Writing Course: Elements of Short Story Writing (Part 1)

The elements of short story include:

  • characterisation
  • dialogue
  • point of view
  • setting
  • structure
  • narrative
  • style

 

Creating Believable Characters

Most mainstream short stories are ‘character driven’ rather than ‘plot driven’. For this reason, it is important for fiction writers to develop their characterisation skills.

The best place to start is by reading short stories written by other writers to see how they bring their characters alive on the page. Creating characters who feel ‘real’ to the reader takes skill. The time frame is brief in short stories and there is not enough space for lengthy physical and physiological descriptions. You must learn to develop a technique that builds the character without spending unnecessary time and words in doing so.

Exercise: Write two short pieces, about 100 words each, using first person. Offer different ‘points of view’ of the same person. For example, husband and wife, brother and sister, two friends. This exercise will show you how we perceive ourselves and how another might see us in a completely different light. This is a way of also showing the reader different aspects of your characters and will give your characters more depth.

Knowing Your Characters

You, the writer, need to know your characters extremely well. You need to know everything about them, even if you don’t use everything you know in your stories.

It is best to know what makes your characters do what they do and why they are motivated to act and react the way they do. This knowledge will reflect in your writing. Most serious writers tackle this in the planning stage, prior to writing a single word.

It is useful to complete a character profile for each major character. The information on the sheet may include the following, but feel free to add what you think is important and remove those that are not.

Character’s name
Age
Sex
Physical appearance
Education
Occupation
Marital status
Family
Diction, accent
Relationships
Hobbies
Obsessions
Religious beliefs
Political beliefs
Ambitions
Superstitions
Fears
Prejudices
Strengths
Weaknesses
Pets
Taste in books, music, film
Food likes/dislikes
Allergies
Talents

Remember: If you are writing a real person into your story, you would be wise to disguise the character to avoid libel action being taken against you.

Use of Dialogue

Dialogue is important. It must sound like ‘real’ speech but must not imitate everyday speech at all. The reason for this is that real conversations contains lots of pointless chatter and short stories cannot accommodate anything that does not move the story forward and strengthen the character.

In real life, everything is said. In fiction, everything is condensed.

During dialogue, characters confront each other. This confrontation is a sharing, it is a scene, an event. It is never ideal chatter!

Point of View

Who is telling the story? Whose eyes are we seeing through? This is the point of view. Then we need to decide if the story is best suited to first or third person, although there is also second person (what I tend to write in these posts), but second person is rarely used in short stories.

First Person Subjective Narration is when ‘I’ tells the story.

The advantages of first person is that the telling can be very intimate and brings the reader close to the character. The reader is usually drawn into the story immediately and can often see the irony of situations. They also get to explore the thoughts and feelings of the character, even when the character is wrong in their thinking. First person point of view suits a quirky style of writing.

The disadvantage are that the story can only ‘see’ and ‘hear’ what the character sees and hears. The author cannot show other pieces of information that the reader may need and the reader cannot know what’s in other characters minds except by use of observation and dialogue. For this reason, first person can be limiting. There is also the danger of the story turning into a long complaint, one of self-pity, which may lose the reader’s empathy.

Third Person Limited or Subjective is when ‘he’ or ‘she’ tells the story.

Using third person limited allows the writer to leave the sight of the character to report what’s happening elsewhere. Having said that, the writer is still constrained to the inner thoughts of one character.

The advantages are that the writer can step back a little, which can give more scope. And it is acceptable to do other scenes from the point of view of another character so that the reader understands how the plot is unfolding, even if the characters do not.

The disadvantages is that the reader is not as connected with the characters as with first person. It is also easier for the writer to go off track, and ramble on a bit, and the pace can be a little slower, which means the urgency can be lacking.

Sustained Point of View

It is important for a writer to sustain the point of view they select when they start writing. If not, you will only confuse or distract the reader and that will cause a real danger of losing them. And that may damage your reputation as they may never read your work again.

Go straight to Part 2.

Using the Voice Journal Writing Technique

Originally posted on another site on 5 April 2010.

Further to my post the other day entitled Character Development, Using the Voice Journal Writing Technique I am pleased to say that I find this technique excellent.

This simple technique allowed me to get into the character’s head so completely, that I now have a thorough understanding of why she earned the love of a young man and then lost it. It wasn’t enough for me to know that she must of had qualities that endeared her to him, I had to know what made her turn nasty enough to do the things I’ll make her do in the story. I needed to know what those qualities were and what experiences changed her.

