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

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.

Sunday, April 14

Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories

Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories

I'm excited! For months I've been looking for a really good sink-your-teeth-in analysis of short story structure.

Today I found it in Larry Brooks' post: The Short Story on Structuring Your Short Story.

"short stories are harder to wrap your head around than a novel"

It's so true!

And that seems strange. A novel is 80,000 or so words while a short story can be as brief as 1,000. It would seem that a short story would be easier, not harder, to write.

Larry Brooks writes:
For every famous short story writer out there, there are 100 famous novelists.  That’s no accident.

To help explain this – as much to myself as for those reading this – consider this analogy: we get about two decades to raise our children.  We have that long, give or take, to send them out into the world with a shot at success and happiness.

A lot has to happen.  Sometimes two decades isn’t enough.

Try doing it in six months.  Or even a year.

 The Elements of Any Story

Larry Brooks lists the following as essential elements in any story, regardless of length:

- Conflict
- Stakes
- Need
- Journey
- Opposition
- Characterization
- Setting
- Arena
- Sub-text
- Voice

Your story is like a canvas laid out before you. Perhaps the canvas is huge and populated with dozens of characters (+120,000 word novels). Perhaps the canvas is tiny as a postage stamp (flash fiction).

It's up to you what size you want the canvas to be (/how maybe words you want to use) but you still have to communicate the same elements, though you have far less space and opportunity to do so.

If you're looking at this list wondering how the heck you can get all that into a 1,000 word piece of flash fiction, here's what Larry Brooks says is the trick: One or more of the above can be implied.

(By the way, Stephen King talks about his book, Under The Dome, and compares its scope to the size of a painter's canvas. The video clip is 4 minutes 11 seconds long.)

Know Your Theme

Writers need to be crystal clear about their objective for the story. Larry writes:
To pull this off, the short story writer needs to be perhaps even better at one specific aspect of the storytelling craft than the novelist.

The short story writer needs to be mission-driven.  The writer’s intentions – which implies a clear understanding of why this story needs to be written – requires a clear, concise objective before it can work.
 In other words, while this isn't always true for novels, for a short story you need to know your theme before you set pen to paper.

Once you understand the mission of the story--the work you want it to do--then you can decide on what structure you want the story to have.

Larry writes:
And for that [the story's structure], you can use the four-part structure for novels (set-up, response, attack, resolution, each part separated by specific plot points) to put a fence around your short story intentions.

The Structure of a Short Story

The question: Does a short story have to be structured like a novel? Does it have to have three acts, two plot points (/reversals), pinch points, and so on?

Larry says no, it's up to you.

Imagine a novel as a house. An 80,000 word novel would be like a 2,500 square foot family home. Perhaps we can compare a 120,000 word high fantasy novel to a sprawling 6,000 square foot manor house.

In larger works, you show the whole house while in a short story you have a choice. You can show a very very small house (friends of mine lived in a 500 square foot thimble of a house while they were going to university) or you can choose to only show one room of a larger house.

Larry writes:
Yes, you can create a four-part short story that is, in essence, a condensed version of the classic structural paradigm.

Or, you can hone in on any specific moment or segment of the four-part structure – such as, a single plot point element or a single scene from within any of the four contextually-defined parts – and have that become your architecture.

It’s like building a one room addition next to your house.  The end product might be intended to accommodate anything and everything that could go in inside the house, and when it’s done it needs to blend into the aesthetics and structural design of the bigger house.

Even if, in a picture or a drive-by, nobody gets to actually see the larger house.
 Brilliant analogy.

The Elements Of Any Story

I'm writing a 1,000 word piece of flash fiction for Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge and it's difficult! So much has to be included but even more has to be left out.

Here, though, are the elements I think any riveting story has:
- At least one character who wants something desperately.
- Clear stakes, what will happen if he succeeds and what will happen if he fails. And not just generally, personally. To him, to the people he loves.
-  Made the protagonist's motivation clear. (e.g., motivation vs goal: Frodo took the One Ring to Mordor because he wanted to, basically, save the world from destruction. That was his motivation. His goal was to destroy the ring.)
- One way in which your main character is strong
- One way in which your main character is very weak
- A character who takes decisive action to achieve his goal.
I think the key here is, in the case of flash fiction, that you can show more than one thing at the same time (for example, show a character's weakness at the same time as you show what he wants most in the world).

