Midweek Writer-Rummage: The Short Story

Edgar Allan Poe

I’ve always enjoyed short stories; I like that you can complete numerous stories in one sitting, and it doesn’t require the time commitment that a novel does.

People seem to think that writing a short story is easy because it’s short.  But it can actually be more difficult than a novel as you, not only, have to condense your story idea, it still has to make sense, and satisfy the reader.

The first thing that needs to be done before writing a short story is to read short stories.  Unlike a novel that has all the time in the world for introductions and world-building, a short story gets right down to business; there’s no time to digress into superfluous description or, even, subplots.

A short story is basically the retelling of one episode.  The opening paragraph needs to grab the reader straight away and keep them involved.  A short story needs to be constantly on the move.  The best way to achieve that is through action and dialogue.  Instead of viewing it as daunting, take the opportunity to experiment with words and have fun with them.  Choose your words carefully to heighten the effect.

While you can have more than one character in a short story, usually the secondary characters are left as 2D, while the main character is built upon.  But whether it’s the main character or secondary ones, keep the description of their physical appearance short.  Reveal their personalities by what they say and do; there’s no room for the full characterisation that’s done in novels.  It is possible to use a character’s inner thoughts to reveal personality by using it as a form of dialogue.

When it comes to writing the story, attempt the first draft in one sitting.  Imagine you’re narrating it to someone.  Like when you’re reading a fairy tale to a child, you’d expect to do it in that one sitting. 

When you’ve written the first draft, read it out loud; it’s the best way to ‘hear’ any plot holes or where you’ve over-written.  Then rewrite and edit.  At least a couple of times.

Kurt Vonnegut’s essential tips on writing a short story lays it down succinctly:

  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • Be a sadist.  No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Write to please just one person.  If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.  To heck with suspense.  Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Apart from Edgar Allan Poe, my favourite short stories are the ones by Stephen King, despite them being on the long side.  I also enjoy the short story collections by Annie Proulx; her ‘Close Range’ is where I discovered ‘Brokeback Mountain’.

An interesting note; can’t remember where I read this, but short stories translate well into films because of their length.  Apart from ‘Brokeback Mountain’, the other example that comes to mind is King’s ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ – rare examples where I enjoyed, both, book and film.

Midweek Writer-Rummage - Tackling the First Draft

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story” ~ Terry Pratchett

Writing the first draft is scary.  But it has to be done; it’s the only way to get the story out of your head and onto the page, on its way to being shared with the world.

Writers are weird – we love making up stories.  But when it comes to writing the first draft – the dreaded first draft – writers would rather do something else.  Anything else other than face the blank page.  Writers have made ‘doing anything else’ an art-form.  It can encompass … anything!  From the ‘urgent’ need to sort through pens and pencils, to suddenly needing an alphabetized inventory of every book they own, to staring out the window, to – and this is desperate – cleaning the bathroom!

I think, and I know this is true for me, what it comes down to is fear – not only fear of the blank page/screen but fear that we’re going to write embarrassing rubbish.  It is possible to get over that.  All you have to do is lower your expectations.  First drafts are not meant to be perfect; they’re simply a means of getting the ideas out of your head and on the page.  It doesn’t matter if you write badly, if your tenses are all over the place or if you keep switching between first and third person.  Remember that it’s only th first draft and all that is required of you is to finish it.

These next points, which I decided on through trial-and-error, are what work for me.  Experiment, as I did, and find the method that works for you.

Before starting the first draft, I always outline.  Not a rough sketch of a beginning, middle and end; I’m talking a chapter-by-chapter outline.  I need to know what events are happening when.

Once I get started, I keep going.  It’s only when I’ve written a complete first draft do I revise and edit.  There are some who revise as they go – they write a few chapters then re-read and edit.  I’ve tried that but it doesn’t work for me; I end up focussing too much on those few chapters and find I cannot move ahead until I feel they are ‘just right’.

Sometimes, I get stuck on the ‘big’ scenes, where something crucial happens.  Instead of using that as an excuse not to write, I jot down a few notes, the bare bones of what is happening, and move on.

I used to have daily writing goals, like a specific word count or writing for a set time, and I’d like to go back to that.  But with ‘life’ how it is at the moment, the only goal I set myself is to write.  Even if I only manage one page, that is all that matters – I write.  Don’t burden yourself with undue pressures.  Yes, you want to finish the first draft, but there’s no sense making yourself ill over it.

A tip that some might find handy – if, like me, you use a notebook to write out your drafts, it might be helpful to only write on one side and leave the other side blank for extra notes or sudden flashes of inspiration.

When you’ve finished the first draft, do not rush to do the second draft.  First, give yourself a little treat for finishing!  Then take a breather, to regain your perspective.  Put the manuscript away for 2 to 4 weeks; do not look at it at all.  When you come to revise and edit, you should be able to look at your work with fresh eyes and, hopefully, as objectively as you can.