With this in mind, I opened a blank document and started typing. I did not pause to edit and I did not suppress my thoughts. I just let the words appear on the screen before me. The end result is a three page history of a woman that is to be the antagonist. The three pages gives me the answers to my questions – valid answers. I feel as if this character is no longer a drawing on a sheet of paper, but a real person standing before me.

Please meet Lonia Navra from Whispering Caves (this is the first three paragraphs only):

My name is Lonia Navra and my life has been filled with death, longing and outrage. My mother died shortly after I was born, from the birthing sickness, and my father never forgave me for that…or for the fact that I was a girl. One daughter was tolerable, but two was insufferable, especially when there was no longer a wife to produce a boy. By the time I was born, my older sister had already won my father’s love, but I was never to be as lucky.

When I was almost six, my sister died from Butterweed Fever and I’m not sure why that was also blamed on me, but it was. My father hated me wholeheartedly from the day he buried his precious Katryn. By then I had given up trying to win him over as, even at that young age I knew it wouldn’t happen.

Is it wrong to be glad when a parent dies? I don’t think it is a sign of good character, but I beseech you to understand that my father’s hatred of me was not restricted to harsh words. I often received the back of his hand across my face or the sting of a thick leather strap when I displeased him. And it pains me to admit that the torment didn’t stop there, the suffering I was subjected to during the long hours of night has left me terrified of the dark. I could never please him. Never! So, on the day I arrived home from tending the goats to find my father laying dead beneath a fallen tree — his skull cracked open — I couldn’t help but feel gratitude that the man would never again place a hand on me. I was nine summers old at the time.

I needed her to have deep routed reasons for her actions and now I have them. I want the reader to feel sorry for her, understand her misery, but condemn her reaction to what happens in the story. It comes down to morals, upbringing, experiences and knowledge. But in the end, she makes a choice. She can go either way. She can pick right or wrong. She is in control. Can she put bitterness behind her…?

I am so pleased with what has come out of a few hours writing today and I highly recommend that you try this method to give your characters realistic depth.

Character Development, Using the Voice Journal Writing Technique

Originally posted on another site on 4 April 2010.

Deborah Woehr recently wrote a post on Character Development, Using the Voice Journal Writing Technique. The technique is a simple exercise but I feel it would open the doors for the author to see more than they, at first, could imagine.

I haven’t actually tried the technique yet, but I intend to give it a try later today. However, I have found myself thinking about some of the characters in a “journal” way instead of a “profile” way. Already, things about the characters are coming through that I didn’t intend to include, didn’t even consider including in their profile. I believe the reason for this is that when writing a journal type entry on a character, you need access to more information in order to bring them alive on the page. And…isn’t that exactly what all writers need for all their characters?! Of course it is.

Thank you, Deborah, for sharing your experience with your readers; I think you’ve given me a very useful tool. 😀

I’ll let you know how I go.

What would the reader do?

Originally posted on another site on 2 March 2010.

Have you ever read a book and not accepted the character’s actions? Have you ever declared aloud, “That’s stupid, no one would do that.” I have. And I’ve heard other people say it too. But in all honesty, how do you know how you’d really react if confronted with a axe-wielding maniac or if you unexpectedly found yourself in an unknown world. How do you know how you’d truly feel if a stranger snatched your child from your side and took off with him? How do you know what you’d instinctively do if a gun was held at your head. How would you know, unless you experienced it yourself.

Sitting comfortably in your lounge room reading about a character who experiences these things is not the same as facing the situation in real life. Yes, as you read, you might feel your heart quicken and you may even recognise a quiver of fear run up your spine, but that’s as far as it goes. You don’t have to rely on your legs to carry you to safety. You don’t have to hope your scream is loud enough to wake the neighbours. You don’t have to actually fear for your life or make a snap decision. And in that moment of terror, how do you know you’ll be capable of making a snap decision? You can’t know until you are in the situation.

I didn’t accept this until I reacted to the news of my son’s passing. Being such a practical, straight laced, focused person I never thought for a second that I would collapse in a heap on the floor. Yet that’s exactly what I did. I went down into the foetal position and sobbed. If anyone had suggested that I’d do such a thing, I would have smirked and said, “I don’t think so! That’s just not me.” And I would have meant it, but I would have been wrong.

It’s reasonable to say that you don’t think you’d react in the same way as the character, but you cannot say their reaction is totally wrong. Everyone reacts differently and that reaction can change due to their mental status at the time or the emotional investment they have in the situation or past experiences of a similar nature or just from shock. You might view the reaction of a character in a book as silly or stupid, you may even laugh, but if faced with the situation yourself you will soon discover that we don’t always react the way we think we will.

