Tag Archives: Story Arc

Crafting the very short story #amwriting

During the month of January I will be exploring the many aspects of the craft of writing short, salable works. I periodically discuss the importance writing to build stock for submissions to magazines, anthologies, or contests. However, many authors have difficulty keeping a story short, and there is an art to it.

Some authors are naturally skilled at this, so if you are one of those lucky people, this may be of no interest to you, but thank you for stopping by!

So, now we get down to business. First up is the short story, works that are 2,000 to around 7,000 words in length.

First, decide what length you want to write to—if you have no specific contest in mind, 2000 to 4000 is a good all purpose length that will fit into most submission guidelines. For those of you who have trouble writing short works for contests and anthologies with rigid word-count limits, this is where taking the time to do a little storyboarding becomes critical.

Let’s say you want to write a story that can be no longer than 2,000 words. You know what the story is, but when you sit down and begin writing, you think you have too much story for only 2,000 words. You need to map it out.

Short-stories are just like novels, in that they have an arc, and you can make it work for you.  By looking at it from the perspective of the story arc, you can see what you must accomplish, and how many words you must accomplish it in.

Every word in a 2,000-word story is critical and has a specific taskthat of advancing the plot. To that end, in a story of only 2,000 words:

  1. No subplots are introduced
  2. Minimal background is introduced
  3. The number of characters must be limited to 2 or 3 at most
  4. Every sentence must propel the story to the conclusion

For the purposes of this post, suppose we need to write a short story for submission to a fantasy anthology.

This method works for stories written in any genre and for essays, so the underlying method is not “fantasy” specific. I have used the following example before when talking about the (very short) short story, and I use it in my seminar on the subject.

First, we will carefully read the publisher’s guidelines, so we don’t waste our time writing something that won’t be accepted.

  • We discover that the guidelines stress that the wordcount limit is a strict 2,000 words, and longer submissions will not be considered.
  • The theme of this anthology is Truth and Consequences, and the theme must be strongly represented throughout the story.

Our submission will be titled A Song Gone Wrong.

The inciting incident happens off screen. We’re saving precious words by opening with our main character already in trouble, and everything the reader needs to know will be conveyed in the opening scene.

The Plot: Because he was a bit too specific when a putting a local warlord’s fling with another man’s wife into a song, our protagonist is now a wanted man in danger of being hung for treason.

Divide your story this way:

Act 1: the beginning: You have 500 words to show

  1. setting: the village of Imaginary Junction,
  2. general atmosphere: the weather is unseasonably cold
  3. introduce the protagonist and show him in his situation: In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is  hiding
  4. introduce the antagonist(s): Soldiers of the lord he has inadvertently humiliated are searching for Sebastian.

Act 2: First plot point: You have 500 words to tell how

  1. the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian
  2. he is hauled before the angry lord and
  3. thrown into prison, sentenced to hang at dawn, but now you are at:

Act 3.: Mid-point: You have 500 Words to explain how

  1. Sebastian meets a dwarf, Noli, also sentenced to die.
  2. Noli is on the verge of managing an escape but needs help with one last thing.
  3. Noli and Sebastian manage to complete the escape route,
  4. but the guard seems suspicious, hanging around their cell door, hampering their escape

Act 4: Resolution–you have 500 words to show how

  1. The smart guard finally is relieved by a less wary guard, which allows
  2. Sebastian and Noli to squeeze through the escape route.
  3. They are spotted at the last minute, but Noli’s friends are waiting, and
  4. They are whisked to a dwarf safe-house, leaving Sebastian free to embark on his next short-story adventure

Once you have parsed out what needs to be said by what point, and in how many words, you can then get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good short-story.

You will see that to keep to the strict limit of words and still convey your story, you must choose your words carefully.

  • Use a wide vocabulary to show mood, setting, and reactions. You are an author, so you must craft the prose. It is your job to find words that best convey what you want to say, concisely in one or two sentences.
  • Sebastian can’t give Noli a recap of his troubles onscreen—all that will have to be off-stage.
  • Conversations are critical—they are the vehicle through which you convey the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece.

