"Easy" Guidelines to Writing the Compelling Short Story
are fortunate there are no word police and that we can pursue the craft in the
privacy of our own heads! We can
also take comfort in the knowledge that further revision can always see us
through to a polished product. There is nothing written that can't be improved
by applying the concepts below:
Good writers can make any subject interesting through the use of style. It's not
what you say, it's how you say it. Unfortunately, style is about as easy to
define as love, truth and beauty. Style also encompasses nearly every other
aspect of writing, but can be boiled down into a few basic rules: avoid
wordiness, be specific, use active verbs, avoid cliché, provide sensory
description, and order events logically. Another very basic rule of style,
nearly cliché in itself, is the admonition to show, don't tell. Very important
but somewhat tricky until you get the hang of it.
Correct grammar is essential. Most writers have a good ear for language and
naturally avoid the most common and crucial mistakes. Proper language is
important; don't forget to trust your ear. The correct way of saying something
is not always the compelling way of writing it.
Description enhances the story, but too much serves no purpose. Keep description
short and active. Be specific. Use
original imagery, touch on distinctive and vivid characteristics of setting.
Avoid confusing imagery such as the mixed metaphor.
Good writing creates the illusion that spoken language flows naturally from the
narrator or characters. Good
dialogue can provide information, reveal character, drive the story, create a
sense of place and summarize events. Good dialogue between characters is
believable and creates the
that moves the story along.
Characters must be specific and idiosyncratic. Avoid flat stereotypes.
Ironically, the specifics of character draw out universal emotions in the
reader. Readers enjoy identifying with life-like characters. Characters drive
the plot in compelling stories. Beginning writers often make the mistake of
manipulating character personality and action to fit the plot.
Viewpoint is the place from which the reader views the story, and is like a
camcorder that records the story through the eyes of a particular character or
narrator. Viewpoint is constantly influenced by the psychological nature of the
characters. A viewpoint from a
major character in the first or third person is most commonly used in short
stories. It is all too easy to switch viewpoint without knowing it, and is
something to check closely when revising. Another
error common to beginning writers is inconsistency or awkwardness in the flow of
story events. Consistent time frames tie in to consistent viewpoints.
Maintain subtlety in the presentation of your story. "Show, don't
tell" is a rule of style that falls under the term. Being subtle also
implies not telling if you're already showing, and not describing anything you
don't have to. Don't underestimate the readers' participation in the story by
hitting them over the head with unnecessary or repetitive information.
Compelling stories contain some sort of conflict, even if the conflict is
so subtle it can be defined as tension. Without tension, there is no story.
Tension may be manipulated to keep the reader involved in the
The form and content of the story must work together. Whenever the form
of the story is changed, the content also changes. In this respect, the length
of the story must be appropriate for the scope of the material. Don't try to
stretch a theme appropriate for a short short into a novella.
Likewise, be sure to fully develop characters and plots to their full
capacity. Don't limit yourself to a
short piece when a compelling story requires a longer one.
Everything in the story must look as though it were written by one person
in a single sitting. There must be unity of theme, style and viewpoint.
helps to be aware of all the bits and pieces of language and form that comprise
the short story. It is the skillful blending of this host of components that
makes the difference between a good story and one that
is a little scary that there are so many different factors that must be
skillfully interwoven within a piece of writing in order for it to be called
"good." At first glance,
it's enough to make the novice swear to never mangle words again.
are steps that can be learned, but I firmly believe there is an inherent
creative magic that brings life to a writer's words, the musician's melodies and
the artist's images. Whether this
be the touch of the muse, the channeling of Spirit, or the latent talent of the
creative individual, I cannot say. This
essence has not yet been extracted, measured, statistically analyzed and
bottled, nor is that likely to happen.
creative state of mind has been thoroughly analyzed to the point that whole
books are dedicated to concretely describing how to achieve that state at will.
But the actual stuff of it is elusive. It's
like the beauty of a sunset, the charm of love - describable yet intangible. We
all hope, pray, or affirm for it and sometimes we do it.
If we give conscious attention to all the concrete details after moving
whenever we can in that trance-like world we create from, we are more likely to
craft stories that are compelling and satisfying.
"Easy" Guidelines to Writing the Compelling Short Story" first
appeared in the January 2000 issue of The Fiction Writer Online Literary
Magazine at www.thefictionwriter.com
is a published poet, creative nonfiction, feature and fiction writer who resides
under the sunny and star-spangled skies of central Arizona. Her work is
featured in AZ
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