Previously, for the hundred-word story, we looked at action, reaction and change as key elements, and we looked at showing scenes as opposed to telling what’s happening. We also touched on the subject of crafting, and how to focus on specific details rather than generics. All of this we’ll need to write our thousand-word story. What I’d like to focus on this time are three other key elements that I’m sure you know: beginning, middle and end. You’ll hopefully agree that every complete story needs all three. In fact creating stories with a beginning, a middle and an end is so natural to us that we do it without thinking. So why am I spending my time writing about it? Because I believe that looking at the technical part of these elements can help us discover why we have the challenges we often have when producing them.
Let’s start at the beginning. As you know from the previous blog post, I like to start my stories with a scene of action, and with action I don’t necessarily mean explosives and gunfights but only that something is going on as we enter into the story. I would have no problem opening a story like this:
Again he lifted the pint and slugged down what remained in the glass, then he nodded to the bartender for a new one…
We can also begin with dialogue:
“Hey, bring another one of these, will you?” He eyed the bartender and lifted the empty pint glass…
When we begin a story with a scene, we should be aware that we will need to describe more that is required later on. We start with scenes because it immediately engages the reader, but if we start with twenty lines of dialogue and the reader has no idea who’s talking or the setting surrounding them, she’ll spend too much energy thinking about it and feel frustrated instead of submerged. The alternative to starting with a scene is of course to begin with a recount of what has been going on up till now:
James had had the worst day of his life. It had started even before he woke up with one of those falling dreams. He should have known then that nothing good was coming. When he got out of bed it was only to discover that the power was out again, and the milk in the fridge was already spoiled…
There’s nothing wrong with an opening like this, as long as the writer doesn’t get caught up in the recounting and continues for too long. Remember we all read books to experience something different, not to be told about it.
So far so good. We’ve got the story started, now we need to give it a body. Since we have a lot more words to play around with this time, we’ll need more scenes, and in between the scenes, we’ll need to do some telling. Did you read that right? Yes. Having read this far, you might come away with the sense that you should show, show and show and never tell. This is not my point. Telling has an important role every story. Maybe we could make a whole short story, or even a novel showing everything, but we would risk exhausting our reader. The natural rhythm of a story is scene, telling, scene, telling and so forth. In the scenes, we show the important actions and reactions, in the telling parts, we move in time or space and recount the less important aspects of the story. Let me show you what I mean:
“You can’t be serious. You’re not leaving,” Joan said and took a step back.
John swallowed. “I am.”
“But why? I mean, we’re happy. Aren’t we?” She held her breath, biting her lip. She couldn’t have been that wrong for all these years.
John hadn’t moved from his spot in the middle of the living room, as if his gray striped socks had grown roots and planted themselves in the thick rug. “I…” he started but nothing more came.
Joan approached him, put her hands on his chest, the chest they’d laid on for the last fifteen years, the chest she knew better than her own. “You have to tell me why. Is it another woman?”
John shook his head. “I can’t do this, Joan.” His arms hang limp along his body, dragging his shoulders slightly forward and down in defeat.
“You’re going to leave me without a word, not telling me why?” She felt the change inside herself, all the despair turning to cold anger. If he wouldn’t even talk to her… “The door’s right there.” She pointed toward it, then crossed her arms.
John swallowed again. There was something in his eyes, something soft, almost pleading, but maybe she imagined it. He nodded, grabbed his coat, put on his loafers and walked out the door.
For two weeks, Joan did nothing. She didn’t go to work, she didn’t shop, she didn’t even go to bed. How could she ever go back to the bedroom, their bedroom, without him? She sat on the couch, lay on couch, moved to the kitchen when hunger got the better of her, but lost her appetite the moment she opened the fridge. In fourteen days, she lost seven pounds. On the fifteenth day, the doorbell rang, and it wouldn’t stop ringing…
In the above, we start out with a scene: a husband leaving his wife. This is a very important moment in the story, which is why we’re showing it. But as soon as he’s out the door, there’s a shift to telling, because the next two weeks aren’t as important. If I felt those weeks were a little important, too, I could have created a small scene, for instance one where Joan goes to the kitchen, and we follow her closely as she opens the fridge only to get sick. The telling part of the story ends with the doorbell ringing. Here we’re preparing the reader to step into another scene.
