Showing posts with label the structure of short stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the structure of short stories. Show all posts

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

Saturday, December 15

The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version

The Structure Of Short Stories: Stripping Your Story Down To Its Bones

This post is part two of my series on the structure of short stories. To read the first post, click here: The Structure Of Short Stories.

The Chicken And The Egg

One thing I should have said a few words about yesterday was how you can establish elements like setting (time, place, mood, and so on), who your characters are, what your protagonist's major conflict is, and all the rest of it, if you don't already have a good grasp of your story idea.

The fact is a lot of times we work our way into a short story through a bootstrapping process. Perhaps you have an initial idea--a critter with paranormal abilities, a pirate (arg!), two people who fall in love. Chances are, you'll have some an idea when you sit down what you want to do. Go with it. Brainstorm.

Here are some resources that might help generate ideas, or shape the ones you have:

Writing Prompts

Writing prompts can help defeat writer's block, but they're also great for generating ideas. There are many sites on the web with writing prompts, but here are two I like:

- Writing prompts
- CanTeach: Writing prompts

Seventh Sanctum

Seventh Sanctum has all sorts of generators. You can generate names, settings, even story ideas! The next time you're stuck for an idea, go browse.

The Essential Idea

If you don't have all the elements of your short story yet that's fine, but lets try and distill those you do have and, perhaps, get a few more along the way. You can make sure you're starting off on the right foot. (This is also a great exercise for after you've finished your story to make sure all the essentials are in place.)

Nathan Bransford has a terrific blog. The post I come back to the most is Nathan's Query Letter Mad Lib in which he gives the forumla for how to summarize your novel in one sentence. But to condense an entire story down to one sentence is challenging! I propose to first condense our story ideas into 5 sentences and then, from there, we can hone it even farther.

Sound like a plan? Great! Let's get started.

A 5 Sentence Story Description

Nathan Bransford very generously posted the query he used to shop around his first book: Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow. (Nathan used to be an agent for Curtis Brown Ltd.)

Let's dissect Nathan's description of his novel and see if we can't make a template out of it:

1. The ordinary world

"Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home."

[Protagonists name] has been [protagonists outer challenge] ever since [protagonist's wound]. 

2. Setting and characters introduced

"He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled."

He never would have survived without [friend1 description] [friend1 name], even if he is [friend1 fault], and his [friend2 description] [friend2 name], who is [friend2 fault]. 

3. Entering the special world

"But when the trio meets a mysterious man in silver one night they trade a corn dog for his sassy spaceship and blast off into the great unknown."

But when the trio meets [threshold guardian description] they [cross the threshold] and [exciting verb for "enter"] [the special world]. 

4. It all falls apart

"That is, until they break the universe in a giant space kapow and a nefarious space buccaneer named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath."

That is, until [the awful thing that happened as a result of protagonist's actions] and [antagonist description] named [antagonist name] does [some hideous deed to protagonist that hurts him and will definitely prevent him from reaching his external goal]. 

5. The challenge

"The friends have to work together to make it back to their little street where the houses look the same, even as Earth seems farther and farther away." 

The [protagonist] has to work [deed] to [achieve their external goal and return to the ordinary world].

Example: The Firm

1. Ordinary world

Mitch McDeer worked hard to get top grades at Harvard Law School because he never wanted to be poor again.

2. Characters and setting

He would never have succeeded without the love and support of his beautiful wife Abby who, more than anything, wants Mitch to stop running and accept who he is, and to accept his brother, even though his family is a reminder of what Mitch is running from: the shame of growing up in a trailer park, poor, raised by a mother who didn't really care about him.

3. Entering the special world 

When the lawyers from Bendini, Lambert & Locke offer Mitch more money than any other law firm it is a dream come true and he and Abby move into their brand new house, courtesy of the firm.

4. It all falls apart

Everything is great until Mitch learns about the secret files and discovers Bendini, Lambert & Locke is just a front for organized crime. As the FBI closes in on Mitch, threatening him with prison, the mob gets suspicious.

5. The challenge for the protagonist

Mitch has to rely on his wits to save himself and Abby. But is he up to the challenge?

One Sentence Summary

"A young lawyer joins a prestigous law firm only to discover that it has a sinister dark side. (The Firm, IMDB)"

Let's see if we can't expand on that summary of The Firm using Nathan's formula:
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal]. (Query Letter Mad Lib)
Here's my attempt:
Mitch McDeere is a smart, motivated, young lawyer living in Boston. But when he gets a job with a group of crooked lawyers, Mitch must thread his way between the dual threats of the FBI and the mob in order to preserve both his life and his law degree.
What I find interesting is that certain points had to fall by the wayside. Here we are forced to only focus on what is of primary importance for the plot: Mitch, the threat posed by the mob and the threat posed by the FBI.

Mitch's wife, Abby, was a large part of the plot, but in the one (okay TWO!) sentence summary she falls by the wayside.

Being ruthless like this and cutting away until you're left with the essential bits can help you focus, right from the beginning, on what is critical to your story. It can help make it strong and easier and quicker to write.

I think that's it for now. In the next post in this series--which probably won't be tomorrow, I'll give you folks a break!--I'll talk about Dan Well's 7-Point system.

(By the way if you haven't read Ben Guilfoy's article on how to write a serial you're missing out! I think serials are the next big thing and Ben's been writing them for years. He explains his system clearly and with humor. Truly, a must read.)

 Till tomorrow, happy writing!

Other articles you might like:

- The Structure Of Short Stories
- Where Ideas Come From And The Conspiracy Against Nothingness
- Roleplaying Games And Writing, Does The One Help The Other?

Photo credit: "Sunburst" by John-Morgan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.