Short Stories are one of the great writing arts of all time. Ray Bradbury said “Write 1,000 words a day and in three years you’ll be a writer.” His famous short stories leave us breathless with fear and wonderment. It is with that same admiration that I am proud to present Short Story Structure by fellow blogger Fred Rock – Confessions of a Meter Reader. I look forward to every short story posted on his amazing blog, and you will too.
Short Story Structure by Fred Rock – Confessions of a Meter Reader
I’m in no position to dole out writing advice. You’ll not find my statue with O’Henry’s or Poe’s. Still, through trial and lots of error, I have found a little formula that helps me lay out complete stories from beginning to end. Maybe it will work for you.
The saying goes that you can’t reinvent the wheel. The things I do aren’t new. In fact, most of this you’ve heard many times. Every so often, I’ll run across a tip somewhere and think, “I knew that at one time but it’s been a while since I utilized it, Maybe I should dust that off and look at it again.” My hope is that will happen here for some of you.
Begin at THE END
John Irving says he writes the last line of his novels first then jumps to the front and writes the book. I’m not that disciplined. However, I do find it crucial to have a rudimentary understanding of how I want to end a story before I start it. If I don’t, I write myself in self-indulgent circles that meander nowhere. Inevitably, I reach a word count where I think, “Wow, this is getting pretty long, I wonder where it’s headed. Maybe I’ll wrap it up by doing…this!” Those endings are weak and the stories rarely see the light of day.
For me, free writing is great as an exercise but not as a template for writing complete stories. There may be crowds of people who have found success with that approach. Sadly, I’m not among them. That’s not to say I don’t allow myself to wander within a framework though. I’ll explain in a minute.
Keep ’em close to home
Once I know the story’s ending, I ask myself how close to THE END I can begin the tale. If I can keep my characters in the same room throughout the story, I will. To me, travel is boring unless it’s a chase scene. Nobody wants to read about some character jetting from LA to Miami and there’s no point in talking about a voyage unless something significant takes place on the trip.
Bring the heat
After I’ve determined how the story ends and how far before the ending the story begins, I go there. Starting the story with a compelling first sentence is critical. It is this line that can determine whether a reader is going to stick with me or shut down. For this reason, I rarely open a story by describing a person’s appearance. Or a room. Or the weather. My goal is to stick a character into a crisis fast. This reveals his or her personality immediately. From here, I’m able to use the weather, the character’s appearance, the room. However, those descriptions ride shotgun, personalities and events drive the story.
I tend to hammer on the first sentence until I can’t think of any way to improve it. I might write it twenty-five different ways before I decide on a final draft and it’s not until I have the final cut that I allow myself to move on.
Once I have the ending, the first sentence, and a good handle on who the characters are, I flesh out how they get from the already-written first sentence to the predetermined ending. Usually I write several drafts where I don’t think about word count or tight phrasing. I freewheel as much as I want so long as I’m intentionally propelling the story from the opening sentence to the ending.
Here, I pay attention to my characters and let that attention dictate what they say and don’t say, what they do and don’t do. An old man rarely sprints and toddlers aren’t known for their rumination. The only time I break character is if I’m twisting deliberately to catch the reader off guard. (Grandpa snatches some Reece’s Sticks and bolts past the dumbfounded cashier to the parking lot.)
All killer, no filler
Some writers employ a style of flowery prose and, while I read, respect, and enjoy it, my style is more minimal. I strip as many words as I can. Each must serve a purpose or it’s chaff and my goal is whole wheat. (I don’t always achieve the goal but it remains constant all the same.)
The story will undergo several rewrites. I read it aloud to myself. Several times. If it causes me to stumble reading it out loud, chances are it will cause the reader to stumble too. I fix it. My loved ones are forced to read and critique it. If they give me something, I use it. If they present an opinion I can’t get behind, I leave it.
Leave them for dead
When I’ve completed my revision, I may set it aside for a day or two and revisit it. It depends on how confident I’m feeling in the finished product. Sometimes, a revisit can do wondrous things by presenting the story to your fresh eyes. Other times, I over-edit and ruin the thing. I’ve learned to save any revisions made after the piece was initially completed as a copy. This allows me to revert to what I had if I tear the thing to pieces and can’t put it back together again.
And that’s the gist. I hope you’ve found this post helpful. If not, sorry about that.
Good luck and happy writing or whatever it is that people say here.
Fred Rock is the alter-ego pen name of Jim Schott, a mild-mannered and married father of two who lives in a small village in northwestern Wisconsin with his dog Cletus and a cat who shan’t be named because he apparently barfs all over the house.
Check out his Detective Frank Danger short story series:
For more information on Fred Rock and the Man Behind the Meter, visit his website at Fred Rock – Confessions of a Meter Reader. Fred Rock may also be found at:
@fredrock715 on Twitter
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