story question, and we need to do it in a way that is so entertaining readers won’t be able to put it down.

1. The Setup


Traditionally, the setting and everything it includes is developed in the first quarter of a story. That means if we want to write a 4,000 word story that we must complete the task of introducing the setting in 1,000 words or less. That doesn’t seem like much! It’s even worse for flash fiction. A 1,000 word story would have only 250 words for introducing and developing the setting.

Whenever I write a short story I’m always tempted to give more than 25% to the setting. After all, it is, arguably, the most important part of the story. The first few paragraphs will hook a reader--or convince them to put the book down. Which means things must happen. Preferably exciting, remarkable, things. But a reader won’t care about your protagonist before they get to know him. If they don’t care about him then they won’t care about any of those exciting, remarkable, happenings. So one must first take time to set the story and properly introduce the characters. It’s a catch 22!

I think there are two general paths one can take here: the descriptive opening or the action opening.

Descriptive Opening


Paint-me-a-picture. Some writers start off with description. They strut their poetic prose and trust that their readers will hold on long enough, read on long enough, to be slowly drawn in and carried away by the story.

Action Opening


Describe-as-you-go. Other authors start out with action (not necessarily physical action) and insert dribs and drabs of description along the way. 

Which kind of opening you choose will depend both on what kind of opening you want to write, what kind of opening is best for your particular story and what genre your story fits into. There is no one right answer and neither opening (descriptive or active) is, of itself, better than the other. It is a matter of taste and the expectations of your readers.

I’ve noticed that descriptive openings are more common in certain genre--fantasy for instance. Action, mystery, adventure and thriller books tend to jump right into the action and insert just enough description along the way so that the reader isn’t confused. (No one likes a white room!)

Examples: Descriptive vs Active


I went to my reading library and, more or less at random, took out two short stories, one by Terry Brooks and the other by Agatha Christie. The first is a terrific example of a descriptive opening and the latter of an active one.

Terry Brooks, “Allanon’s Quest” (approx. 11,000 words)


“The storm clouds scudded across the night sky in roiling clumps that blotted out the half-moon and stars and enveloped the land beneath in heavy shadow. The woods surrounding the village of Archer Trace, fifty miles north and east of the city of Arborlon, stirred uneasily. The trees swayed, and their leaves shivered with a metallic rustling as wind tore at the branches in sharp gusts and rain pattered heavily against the leaves. A drop in the temperature had already announced the storm’s arrival, the air damp, chilly, and raw. Intricate patterns of lightning flashed, and bursts of thunder rumbled from across the eastern edge of the Sarandanon.”

Notice that there is nothing about the protagonist in the first paragraph; this is strictly world development. Here we see an author taking a great deal of trouble to set up the world and establish a mood.

Agatha Christie, “The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife” from “Parker Pyne Investigates”. (Approx. 4,000 words)


“Four grunts, an indignant voice asking why nobody could leave a hat alone, a slammed door, and Mr. Packington had departed to catch the eight forty-five to the city. Mrs. Packington sat on at the breakfast table. Her face was flushed, her lips were pursed, and the only reason she was not crying was that at the last minute anger had taken the place of grief. ‘I won’t stand it,” said Mrs. Packington. “I won’t stand it!’ She remained for some moments brooding, and then murmured: ‘The minx. Nasty sly little cat! How George can be such a fool!’”

Compared to our first paragraph this one moves with the pace of an explosion. At first I was tempted to think that Agatha Christie gave the reader less information than Terry Brooks, but after studying the openings I came to see that it was just information of a different sort.

Let’s list and compare the information these paragraphs give the reader.

Setting: What time of day is it?
TB: Night.  This is explicitly stated: “The storm clouds scudded across the night sky [...]”
AC: Morning. Stated. “[...] Mr. Packington had departed to catch the eight forty-five to the city. Mrs. Packington sat on at the breakfast table.”

Setting: What’s the weather like?
TB: There’s a storm bearing down on the land. So there are high winds, swaying trees, a drop in temperature, the air is damp and there’s thunder.
AC: No idea.

