Showing posts with label short story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short story. Show all posts

Monday, September 12

Short Stories And Their Structure

Short Stories And Their Structure

Do you ever re-read your old blog posts? That's what I've been doing (and, inexplicably, I've been doing it while re-watching Dr. Who). I just finished reading—or, rather, rereading, "Short Story Structures: Several Ways of Structuring Short Fiction." It seems like I wrote that an age ago, but it's only (only!) been four years. And, believe it or not, I remember writing that post like it was yesterday.

In the years since, I've written many short stories—though I must confess these days I write more nonfiction than fiction. Still, though, I have formed a more definite idea of what the structure of a short story is. That said, I believe these things can be idiosyncratic. The kind of short story structure that appeals to me, that fits my writing style like a glove, that feels right or comfortable, might not be the one that feels natural to you. And that's fine. That's great! Take what feels right to you, what makes sense to you, and change or ignore the rest.

So, for what it's worth, here's what I currently think of as the archetypal short story structure. (It is very close to Sarah A. Hoyt's story structure, the one she outlined in her post: The Structure of A Short Story).

1) In the first couple of lines introduce your audience to the most startling interesting/puzzling/desperate thing about your main character's immediate situation.

In a full length novel we have more time to introduce the protagonist and her situation, but when we have only 1,000 words the story structure becomes condensed and every word counts.

Let's look at a few examples of terrific openers for short stories.

a) Stephen King, "Autopsy Room Four"

"It's so dark that for a while—just how long I don't know—I think I'm still unconscious. Then, slowly, it comes to me that unconscious people don't have a sensation of movement through the dark, accompanied by a faint, rhythmic sound that can only be a squeaky wheel."

b) Ernest Hemingway, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"

"It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened."

c) Raymond King Commings, "The World Beyond"

"The old woman was dying. There could be no doubt of it now."

d) Stephen King, "The Monkey"

"When Hal Shellburn saw it, when his son Dennis pulled it out of a mouldering Ralston-Purina carton that had been pushed far back under one attic eave, such a feeling of horror and dismay rose in him that for one moment he thought he surely must scream."

2) In the remainder of the first paragraph give your readers a good idea of your character's problem. At the same time, flesh out the setting and your protagonist's character.

If you're thinking that's a tall order, you're right. But short stories have to get moving quickly. The character's problem is the story hook. I think of this as the engine of the story, as what propels the events of the story forward.

Here's an example from Stephen King's "Autopsy Room Four" (I promise it doesn't include any grisly bits!) King writes:

And I can feel contact, from the top of my head to the balls of my heels. I can smell something that might be rubber or vinyl. This is not unconsciousness, and there is something too ... too what? Too rational about these sensations for it to be a dream.
Then what is it?
Who am I?
And what's happening to me?
The squeaky wheel quits its stupid rhythm and I stop moving. There is a crackle around me from the rubbersmelling stuff.
A voice: "Which one did they say?"
A pause.
Second voice: "Four, I think. Yeah, four."

What is the character's problem? The protagonist of our story is not dead and yet he is being wheeled into an autopsy room. We understand the protagonist's problem—he's not dead, but if something doesn't happen to prevent the autopsy he will be soon. That's a grizzly, and immediate, problem!

3) From the first paragraph up to Act Two. Develop the character's Ordinary World, specifically The Problem the protagonist is enmeshed in. (25%)

In a full length book, and in some longer short stories, the problem you develop in the first quarter of the story isn't the protagonist's main problem. The main problem, I'll call this the Story Problem, is introduced after the precursor problem is wrapped up (This wrapping up will require a few try-fail cycles).

On the other hand, in a short story of under 2,000 words or so I think it's best to give the protagonist the same goal throughout.

Story Goal: The goal the protagonist pursues from Act Two on.
Story Problem: What is keeping the protagonist from achieving the Story Goal.

Around the quarter mark of the story everything changes. If the protagonist had a preliminary goal, she now realizes that the forces which were keeping her from fulfilling that goal weren't what she thought they were. Now the protagonist adopts the Story Goal, acknowledges the Story Problem and enters the Special World of the adventure. From now to the end solving the Story Problem will be her focus.

4) Have the protagonist try to solve the Story Problem and fail. (25 to 50%)

I know it's a movie and not a short story, and I know I should probably update my movie references, but this movie is my all-time-favorite action-adventure story. Yes, I'm talking about Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. That movie had terrific try-fail cycles. Indiana Jones has acquired the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, the artifact he needed to discover the exact location of the Well of Souls—and now wants to appropriate the Ark.

(For more information about try-fail cycles: Try-Fail Cycles and the Gap.)

First the antagonist René Belloq steals the Ark and seals Indy and his love interest, Marion, into the Well of Souls. Of course the Well is teeming with snakes (Indy hates snakes). Indy uses his torch to keep the snakes at bay, but the torches are burning down. Then Indiana realizes he could use one of the giant statues to knock down a wall and escape the snakes. But the next room is filled with skeletons. And so on. It's a terrific sequence!

That's the idea. Put the protagonist and those she loves in dire peril, have them grasp at straws trying to get themselves out of the fix. Your characters don't have time to think, they're reacting, going on instinct, and in that pressure cooker of adversity their character is revealed.

5) The middle of the story marks a sea-change in the protagonist. She switches from passive to active, from ignorance to knowledge. (50%)

I used to characterize the middle of the story primarily as the place where a showdown occurs between the antagonist and protagonist. And this often does happen.

