On Writing Fiction and Short Stories
On Writing Fiction and Short Stories
I’ve been asked several times to publish a Hub on how to write a short story, but since I’m simply not qualified to teach writers, all I can do is tell you how I go about it:
1) I study the authors I admire and enjoy reading, from the classics to people like Stephen King and Louis L’Amour. I don’t try to copy them, but I do help myself to techniques I like.
2) I’ve learned the importance of an opening sentence, because it’s often the difference between someone reading you, and someone ignoring your story. For instance, consider the opening line of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”:
“Marley was dead, to begin with.”
OK, just six short words, but the reader automatically wants to know who in the world Marley is, and why the heck we should care that he’s dead. Dickens hooked his readers immediately with that line, and is still hooking them nearly two hundred years later. If he had begun with, “It was a cold, and dreary winter night’, probably only those who had nothing else to read would have kept on reading.
3) I look at writing as an art, and just like an artist, I try to show my reader the story, rather than tell the story (yes, I know it's a cliché). In other words, I try to paint them a word picture. For instance, look at two different approaches for setting the same scene:
It was early morning, and Dave Wilson was sitting on his front porch listening to the ranch animals stirring. In the kitchen, Martha Wilson was cooking breakfast.
The leaves of giant cottonwoods filtered the early morning sun, dappling it softly across the dust of the ranch yard. Dave Wilson was enjoying the coolness of dawn, sitting quietly on the front porch. Somewhere, a rooster crowed a greeting to the new day, and a calf bawled for his mother. The familiar morning aroma of bacon and coffee drifted through the front door, informing Dave that Martha was up and about in the kitchen.
The same scene, but while the first version told you what was happening, the second showed you what was happening.
4) I’ve found that my story ideas are often inspired by something I see or hear at the most inopportune times, and I know from sad experience that if I don’t write it down ASAP, I’m likely to forget what it was. ‘The Inheritance’ was inspired while watching a movie, and if you’ve read the story, you also know what movie it was.
(Of course, pausing a movie while we make notes will necessarily irritate our spouses, but that's the price we authors must pay.)
Some stories come from random inspirations, and some come from personal experience, but they all depend on personal knowledge. I only write what I know, which of course, is another cliché.
I always have the entire story firmly in mind before I start, so that my characters are well defined and the sequence of events make sense. Some writers prefer to outline, but I usually don’t for short stories.
I also sometimes envision the conclusion first and then write a story around it. But above all, I avoid the unnecessary detours, diversions, and dead ends that some writers employ, because that would leave my reader rightfully wondering why in the world I did that. I like relentless plots that grab you and won’t let go. So do most other readers.
5) One of the most frequent comments I get are how real my characters seem to be, because, they say, I take such pains in their descriptions. The fact is, in most cases I hardly describe my characters at all! I simply point my readers in the right direction and let them decide whether the characters are handsome, beautiful, tall, fat, skinny, homely, whatever.
I never overwhelm my reader with details unless they are necessary to the story. I let the reader picture the details. For instance, if I simply describe a Sheriff as having a shock of gray hair my readers will automatically envision an older man wearing a hat and badge with a worn face wrinkled by time and perhaps a bit stooped. They then think I did a marvelous job of describing him. (I will probably regret revealing that!)
Many otherwise great stories are spoiled by far too much information. I never make my poor reader plod through an intricate description of what someone looks like or what she’s wearing unless it’s an absolutely necessary part of the plot.
6) To my way of thinking, the best way to develop my characters is through dialogue. For instance, my character Gimpy Wilson was described as having a bad leg and looking older than he was. That was basically it for his physical description. But his real development and personality came out in his dialogue as a grumpy, cantankerous jailor with a ferocious temper, but who also had a very courageous and valiant side he tried to keep hidden.
With dialogue, we can create anyone we please, and often with just a line or two.
7) I like a great finish, and as those of you who've been kind enough to read me know, I often lead readers astray so I can sting you with a twist conclusion. However, most good stories don’t do that. They simply wind it all up neatly and bid you goodbye. A well written story should not leave a reader hanging on loose ends, so a good conclusion is as necessary as a good first paragraph.
I hope that gives those of you who asked me to do this some ideas. And if you comment on this, you are welcome to add ideas of your own. Thank you for reading.