18 July 2012

The Plot Quickens
Learn from the masters

Ali Smith compares the short story to a stone thrown into a pond "if you throw a stone into the water, you see concentric circles.  You know that something has been changed or moved and in a movement it's going to be gone'"

Suggestions include getting ideas, writing about what you know, writing autobiographically and then letting your imagination take over:
  • Think about incidents in your life - or the lives of people you know - and change the reality; what if this had happened, instead of that?
  • Were you , or was someone you know, given a piece of advice in the past that has affected, directed or blighted life since?  If you speculate on the motives of the adviser, or the outcome had the advice been followed/ignored, can you come up with a story?
  • Newspapers are a good source of ideas.  The 'news in brief' section often reports on strange and curious events - and what about the small ads? 'For sale - Wedding Dress. Never worn'.  Can you be original and get away from the obvious of the owner being dumped at the alter or a tragic death?
  • Look at photographs in the press and in the weekend colour supplements, and turn around that old saying 'a picture is worth a thousand words' by writing those words.  Look at the story inspired by Vermeer's painting The Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  • As you travel - by bus, train or plane - observe the greetings and farewells; the lone traveller with her heavy suitcase; listen to fragments of conversation and let your imagination fly.

The Essentials

Once you have a storyline, write it down in summary form and start to plan. In a short story you need five things: the characters, the setting, when it happens, who is telling it and, most importantly of all, the plot.

First, the characters: A short story can be defined as a turning point in a fictional person's life, and it differs from a novel where the characters can develop slowly over many chapters.  Here, they must spring to life in a few lines.  You may need to keep physical descriptions brief, but it's effective to let them reveal themselves through their actions rather than make direct statements about them, "When James saw people shaking tins for charity collections he always crossed the road,", gives us a better understanding of James than "He was mean".
Teachers of creative writing urge their students to "show, don't tell", for showing what's happening through the actions and reactions of your characters creates pace and movement. 
Dialogue is also very effective in bringing people to life, but bear in mind that it must add to the story of move it on.  If it doesn't serve a purpose, it's redundant.
Here's an important tip about writing dialogue: Don't try to use a variety of 'saying' words unless they add flavour to the incident.  If your character is angry, of course she can shout; two women talking during a church service will almost certainly whisper, but "said" is usually all you need.  The reader absorbs the repetition and it is less intrusive.  Open any modern novel on a page of dialogue and you'll see that often a passage flows smoothly without loss of understanding when very few such words are used.

Where and When

use your setting to provide a background and to create atmosphere. Where does your story take place and when did it happen?  The more you know about this the more confidently you will write.  Initially you could work through the five senses and jot down anything that comes to mind, but in the final piece a few well-chosen words and phrases are more effective than long descriptions of scenery and locations.
Do avoid those over-worked describing words like 'fantastic', stunning' and 'lovely', which actually tell us nothing.  Instead choose adjectives that help your reader to see or share your experience of the scene.  Tune in to the associations of a word and let them work for you: hovel, house, mansion - three ways of naming a dwelling but what different pictures spring to mind!
If the story is set in the past, you will probably feel comfortable telling it in the past tense, although the use of the present can give a feeling of immediacy and involve the reader closely in the action. 
Another decision you'll need to make involves the teller, for every tale has a teller in addition to the author who wrote it, is thee a narrator, someone outside the action who relates the events, or will the story have more impact if it's told in the first person - "I" - which was the method chosen by Edgar Allan Poe for his best-known horror story The Fall of the House of Usher?

Finally, we come to the plot.  The novelist EM Forster said that story is a series of events strung like beads on a string (this happened and then this happened and then ...).  Plot is a chain of caquse-and-effect relationships that constantly create a pattern of unified action and behaviour.  Plot involves the reader in the game of 'Why?'.

Stories that involve a twist in the tale are examples of carefully contrived plots and those written by a master of the genre, Roald Dahl, are both intriguing and amusing.  How easily we smile with Mary Maloney as the police tuck into the leg of lamb with which she killed her unfaithful husband in Lamb to the Slaughter!  There's a market for twist stories and if you lucky enough to have that kind of mind, it's worth developing it.

Beginnings and Endings

A short story needs a lively opening, something that captures the reader's attention and makes them read on, it doesn't have to be dramatic, but it does need to start moving forward immediately, giving the background that leads to the climax or turning point in the story.  Sometimes stories start just before the big scene and then unravel at a more leisurely pace.

Ruth Rendell, queen of crime writers, lures us into her terrifying tale An Outside Interest with this chilling confession: "Frightening people used to be a hobby of mind.  Perhaps I should rather say an obsession and not people but, specifically, women.  Making others afraid is enjoyable ...".  It ends with the words: "Her rescuer, her murderer.  Then what was I?" leaving us to decide on the extent of the man's guilt.
Open endings invite us to speculate, and not all readers will reach the same conclusion.  They can add subtlety to your writing, reminding us how unfathomable human nature can be, but you can't just stop becuase you've run out of ideas.  The ending must be carefully paced.
The reader should sense that the narrative is winding down and not feel cheated by a sudden halt.
The most over-worked ending of all is " ... and then I woke up and it had all been a dream".  To teachers of creative writing this signifies an unplanned story, one that ran away with the writer who ran out of time or words, or simply never thought the plot through to the end. Don't use it!
A student once reminded me that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ends in just such a way, and of course 100 years on it remains a universal favourite. But my defence is that children's books are the exception that proves the rule.


Look upon the title as a label that sums up the theme of the story without giving away the ending.  If your story is published you might find that the title has been changed, so don't spend too long agonising over it.  Susan Hill sometimes uses the name of her central character as a title - Ossie and Missy - in her collection A Bit of Singing and Dancing.
Once you've finished your story, put it aside for a few days and then read it with a critical eye.  Tighten up the language, pare it down, make every word earn its place.  Does your story, like Ali Smith's stone create a circle of ripples?  Has something changed or moved? Will the memory of it linger in the mind of the reader once she's put it down?  If it does, you've written a successful short story - possibly a winner!

Further info:
Creating a Twist in the Tale (ISBN 1-85703-558-5)
Creative Writing (ISBN 1-84528-101-2)
Writing Short Stories (ISBN 0-415-30387-7)
Website of the National Associaiton of Writers' Groups (www.nawg.co.uk)
and another website: www.theshortstory.org.uk.

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