But over the years I've come to view the midpoint as the place where the hero's view of the world—both the Special World of the adventure and the Ordinary World—changes. This change is permanent. There's no going back. The information, the knowledge, she acquires at the midpoint indelibly marks her. As a result it changes the story. It twists the plot.

Also, often this change takes place as a result of confronting the antagonist, the Big Bad, of the story. The antagonist gloats, boasts, to the protagonist. He lets her know just how impossible reaching her goal is. Perhaps he laughs at her, letting her know he thinks her attempts to effect change are pathetic.

The protagonist now understands that, despite all her planning, she can't achieve her goal, at least not the way she was approaching things. What she thought she knew about the world, about her opponent, was deeply flawed.

The situation looks impossible. Still, though, the hero gets away with her life, so that's something. (Although sometimes one of her allies, possibly her helper or her mentor gives up their life for her escape.)

(List of archetypes: Archetypal Characters.)

Perhaps the hero's allies help the protagonist pick up the pieces. Or perhaps, briefly, the protagonist gives up hope. Sometimes it takes the intervention—and possibly death—of one of the hero's allies to get her to take up the fight again.

6) The hero forms a plan. (60%)

Having regained her will to fight, the hero forms a cunning plan. Of course, as we will see, this plan goes disastrously wrong! But she will adapt with the help of her allies.

7) Three trials culminating in the Dark Night of the Soul (65% to 90%)

As I've said, everyone has their own way of thinking of these things, but to my mind the middle of the third act—here I'm thinking in terms of four acts—contains three events, each of them a major setback to the hero's plans, and each one more devastating than the last. The final setback is known as the Dark Night of the Soul and it completely scuttles the hero's plan.

This is the lowest part of the story. It seems impossible the hero could win. In terms of stakes, we knew all along what would happen if the hero failed, but now we discover that things are so much worse than we'd previously thought. Not only is the hero beaten, they are (apparently) obliterated.

Note: If you're writing a short story of less than 2000 words you might want to collapse these three events into one.

The Dark Night of the Soul generally comes before the hero's 'ah-ha' moment. There's something she realizes and this allows her to change her perspective. Her worldview shifts. She sees a possibility, a way out. It's a slim chance, but at this point in the story she has given up everything. The worst has happened, or at least been set in motion. She has one—exceedingly improbable—chance to save things.

And, of course, it's up to you, the writer, to determine whether she does in fact pull it off.

8) Climax and resolution.

The protagonist confronts the antagonist. Perhaps at first the antagonist is disdainful. He feels he has thoroughly beaten the protagonist and she no longer presents an interesting challenge.

Then the the protagonist draws on the lessons she has leant in the Special World, on her new skills. This gives her a fighting chance. But, as I said, it's your story. Does she win? Does she beat the antagonist and achieve the Story Goal? Or does she fall victim? Perhaps, in the end, she chooses to sacrifice herself for what she sees as a greater good.

The thing to keep in mind is that the climax, although it is a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, is all about their opposing goals. The question is: will the protagonist achieve her goal?

The antagonist generally wants the same thing as the protagonist, but the two work at cross purposes. For example, both Indiana Jones and Dr. René Belloq wanted the ark but they wanted to do vastly different things with it. Indiana Jones wanted to take it back to the States and put it in a museum where scholars could study it while Belloq wanted to give the ark to Hitler in exchange for wealth and power.

9) Aftermath.

One doesn't have to spend a lot of time on this part, but I think it's important to show the aftereffects of the protagonist's confrontation with the antagonist. Show the hero back in the Ordinary World (if she survives the climax). How has her life and the lives of her allies, the lives of those in her tribe, changed because of her journey, her struggle?

That's it!

Other articles you might like:

A Story Structure In Three Acts
How To Write A Horror Story
Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts

Tuesday, March 10

A Structure For Short Stories

A Structure For Short Stories

I was going to take a break from talking about story structure but I came across a fabulous post by Chris Winkle over at Mythcreants, “Outline a Short Story in Seven Steps,” that I have to share.

I encourage you to head over to Chris Winkle’s site and read his article for yourself, what follows is what I’m going to call ‘a creative summary.’ Inevitably, I’ve filtered his ideas through my own point of view. One of the results of this is that CW’s seven points have blossomed into nine.

1. Create a problem

This problem will be the central conflict of the story. I like to think of this as ‘the engine’ since this is what drives the story forward, as well as what will initially grab the reader's curiosity. Additionally, this problem is what propels the protagonist to action.

CW advises writers to make this problem neither too easy nor too complex. He writes:

“... if you choose something trivial, you’ll work harder to make it meaningful, and if you choose something daunting, you could struggle to find a solution.”

Instead: “Look for a significant problem that can be solved by one person, in one scene.”

Great advice! I’m realizing why so many of my short stories morphed into novellas or novels: I have the habit of using problems that are much too big.

2. Create a character (the protagonist) to have this problem

CW (wisely) advises us to follow KISS (keep it simple ... silly). We’re trying to write a short story, so don’t describe anything that isn’t integral to the story.

CW also advises that the protagonist be consistent, distinctive, driven, complex, deep and evolving. (To read more on this see CW’s article: The Six Traits of Strong Characters. Jim Butcher has also written about this on his Livejournal account: Characters.)

3. Answer the question, Why does this problem matter to this character?

CW writes: 

“The more important the problem is to the character, the more important it becomes to the reader. Come up with a solid reason why this character cares; this goes double if your problem is trivial. Raise the stakes until it has emotional impact.”