Many years ago, I wrote a rape scene. I have never been raped, but my instincts told me that I wouldn’t necessarily scream. I think I would, however, fight against the violation to the end and I guess I’d keep all my strength for that instead of wasting it on screaming. I hope I’m never in the situation to find out what I really would do. However, several critiquers told me that the scene was not realistic. They felt the lack of screaming flattened the scene and they urged me to do a rewrite. This brought to mind an incident when I was about 15 years old. I was sitting with my parents, watching a movie, when the loudest, most terrifying, scream penetrated our home and announced that someone was in desperate trouble. We rushed outside, as did a lot of our neighbours, to find a young woman running and screaming at the top of her lungs. The man chasing her quickly took off into the shadows, but was caught by police later. Upon seeing us, the woman made a bee line directly to my father and begged him to help her. She later told us that the man was waiting in the bushes near the bus stop and pounced on her as soon as the bus disappeared around the corner. Her wild screams saved her from events I would rather not think about.

Yet whilst I was thinking about the comments I received on my scene, I concluded that it wasn’t wrong. Just because the majority of readers felt they would scream bloody murder, it doesn’t mean I wrote the scene incorrectly. I decided to keep it as it was. Then…several days later I received an email from a critiquer who had read the scene but hadn’t offered her opinion, but she had seen what the others had said to me. She had taken several days to think about it and then she decided that for my sake (and for the sake of the scene) she had to speak up. She had been raped! She told me that reading the scene bought it all back – the emotion, the fear. She said that despite what everyone else thought, the scene (to her) was more realistic than any other she had ever read. Her experience was exactly like my scene. My words had connected with her on the deepest level and, although she was battling with past demons because of what she’d read, she needed me to know that my scene was good, that it didn’t need changing.

She understood that for me it was just a scene, but she opened up to me like I was another rape victim. My words connected us and she shared so much of her experience with me that saying I was grateful just didn’t feel right…or appropriate. I find myself wondering, all these years later, if she realised her emails boosted my confidence as a writer. If I could connect to one person in that way, perhaps I could connect to others…that thought drove me on.

But why have I brought this up today? On the train this morning I sat behind two young women discussing a book they had both finished reading recently. Unfortunately, I don’t know what book they were referring to, but what caught my interest was their conversation on how they felt the main character’s reactions were totally wrong. When I heard one of them say, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t react like that. Would you?”, it made me think of that rape scene. Surely readers don’t expect everyone to react in the exact same way they do. Do they? As a writer, I must chose carefully how I want my characters to react to the situations I put them in. Are they going to do what everyone expects of them, or are they going to react in the way befitting their personality? I will chose the reaction for their personality every time! To do anything else, just wouldn’t seem right.

Difference between Protagonist, Antagonist and Contagonist

During the week, when I normally have little to no internet access, I found myself with a few minutes to spare and someone else’s computer to use. My website was offline (refer to My Domain Name Expired!) and I was feeling rather…cut off from the writing world. I guess this was the reason I typed a random writing related question into the search engine. Anyway, I found myself on a blog that was talking about the protagonist and contagonist in her work in progress.

Contagonist!? Never heard of it. How could that be so after all these years of writing and research? I was a little baffled, but the blog I was reading gave the impression that these two character types were almost the same…but not quite.

My few minutes came to an end, but I had questions rolling around in my mind that needed answers, so I quickly sent a question to a writer’s group I belong to: What is the difference between a protagonist and contagonist?

I was pleased to see, by the replies that came back, that I was not the only person who has never heard of the second one. But someone kindly shared a link that gives excellent examples and I discovered that what I thought to be correct was, in fact, wrong.

All writers should know what a protagonist is. It’s usually the main character of the story (but not always) who is having the problem. We usually pair the protagonist with the antagonist – the person who will do anything in their power to stop the main character solving the problem.

So where does the contagonist fit in? That’s what I wanted to know. It seems that the contagonist is a character who tries to sway the protagonist off course. From what I can gather, the antagonist and contagonist are not usually “in it” together and whilst the antagonist will stop at nothing to get his/her own way, the contagonist is more likely to be someone having a particularly hard day. For me, the only way that I can make sense of having two types of characters that are against the protagonist is to make the contagonist a bit of a mystery where the reader is concerned. Whose side is this person on? Is this person really evil or just having problems of their own? I think the contagonist should be a character who can be swayed over to eventually leave the protagonist alone or to even help them, in the end, once offered a solution to their own troubles.

So now the protagonist has to deal with three things: 1) the problem, 2) the antagonist, and 3) the contagonist. Life is never easy…especially when you’re the main character of a book.

