3 Essentials of Short Stories, and a Good Reason To Write Some

Comments Off on 3 Essentials of Short Stories, and a Good Reason To Write Some

Here’s a great strategy for emerging as a writer. By emerge I mean get noticed by agents, by editors, even by the curators of writing blogs. Writing short stories can elevate your career. They will even help you connect with your peers in your writing life.

Short stories don’t result in much pay, at first. However, they can be your calling card as a writer. They are quicker to read than a novel and show off more of your skills in just the amount of time it takes to read 10 pages. That can be as many as 3,000 words of writing. A powerful story does not have to be longer than that.

In essence, the short story is an audition for a bigger role, as a book author. Your pieces of unfinished novels might even supply the ore that you can smelt into the good metal of a story.

There are three fundamentals to create short story. An immediate hook that reveals what a main character desires. A sense of place for the action, shaped by description and aided by characterization. The most important of these, though, is action that occurs in scene. Short stories need something to happen.

You can write other kinds of short stories, full of lyric prose and feats of language magic. You should, perhaps, as your dessert for when you’ve finished something. But only a short story will show off the most foundational skill of writing. Telling a story, with structure, in a space of just 20 minutes of time to read.

Today’s readers are busy. Shorts stories can make something happen in scenes that comes alive.

5 Ways: Making a Scene. Making It Count.

Comments Off on 5 Ways: Making a Scene. Making It Count.

I advise the writers in the Workshop to always write toward a scene. It’s like the gas stations along a long highway as you drive a max-size SUV: you have to visit them often to get home.

2012FordExcursionBut while you’re writing those scenes, you should consider if they all must be used. How do you do that? One writer in the Workshop offered pages from meeting to meeting that were completely rooted in scene. I struggled to engage with those scenes because I was always wondering, “But why would that character do that?” Making up those answers took me out of the dream state that we wish to induce in our readers.

Sequel and prequel provide that context for explanations. You need room in your writing for scenes, as well as the sequel and prequel material that explains and introduces the action. So eliminating scenes is an essential skill to make room.

You eliminate these wonderful but wandering bits of drama by asking these five questions.

  1. What’s the intention and purpose of this scene?
  2. How is it related to the scene immediately beforehand, and how does it connect with the scene afterward?
  3. What is the conflict inside this scene?
  4. What’s at stake for my protagonist, my hero, in the scene?
  5. How does this scene develop my plot further?

When you know the answers for each of your scenes, you might discover one that has no clear intention, or is missing conflict, or does not put anything at stake for your protagonist. These scenes either need to follow a purpose, show conflict, or reveal compelling stakes.

Or you can remove them. Revision can be ruthless at times. It’s a great practice to know these five things about any scene you’re about to write. In that way, you save yourself the pain of cutting out something you created with love — but lacking a clear mission.

3 Steps to Calculate Showing and Telling

Comments Off on 3 Steps to Calculate Showing and Telling

scene-structure bickhamA writing student of mine has asked more than once in class, “I am looking for a guideline on scene, to sequel, to narrative for my writing.” Whether it’s creative non-fiction (like a memoir), or a short story or even a novel, there are no magic formulas as in screenwriting. Writing movies can be as rigid as you’d like to follow, with expected major plot points coming at 30 pages, and again at 60. The whole thing needs to be written between 90 and 120 pages.

But if you’re working outside the realm of writing movies — and screenplays can be a powerful experience to teach story structure — you’ve got to decide for yourself what’s effective for these ratios. You have a key reader look at your mix for a chapter, or a workshop group. You read it aloud to yourself.

The mix? You can single-space it printed, then color-code with a highlighter. Blue for narrative — the telling or prelude or exposition. Yellow for dialogue and scene — where two or more people try to solve a problem, or a person struggles to accomplish a goal.

Then green for what Jack Bickham calls sequel. In his fine textbook Scene & Structure, Bickham describes sequel as the writing

…that begins for your viewpoint character the moment a scene ends. Just struck by a new, unanticipated but logical disaster, he is plunged into a period of sheer emotion, followed sooner or later by a period of thought — which sooner or later results in the formation of a new, goal-oriented decision, which in turn results in some action toward the new goal just selected.