Humans are ruled by their curiosity. Yesterday I was watching a recording of a live performance and the only thing I remember about it is that one of the people in the balcony had his jacket draped over the edge. I kept wondering, Will it fall? 

I know, this was completely trivial. It was just a silly old jacket. Even if it did fall the stakes were infinitesimal. Imagine how captivated I would have been if, say, the President of the United States were to pass underneath?

This also illustrates an important principle: How does a problem become important? By raising the stakes. (Also, by showing the character’s motivation to win the goal.)

4. Introduce an obstacle that prevents the protagonist from achieving his/her goal

If the problem is solved too soon, there is no story. So an obstacle has to be introduced, something that will keep the protagonist from quickly and easily achieving their goal.

Character is revealed in adversity, so throwing a bunch of trouble at your protagonist is, all around, the best thing you could do for the story.

The protagonist’s external arc

Often the obstacle is introduced by an antagonist. That is, by someone who is very similar to the protagonist in that they have a strong, clear, goal. In the antagonist’s case, of course, this goal is in direct opposition to the protagonist’s goal.

Let’s say the protagonist wants to go off to a college in a far away state in order to study environmental management. Their goal is to, eventually, preserve a patch of wetlands near their childhood home, one that is threatened by a proposed development. If this were the case then the antagonist would want exactly the opposite.

The antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain. For example, the antagonist could be the protagonist’s mother, someone who wants to keep her child close, and safe, and cared for. Someone who doesn’t want them leaving for four long years. 

Or, if we wanted a villain, the antagonist could be an unscrupulous land developer who wants to build a shopping mall over the wetlands.

And so on. The crucial thing is for the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal to be mutually exclusive. If one attains their goal then it must be impossible for the other to. (Although they can both lose.)

The protagonist’s internal arc

What I’ve written about, above, concerning the wetlands, etc., would be part of the protagonist’s external arc. CW points out that if you want your protagonist to have an internal arc as well as an external one, to “make their obstacle a personality flaw.” (For example, Mr. Monk.)

5. Have the protagonist fail

CW advises us to include at least one try-fail cycle but no more than three. And be sure to show the consequences of this failure. That is, show the consequences for the protagonist and those he cares about. This is how one builds suspense. 

CW writes that “after every attempt, they should be worse off than when they started.” (This is usually done in a sequel. For more on this see, The Structure of a Short Story: The New Plan.) 

6. Build the solution to the problem into the protagonist’s failures

This is excellent advice, the kind that makes me want to pick up a pen and start scribbling! CW advises that we ...

“Give each failed attempt a small step toward the solution. It might be a clue, a tool, or a piece of advice that will help your character. That doesn’t mean they’ll recognize it right away. In fact, it’s better if they don’t.”

7. Create a critical turning point

After the last, biggest, most devastating defeat something happens—perhaps the protagonist has an epiphany—and the hints you scattered in (6) finally come together in the protagonist’s mind.

CW writes: “They have a stunning realization, a clever idea, or finally understand a piece of wisdom.”

Sounds happy, doesn’t it? If tragedy is more your cup of tea, CW has advice for you as well:

“If you’re planning an unhappy ending, the hero’s realization may be false or incomplete. Perhaps the hero latches on to the wrong solution to their problem.”

Note: Even if the protagonist will ultimately fail, your readers should still feel there’s hope.

8. Show the hero achieving (or failing to achieve) his goal

Whether the protagonist wins or loses should hinge upon a choice he makes. There isn’t much to write here because, to a large extent, what happens is determined by all that has gone before.

9. Wrap up

CW didn’t explicitly include this step, and perhaps it is implicit in the above, but I’ll mention it anyway. Here we show the stakes being cashed out. We show how the protagonist’s world changes because he achieved his goal. If there were other main characters, show what happens to them.

Also, if the antagonistic force was a character (sometimes it’s simply a ticking clock and time), show her receiving her just deserts.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending a book I wrote about—fittingly!—story structure: The Structure of a Great Story: How to Write a Suspenseful Tale!

That’s it! If you haven’t, I recommend reading Chris Winkle’s article in it’s entirety. He scattered links throughout, links which lead, like magical breadcrumbs, deeper into a dense maze of captivating articles.

See you Wednesday!

Other articles you might like:

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story
How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story
Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Monday, August 11

The Structure of a Short Story: The New Plan

The Structure of a Short Story: The New Plan

So far our story has set a fairly quick pace. We’ve introduced the setting and the protagonist. We’ve introduced the protagonist’s allies and enemies. We know what the protagonist’s goal is as well as the obstacles to her achieving it. We have seen the protagonist devise a plan to make her goal a reality, act on it and fail miserably. Now it’s time to react to this failure, come up with a new plan and put it into motion.


Now the pace is going to slow. The protagonist needs time to react to all that has happened. She needs to sit down, take a breath, regroup and reflect. 

Show the protagonist’s reactions to this loss, show her emotions--or lack of them. What happened? What didn’t go according to plan? Why? Going forward, what are the options? What are the outcomes/stakes for each option? 

Each of the protagonist’s allies might argue for a different course of action but, ultimately, the protagonist must choose between them or, even better, put forward a plan of her own, one that is bolder, more daring, than all the others.

In other words, now’s the time for a sequel. (BTW, for more about scenes and sequels see: Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts & Jim Butcher on Scenes and Sequels.)

Scenes Like a Funhouse Mirror

Short stories often reflect the macrocosm as though in a warped funhouse mirror, speeding through certain parts--or only implying them--to dwell on others. (I think I picked the metaphor of a funhouse mirror because I’m reading Stephen King’s “Joyland.” Wonderful story.)