You can quickly plot and write a story of any length this way, just by

  • Dividing the specified word count into four acts
  • Keeping the theme of the story in the forefront
  • Make use of your thesaurus. Put your large vocabulary to work by using words that say what you mean with the least amount of “helper” words (adjectives and adverbs).

After a few times of creating short stories using this method, you won’t need to think about it. Once you know the length a given tale has to be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.

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#amwriting: keeping short stories short, when all your stories want to be long

Autumn Landscape With Pond And Castle Tower-Alfred Glendening-1869

Autumn Landscape With Pond And Castle Tower-Alfred Glendening-1869

Over the summer I posted several times about why we need to write short stories, and each time I’ve talked about writing them to build stock for submissions to magazines, anthologies, or to enter into contests. Today, I want to talk about the art of keeping a story short.

First, decide what length you want to write to–if you have no specific contest in mind, 2000 to 4000 is a good length that will fit into most submission guidelines.

For those of you who have trouble writing short works for contests and anthologies with rigid word-count limits, this is where mapping your story becomes really important.

Let’s say you want to write a story that can be no longer than 2,000 words. You know what the story is, but when you sit down and begin writing, it’s like there is way too much story for only 2,000 words. You need to map it out.

Short-stories are just like novels, in that they have an arc, and you can make it work for you.  By looking at it from the perspective of the story arc, you can see what you have to accomplish, and how many words you have to accomplish it in.

short story arc

Every word in a 2000 word story is critical and has a specific task–that of advancing the the plot. To that end, in a story of only 2,000 words:

  1. No subplots are introduced
  2. Minimal background is introduced
  3. The number of characters must be limited to 2 or 3 at most
  4. Every sentence must propel the story to to the conclusion

Lets say you are writing a fantasy, titled, A  Song Gone Wrong. Because he was a bit too specific when a putting a local warlord’s fling with another man’s wife into a song, our protagonist  is now a wanted man. Divide your story this way:

Act 1: the beginning: You have 500 words to show these plot points

  1. setting: the village of Imaginary Junction,
  2. the weather is unseasonably cold
  3. In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is  hiding from the
  4. Soldiers of the lord he has inadvertently humiliated

Act 2: First plot point: You have 500 words to tell how

  1. the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian
  2. he is hauled before the angry lord and
  3. thrown into prison, sentenced to hang at dawn, but now you are at:

Act 3.: Mid-point: You have 500 Words to explain how

  1. Sebastian meets a dwarf, Noli, also sentenced to die
  2. Noli is on the verge of managing an escape, but needs help with one last thing
  3. Noli and Sebastian manage to complete the escape route
  4. but the guard seems suspicious, hanging around their cell door, hampering their escape

Act 4: Resolution–you have 500 words to show how

  1. The smart guard finally is relieved by a less wary guard, which
  2. allows Sebastian and Noli to squeeze through the escape route
  3. They are spotted at the last minute, but Noli’s friends are waiting, and
  4. they are whisked to a dwarf safe-house, leading to Sebastian’s next short-story adventure

Once you have parsed out what needs to be said by what point, and in how many words, you can then get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good short-story.

You will see that in order to keep to the strict limit of words, you will have to choose your words carefully. You will have to find words that really convey what you want to say, concisely in one or two sentences. Sebastian can’t give Noli a recap  of his troubles in your hearing–all that will have to be off-stage. On-screen conversations are critical–they will convey the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece.

After a few times of creating short stories this way, you won’t need to think about it. When you know the length a given tale has to be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.

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Elements of the story: the structure of the scene

Most authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc  which  consists of :

  1. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  4. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  5. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

The Arc of the Story

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge says, “In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story: The end of a narrative arc is the denouement. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.”

However, as we’ve discussed before, within the larger story there are many smaller stories, “scenes” created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

Last July, at the 2014 PNWA Conference, in his seminar on the arc of the scene, author Scott Driscoll explained how the main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches.

Once he explained it in that fashion, I understood it. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s Narrative Arc than the previous scene did, pushing the narrative toward the climax.

Milano_Duomo_1856

Milano Duomo 1856 via Wikipedia

In my mind, this means that novels are like Gothic Cathedrals–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries. Each small arc of the scene builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel.

These small arcs of action and reaction ensure the plot doesn’t stall and create tension that drives the story to the four cardinal points of the story arc.