Do we always need to tell between scenes? No. Actually a common mistake when you start out writing (yes, it’s one of the many mistakes that has cost me rewrites) is that you don’t feel comfortable letting go of your characters. You feel you have to tell the reader every step of the way. And believe me, if you then add that you should show everything instead of telling it, you’ll have yourself a very very long story. In the text above, we needed to know that Joan broke down when her husband left her, but often we don’t need to be helped from scene to scene. The scene change can be indicated by a simple line change. Like this:
Tommy threw a brick as hard as he could and the shattering of a window came instantly, then he threw another and another. “I hate you,” he screamed, “I hope you fucking burn in hell.”
Lights inside the house came on, but Tommy didn’t care, he picked up the last brick and hurled it toward the big living room window. It shattered with a deafening noise, drowning out his screams. He drew in a breath and dried his eyes, searching for her in the big windowless room. Mr. Robson and his wife stood clutching each other behind the big beige couch, Tommy could even see tears streaming down Mrs. Robson’s cheeks and her big frightened eyes asking why this was happening. He turned his back to them, feeling his cheeks heat up. Then he ran. Fuck them, they had it coming, too.
A pounding noise woke him up. The door, someone was pounding on the door. Shaking his head, he searched for his phone. What time was it? Four in the morning. Who the hell was knocking at four in the morning? The pounding became even louder, more insistent…
Of course I could have chosen to tell you that Tommy came home and passed out on his bed, but in this case, it wasn’t important enough to mention. So I let go of my character for a couple of hours.
The last thing I’d like to mention in this post is the ending. Often we meet two problems when ending a story. The first one is that we don’t really know how to end it. Lots and lots of writers have unfinished stories, even manuscripts in their drawers, because the right ending just haven’t showed up yet. We had this really good opening, this great idea for a story, but for some reason it just ran into the sand.
The other challenge we run into is that the story evolve as we write it. It’s a funny thing; when thoughts reach the paper (or the screen), they often look different from what they did in our mind and takes unexpected turns. Now the ending we had planned doesn’t quite fit anymore, but it was such a brilliant ending, it feels a shame not to use it. If we choose to use it anyway, it can leave us with a story that seems to run away, and as readers, we have a tendency to be disappointed if the ending doesn’t deliver the answers (or questions) the story has been leading up to.
In both cases what has often gone wrong is the crafting part of the story. We simply haven’t thought enough about what story we’re telling, at least we’re not done with the process. In a thousand-word story, literally every word counts. Especially the beginning and the end. If they match each other, the reader will turn the last page with a feeling that he has read a really thought through story. A little trick is to open and close with the same theme. If you opened with a comment on the weather, close with a comment on the weather. If you opened with a question, end with an unexpected answer, or another question. But be careful, if you don’t craft it right, it might seem contrived instead of brilliant. It needs to be in sync with the whole story. Generally endings need more work than beginnings and middles because it’s where the story truly comes together, and what we leave the reader with. If you’re not satisfied with your ending, look through the story again and find out whether you’re really telling the story you want to tell.
These are some of the good-to-know basic elements before you start out writing. There are countless others. Thick books are written about the craft of writing. If you’d like to read more, I highly recommend “Writing Fiction – A guide to the narrative craft.” by Janet Burroway. For other good books on the craft, visit Humber School for Writers webpage, they have a list of recommendations.
Oh, and yes, I promised to write about contests for short stories as we go along. I recommend the Glimmer Train as an excellent page to get to know. They have several contests throughout the year with different word counts and different prizes. If you really want to find lots of competitions I can recommend “The Writer’s Market.” It’s a book (though you can buy an online edition too, which is constantly updated). In it are listed more than a hundred competitions and just as many magazines that accept short stories and pays for them. You can also subscribe to the Master’s Review online which sends out lists of contests every month.
In my next blog post I’d like to turn to a slightly different subject, the subject of telling stories. If you’ve always dreamed of being one of those parents or aunts or grandpas who’ve just made up their own stories to tell the kids before bedtime, keep an eye out for my next post.