On Structuring A Short Story
by William Alan Rieser
Architects use blueprints to convey needed dimensions. Engineers have schematics that identify the value and type of individual components. Manufacturers employ assembly drawings to diagram constructions and explain necessary steps. For most non-artistic creative work, there is some kind of procedure to enhance the process. Writers, however, must consult tens of thousands of how-to books or rely upon millions of previously written stories to conceive structure. I thought I would commence with a more benign model, notwithstanding the fact that others can modify it successfully as is true with all structures. Here are seven fundamentals:
1. The Beginning
The reader must be grabbed in the first paragraph, even the initial sentence, else the story will rarely encourage further exploration. Why would a reader continue if not intrigued by an opening? It is very much like a poster or graphic cover, designed to get attention, knowing that the average viewer will be turned off in ten seconds or less unless the image is challenging and memorable. Delaying this technique is like trying to start a car with a broken ignition.
2. The Progenitor
All stories have a main character. In a short, he/she doesn’t need the fleshing out required by the novel but does need just enough exposition to guarantee identification. The most successful writers tend to paint images of people who are likely to be well understood, whose motivations are or become clear, whose traits are not mysterious and whose actions are justified. You don’t necessarily have to create someone in whose shoes the reader can walk, but it often helps to make your story more meaningful. It is like the old adage about hail hitting a victim in the head where you would prefer that they take umbrage personally rather than think of it as an inevitability.
3. The Problem
To insure intrigue, all tales require some kind of difficulty that needs to be overcome. It can be an antagonist, a situation, an anomaly or what have you but it must be made realistic and dramatic enough to convince the reader that the protagonist has a worthy quest. It is this mission that establishes the cause to bring about the desired effect. Few tales can survive without a believable problem. It can be as simple as a controversy, a confrontation or a puzzle, but something must be made to stick in the reader’s craw to guarantee that he will look for a solution.
4. The POV
It is either going to be first or third person and you should make up your mind about point-of-view early on and stay committed, assuming your tale uses dialogue. Most stories do and the best ones make them tight and realistic without rambling. Anything that does not contribute to the continuity of the story should be taken out because it does little more than waste the reader’s time and interest. You can shift the POV within a story so long as you return to it. That is an extremely useful and effective technique. Above all, the dialogue must make sense or lead to comprehension because confused readers will abandon you.
Too much explanation means that you haven’t crafted your tale well enough for readers to understand it. Not enough clarity dooms the reader to misunderstanding and confusion. This is the origin of the phrase, ‘show don’t tell.’ Common techniques usually involve a bit of narrative followed by some dialogue to show how the narrative applies. It can be reversed. You must judge how to balance the one against the other, remembering that excessive wordiness tends to bore readers whereas too little will mystify them. There are other ways to enhance meaning such as including the headline or lead story from a newspaper or broadcast, a commentary from a bystander, the view of an outsider or even injecting yourself into the story with an opinion. However you do it, this juggling act must appear to be well coordinated so that the reader is transported from one scenario to another without undue bumps that lead nowhere.
6. The Story Hook
Like the beginning, a tale must have an overriding means of ensnaring a reader to ensure that satisfaction will be reached with the commitment of continuing. The worst thing you can do is discourage a reader whose interest has already been piqued by not providing clues that lead to an unanticipated conclusion. It is also disastrous to make those suggestions too obvious so that the reader knows long in advance precisely what to expect around the next corner. It is analogous to baiting a hook for a fish that doesn’t realize it is going to be caught. The more skilled an angler, the more trout in your creel.
7. The Ending
There is nothing more devastating to a story than betraying a thoroughly captured reader with an unsatisfying, unfulfilling denouement. It is like being first in a tense footrace, only to discover that there is no finish line. Leading your prey by the nose to an empty treasure chest is inexcusable and readers will neither forget nor forgive such an omission. If there is one technique that is sure to grant a writer longevity and a faithful readership, it is his ability to end a story in a mind shaping way, whether it be a twist, a lesson, a solution or simply a show stopper.
© 2002 William Alan Rieser
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