Setting: Where are we?
TB: The woods surrounding the village of Archer Trace, fifty miles north and east of the city of Arborlon.
AC: In a kitchen at a table laden with the remains of breakfast.

Character: How many characters?
TB: No human characters are introduced, though the world, the environment, the weather, may have equal importance to any of the characters.
AC: Two, but a third and fourth are implied:
- Mrs. Packington: the client. 
- Mr. George Packington: Mrs. Packington’s motivation.
- The minx: the complication. 
- Mr. Parker Pyne: The protagonist.

Character: What is the protagonist’s goal?
TB: No idea.
AC: One suspects it has to do with revealing the “sly little cat” to Mr. George Packington for what she is. 

And so on. I am amazed that such a great deal of information was given in just the first paragraph. Both Terry Brooks and Agatha Christie set up their respective stories brilliantly. One day I would like to step through a (very!) short story and systematically dissect how the author answered each of these questions.

All right, so. After we’ve gone through and written our story out, what questions should we have answered in the setup?

Questions for developing a setting:


What time of day is it?

Morning, afternoon, night?

Where are we?

Indoors or outdoors?

If we are outdoors, or near a window, what is the weather like?

What town, city, village, etc, are we in? Also, are we in a house, an apartment, a houseboat, a motorboat; are we in a forest or afloat on an ocean?

How many characters?

You’ll likely have a protagonist and antagonist. Also, it often helps to give the protagonist a helper or a mentor, someone he can talk to as well as someone who can help her out if she needs it. Speaking rather callously, giving the protagonist a helper (or mentor) also gives the writer someone to kill off in a highly an emotional way about 3/4 of the way through the story at the major setback. For example, Obi Wan Kenobi sacrificed himself near the end of the second act in Star Wars: A New Hope.

What is the protagonist’s goal?


The protagonist generally doesn’t get their story goal until about the 25% mark. Even so, they generally have an initial goal, something to get the story going.

What motivates the protagonist?


Whenever I think about a character's motivation and what distinguishes their motivation from their goal I think of a cartoon I once saw: a man in a rowboat, pursued by a shark, paddles for shore. Despite the man’s best efforts the shark gains on the rowboat. The man sees this and paddles harder, faster; he paddles until his lungs burn. Will he be able to reach land before the shark upends the rowboat and eats him?

In that scenario the shark is the man’s motivation to row for shore and the shore is the goal.

How does the protagonist intend to achieve his goal?


How the protagonist intends to achieve his goal probably won’t be remotely close to how he actually achieves his goal (if he does). Still, the protagonist should have something of a plan even if it’s along the lines of: We go there, raise hell, grab the thing and come home.

What are the protagonist’s stakes?


What will happen if the protagonist doesn’t achieve her goal? What will happen if she does?

Are the protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals mutually exclusive?


The answer to this question should be: Yes! This is why the antagonist and protagonist are at each other’s throats: if one gets what they want the other cannot. It is the immediate source of their conflict and, as such, forms the engine that drives the story forward.

Now, for each of the above questions that mentioned the protagonist, substitute “antagonist” for “protagonist.” Remember, the antagonist is the hero of his own story. 

At the end of the setup, does the protagonist take her first step toward achieving her goal? That is, does she begin to set her plan in motion?


This question is often answered at the end of the first act when the protagonist commits to her quest. She becomes “locked in” to a certain course of action and cannot go back to the way things were. Further, she does this of her own free will knowing what the stakes are.

That’s it! Next time we’ll look at the next stage, the next bone in the skeleton, of our short story The First Complication.

Photo credit: "Maria" by Daniel Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, July 25

The Structure of a Short Story

The Structure of a Short Story


Let’s talk about story structure. 

When I read a story or watch a film I always try to identify where I am in the story’s structure. It’s a compulsion. True story: I’ll be sitting on the couch with my friends watching a movie and suddenly exclaim: “That’s the lock in!” or “That was the major setback!”

Yes, they hate me.

Here’s how I think of it: regardless of length, structure is what organizes a story, what gives it lungs to breathe and feet to run. 