If you want to know more about these terms, go to the relevant post at Writer Unboxed: Antagonist & Contagonist. It gives some great examples.

Did That Character Swear?

I want to thank everyone for your replies to my post Find Strength & Stop Being Nice! You’ve really shown your support and I appreciate that.

Before I go any further I must mention that Mirror Image is fiction based on real life events.

Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I know that my reader is right in some regards and wrong in others. He’s not a writer, but he has a personal interest in the content (as do I) and he’s right when he says I am holding back and not letting my characters feel the emotions. I can only say that I am protecting myself. When I write the most powerful scenes in the manuscript the memory of the real thing still makes me sob openly. I also believe I’m protecting people that might think I’m writing about them, when I’m not. The story is fiction. The characters are fiction. I guess I’m scared that if the book was published, the people who were around when the true life event happened might see themselves in my writing. I have tried to make it obvious that this hasn’t happened, but this is making me hold back and that’s why he (my reader) said I have to forget other people and go for it 100%. He also said that maybe it would help if I wrote this manuscript under a different name. Maybe that would free me! Maybe he’s right, but it’s a bit hard when I have this blog and I’ve been mentioning the manuscript for the last two or so years.

He’s wrong because not everyone swears when placed in the situations I have in this manuscript. I never swore when it happened to me. Never, not even when I truly wanted to murder someone, anyone, and I came close to putting those thoughts into action (thankfully my will power and conscience made me walk away). But, having said that, not everyone is like me and I believe there is one character in my story who would swear. Not often. Not on every page. But when he’s pushed to the limit, he would swear and when it happens I hope the reader can recognise a person stretched to breaking point.

Then, on Friday afternoon on the train, I sat in a carriage with three young men–around 20 years of age–sitting behind me. They reminded me of the character I mentioned in the previous paragraph and I found myself listening to the way they interacted with each other…and making mental notes. I didn’t see them at any time, I just listened to them, but from what I heard (and it was over an hour of conversation) they seemed like decent boys, good kids just living life to the fullest. All of them were making the long trip home from university for the weekend. My character is exactly like them. And I realised that the character is lacking something…youth! He needs to be given stronger aspects of being a youth in this day and age (and not the aspects of being a youth in MY day) and I think that includes swearing. Listening to these young men helped me realise this and reconfirmed what action needs to be taken.

If anyone else has anything to add, please do so. I’m determined to do justice to this manuscript because not just anyone can tell this story. It’s a subject that you have to have lived to really know…and I’ve lived it.

Grab Your Reader With Conflict

by Lea Schizas

No, not conflict of interest…not conflict within your being…but conflict found in a story.

What exactly is conflict in a story? Simple…a problem/obstacle your main character needs to overcome by the end of the story. Think of it as your engine that drives your car forward. Without one your car remains idle, collecting dust in the driveway. Give your car a super booster engine and you’ll be coasting the streets with no worries. Well, until the police stop you.

In a story conflict moves your character through various situations he must overcome. This intrigues and pulls your reader deeper into the story, connecting with your character’s predicament. A character needs to have a hurdle tossed at them, makes for an intriguing situation to find out the outcome. Without an outcome, there is no magnetic charge with your reader.

Before writing your story and making up your character profile, ask yourself these questions:

1- What will be the main goal my character will face and need to overcome?

2- Who will be my target audience?

The second question is important because it will help to focus your words and subject matter to suit the appropriate audience. For stories aimed at children, your focus will need to adapt to a child’s view of the world around them. Most of the time the story is told through the character’s point of view aged a few years older than the intended audience. For example, if you aim your story for the 8 – 10 age group then setting a story for a twelve year old character would be best since kids always like to read and associate with kids a bit older than them.

What subject matter can you write about for this age group? Middle grade readers love mysteries, soft spooky tales ( no knife-wielding maniacs, head chopping, blood and core etc, more suspenseful and ‘goose-bumping tales like in the “Goosebumps” books), magical tales (Harry Potter), even teeny bopper stories like Baby Sitters Club or Sweet Valley High. These latter ones are suitable for the Young Adult market, too.

TYPES OF CONFLICTS:

Here are some examples of conflicts in some books:

– the almighty tried and successful ‘good against evil’ Think Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs…yes, these fairy tales were using the ‘good against evil’ method if you sit down and think about it. The wolves in both fairy tales were intent on overcoming their ‘so-they-thought’ weaker counterparts.

In the above examples, something stood in the protagonist’s way:

Harry tries to defeat Voldemort but problems and other antagonists along the way makes this quest difficult for him.