In my previous posts in this series I mentioned that short stories are different from novels but that they have the same important bits. And that’s true, but sometimes these important bits occur offstage: either before the story began or in the time after it ends.

For example, one of my favorite stories, Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” is (or so I would argue) basically a sequel. There are two courses of action being discussed and the girl, the protagonist, must choose between them. 

I think that, often, literary short stories are sequels. The protagonist reacts to an event that occurred before the story began and the reader tries to figure out what the event was, as well as its significance, from how it affects the characters.

A note about the structure of a short story and how it often differs from that of a longer work

The crisis of the last section (First Complication) occurred more or less at the Midpoint of our short story, though if we were writing a novel this would occur earlier at around the 30% mark. 

 Note that the Midpoint isn’t a point, it’s a sequence that consists of several short fast-paced scenes, each scene running into the next with little pause for reflection. In each scene the protagonist tries to achieve her goal (the story goal) and in each something happens to deflect her. (see: Try-Fail Cycles)

In this sense, a short story is condensed. Where in a novel there would be ample time between the failure of the protagonist’s first attempt and her gearing up for her main assault, this span of time is telescoped in a short story. The protagonist of a short story has to adjust to the conditions of the special world, make friends and allies--as well as enemies--in a few short paragraphs rather than chapters.

Formulate a New plan

What follows are some of the stages/events that often occur after the protagonist’s first big failure. 

This list is not meant to be in any way canonical--when it comes to stories there’s no such thing--but thinking about these points has often helped me figure out why a certain part of my story isn’t working as well as I’d like.

 a. Emotion

At the beginning of the sequel, show the protagonist’s emotions. Show her emotional reaction to the failure at the end of the previous scene. Is she sad? Angry? 

b. Thought/Review

The protagonist reviews the situation and focuses on one or two aspects of the attempt as significant. These are the aspects the writer wishes the reader to dwell upon. This is where much of the protagonist’s character development will occur. 

For example, who does the protagonist blame? Herself? Her friends? The antagonist? I've found that heroic protagonists tend to blame themselves. Especially if one of their companions is injured in her attempt to achieve her goal. 

c. Anticipation/Reason

Show the protagonist anticipating what is to come. What can she do now? Have the protagonist--or her allies--think of two or three ways of achieving her goal. For each goal reveal what the outcome would be; what the new stakes would be.

d. Decision

Have the protagonist decide on a new path of action. The important bit here is that the writer clearly communicates to the reader why the protagonist picked one course of action over another. 

For example, continuing my example from last time, let’s say the protagonist’s goal is to stop her grandmother’s house from being repossessed by the bank. Let's say that our protagonist comes up with these three options:

i. Go to the mob and borrow the money. 

ii. Plunder the trust fund her father set up for her so she could go to college and become a doctor.

iii. Beg her cousin to let grams live with her. (The protagonist absolutely hates her cousin and the feeling is mutual.)

If the protagonist chooses (iii) then it shows the reader that she is willing to swallow her pride. That would tell us a lot about the protagonist's character. We would see that she would rather do something she absolutely hated rather than let someone she loved come to harm. 

If the protagonist doesn’t choose option (iii) that also tells us something about her. For example, if she chooses (ii) then she will achieve her goal--her grams house will be saved--but she will have sacrificed both her dream and her father’s dream to make it happen.

The question is: How much does the protagonist’s pride mean to her? Is she willing to give up her dream to save her pride?Her decision will tell us a lot about her. This, right here, is the nuts and bolts of character development. 

e. Action

Show the protagonist begin to act on her new plan. For example, let’s say that the protagonist has chosen to save her grans house by plundering the trust fund her father set up for her. At the end of the sequel we could show her getting in her car and leaving for the bank.

Next time we’ll look at the Major Setback and talk more about how the second half of a story differs from the first. Cheers!

Photo credit: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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.

Monday, April 21

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Third 1,500 Words

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Third 1,500 Words

This is the third in a series of articles I'm writing on Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula. Even though Dent wrote his formula down in, I believe, the 50s, it is still great advice for anyone wanting to write a fast paced action yarn. Here are the first few instalments:

Lester Dent writes:
a) Shovel the grief onto the hero.

b) Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:

c) A physical conflict.

d) A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.

DOES: It still have SUSPENSE?
The MENACE getting blacker?
The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix?
It all happens logically?

These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once.

The idea is to avoid monotony.

Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.

Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

Trees, wind, scenery and water.

Lester Dent gives basically the same advice for the second and third quarters. It's the same, only different.

Here's the structure of the third 1,500 words:

1. Introduce a complication for the hero. Either the villain makes a move the hero wasn't expecting or something the hero was counting on falls through.

2. Despite the complication/setback the hero has a minor achievement and comes closer to attaining his goal. 

3. The hero's plan looks like it's succeeding. The important thing here is that the hero brings the fight to the villain and that the hero is active. He doesn't have to get into a fistfight with the villain--they don't even have to be in the same room--but there should be some kind of active confrontation.

4. Throw in another complication/plot twist. Either something happens that the hero had no way of either knowing about or preventing, or something he was counting on falls through. Perhaps someone he was relying on turned out to be a traitor or perhaps the villain has been luring the hero into a trap. 

As a result of the plot twist the hero seems done for. Finished. He'll never achieve his goal. Not only that, it turns out we were wrong about what would happen to him if he failed. It's much, much, worse than we thought.

