Writing the Short Story - My Approach
The Short Story
Definition of the Short Story
A short story is a brief work of literature, usually written in narrative prose… At its most prototypical the short story features a small cast of named characters, and focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a "single effect" or mood… (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).
Most definitions agree that a short story is piece of prose fiction ranging from 1,000 to 20,000 words focusing on a single plot, one central theme and one main character who should, preferably, be congenial and true to life.
Prerequisites for Writing the Short Story
I believe that a good command of language and a good understanding of the elements of the short story are necessary prerequisites to writing the short story. My hubs – An approach to Understanding and Writing the Short Story – Tutorials 2 and 3 look closely at the elements of the short story. Some degree of creativity would also be useful for the short story calls for a certain level of craftsmanship.
There is already a plethora of literature on how to write the short story so I will not dwell on this. My objective here is to show that once you have a good grasp of the above mentioned prerequisites, it is left to you to apply your skill and creativity in novel and original ways to write stories that are interesting and engaging. It is about using a basic platform and applying your creativity to produce good stories in your own style and stamped with your unmistakable signature.
What to Write About
Different things work for different people. At school students are given as stimulus, a topic/title, picture or situation. I have seen some brilliant stories written by students using any of the three stimuli. But what about people like you and me who have to find our own stimuli? I find it difficult to write on a topic or picture. I write best in response to incidents or situations which affect people around me. These provoke a response in me which propels me to write. It does not have to be a major or very significant incident; in fact, it can be something seemingly unimportant, but which affected someone around me and triggered a response in me. My favorite characters are women, young persons and children, maybe because I am more easily touched by their vulnerability.
Crafting the Story
My crafting of the story depends really on the incident or situation which triggered my writing impulse and my main character emerges naturally out of that specific situation. To put it another way, the incident/situation dictates the personality of my main character. Likewise, my plot is based on that incident/situation so essentially, I have the basic plot to start with and from there my craftsmanship kicks in. I create fiction out of something real.
Stylistic Devices Frequently Used in Crafting the Story
- Narrative - Along with exposition, argumentation, and description, narration, broadly defined, is one of four rhetorical modes of discourse. More narrowly defined, it is the fiction-writing mode whereby the narrator communicates directly to the reader (Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia).
Narrative is therefore the key device by which the story writer communicates with the reader. However, within narrative a number of other techniques may be used. Some common ones include dialogue, dialect, scenarios, flashback, epiphany and foreshadowing. These enhance the short story by adding movement, interest and excitement to it. Below are definitions and some examples of these techniques.
- Dialogue - A literary and theatrical form consisting of a written or spoken conversational exchange between two or more people (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).
I find dialogue a very useful characterization tool in that it brings out personality traits in the speakers in a way that is economical and concise. In fact, dialogue can capture in a few lines what would be expressed in pages and pages of description. It also helps move the action along improving the flow of the story thus making it more pleasant and enjoyable.
- Dialect – The language used by the people of a specific area, class, district or any other group of people. The term dialect involves the spelling, sounds, grammar and pronunciation used by a particular group of people and it distinguishes them from other people around them. Dialect is a very powerful and common way of characterization, which elaborates the geographic and social background of any character (literarydevices.net).
I absolutely love this device! I like my characters to open their mouths and show who they are, where they come from and what they stand for. In addition, I believe that it adds an element of flavor and interest to the story that could not have been achieved merely through description. I usually add bracketed translations of expressions which might pose some difficulty for readers.
Example 1 - Dialogue and Dialect
- From the Story, ‘A Day at the Office’ in the book Four Strong Women by Joyette H Fabien
“You’re going to tell me what’s bothering you, Bernie?” She asked patiently after what appeared to be a long moment of silence.
“Mrs B, I will leave. I cannot take it anymore!” Bernie burst out, her words coming in a rush.
“Leave? Are you and your guy having problems? Sorry, I don’t remember his name. Oh dear, I’m so sorry.”
“No! No! It’s not that! Things are great with Jin and me. It’s here I’m talking about. I will leave the job! I cannot stay in that job! My supervisor always on my case, she does n’t give me a chance. I cannot get to organize my work; she forever breathing down my neck to do this now, do that now, do this so, do that so. She making me feel like I retarded or something. Is best I leave the work for her and she can do it how she want!” Her tears were flowing freely now.
“Bernie…Bernie,” Maria chided gently. “You need to stop crying! Don’t get worked up over this. Let’s discuss this practically. You can’t get rid of any problem by getting all worked up over it. You can’t run away from every difficult situation you encounter either. We will find a way to deal with this. I know it’s easier said than done, but believe me; no mountain is ever as high as it appears.
- Scenario - A series of events that is projected to occur. When you run through all of the possible outcomes of a conversation in your head, this is an example of a situation where you run through all possible scenarios (YourDictionary definition and usage example).