Midweek Writer-Rummage - Dialogue

'A Reading from Homer' ~ Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along” ~ Nigel Watts

And that is the key thing to remember about dialogue in fiction, it does not mirror real-life dialogue.  There is none of the rambling untidiness of real speech.  Fictional dialogue is lean and forceful; it feels spontaneous without any of the repetitiveness of real talk.  In fiction, dialogue has to be believable, not realistic.

Dialogue opens up the characters; it is through talking that they come to life.  Let us hear your characters – direct speech is more immediate, more emotionally powerful.  Dialogue also helps us understand the characters’ personalities.  We learn a lot about people and their relationships through the manner in which they speak to one another.

However, dialogue isn’t just about talking; it also has to convey information.  Not any old information, though – it has to be vital, not anything banal or irrelevant, like exchanging pleasantries.  Having said that, it is ok to include some chatty-type of dialogue for the sake of authenticity but don’t overdo it.  And don’t overlook indirect speech; it comes in handy when a character has a lot of information to deliver, or if there’s a recap of information that’s already been given.

Dialogue’s main purpose is to progress the story.  Ideally, everymajor dialogue exchange should move the conflict along, even introduce new complications.  Here are a few (obviously there are many more) ways of working out if it is fulfilling that purpose:

  • Does it make the character’s motivations clearer?
  • Does the dialogue convey good or bad news, which changes the character’s situation?
  • Does it increase the reader’s suspense?

The reason fictional dialogue must not be realistic is because conversations in real life do not flow.  There are a lot of ‘ ums’ and ‘ ahs’; random changes of topic; interruptions with people talking over one another … Can you imagine reading that kind of dialogue exchange in a book?  So let your dialogue flow; make it sound effortless.  One way to achieve this is through the use of dialogue tags, those handy little ‘ he said’, ‘ she said’ things.  But don’t overuse them or they’ll start to intrude and kill the flow.  By the same token, using too few also messes with the flow.  I’ve read books with too few dialogue tags and have had to count back to work out who’s speaking.  Annoying.

There are conflicting schools of thought when it comes to dialogue tags.  Some say stick with the simple ‘ said’ and ‘ asked’; others insist that adverbs like ‘ exclaimed’, ‘ wailed’, and ‘ ecstatically’ are necessary.  Personally, I prefer using only ‘ said’.  I feel adverbs not only interrupt the flow but also make the dialogue sound amateurish.  Instead of adverbs, I much prefer to use body language to enhance the meaning of the character’s words.

For example, in this scene from ‘ The Cursed Gift’, when Leah invites Jessalyn to walk in the palace gardens with her, instead of telling her excitement – ‘said Jessalyn excitedly’, I show it through her body language:

“Oh, yes please.” Standing on her toes, Jessalyn lightly clapped her hands together.  “I’ve never been in the palace gardens before … or the palace.”

Staying on the subject of body language – it augments another function of dialogue, which is its ability to bring us close to the characters by conveying their emotions.  There are times you learn more about a character through his body language than in the actual words being spoken.  For example, while a character is saying one thing, his mannerisms and tell-tale eye movement are running contrary to his words.

Something else that intensifies dialogue is silence because there are times when silence is much more powerful than words.  When a character doesn’t respond or refuses to speak, that’s a clear indication that something awkward is going on.

Remember, no one converses in a vacuum, not even fictional characters.  No one talks without doing something, even if it’s just fiddling with their hair.  Give your characters something to do while they’re talking, like cooking; washing pots and pans; searching for something; dressing/undressing; grooming a horse; even walking.  Mixing the words with some sort of action adds to the interest.

If you’re wondering if any bit of dialogue is necessary, or if you’re overly fond of a piece of dialogue (guilty!), remove it.  Does the story still make sense?  If it’s absence doesn’t leave a glaring hole in the story, get rid of it. 

Finally, to help polish up the dialogue, a popular piece of advice is to read it out loud.  Reading aloud is a great way to work out if it sounds plausible, and how well it flows.  It helps me pick out the stilted bits; the unrealistic, clunky bits; the overly dramatic bits.  And it’s fun.

Just before I finish, here are a few things to remember about punctuation in dialogue:

There is no hard and fast rule about using single or double quotation marks for speech.  Most use double.  I guess the ‘rule’ is to pick one and stick to it.

New speaker = new paragraph.  That applies whether or not they’re speaking.  Another example from ‘The Cursed Gift’:

“Are you alright?”

She looked up at Nadeen and pasted a smile on her face.

“It is not like you to be so quiet.”

“It’s nothing …”

“Missing your family?” said Jessalyn, adjusting her plain brown tunic over her trousers.

With a sigh, Leah nodded as she got to her feet.  “Yes, I suppose I am, especially my little brother.”

The use of quotation marks is limited in a long speech.  Most times, dialogue is limited to a couple of sentences.  But there are times when the information the character is conveying is long enough to run into a couple of paragraphs.  Punctuation is used at the beginning of the speech, the beginning of the following paragraph of the same speech, and at the end of the entire speech:

“It didn’t take me long,” she said, “to decide my story would be about a young woman who was too aware of her responsibilities to avoid them when all she really wanted was a private life, free to make her own choices.