Story Structure: The Essentials

Jack went to the corner grocery store, lit it on fire, and came home. 

That is kinda, sorta, a story. Not a very good one, though. Why did Jack light the store on fire? What did he hope to gain? Was he trying to prevent something? Who is Jack anyway?

There is no cause and effect structure, the events of the story--Jack going to the store, setting the store on fire, and coming back home--seem completely independent of each other; unrelated.

There are certain elements every story should have, which is not to say that every story should have the same structure.

I think Chuck Wendig is right, every story is unique and so, unsurprisingly, has it's own unique structure. That said, there are certain things gripping stories, riveting stories, the kind of stories that keep you up reading till 3am even when you have an important meeting the next morning ... there are certain elements those stories have in common. For instance, one of the characters will always want something and there will be something preventing him/her from achieving it.

But, still, the structure of every single individual story will be unique.

1. A Set-Up/Ordinary World

Call this part what you will, but there needs to be something that came before the inciting incident, even if that something is never shown in the story. Some stories have the action begin at the inciting incident or after it, but at some point we need to get a peek at what the protagonist's life was like before the call to adventure.

2. Inciting Incident/Call To Adventure

Something happens to break the status quo and offers the hero/protagonist a challenge, a goal to pursue. A course of action which has an endpoint and clear stakes. We need to see:

- How the protagonist reacts to this incident. Is he scared, elated, cocky? What actions does he take in response to this change?

- What are the stakes? What will happen to the hero if he takes up the challenge and achieves the goal/prize? If he fails? (Often there's a sequel after the scene in which the inciting incident occurs in which the hero discusses his options.)

- What is the heroes goal?

- What is the heroes motivation?

3. Midpoint

Something big needs to happen. This could involve explosions and hand-to-hand combat but it needn't. The essential thing is that the hero confronts or experiences something profound, something that will fundamentally change him or her.

This realization doesn't have to be something big. For instance, sometimes these revelations are like the last domino falling, they can be triggered by gazing out the living room window after the first snowfall of the year. (But of course that will have been built up to.)

When I write/edit, I strive to make it clear how this event, whatever it is that happens at the midpoint, changes the protagonist's goal--if it does. How it changes the stakes. How it causes the opposition to increase.

4. Reversal/All Is Lost/Complications (approx 3/4 mark)

After the midpoint and before the resolution there's probably going to be a big setback or at least a surprising, unexpected, change that complicates things, that makes it much harder--if not impossible--for the hero to attain his goal.

The stakes have been clearly spelled out in the other sections of the story so, here, the hero is staring failure in the face. Whatever plans the hero has, whatever progress they've made, is wiped out--or seems to be wiped out--right at the moment of victory.

But wait! It's so much worse than he thought it would be.

The negative consequences of failure aren't changed, not really, but they are intensified. Whatever the hero was anticipating, the negative stakes are now 10 times worse. If, in the beginning, only the hero's life was in danger, now the lives of his companions (if any), his tribe, and indeed the entire planet (perhaps the galaxy!), hang in the balance.
Now comes the really tricky part, getting the hero out of the mess he's in!

The hero as phoenix

One way of pulling the hero out of both the fire and the frying pan is to use his weakness. By overcoming his weakness, his great flaw, he will discover a way around the obstacles before him, a way to achieve his goal.

Or perhaps your hero has a special strength. For example, Indiana Jones had both knowledge and control--he knew not to look at the Ark when the Nazis opened it and, because (unlike Pandora) he could control his curiosity, he survived their fate.

The important thing is that if the hero does save himself at the 11th hour how he does it should come as a surprise, but one the audience feels they should have seen, or at least one that they could have worked out for themselves if they'd had more time to think about it.

5. Resolution

This is the climax, the final confrontation. This is where the hero either achieves his goal or fails.

Whichever outcome, we need to show the aftermath.

- The hero realizing the stakes, either victory or defeat. We needed to see Frodo back on The Shire. We need to see the One Ring slip into the liquid fire.

- Show the effect of victory or defeat on whatever it was that motivated him.

- Show what happened to whatever opposed the hero in his quest.

And in flash fiction you have to try and do the essential bits in the above in under 1,000 words!