Just like human skeletons, no two story structures are exactly the same although there are going to be certain broad similarities. Most living humans have a head, upper body, two arms, two legs, two feet, five fingers and ten toes. Similarly, most stories have a beginning, middle and end, they have a protagonist and antagonist, and they have quirky, interesting, characters who have goals they are passionate about achieving.

Further, just like wee little tiny babies have the same basic bits as the tallest basketball player or the biggest weight lifter, so short stories have the same basic bits in the same places as longer stories.

At least that’s what I think. 

Here’s what I’m going to do. Over the next five posts, I’m going to talk about what I see as the five main parts of a short story’s structure:

The Parts of a Short Story


1. Setup 


This is where characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the one is hooked into the other. The protagonist has committed herself to achieving a particular, concrete, goal. Further, she has devised a plan, a way of overcoming the antagonist’s opposition to her achieving that goal.

2. First complication. 


The hero discovers that her plan isn’t going to work. Significant adjustments are needed. She is put into an unfamiliar environment, one to which she is particularly ill suited. She also meets new friends as well as new enemies. The stakes are raised.

3. New Plan


The hero has come up with a new plan for how she is going to overcome the opposition to her goal. She (and possibly her ally) now puts this plan into action. It does not go well. (Or, possibly, even though her attempt to achieve her goal is horribly bungled she succeeds! One might see this in a comedy; for example, one having to do with procuring a love potion.)

Even though the plan doesn’t go as expected, even though there is some bickering between the hero and his ally, they lick their wounds and regroup.

4. Major Setback


The protagonist goes about taking another run at the problem. She begins to devise another plan but then her world is turned upside down. Either something she was counting on having is taken from her (perhaps her magical powers are taken away or her mentor is killed) or something is added: an insurmountable difficulty. 

Either way, this is the start of an avalanche of bad that falls squarely on the protagonist. 

At this point, the protagonist will have an epiphany and realize how to defeat the antagonist and achieve her goal.

5. Climax


The hero prepares to put her plan into action and then confronts the antagonist. Often there is an element of deception involved. It seems as though the protagonist hasn’t learnt her lesson, it seems as though she has misjudged. But then we find out that was all part of her crafty plan. 

6. Wrap Up


Wrap the story up by cashing out the stakes. How did winning (or losing) affect the protagonist and her allies? When she goes back to the ordinary world how are things going to be different for her?

Differences between a short story’s structure and a novel-length story’s structure: 


Keep in mind that the structure I’ve just outlined is for a short story. There are differences between this and the structure for a novel, particularly in the middle. In a 2,000 word short story a writer can’t give the protagonist more than one or two failed tries at achieving their main goal. In an novel, though, the protagonist will likely have sub-goals, each of which will have it’s own try-fail cycle.

Also, stories of over 50,000 words often have a B-story (and possibly C- and D-stories as well). A 2,000 word short story generally doesn’t. 

Well, that’s it! Monday, I’ll talk about the structure of the first part of a short story.

Update: Here's an index to the articles in this series:

- The Setup
- The First Complication
- The New Plan
- Major Setback (upcoming)
- Climax (upcoming)
- Wrap Up (upcoming)

Photo credit: "Manoa" by Daniel Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, January 2

The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do

The Starburst Method: Introduction

Have you ever wanted to write a story, and you had the beginning of an idea, but you didn't know who the antagonist was or what your protagonist wanted, what her goal was?

I've been in that place a few times and it's not fun. The good news is that the more one writes the easier it gets but that is small comfort in the beginning.


The Goal: A One Sentence Summary


I'm going to try something. I'm going to try writing a series of three or four articles, intended for the beginning writer, filled with exercises and pointers to help someone take the raw clay of his imagination and shape it until not only do you know what your story elements are, but you have written a five paragraph, then a one paragraph, then a one sentence summary of your piece.

At least, that's the plan! I hope you folks give me feedback and share your experiences with me along the way.

At the end of this process you won't know everything about the story incubating inside you (why did I just think of the movie Alien? ;), but you'll know the main things:


What We Need To Find Out:


1. Who your protagonist is.
2. What your protagonist wants.
3. What your protagonist's special ability is.
4. What your protagonist's weakness is .

5. Who your antagonist is.
6. What your antagonist wants.
7. What your antagonist's special ability is.
8. What your antagonist's weakness is.