  “I went for the ‘obvious’ and made Leah, the protagonist, royalty, and added the element of her wanting to be the same as everyone else, and not to be treated differently.”

Dashes and ellipses convey different meanings.  Ellipses (the three dots: ‘…’) are used when the character’s words are trailing off:

“I’m always the victim of his jokes and teasing. But one day I looked in his eyes and …”

A dash shows that the character has been interrupted:

“The garden behind the training–”

“No, the palace gardens.  It’s peaceful and quiet.”

I’ve only touched on a few points concerning dialogue; there’s, obviously, so much more to it.  But I hope this is enough of a starting point to help work through what can sometimes be a tricky part of writing.

I’ve not shared this before but I guess I have to get over my aversion to drawing attention to myself … Back when I was polishing up ‘The Cursed Gift’ before starting on the agent-hunt, I had it critiqued by Cornerstones Literary; here is what the editor had to say about my use of dialogue:

“… your descriptions are vivid and creative, your dialogue lively and you haven’t made the kind of mistakes first-time authors often make, such as too much flat, narrative prose and a lack of control over the plot.

You write vigorous, crunchy prose that flows well and uses a good, apt choice of words … On the whole, your dialogue is fine and suits the characters who are speaking it.

Midweek Writer-Rummage - Characters

'The King's Henchman' ~ NC Wyeth

Character and plot – the vital ingredients for any story.  It could be said that the main character has to be likeable, someone the reader can empathise with.  But that’s not necessarily the case.  Take Dracula – we don’t necessarily like him or empathise with his blood-sucking tendencies, but he holds our interest because Bram Stoker succeeded in creating a dramatic character filled with presence and personality.  Then there’s Sherlock Holmes – he’s actually quite odd and, usually, not very pleasant.  But he’s written in such a way that the reader is drawn into wanting to know more about him and his world.

When it comes to creating your characters, the advice is always to know them inside and out.  After all, it’s difficult to write about someone you barely know.  A good exercise that’s always recommended is to write detailed character bios.  I admit that’s something I didn’t do when I started writing my first story as I was too lazy and couldn’t be bothered.  But halfway through whichever draft I was working on, I realised I was forgetting key points about the main characters.  I succumbed, got out my notepad and started working on those bios.  Trust me, having character bios before you start writing makes a world of difference.

So, what to include in character bios?

  • Back story – basically the story from birth, including his relationship with his family and what his childhood was like.
  • Appearance – what she looks like.  But don’t just list the obvious of hair and eye colour, and build.  Think about the people you know – everyone has a distinctive characteristic, be it their ears, nose, teeth … And don’t go for the obvious, like a scar.  Look through magazines or Pinterest for someone who could be your character, and work on how you would describe that person.
  • Personality – what kind of person is your character, how sociable is he?  A happy person who laughs easily?  Someone who barely smiles?  Is he sensitive, emotional?  Does he drink or eat to excess?
  • Motivation – what drives her?  Is she a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners type or someone who analyses?  How patient is she when faced with a difficult person or situation?  Is she sympathetic or judgmental?  Working out the character’s motivation is crucial in whether a reader admires or dislikes the character.
  • Relationships – most characters are in a relationship with another, be it familial, friends or lovers.  Work out why they are drawn to certain people; why they choose a particular personality.  Does it link back to something that happened in childhood?  Are they reminded of a person who influenced them greatly?
  • Miscellaneous – although this could be deemed unimportant, it all adds up to knowing your character as much as possible.  Think about what they like to wear, their favourite food.  Are they fussy eaters, sloppy dressers or the height of sophistication?  Are they witty, absent-minded?  How do they feel about physical violence?  How do they handle objects – are they hands-on or do they baulk at touching certain things?  How do they arrange their surroundings – are they neat or do they thrive in organised chaos?
  • Character Arc – this is a must-have.  Without an arc, your character may not develop in a believable, attention-grabbing way.  You might end up sending her off on a tangent that has nothing to do with the story.  Characters must grow and develop – she must be somehow different at the end of the book compared to how she was at the beginning.

Obviously, this list isn’t exhaustive by any means.  My character bios tend to be ‘heavy’ on some details and ‘light’ on others; I believe it’s very much a personal thing.  And don’t forget to do bios for your other main characters, although minor characters don’t need anything as in-depth.  Also, don’t attempt to do it all in one sitting – I usually spread it out over a week, and that’s all the bios.  At the end of it, you may decide that half of what you’ve written is not at all relevant to your story.  But the aim of this exercise is to know your character completely, inside and out.  

What makes a compelling character are his words and actions, coupled with his thoughts and feelings.  Allowing the reader to get inside the character’s head goes a long way in building strong characterisation – having access to a person’s inner world must surely be the best way to truly know him.