Challenge: I'm taking up Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction challenge this week. Join me! Which sentence would you pick as the first line of your 1,000 word story?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Get Honest Book Reviews
- What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story
- Is Writing Rewriting?

Photo credit: "verde amarelo" by alexdecarvalho under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, December 5

Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
I have a problem. For the past two years or so, every time I set out to write a short story—something under 5,000 words—I fail miserably. It grows and grows and grows until I'm writing a 20,000 word novella!

And there's nothing wrong with that.

It used to be it was hard to sell novellas but the form is experiencing a resurgence. It appears that as long as buyers are informed about the length of a story, they don't mind variety. (See: Ian McEwan Believes The Novella Is The Perfect Form Of Prose Fiction)

But I digress. As I say, there isn't anything wrong with writing novellas, but I've grown increasingly anxious. Every time I begin a short story it morphs into a novella. It has gotten to the point that—even if only for the novelty of it!—I would like to write a short story.

The upshot is that I've researched various structures that could be used for short stories because I think my problem is that I'm trying to use the structure of a novel for a short story. Not good.

Here's what I found.

The Hero's Journey: The Structure For A Novel

So that we'll have something to contrast the various short story structures with, here's the classic monomyth structure in visual form. This comes by way of the wonderfully creative folks at TED:

Short Story Structure 1: A Character, In A Situation, With A Problem ...

1. A character,
2. in a situation,
3. with a problem,
4. who tries repeatedly to solve the problem,
5. but fails, usually making the problem worse.
6. At the climax of the story the hero makes a final attempt which may succeed or fail.
7. The result of the hero's final attempt is validated in a way that makes it clear what we saw was the final result.
I've paraphrased it, but that's from Philip Brewer's post, Story Structure in Short Stories. Originally it comes from Algis Budrys.

This structure seems better suited to the brevity of a short story, but let's keep looking.

Short Story Structure 2: Set-up, Response, Attack, Resolution

This short story structure comes to us by way of Larry Brooks's article: The Short Story on Structuring Your Short Story. He writes:
"Like life, our stories always reside somewhere along that same continuum of set-up… shift… response… shift… attack… shift… resolution."
1. Setup
2. Shift
3. Response
4. Shift (mid-point)
5. Attack
6. Shift
7. Resolution

Sarah A Hoyt: The Structure Of A Short Story

This wonderfully detailed short story structure comes from Sarah A. Hoyt's article, The Structure of A Short Story, and is, I'm afraid, a case of me saving the best till last. Well, almost last.

(All quotations are from Sarah's article.)
1. First line or two
"[I]ntroduce the most startling or grabby thing about your characters/setting/situation."

2. Rest of the first paragraph
"[L]ay out character/setting/ and most of all problem.  You might want to lead with problem as that brings out the most interesting things about your idea.  (If your idea isn’t interesting, WHY are you writing it?)"

3. Next few pages (From the first paragraph up to the 25% mark)
"Develop the present situation which your character is caught.  This situation is usually not the main problem, and you should have at least one try/fail before getting character out of the PRESENT situation.  About 1/4 of the way through the story, have the character realize what the REAL problem is."

4. From the 25% point to the mid-point
"Initiate try/fails to solve the main problem."

5. Mid-point
"Around middle of the story have character realize he was going about obtaining goal the wrong way or that his/her assumptions were oh, soooo wrong."

6. 62% (between the mid-point and the 3/4 mark)
"Activate cunning plan.  (This normally doesn’t involve a turnip, on account of not being a Black Adder story.)"

7. 75% mark
"Try fail sequences set up about 3/4 through the story."

8. 88% mark
"Black moment about 1/8th from the end."

9. 95% to 100%
"[R]esolution and usually not much of what my husband calls a cigarette moment, because it’s a short."
I especially love Sarah's attention to detail in the first paragraph, breaking it into two. Let's face it, folks are probably going to decide whether they'll read your story based on the first few lines.

For Kicks And Giggles: A Possible Short Story Structure

I've tried to condense the hero's journey into something manageable for a short story and (as you'll be able to tell) I've borrowed liberally.

1. Set-up/Status quo/Ordinary World

The hero has a well-defined need but there is something specific keeping her from meeting this need. (Another way of saying this is, "The hero has a well-defined goal, but there is something specific keeping her from acquiring what she seeks.)

2. Call to adventure/Inciting incident

Something (perhaps something shocking) happens to break the status quo.

