31 January 2010

Short Story - or Study?

When beginner writers send in short fiction for constructive feedback they can be surprised to learn that they haven't written a short story but a study - of a person or a memory, of a place or a thing. There is usually masses of description, using words and in terms the cipher character would never use in real life. Dialogue might illuminate a flaw, or virtue, but this flaw, or virtue, is never put to the test; it's merely stated as a given as if that, in itself, is a revelation worth the reading. 

In some circles it might be, but not in markets looking for short fiction. Short fiction has to have a point, a reason for existing, and it needs to have a structure that moves it along to its finale. Think of this as the bones on which to hang the flesh:
  • Introduce the focus character and the scene
  • Show that character's problem
  • Add a complication
  • Which brings about a crisis
  • Have the character work out a resolution
  • Wrap up the story quickly so as to
  • Elicit a reader's reaction
The structure outlined above is not a blueprint, but a very basic, chronological, skeleton, and a little explanation wouldn't go amiss.

The first line does not read Set the scene; introduce the focus character. We live in a world of 24 hour news bulletins, with pictures being beamed from all parts of the globe, offering instant snapshots of life in all its diverse forms. Given a few clues, readers will happily paint in the colours of the background as they go. Characters should take priority, because your readers are people. Forget this at your peril.

Show that character's problem. No matter how many characters there are in a short story, though at such an early stage I wouldn’t suggest juggling with more than three, there is always a focus character. If that character doesn’t have a problem there is no story. Although we might strive to live happy and fruitful lives, reading about one is boring.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes but can be generalised into two categories: external and internal. An external problem can be a pile of quick-drying cement setting on the lounge carpet; I’ll leave you to work out how it got there. An internal problem can be the focus character's vanity, or selfishness, or extravagance - often a trait illuminated in a study - providing a 'ripe' situation.

The complication is usually external; if you like, a trick of fate or an unrecognised possibility. It doesn’t have to be exotic; it can be quite mundane. What it must do is bring about a naturally evolved crisis.

For the focus character the crisis is the turning point. The character may cast around for a heaven-sent solution, but none must be to hand. There should be no guardian angel perched in a tree, and no waking up to find it was all a dream. Through a change in the character's own thoughts or actions a resolution will be presented that should perceptively alter that character, perhaps for life.

After the resolution the story needs to be wrapped up as fast as possible. This is sometimes called the anti-climax, and often this element is omitted altogether leaving readers to complete the sequence of events to their own mental satisfaction. If readers have empathised with the character during the conveying of the story those readers will experience an emotional reaction - the ahh, err, ooh, ugh, factor. If readers haven't empathised with the character the story will be put aside with mutterings along the lines of ‘...load of old tripe’, probably not the emotional reaction the writer was looking for.

A good exercise is to take a recently published short story you have enjoyed reading and mark the structure. Half an hour and a few coloured pens are all you need to realise how difficult this can be. If you've chosen a story you enjoy it will invariably have been well written; well written because the writer not only knows what flesh is required on the bones, but what clothing and perfume is best suited to package, and therefore disguise, the whole. There may be more than a single complication or a single crisis, and the elements may not be in as neat an order as set out above.

A good writer uses sleight of hand with the same dexterity as a magician with a pack of playing cards. And the only true way to gain that dexterity is to practise.

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