So, there you have it. We end the third section of 1,500 words with the hero in so much trouble there's no possible way he'll ever win. He's doomed.

The Essence of A Pulp Story

Dent sets out the essential elements of a pulp story; those things he felt define the form:

a. Physical conflict.

I think the key here is including conflict one could see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Conflict so concrete and particular you could film it. One can't film an emotion, only the effect of an emotion.

b. 2 or 3 plot twists. 

In at least two or three places reverse the readers expectations. You, the storyteller, have set them up to think that a certain something is going to happen. For instance, the villain is playing video games in his parent's basement and the hero is creeping down the stairs to apprehend him. 

Writers need to subvert the readers expectations. In the case of my example I might have the thing the hero took to be the villain really be nothing but a lifelike simulacrum put there to trick the hero into entering the villains lair. As soon as he does the doors slam close and locks and a foul smelling gas fills the room. The hero tries not to breathe but, eventually, is forced to. He slumps, unconscious, to the ground.  

c. Suspense. 

Suspense begins with a question: Will the hero escape the machinations of the villain? If so, how? 

Readers know that the villain is setting the hero up for a big fall; the villain is able to anticipate the hero's every move, or at least he seems to be. Is the hero clever enough, resourceful enough, to spot the villain's evil trap before it's too late? 

Dramatic irony is only one way of generating suspense. Here are a few articles I've written on the subject:

d. Menace. 

A menace continues to build/intensify right up to the final confrontation between hero and villain. 

Although I'm not sure they're synonymous, the way Dent uses the word "menace" makes me think of stakes. The stakes, as well as the conflict between the hero and the villain, need to keep increasing right up until the end, right up until the hero defeats the villain (or vice versa).

Descriptions: Keep them simple.

In an action-packed, suspense filled, short story, descriptions need to be kept to a minimum. One needs to choose one's words carefully. In a book one can, perhaps, include a beautiful description that doesn't have anything to do with anything and get away with it. That's not the case in a short story.

That's it! If you're writing along with this then you've finished the third quarter of your short story. The end is in sight. How will the hero save himself and defeat the villain's dastardly plans? Stay tuned. 

Photo credit: "remember last holiday" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, November 30

How To Write A Short Story

How To Write A Short Story

A beginning writer recently asked for advice on how to write a short story. My answer to her query was far too long for her post but I thought, well (silver lining) it's just the right length for a blog post!

The Question: Any comments, suggestions, tips or tricks for a beginning writer on how to write a short story?

If I could go back in time to when I first grappled with this question, here's what I would tell myself:

Before you start writing, have a good idea of the following:


- Who is your protagonist? Male? Female? A CEO? A Barista? Is she confident and capable or cringing and awkward?
- What does your protagonist want? What is his goal? Every protagonist should want something, need something, desperately.
- Your protagonist doesn't have to be nice, but she does have to be interesting. Your reader needs to be able to identify with her.
- It sometimes helps if you give your protagonist a quirk (a fear of snakes or an affinity for round numbers, and so on).
- Make your protagonist exceptionally good at something. It can be something relatively trivial like being able to tie the stem of a cheery in a knot with his tongue.


- Who is your antagonist? He will probably be a lot like the protagonist (every villain is the hero of his own story). 
- Make them a person. In the beginning I think it helps to make the antagonist a person rather than a tornado or the creeping evils of old age. I'm a person so it's easier for me to write about people. I just put myself in that characters shoes and change a few things.
- Make them strong. IMHO one of the easiest things to do in the beginning is not to have enough conflict. Interesting conflict requires a strong antagonist. Try-fail cycles are your friend. The hero has to fail a lot. This is easier and more believable if your villain is strong/powerful/wonderfully menacing. (Dan Wells mentions that one of the reasons Inigo Montoya killing Count Tyrone Rugen was one of the best scenes in the movie was that he tried 10 times to do it and failed.)

The Stakes

- Spell out the stakes--what will happen to the protagonist if she fails, what will happen if she wins.

Know The Ending

- Know how the story is going to end. If you know how the story is going to end then you can figure out the stakes.

Short Story Structure

In a short story the structure can be simplified. Sometimes it's just 

- The beginning. This is the setup. It's where you'll introduce the characters, the setting, the heroes goal, the antagonist (generally: whatever it is that is preventing the hero/protagonist reaching their goal.)
- The middle. The hero tries to achieve his goal three times. The first two times the antagonist successfully blocks him/her but on the third try, because of what the hero has learnt, because of who he/she is, the protagonist succeeds. (Or perhaps they fail, that's up to you.)
- The end. Show the aftermath (we see the result of the hero either obtaining or failing to obtain his/her goal).

As I said, this is the advice I would give to myself if I could go back in time. Everyone's different. That's why it's important to write (a lot!) and find out what works for you. If something strikes you as true/helpful/useful in the above, take it, use it. If you disagree with any of it, ignore it. There's no one way of writing (thankfully!).

Photo credit: "IMG_5186" by Savara under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Thursday, November 7

Lester Dent's Short Story Master Formula

Lester Dent's Short Story Master Formula

Lester Dent's Formula For Writing A 6,000 Word Short Story

Lester Dent writes:

"This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.
"No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell."[1]

Note: Keep in mind that Dent wrote adventure/horror/science fiction stories, ones where a lot of dead bodies showed up. That said, his formula works for anything, even stories without dead bodies, just adjust it to suit your needs.

Who was Lester Dent?

Although Lester Dent created the superhuman scientist and adventurer Doc Savage the novels were credited to Kenneth Robeson, a name made up, and owned, by Dent's publisher.