I see scenarios as an effective means of getting a character to illustrate a point or as a means of obtaining clarity and seeing the way forward with respect to a given situation. It can also be an effective way for a character to express his/her fears or misgivings about a particular situation in the future.
Example 2 - Scenario
- From the Story, Free at Last in the book Motherless Children and Other Stories by Joyette H Fabien
What had, on that fateful day so many years ago, registered only as an annoyance had become a cancer gnawing away slowly at her insides? Somehow, the seeds of doubt had found their way into Sasha’s mind after she had left Dr. Gray’s office. As she drove home alone with her thoughts, the doubts had slowly transformed into fear. Suppose there was something wrong? Suppose she was, in fact, HIV positive? She remembered that only the year before her husband fell ill he had been in Guyana for six months on a training program. Suppose he had contracted the virus there and had passed it on to her? True he had died of cancer, but certain types of cancer were opportunistic and it was known that HIV positive people were prone to opportunistic infections.
Cold fingers clutched at her heart. She could not die now; God could not let her die. Who would look after her kids? Mama was moving on in age. Grandpa was an old man now. Suppose the boys had to be separated? It would kill them. Shem and Sheron were really close to each other; like peas in a pod. It just was not fair. She had never been promiscuous. What about all those girls who were sleeping around since high school? No, it just could not be.
- Flashback - A literary device wherein the author depicts the occurrence of specific events to the reader, which have taken place before the present time ... (literary-devices.com).
Flashback is a useful means of providing background information or context important to the readers understanding of the current events of the narrative. It also provides access to the character’s motivation thus allowing the reader to be more empathetic and less judgmental. Reminiscences and dreams are very useful methods of flashback.
I find this a most useful technique. For sequencing in particular, I prefer to begin a story at the particular point in the main character’s life to which the story is most relevant and to move backward and forward in time as required as the story progresses. Flashbacks become very useful in going backward in time.
Example 3 - Flashback
- From the Story, Woman Alone in the book Four Strong Women by Joyette H Fabien
Two hours later, Steffie lay in bed still unable to fall asleep. Her brother had tried to reassure her that it was probably just a prank. All the same, he had advised her to ensure that all the doors were securely locked and to be sure to report the matter to the police in the morning. It was not fear that now kept her awake. It was memories going back some twenty odd years when her daughter, Josie who was only five years old was being stalked by a mysterious caller.
The calls had started coming a few days after Steffie’s husband James, an Extension Officer in the Division of Agriculture, had left for Belize on a three months training course. Their little daughter Josie had just entered primary school and it broke his heart to part from the two most precious ladies in his life. However, from a practical perspective they all agreed that three months would fly by and that in no time at all he would be home again. Steffie had assured him that she could cope in his absence and that Josie would be no problem at all particularly since she was quite happy with Mary, her babysitter for the past four years. Josie had also assured her daddy that she was a big girl and that she would speak to him on the phone every day.
The first few weeks had passed smoothly enough. Thank God for email and Skype otherwise the telephone bill would have been enormous. Then one morning, Mary had called Steffie at work to say that an unfamiliar male person had called and asked if Josie had left for school already. The caller had refused to identify himself and had hung up when Mary had insisted. The concern in Mary’s voice sparked a similar response in Steffie. They discussed the matter, but could make nothing of it. Josie was only five years old. What would a strange adult male be calling her about?
- Epiphany - The point in a work of literature where a character has a sudden insight or realization that changes his or her understanding (www.chegg.com).
Although mostly used to bring about changes in the attitude and behaviour of the main character, epiphanies can also apply to the reader when an external stimulus or perhaps an internal reflection is used to provide a sudden new perspective or insight for the reader which clarifies a problem and changes his/her interpretation of the story. Epiphanies therefore bring about changes in the previously anticipated outcome of events whether through the changed attitude of the character or the altered perceptions of the reader.
Example 4 - Epiphany
Rrrring... Ryan sat up with a jerk. He had fallen asleep in the armchair in his living room. He glanced at his watch. It was eleven p.m. He gave the phone a venomous look. Who could be calling at that hour of the night? He wasn’t in the mood for any type of socialising. Reluctantly he picked up the receiver.
“Ryan, is that you? Ryan? I’ve been trying to reach you all evening.”
“Yes,” he replied coldly. Who is it? What do you want?”
“Ryan, it’s about Joanna.” Ryan bolted out of his seat fully alert now.
“Joanna? Joanna? What’s wrong? My God, is something wrong?” He was shouting now.
“She is in the hospital, Ryan. She had an accident....” “What? How? How is she? Tell me! What happened to Joanna? ” His heart contracted with fear.
“She got hit by a truck on her way home from work this afternoon. She is in Intensive Care. They say she suffered head injuries and a broken arm. That’s as far as they have been able to ascertain. I just thought I would let you know. Maybe it would be better if you broke the news to the children yourself.”