Conversations are scenes that form a fundamental part of the overall arc: they begin, rise to a peak, and ebb. They inform us of something we must know to understand the forthcoming action. Conversations propel the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said “Dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.”

That is true of every aspect of a scene: action, conversation, reaction. A scene that is is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed conversation can give the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

A certain amount of context can arrive through internal monologue, but it must be done in such a way that the reader is not faced with a wall of italics. There are two problems with long mental conversations:

  1. italics are daunting in large chunks.
  2. it can become a thinly veiled cover for an info dump.

Remember, in novels, not everyone in the scene knows everything, so their thoughts won’t be that critical, and are therefore not needed. Plot points are driven by the the characters who do have the critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension.

Consider the concept of  asymmetric information–a situation in which one party in a business transaction has more or superior information compared to another. In business, one individual’s pursuit of pure self-interest can prevent other companies from effectively entering and competing in an industry or market–he has critical knowledge they don’t have, and effectively eliminates his competition. He has a monopoly.

That monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, a conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need. Idle conversation will bore your reader to tears.

We deploy info, but we don’t dump it in one large chunk though–the reader must find it out at the same time as the other characters, over the first 3/4 of the novel.

We do this in small arcs that combine to form the overall story arc. Events occur, linked by conversations, forming small arcs (scenes) that support the structure of the novel.

The Story Arc

 

By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.

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Crafting the scene

I often sit and stare out the window at some point or another during the day–a habit perhaps from the old days of being an ADD kid imprisoned in the basement classrooms of the old Michael T. Simmons Elementary school in 1965. Although that building has been long ago torn down and a new one now serves the community, I still remember sitting in Mrs. White’s overcrowded classroom, staring up at the small window, unable to concentrate on anything but the blue sky outside.  She was my favorite teacher, because she knew I needed extra help with math, and in a class with 42 children, she found the time to give it to me.

Amaranthus and Savvy at the needles by haystack rock cannon beach 2012I still stare out my windows when I am rolling a plot point over in my mind, and I sometimes notice what is happening in the neighborhood.  The window is closed, so I can’t hear their words, but I often see the children.

At first it looks as if they are all happily playing.  Then two of them stand up and from their posture you can see a quarrel is brewing. Suddenly one of them  clouts the other on the head with a toy sword, and another child intervenes. The angry child leaves, and the others are left to console the sobbing child with the bump on his head.

We know that what we have witnessed is not the whole story–there is a whole novel surrounding that interaction. If what I witnessed from my window was a book, this event would read this way:

1. Deciding to meet and spending the day playing in the neighbor’s yard is a chapter in the much larger story of how a group of children in one neighborhood spent their summer

2. The quarrel and resulting bump on the head with the final moments of consolation are one complete scene within that chapter, setting the stage for the next scene–tattling on and achieving penalties for the aggressor, who then apologizes and seeks acceptance back into the group. These two separate scenes comprise the whole chapter, Playing at So-and-So’s Yard.

The Arc of the StoryMost authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc,  which  consists of :

  • a. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  • b. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  • c. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  • d. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  • e. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

However, within the larger story there are many smaller stories, all scenes created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

The main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches. 

This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s Narrative Arc than the previous scene did, pushing the narrative toward the climax.

876MilanoDuomoWhen you are structuring your novel, think of the way Gothic Cathedrals are constructed–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries.

Like a Gothic cathedral, each small arc of the scene  builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel. By creating small arcs in each scene, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.

Better You Go Home, Scott DriscollAt the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference this last weekend, I went to a presentation by University of Washington Professor Scott Driscoll, who is a highly acclaimed author of literary fiction. His book, Better You Go Home is a gripping tale of a man in search of his roots and something more. Scott spoke at length on the importance of creating an arc within each scene, small arcs that propel the plot forward and hook the interest of the reader. In Scott’s work, each scene sets that hook just a little bit deeper.

Some authors make each individual scene a chapter, and some group several scenes with a common theme together to create a chapter. It’s your book–do it however suits you best.

The important thing to remember is that each scene that comprises the framework of the overall narrative arc must have its own arc–the Arc of the Scene.

 

 

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