Dent started out as a telegraph operator who wrote on the graveyard shift. One of his co-workers had sold a story for $450--which was a fortune at the time--and Dent thought, "Hey, I could do that!"

Turned out he was right.

Dent eventually wrote over 159 novels over 16 years--and that was just the Doc Savage novels! He celebrated his affluence by buying a yacht and sailing around the world.

Before he died in 1959 Dent decided to gift other writers with his formula for writing a 6,000 word story. 

Michael Moorcock's Summary of Lester Dent's Method

I'll get to a blow-by-blow of Dent's method shortly but here's a summary, courtesy of Michael Moorcock:

"... split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there's no way he could ever possibly get out of it. ... All your main characters have to be in the first third. All your main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third. (Lester Dent, Wikipedia)"

Note: When I talk about Dent's method, below, much of it is a paraphrase.

Lester Dent's Method

Before you set pen to paper here are four things to think about:

1. A murder method

From what I've seen, the overwhelming majority of Dent's stories contained a murder. The murder method should be different than anything you've read or seen. I know, that's a tall order. But try to put a spin on it that's unique.

Dent writes:

"A different murder method could be--different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?

"If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary.

"Scribes who have their villain's victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.

"Probably it won't do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.

"The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones.

"Here, again one might get too bizarre."[1]

Here's a list of possible murder methods. These are primarily from the appropriately named article, How To Commit The Perfect Murder.

i. A sword. Perhaps a kantana.
ii. Sharpened icicle. Extra points for fashioning it from some of your victim's bodily fluids.
iii. A knife. Butchers knife, throwing knives, kitchen knife, rusty butter knife. Let your imagination guide you.
iv. A gun. Guns "can be found in bins, strapped under cars, inside folded newspapers and in every schoolchild's backpack. Remember to replace after use."
v. A car. Best if you don't use your own car. The author suggests stealing one, preferably from a Walmart. Or perhaps a long-term parking lot.
vi. A heavy object. A brick, meat tenderizer (/club), candlestick, paperweight, and so on.
vii. Heavier objects. An aeroplane, elephant, train, bulldozer, Mack truck.
viii. Pills. Available from drugstores, doctors, drug dealers.
ix. Hammer and stake. Be creative.
x. A notebook. See Death Note for inspiration.
xi. A wand.
xii. Push off a (tall) building.
xiii. Severe allergies, the more exotic the better.
xiv. Poison. Arsenic, curare, and so on.  Be creative.

Here are a few more: bomb, lynch, crucify, burn/incinerate, drown, asphyxiate, strangle, martial arts, curse, evil puppets, acid.

2. The antagonist's goal

Again, although there are relatively few things folks murder for (love, money, power, and so on) the particular motivation is--or at least should be--unique to your villain.

Dent describes what the villain is after as "treasure". I don't know whether he's being literal or employing metaphor. Perhaps a bit of both. Whatever his ultimate goal--for instance, let's say it's revenge--there's going to be a physical manifestation of that goal in the story.

For instance, in Star Wars IV, Darth Vader wanted to defeat the resistance  and the physical manifestation of that desire was the destruction of the rebel's base on Yavin IV.

When I first saw Star Wars--one of the local theatres was showing all the films back to back--I thought the Death Star was truly badass. It destroyed planets! It was like a roving, moon-destroying, bully. That was a new spin on an old theme.

I won't list them, but here are a few links having to do with ideas for what the treasure might be.

3. A setting

Ideally, the setting will be suggested by (a) the murder method and (b) the villain's goal. You'll want something that stands out, that captures the imagination.

Dent writes:

"Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure--thing that villain wants--makes it simpler, and it's also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you've lived or worked. So many pulpateers don't. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him."[1]

If Lester Dent were alive today I think he'd say: Google Maps Street View is your friend.

On an unrelated note, love that name, "pulpateer".

4. The hero's motivation

Dent doesn't write much about this point except to say that it is "a menace which is to hang like a cloud over [the] hero".

I explain this to myself by thinking about stakes. What are the stakes? What will the hero gain if he achieves his goal (and, presumably, that goal is to stop the villain)? What will the hero lose if he doesn't? 

I mentioned Star Wars IV, above. Here are the stakes:

Success: If Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star then the rebel base is saved.
Failure:  If Luke doesn't blow up the Death Star then he, and everyone else he knows, is dead. 

It kept me on the edge of my seat.

Whew! We're through the preliminaries. We now know what the murder method is, what the villain's goal is, we know the setting and we understand the stakes. (By the way, Dent says that you really only have to know two or three of the above points before you start writing. Even if you know one of them you're ahead of the game.)

Next time I'll talk about the actual writing. Dent broke a 6,000 word story into four equal parts. Next time we'll look at the first quarter and discuss the opening line and how we, in Dent's words, need to "swat him [the hero] with a fistful of trouble".

Stay tuned!

Here are links to other articles in this series:
Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Third 1,500 Words
Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Fourth And Final 1,500 Words

Thanks to RedFoxOne for sending me a link to Gareth-Michael Skarka's implementation of Dent's formula as a scenario generator for gaming. Brilliant! Here's the article: Pulp Adventure Generator.


1. As far as I can tell, Dent's formula comes from the book, The Creator of Doc Savage, by Marilyn Cannaday. It is also online over at The Lester Dent Master Fiction Plot
Correction (Dec 8, 2020): Dent's formula was first given in the Writer's Digest Yearbook, 1936. Thanks to Korodzik for leaving a comment and letting me know.