The Lord of the Rings finds Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring but evil and dark forces stand in his way, too.

Luke Skywalker in Star Wars needs to defeat the new order of evil, and he, too, faces many obstacles and characters along the way.

In each of these examples, these obstacles (new smaller conflicts against the bigger goal they are after) causes a reader to continue reading to find out if he’ll be successful, how he will outsmart them, and what change will this cause in the main character. Along with these obstacles, throwing in some inner conflicts alongside the outer emotions helps to cast them more as three-dimensional beings, for example:

Luke Skywalker deals with the knowledge he has a sister somewhere out there. His inner being and emotions help to make him more sympathetic, which eventually bonds the reader to him. The same with Frodo; his world has been thrown for a loop when he takes on the quest of the Ring…along the way he begins to doubt if he, indeed, is the best man for this job. Also, he questions his will power to avoid succumbing to the dark forces once he has tasted the Ring’s power.

Another example to show you what ‘inner conflict’ means:

Let’s assume your book is based on a police officer who mistakenly shoots a young child while pursuing a suspect. It’s dark in the building and the kid jumped out of nowhere with a toy gun. The police officer is suspended while the case is being investigated.

INNER EMOTIONS:

How he deals and is dealt by his immediate peers His struggle to remove the visions of the killing The emotional turmoil as he waits for the investigation to conclude. His dealings with the parents of the child he accidentally killed.

Throughout all of these emotions the one factor that will bind your reader to continue will be: How will he fare at the end of this book. The way you first portray this particular character in the beginning will be totally different by the end because of the various upsets he’s had to deal with. Show him as upbeat, nonchalant, no change at the end and you will lose your reader’s interest in the book and in you as an author.

Think of real life: if you had to go through a trauma as the officer in the example above, how would it change you? A writer needs to wear his character’s shoes and get inside his head to fully understand him. Write a story with a stick person and you get stale material. Write a story with powerful emotions and you have one interesting read.

THE ALMIGHTY ENDING

By the end of your book all inner and outer conflicts need to have reached a conclusion. Whether your character overcame or failed is not as important as making sure he tried to meet them head on. You cannot place a conflict (or foreshadow) without making sure by the end of the story some sort of a resolution was made. This is cheating a reader and they WILL notice, especially if one of those conflicts was the one he’s been hoping to see the outcome to.

About the Author of this post:
Lea Schizas is an award-winning author/editor and founder of 2 Writer’s Digest top writing sites since 2004. She is the author of the YA fantasy “The Rock of Realm” and the paranormal suspense/thriller “Doorman’s Creek”. http://leaschizaseditor.com

A Writer’s Soul

Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.
~Virginia Woolf

Whilst looking for inspiration from those who have gone before us, I came across the above quote by Virginia Woolf. It reminded me of a discussion on my message board about using yourself as a character and I thought I’d write about that and some other stuff I’ve been thinking about lately.

It’s true that every manuscript we write has a part of us in it. How could it not? As the author, we are using our own knowledge and thought patterns, and often our values, to get a point across. But have you ever used yourself in one of your stories?

I have.

However, the story was written by me, for me. It was not meant to be read by another set of eyes. It took me a long time to realise that, and I can tell you now that trying to take a person out of a story and replace them with a completely different person is hard to do. I tried it but the story lacked something essential…my soul was missing.

That story has been shelved and I’ve moved on, but I learned a lot during the rewrite of that manuscript. It’s only now that I realise that.

This brings me to the next part of this post. It’s a topic Deborah Woehr brought up a few days ago, and it made me think about writers, blogging and how we want people to perceive us.

This is my online diary. What is a diary? It’s a place to put your thoughts. A diary is never meant to be read by other people, so what does that mean? We censor our words. In writing a manuscript we hide behind words, but in writing a blog entry we censor them instead. Why can’t a writer just write what they feel? Be honest and open, and to hell with what the reader thinks? Some writers do, but no one can tell me that they never censore what they write. If I was told that, I wouldn’t believe it for a second because most of us care what people think. We don’t want the reader to think badly of us, and in the event that we might be published one day, we don’t want our words as an unpublished author to haunt us.

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the loneliness of writing. What I was truly thinking and feeling never made it to the screen. I read those words now and cringe – they mean nothing, they sound vague. However, if I had allowed myself to write the post I really wanted to write I would have hurt people. I don’t even know if those people read this blog – maybe they don’t, but I couldn’t take the chance and I’m left with a post that means nothing. Yet, the people I didn’t want to hurt have hurt me, so why do I care what they think?

Part of our soul is in every word we write, so make sure the words are worthy of reading.