3. Hero's Response

The hero might vacillate for a short time while she weighs what accepting the call to adventure will mean for her (good opportunity for a sequel), but she ultimately accepts the call and enters a new, strange, intensely unfamiliar situation/world.

4. Trial and Error

The hero tries to attain her goal, to meet the need that we read about at the beginning of the story. She fails. Perhaps she fails spectacularly and humorously. Even though she failed, she succeeds at something. Perhaps she gains an ally because, even though she fails, she just won't give up.

Hero looks back. Thinks about going back to the status quo, what that would mean.

5. Mid-point/Point of no return (50%)

Hero tries to defeat the thing that is preventing her from getting what she needs.

Hero Succeeds: If hero succeeds then there has to be a twist. The person/thing they thought was the Big Bad really isn't. The real Big Bad is revealed.

Hero Fails: Stakes are raised. Perhaps she loses her allies, perhaps she's injured. She fought impressively but, because she still has a weakness, her enemy either got away or beat her.

Either way, the mid-point is a point-of-no return. Because of what happens in this scene the hero no longer has the option of going back to the ordinary world. Also, often, the hero makes the problem (overcoming the obstacles to achieving her goal) worse in an unexpected way.

Note: I mention the hero's weakness, above. Her weakness could be anything, but it's nice if it can be related to whatever it is INTERNALLY that keeps her from achieving her goal.

6. Setback

Our hero has failed (see (5)). She tries to go back to the status quo but realizes that's not possible. Time for reflection and perhaps a pep-talk. Or perhaps she hits bottom and starts fighting everything in sight and the experience revives her. (It could happen! ;)

7. Acceptance

Hero accepts her fate and trains, or otherwise works on removing what is keeping her from reaching her goal. Her weakness (usually an internal thing; e.g., a bad attitude) is diminishing. She is getting control over it.

Make sure your readers know 'the plan', how the hero is going to defeat what is preventing her from reaching her goal. If there is one crucial element of the plan it helps. For instance, the presence of her mentor.

8. All is lost (75%)

The one thing that absolutely can't fail for the plan to work does fail. All hope is lost. The hero will never be able to ....  You get the idea. I think the movie The Firm, with Tom Cruise, did this brilliantly.

But, wait, all hope is not lost. It's an incredible long-shot. It's insane, really, to even consider it, especially given that the hero failed at the midpoint. But maybe, just maybe, if the hero does [insert deed], there's a chance the plan can still work.

9. Final Attack 

It is essential that the hero act immediately. It is now much harder for the hero to succeed than it was at the mid-point and the stakes are much higher.

Something spectacularly improbable yet plausible, happens and the hero executes the plan. At the end of this scene she will triumph over whatever was keeping her from attaining her goal. She has worked through the weakness that caused her to fail at the mid-point.

10. Wrap-up

Have the hero say goodbye to her allies and go back to the ordinary world. Show how her ordinary world has been transformed because of her journey (because your hero is, in some ways, a different person).

In my outline I have it that the hero was successful, but they might not be. Also, the hero might not  willingly go back to the ordinary world, perhaps she returns for the sake of someone she left behind, or perhaps she's chased back.

Final Thoughts

Looking over the story structure I just detailed I wonder if a person could use it to write a short story, say one of 1,000 words. Perhaps it would be more suited to a story of 5,000 words (or so). But, who knows? Perhaps I'll try it tonight as a challenge.

I hope you've gotten something from this article, even if it has only highlighted the problem, how difficult it is to squeeze all that story goodness into the tiny vessel of a short story.

If any of you would like to share your short story structures I would LOVE to see them.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. 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 want to recommend "Story Structure: The Key to Successful Fiction" by William Bernhardt. From the blurb: "Story structure is one of the most important concepts for a writer to understand—and ironically, one of the least frequently taught. In this book, New York Times-bestselling author William Bernhardt explains the elements that make stories work, using examples spanning from Gilgamesh to The Hunger Games."

Other articles you might like:

- Before You Start Writing Test Your Characters: Are They Strong Enough?
- Dean Wesley Smith's Advice To Indie Authors For 2013: How To Sell Fiction
- Robert Sawyer Says: Don't Worry About What's Popular, Write What You Love

Photo credit: "Angels in fury" by Jsome1 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.