Photo credit: "Diwali Abstract Series 2013 - The Galaxy Effect" by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, April 15

How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction

How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction
I wrote about the structure of short stories yesterday so I normally wouldn't do another post on story structure but today Janice Hardy published one of the best articles on episodic story structure I've ever read: What Downton Abbey Can Teach us About Tension.

By the way, I think the information contained in Janice's post is about much more than episodic structure. Whatever story you're writing, whether it's a novel, novella or even a short story, I'm confident that something in her article will apply.

I've broken this discussion into two posts; I'll publish the second one tomorrow.

Episode One: Introduce The Problem

Introduce the Core Conflict

Everything starts with a problem. The first episode will start by setting up the Core Conflict, but every episode should start by introducing a problem, either a new problem or a complication to an existing problem.

By the way, here's what I mean by a problem: something that needs to be solved that directly impacts the main character's life such that if she fails her life will be changed for the worse.

There should also be a solution to the problem, but one that conflicts with the main character's other goals/desires.

The story question then becomes: Will the problem be solved and the main character achieve her goal? Will the main character be rewarded for her sacrifice or will she fail and have her life--and the lives of those around her--changed for the worse?

What needs to be done:

a. State/show the problem clearly.

b. State/show the plan the hero has come up with to solve the problem.

c. State/show how the plan is going to be implemented.

d. State/show the stakes. What will happen if the plan fails? What will happen if the plan succeeds? The price of failure should be something that will change not only the main character's life for the worse, but the lives of everyone she cares about.

Showing the stakes--spelling them out for the audience--helps build tension because it lets the audience see how very bad failure would be for the main character, who (hopefully) we've come to care about.

Episode Two: Complications

The hero's solution to the problem fails.

In Episode One the main character hoped her plan would work and the problem would be solved but the plan doesn't work.

It could be that the main character's plan works in part, but a major complication is introduced, or it could be that the plan was a complete and total failure and not only does the thing she feared would happen, happen, something much worse than that occurs. Ideally this would be something completely unexpected that the main character couldn't have foreseen or prevented.

What needs to be done in this episode:

a. The problem becomes harder to solve.

The problem was tricky before, but now it seems unsolvable. People were nervous before, but now they're downright terrified.

b. The stakes get larger.

Part of the reason our characters are downright terrified is that the stakes have gone up. Way up. While the payoff remains the same (or possibly has been diminished) the consequences of failure have become much more stark.

For example, if the problem was that a single mother and her newborn baby were going to lose their rent controlled apartment in two months the problem becomes that they are going to lose the apartment tomorrow. And a blizzard is raging outside. Or something like that, you get the gist.

#  #  #

I have two more points to go over but I'll leave those for tomorrow.

Happy writing!
Question: Have you ever written serialized fiction? If so, have you tried out Wattpad? I've been thinking of opening an account over there and was curious what you folks thought of it.

Other articles you might like:

- Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories
- How To Get Honest Book Reviews
- What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story

Photo credit: "spectacular view of sunset" by Kamoteus (A New Beginning) under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, April 12

What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story

What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story

Yesterday I read a fascinating article written by Ferrett Steinmetz, an accomplished author and slush pile reader, about what he looks for in a story.

Slush Pile Readers Want To Love Your Story

Some of what Steinmetz wrote surprised me. For instance, that readers of slush want to fall in love with your story. He writes:
As we lay our eyes upon the first sentence of your epic tale, we are filled with the hope that you—yes, you!—will win the Nebula for this very story.

What you as a writer must understand is that our Hope-O-Meter starts topped off—but as we encounter each bit of bad writing in your story, our Hope-O-Meter drops.
There are many things that can cause a slush pile reader's Hope-O-Meter to drop but it all comes down to this: The reader doesn't care about what's happening.
Steinmetz writes that this lack of caring usually comes from one of three things:
  • Who is this character we’re expected to follow along until the end of the story?
  • What is s/he doing, and why is s/he doing it?
  • Why should we care about this particular action?
If we don’t know all three of those soon, then generally speaking we’re going to lose interest.  (Great writers can break any rule, of course… but if you’re a great writer, then why are you still in our slush pile?)

The Secret: How To Get Your Short Story Accepted

Steinmetz writes:
So what you’re doubtlessly asking by now is, “How can I keep that Hope-O-Meter filled all the way up?”  And the answer is, “Get me to care about your characters, quickly and efficiently.”
And now for the 64 million dollar question: HOW does a writer get a reader to care about their characters?

Steinmetz's answer:
A writer gets a reader to care about their characters by answering the right questions.
To illustrate this, Steinmetz gives examples from actual slush that didn't make it:

1. Who is your protagonist?

Jason’s hand trembled as he crouched in the bush and aimed at the slaver on the rooftop. The slavers had come to Juniper County to put anyone they could find in shackles, so now Jason had no choice: he had to shoot.

The slaver turned, his eyes going wide as he saw Jason. Jason pulled the trigger; the slaver’s head burst open.

Swallowing back nausea, terrified that someone had heard, he ran for cover…
The flaw here, Steinmetz writes, is that we don't know who Jason is.

- If slavers came to their home town, most people would shoot at them, so this doesn't tell us a whole lot about Jason.
- Jason is nauseous and nervous so that might indicate he's inexperienced but it could also just be that he's afraid of being caught.