9. What the states are/the cost of failure.

Numbers 2 and 6 must be such that if one goal is achieved the other cannot be. Either the antagonist gets their way and the protagonist loses big time or vice versa.

Ready? Let's get started!


The Starburst Method


We've each developed our own way of writing. For every 10 writers there are 11 methods! No one method is better than any other since the ultimate test is whether a method works for you. Does it help you write? Does it improve either the quality or speed of your work? If so, great!

This method might suit you, and it might not, but if you don't try it out you'll never know.


The Basic Idea: The One Sentence Description


Here's the basic goal: You will work from an initial concept to produce a one sentence description that communicates who the protagonist is, what she wants, as well as the central conflict of your story.

Why one sentence?


There are a number of reasons why you would want to refine and condense your idea until it can be expressed in one eloquent sentence.

1. Keeps you on track


It's easy to start off writing one story and end up writing a completely different one. Many, many, years ago I started off with a female protagonist who had psychic powers and ended up in the wild west with a male protagonist named Bronco Bill. Yes, that's extreme, but it's easy to wander off topic.

Here's a less extreme example: if you don't know where you want to go, what your story is about, you may waste your valuable time creating scenes that don't push the story forward.

Of course an outline helps (see: Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining) but condensing your idea down to a one-liner will encourage you to figure out the main themes of your story now--before you spend 200 pages writing a gritty urban fantasy only to discover the romance between your protagonist and her handsome helper is the real story you want to tell.

Trust me, rewrites aren't fun. The fewer you have to do the better.

2. Helps you write your pitch


Traditional Publishing
If you plan to submit your story to a traditional publisher you'll need to write a query letter and as part of that letter you'll have to tell the editor/agent/publisher what your story is about in approximately 300 words or less.

That's not easy. I know writers who think writing a query letter is more difficult than a novel! But when you know the core elements of your story your pitch will be much easier to write.

Don't worry if at the moment you don't have a clear idea of the elements of your story. We'll talk about that more in the next part of this series.

Independent Publishing
By the way, crafting a summary of your story is useful even for independent writers because you will need to create a blurb for your book as well as a description for the various online stores your book will be sold in. I find it helps to have a one sentence summary or tag line (also known as a one-liner), a two sentence summary, a summary about a paragraph long, and a longer summary of about five paragraphs suitable for posting in an online bookstore.

3. Makes you look professional


One question everyone is going to ask you the moment after they hear you're writing a story is: What's your story about?

The first time I was asked this I was completely unprepared and had the deer-in-the-headlights response: my eyes swallowed my face and I promptly forgot my name, let alone what my story was about. I think I stammered something like, "Well, it's about a girl."

Nice. Great description. Not. I'm sure the person walked away shaking their head thinking: She's a writer?

So, have your one sentence description memorized and rather than leave friends and family with the vague dread that they'll be asked to read the literary equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, be kind. Let them be proud of you and wow them with a snappy, concise, description.


Ready, Set, Write!


Ready to start? Great! Tomorrow we'll begin taking our relatively formless idea and molding it until it has the form of a story.

Update: Here is a link to the next installment in the series: The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters.

If you want to follow along with these posts and you don't already have an idea for a story, here are a couple of writing prompts that might help you get started:

A Writing Prompt: The Girl In A Mask
A Writing Prompt: The Thing was close
Writing Prompts: Defeat Writer's Block And Generate Ideas (This post contains links to several sites that list various writing prompts.)

Note: This series of three or four articles will draw material from a series I published on this blog last year, The Starburst Method. The present series of articles will focus on the first three steps of the Startburst Method and include a lot of new material. I intend to redo all of the posts in The Starburst Method and then publish them as an electronic book.

Question:

What is your idea for a story? How do you generate ideas?

Other links you might like:

- The Magic Of Stephen King: An Analysis Of The Opening Paragraphs Of The Dead Zone
- Scene Goals: What Do Your Characters Want, Why Do They Want It, How Do They Get it?
- How To Sell Books Without Using Amazon KDP Select

Photo credit: "Droplets on dawn nastursians" by Lenny Montana under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.