THE SHORT STORY – BASIC STRUCTURE
For many of us writers, our beginnings were, quite naturally, with the short story. Most of us had to write term papers. Remember them? Not exactly what one would call writing for pleasure. I recall one in particular, from high school, where I had to write a story about a hike down the Central California coast, following the path of the missionaries from Morrow Bay south to Santa Barbara. The history teacher gave me a B and only docked me because the timeline was unrealistic. I vaguely remember liking that paper because a good dose of it was bull, mixed in with the research I was forced to do to “fake out” the teacher.
Any other term papers I did, including book reports (a form of a short story, if you stretch things) I don’t remember a thing about. I have vague memories of writing short little stories here and there, but the subjects are lost to the winds of time (how’s that for a metaphor?). In my case, by the time I took writing seriously, I went right into novel-length stories. When I tackled the short story format, I’d already had four or five full length manuscripts under my belt. In that respect, I already had my mojo working for me.
Many of you starting out will want to stick your toe in the water. The way to do that is with the short story. There is less effort involved and less to lose if you miss the boat. If you take your time and structure it right from the get-go, you’re less likely to fail, especially if you have a great idea but need the structure to put it together.
All stories, whether short or long have the same basic format. There’s the beginning, the middle and the end. The difference is that with a short story, you have a lot less real estate to work with. We’re talking between five hundred and five thousand words. For an extreme example, when I lived in Indiana, back in 2001, there was a writing contest in the local newspaper for a fifty-word short story contest. Yeah, that’s right, fifty words. That’s about three or four sentences. I submitted around a dozen stories to that contest but didn’t win. In fact, I never saw the winners. We missed the paper that week. It was rigged! They cheated! They don’t know talent when they see it! Well, at least I didn’t have to pay to enter.
In a novel, you write scenes which give you a chance to leave the reader hanging so that they’ll turn the page to read the next chapter. You don’t have that luxury with a short story. You have to grab the reader’s attention and keep it within one to a dozen pages, and that’s it. You have to grab them in the beginning, keep them in the middle and satisfy them in the end, with a conclusion.
With such short space, that means you have to write tight, keep the narrative short, and keep the point of view (POV) characters to a minimum. Too many POV characters weakens the story and leaves the reader confused. You don’t have enough space to flesh out each personality. It’s best not to have more than one or two POV characters, which applies to novels as well, though with the larger format, there’s more leeway.
Narrative and description must be kept concise. No time to blather about every blade of grass or the color of the lampshade and the shadow of the mailbox. If it’s a key plot point, fine. If you need to set atmosphere, do it quickly with as few words as possible. Don’t let that dominate the story or you won’t have any story left!
Next time we’ll go into more excruciating details about your short story. They’re actually quite fun to write, so don’t get too depressed. If you love writing, you’ll love short stories. They rock!