What we needed to know about Jason:
a. Who or what he is fighting for. Does he have a family that he's trying to protect? (This covers two things: character and motivation.)

b. How experienced of a fighter is he? Is he an able hunter or a clueless accountant?

c. What are his ultimate goals? Does he want to escape the town? Drive the invaders out? Rescue his family? His friends?
Further, the reader needs to know the answer to these three questions in the first three paragraphs.

2. What is your protagonist's goal?

Here's an example of a passage that nails the "who" but falls short when it comes to "what":
At six o’clock on the dot, Damien clicked off his computer and stacked his unfinished paperwork neatly in his in-tray. The desk had become untidy over the course of the day, so he lined everything up geometrically; the desk blotter perfectly parallel with the keyboard, the monitor at a forty-five degree angle.

He made his way to the elevator, observing a spot on his shiny leather shoes. He unfolded a handkerchief to buff it clean, then pressed the exact center of the button that marked the first floor.

When the elevator arrived, Damien spritzed the air with a small can of perfume, trying to neutralize the odors of stale BO and farts pent up within
Here we know the kind of person Damien is, but we don't know what motivates him and we don't know what his ultimate goal is. Steinmetz writes:
Note how this opening has no real indicators of Damien’s wants or needs, aside from a clean shoe and a fart-free elevator.  It’s a kind of weak characterization, because it does tell us what his immediate needs are without letting us know what his goals are.

However, if we know that Damien is leaving work to go to a pick-up bar to try and get a girl, then suddenly all of these mundane details take on personal shape; he’s buffing his shoes so he’ll look good, he’s spraying the elevator to avoid smelling bad for his partner.

Or, if we know he’s going to visit his dying mother in the hospital, the rituals take on an air of desperation; his mother’s illness is out of his control, but he can control his own personal space.

3. What makes the protagonist interesting?

Here's an example of a passage with bland characters:
Beatrice stirred her soup in time to the rhythm of her husband chopping wood outside. Her cousin Jack took over stirring as she went into the bedroom to check in on Cindy. As Beatrice picked her daughter up, she wriggled and grinned.
Steinmetz writes:
In this case, you have four characters in the first paragraph, none of them doing anything that makes them memorable.  Anyone can chop wood, if they need to.  Anyone can stir soup or check on a baby.
We want our protagonists to be interesting. If they're not interesting then they're boring and who wants to read about a boring character? Steinmetz writes:
Interesting characters do things that no one else would do in their circumstance; that’s why you remember them.
Also, a writer needs to make each of their characters interesting and memorable but in different ways. Otherwise characters blend into one another.

4. What is the story goal?

Usually the story goal(/story question) is the same as the protagonist's external goal.

For example, in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones' goal was to find the ark and bring it back to the university for further research and study. That was also the story question: Will Indiana Jones find the ark and bring it back to the university museum before Dr. Rene Belloq and the Nazis snatch it from him and use it to swing the tide of war their way?

However, the protagonist's goal isn't always so closely linked to the story question.

For example, in Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke's goal is to destroy the death star and thereby save the rebel alliance. However the overarching story goal is to destroy the empire. Even when Luke succeeds in destroying the death star the empire is far from beaten since the emperor is still alive.

Steinmetz holds that it's important for readers to know both what the protagonist's goal is, and what the story question is (if they're different), from the beginning.

Here's an example of an opener where the story goal is withheld:
The work will take three months, and if done poorly, risks fatally poisoning you,” Nellie explained to the scent-engineer. “So I need to make sure your skills are up to speed.” She tightbeamed a spec over to his PDA; he whistled.

This is quite an unusual request,” murmured Paco. “Even if you granted me full access to your family’s pheromone farms, I’m not sure it could be done.” He nodded, contemplating the request. “But if so, I’m the only man who can do it.”

That’s the attitude I’m looking for,” she said, reaching out to clasp hands and seal the bio-contract.
Steinmetz writes:
A lot of writers, for some reason, think it’s more interesting to conceal the central premise of their story and then reveal it later on.  At some point around page five or six, we’re going to finally have the Big Reveal that what Nellie is looking for is an Enslavement Pheromone to turn humans into mindless ant-drones.  Mwoo hah hah!

Unfortunately, the irritation of leaving your reader in the dark is almost never as cool as your actual central concept.

5. Don't include too much description

I know, that's not a question, but Ferrett Steinmetz makes an excellent point:
[I]f a story started with, “The tendril-fields were wet and pulsing, the rose-pink tentacles reaching up to grab at the spine-birds that flew overhead,” then fine, I’d be like, that’s amazingTell me more. But generic descriptions of landscape are a pace-killer.

6. Show don't tell

Steinmetz writes:
Thing is, there’s a big difference between “he’s insane” and “he thinks bugs crawl into his ear whenever he talks on his cell phone.”  There’s a big difference between “He’s in love” and “Every time he fills up at the gas station, he buys a single flower for his wife and leaves it on her pillow.”  There’s a big difference between “exhilaration” and “The story you spent three months agonizing over just found a home at Shimmer.”

Stories are about concrete details.  If you write about emotions as though they’re just these abstracted principles, then your story lacks all power.  When you write about characters feeling stuff, get as gritty as you can; it’ll make them more unique and pay off, and it won’t make us slush editors go, “Oh, yes, another story written by a madman who doesn’t actually sound all that insane.”
Great examples and excellent advice. The epitome of something simple to understand but not easily done.

I encourage you to read the rest of Steinmetz's essay here: Confessions of a Slush Reader: Why Should I care?

Other articles you might like:

- Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Choose Your Opening Line
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
- Find Out How Much Traffic Your Blog Gets

Photo credit: "recession" by Robert S. Donovan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.