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.

Editing Course: Perfect Punctuation II

When editing manuscripts for books, it’s important to understand the use of inverted commas for speech, quotes and apostrophes.

Speech Marks: Single or Double?

We use speech marks (ie “…” or ‘…’) in novels, magazines and newspapers to indicate when a person is talking.

Different countries have their own standards when displaying speech marks. In Australia and England the standard is to use single inverted commas for adult fiction and non-fiction.

When using single speech marks (ie ‘…’) and you need to quote a section of text within the speech, the quoted section would use double speech marks (ie “…”). Example: ‘Jim told me “it would be better for everyone”, but I don’t agree with him.’

In contrast, many children’s publishers in Australia and England use double speech marks for dialogue in picture books and early readers.

Magazines and newspapers also have adopted the double speech marks, and use single speech marks for quoted sections with text. However, they use double speech marks for stand alone quotations.

It is recommended to authors to use double speech marks as it is easier to do a find and replace to change double to single than the other way round because of apostrophes.

Conventional Usage for Punctuation with Speech

Should the comma/full stop/question mark/exclamation mark be inside or outside the quotation marks? It’s not an easy question to answer as there is no definitive answer.

In America these marks always go inside the speech marks. In Australia and England it changes depending on the situation.

This is quoted from the Australian Style manual:

In North America it is conventional for closing quotation marks to follow commas, but to precede semi-colons and colons. In Britain the situation is not quite as simple, although it is more logical. If the quoted material would have contained the punctuation mark in the absence of any interruption, the punctuation mark stays inside the closing quotation marks. On the other hand, if the punctuation is part of the carrier sentence it follows the closing quotation mark.

For example, when the punctuation closes the entire carrier sentence, not just the dialogue:

Josie faced her husband and said, “James, I’m leaving you”.

or

“James, I’m leaving you,” said Josie, facing her husband.

Alternatively, when the punctuation is part of the dialogue:

Josie faced her husband. “James, I’m leaving you.”

Other Things to Remember

Thoughts: Never use inverted commas for speech as it will confuse the reader. They will be unable to determine if the characters are speaking or thinking. The standard convention is to use italics for thought.

Dialogue Breaks: This is not a universal rule, but generally a new paragraph should start whenever the dialogue changes to a different character. This is a clear indication that someone else is speaking. Some authors prefer to run the dialogue on in certain cases such as writing style, to show several people are talking at once or to speed the pace up.

Quote Marks: As with speech marks, the use of quote marks can vary from country to country. They can be single or double inverted commas, but they must be the opposite of speech marks when used to together. Style is an in-house preference and should be consistent.

Apostrophes

Apostrophes are used in a range of text, such as when contracting two words into one (“it’s” for “it is”), for showing singular possession (Tim’s pen) and plural possession (Jones’s car).

There is a rule for when using apostrophes with names ending in “s”. If the word has one syllable (eg James) then you would add the extra “s” (eg James’s book). If the word has two or more syllables (eg Collins), you would not add the extra “s” (eg Collins’ house).

Many people ignore this rule and use only one “s” all the time as they prefer this method.

Knowing when to use an apostrophe when it comes to time can be tricky. The rule, however, is quite simple. For day, month and year the apostrophe is only used when referring to one of them, but is not used when referring to more than one. Examples are:

One day’s salary
Five days experience
One month’s anniversary
Ten months old
One year’s weather pattern
Twenty years weather pattern

Other Things to Remember

Ellipsis Points: When text is omitted from the start three full stops (ellipsis points) followed by a space are used before the rest of the text.

Example: … as can be seen here.

When omitting text from the end of a sentence you insert a space followed by the ellipsis points.

Example: “Did you mean …?” Pat gasped.

When used in the middle of a sentence the use of ellipsis points can indicate one of two things, words have been omitted or hesitancy. The ellipsis points would have a space before and after them.

Example: “Oh … I … didn’t mean that.”

In some countries the ellipsis may be spaced out (. . .) with or without a space before and after the points.

Salutations: The standard is not to use punctuation after salutations.

Example: Mr Smith rather than Mr. Smith

Greetings: The standard is the same as for salutations, not to use punctuation.

Example: Dear John rather than Dear John,

or

Yours sincerely rather than Yours sincerely,

Working on Punctuation

Copyeditors and proofreaders need to be focused when working on documents with lots of dialogue as the mind picks up what it should see, not always what is there.

To develop loyal clients, it is important to slow down and put extra effort into punctuation. It is important to hand back a thorough job instead of a job that still has lots of uncorrected mistakes. If you do this, the client will not come back to you again and they certainly won’t recommend you to others.

Important Note: No matter what the standard, it is all about consistency. If punctuation is used throughout the entire document in a certain way then check with the client prior to marking it up as it might be an in-house preference and not considered an error at all.