Emotion to thought, then onward to new action. Bickham goes on to point out that once you have the action selected, you add a character or a force to oppose it. You get conflict. We crave conflict as readers. And so you’re now into the next scene. (It’s Chapter 7, Linking Your Scenes, in Bickham’s essential book.) More

The Layover

Comments Off on The Layover

Sylvia toweled off in the truck shop’s washroom. She looked in the metal mirror and despaired about diesel grime that still coated her sunburn. Her cell phone sitting next to the scratched sink chirped at her, carrying the voice of her boyfriend Redmund.

“Sylvie,” he said over the speakerphone. “Watcha doing now? Real quiet in there.”

“Washing up, okay? You try slugging a rig down I-80 for six hours after a thrown fan belt tossed you off schedule. I’m a whole day behind on my miles.” The damn carrier knew, of course. They tracked her through that phone like a pelican after mackerel. GPS, yeah — Giddyup, Push and Steer.

“Okay, okay. Why so touchy, Trucker Gal?”

“Thinking of what my mom said when I stopped in Fort Collins on Monday. Had my laundry and that dog Butch to drop off. Mom said I wouldn’t look white again if I sat in a tub of bleach.”

“The grime, huh? Important to see you clean and girly.”

“You don’t know, fella. Her part of Fort Collins is so upper crust even the maids are European. Trucker Gal troubles her. Like I’m slumming on those 18 wheels. Instead of trying to pay off the old man’s gambling debts.” Banging rattled the metal door of the washroom. “Gotta go. Some rig-monkey wants his turn.”

“Whoa. I don’t like the sound of that.”

“His turn to shower, nimrod. I got this handled.” She thumbed the disconnect and stepped into gray pants and the company orange shirt with the logo and her name on it.

At the bar she perched on a vinyl black stool with a back. The barman eyed her like they all did, first at her chest and then her nametag. “So Syl, what’ll it be?”

“You’re asking me about my drink?”

“What else?”

“I think we both know what else. But I just got cleaned up, so let’s stick to the liquor. Make mine a shot of that low-rent scotch.”

He left a glass of Peat Brothers on the formica bar-top and started pulling beers. The laughter from the sports trivia game that was mounted on the corner of the bar made the back of her neck tingle. Mom wouldn’t even be thinking of her daughter’s color, or being clean, here in Cheyenne. Sylvia sipped at the scotch and shivered.

“None too smooth, huh?” This was a different voice, low and slow behind her. She turned to see a black man, something that stood out in Wyoming like an elk with bells on his antlers.

“Not smooth, no.” There wasn’t a tub of bleach that would ever turn him white, either. They had that much in common already, at least for a night of her layover on I-80.

Know what you’re aiming at in your war

Comments Off on Know what you’re aiming at in your war

In his new book The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell teaches us that a story’s premise must be supported by fresh, solid scenes. Bell, who’s also written suspense novels and the great Plot and Structure, reminds us of fundamentals: make your dialogue flow; cut or hide exposition (delay it if you can, eliminate what’s not working); flip the cliched situation (so a big-rig truck driver might be a woman.)

But in his scene summary, Bell reminds us that every scene needs to have a thing it is aimed at — a bull’s eye. It’s a moment or an exchange, he says.

A bull’s eye can be a few lines of dialogue that turn the action around or reveal something striking. It can be as subtle as a moment of realization, or explicit as a gunshot to the heart. Many times, it is found in the last paragraph or two.

In the Writer’s Workshop Tuesday sessions, we have an exercise where we’re given the last line of a piece of writing, then invited to write toward that line. Bell says that a scene that doesn’t have a bulls-eye should be cut or rewritten.

We bring away writings of 300-500 words from our Tuesday sessions, scenes or sections that might be a little off target in our first draft. That’s what rewriting is for.