Ryan stood numbly, clutching the phone. He was breathing hard as he stood there frozen, listening to his mother-in-law who seemed to be repeating the same words over and over. “She is in Intensive Care.”
“Let her live, dear God. Let her live,” he prayed as he sped towards the hospital. He cursed himself for having let Joanna go, for not trying hard enough to bring her back home, for being the cause of her having to go out to work. He blamed himself for everything. He would do better, he would atone, if only he could be given another chance.
- Foreshadowing - the use of indicative word or phrases and hints that set the stage for a story to unfold and give the reader a hint of something that is going to happen without revealing the story or spoiling the suspense. Foreshadowing is used to suggest an upcoming outcome to the story (Literary-devices.com).
- Dreams are a very good means of foreshadowing future events, but they should be disguised; that is; they should be used in such a way so as not to sell out the rest of the story. I particularly like using dreams. In my culture, dreams are very significant. They are said to have meaning; to point to something good or bad that is about to happen. The older folk are able to interpret dreams and sometimes these interpretations can be the cause of much apprehension or much celebration. For eg. if one dreams of a wedding, it is interpreted as a funeral. It signifies that someone in the family is going to die. If one dreams of a black snake, it means that a female member of the family is in the early stages of pregnancy.
Example 5 - Foreshadowing/Dreams
From the Story, Prisoner Forever in the book Motherless Children and Other Stories by Joyette H Fabien
It was nighttime and Shalyn was walking through the forest at Glo Sho where she used to walk as a child. Suddenly, she felt herself falling, falling. Then it was n’t dark anymore. She was in a field with lots of white lilies and she was making a bouquet, but the flowers kept dropping from her hands. Someone was calling her name, far at first then nearer and nearer. She called out a response and jumped up in bed. She felt strange as though someone was in the room with her. She could feel the heavy unfamiliar presence all around her. Tense with fear she huddled against the wall waiting for she knew not what. Suddenly, the telephone rang breaking the heavy silence and sending a chill of fear down her spine. Her beside clock showed 3:40 am. She picked up the receiver apprehensively. It was Eric, he was barely coherent. She listened in dismay as he broke the news that he had just discovered his wife’s body hanging from the ceiling in the spare room of their home.
Capture your writing ideas on the computer
Writing the Story
I am not sure whether a good writer thinks beforehand of the techniques he/she wishes to use, but I am not as organized as that. When I get my flashes of inspiration I get on the computer as soon as it is convenient to do so and I write down the thoughts as they come. If I am in a doctor’s waiting room, I jot down my thoughts on my ever present notepad and transfer them to the computer when I get home. Sometimes I have something of a portfolio of story drafts; some related, others not. It does not bother me. At some point later I will get back to them and really craft the story.
When I get to the actual crafting of the story, I select from my drafts those which I consider to be related in some way. For e.g. I might have two drafts dealing with young women – one with a domestic problem and one with a work related problem. These could be crafted into one story where there is only one woman who is battling with life, stressed out by problems at home and pressures at the work place and even in her relationship. It is at this point in the story that I begin to see where to make use of the various techniques discussed above.
Beginnings and Endings
I have no problems with beginnings. I already have the stimulus and so I simply place my main character within a setting which is appropriate for the situation which I am writing about and which sets the mood which I would like to capture. I spend a lot more time on endings. I want to ensure that my endings are not predictable, humdrum, unrealistic or plain boring while at the same time flowing naturally out of the story line.
Editing the Story
Once the story is written, I put the first draft away for at least a day before I come back to edit. I find this effective in that when I get back to it, I get fresh ideas to rephrase sentences, make insertions or deletions, improve the sequencing, and expand ideas and so on. I edit several drafts before I am finally satisfied.
Also, if I experience writers block and find myself unable to progress with a story I leave it alone for a few days or even longer. When I get back to it, I start reading from the beginning so that I recapture the flow and without a doubt, new ideas begin to flow and I can continue from where I left off or recraft the original as necessary to fit the new ideas which I am now putting in.
As I stated at the start, this is not a ‘How to Write the Short Story’ hub. It is simply my way of approaching the short story. I hope it can assist you, reader, in writing your own story.
I would be very happy for your feedback. Please use the comment capsules below to provide me with your comments.
- A Guide to Understanding and Writing the Short Story...
This is a three part Tutorial on the Short Story and is intended to provide guidance to students who are preparing for English examinations as well as teachers preparing such students.
- Descriptive Writing - Using the Five Senses
When describing it is important that you engage the reader fully by making him see, hear, feel, taste and/or smell that which you are describing; you should use language which appeals to the senses.
- Tutorial: Dialogue in the Story
Dialogue can be a very effective tool in story writing; it can be used to break the monotony of continuous narrative and is an important element of characterization and setting.