The BasicsA Lesson by Tony Woods
The bare bones to story writing, what you should have, what you MUST have, and what you don't need or want to do.
Hello, I am Tony and this is my first lesson on writing short stories. I guess I'm going to give you the ground rules I give myself when I'm writing. Some of this is common sense, I mean, most of it probably. I don't feel like I'm any more qualified (in fact probably less qualified) than any of you when it comes to having a grasp on the short story, but I fancy my stories good enough, whatever that's worth.
My credentials are not incredibly impressive, but here they are. As far as publishing, I've had one story published in something other than the local/school newspaper. It wasn't big time, but it was published. Unfortunately their published version of my story had more typos on their print than it did on mine :( I was also a pencil pusher in the U.S. Navy. Military writing is meant to be concise, they aren't interested in superlatives; Therefore my job was to edit things people had written for the Commanding Officer to make them sound more presentable, so I also have lots of experience editing (and ghostwriting for the Captain), which is ironic, because I rarely edit the stories I post on this site. If I did I probably wouldn't have gotten 20 rejection letters in the mail this year.
But enough about me, lets start with the "lesson".
First off there are some ground rules with short stories. The art of the short story is more than having a really great idea and putting it on paper. That's part of it for sure, but you have to consider every element while you're writing. Here are some things that I believe are essential to a great story:
1. Plot - There has to be a plot. You have to tie every part of the story together. If you read a fiction book, it has a plot, even "Finnegan's Wake" by James Joyce has a plot. I don't know what the hell it is, but it's there, I guarentee it. Another important thing to remember is to ensure that every scene, every action, every piece of dialogue must forward the plot. If it doesn't, it's a waste of time, get it out of there. This isn't to say it has to be obvious; subtlety is a wonderful thing when it comes to fiction writing, but SOMEBODY has to recognize the meaning behind the less obvious.
2. Characters - Still in the common sense area, your story has to have characters. Generally you'll haveleast two, a protagonist (good guy, sort of) and an antagonist (bad guy, sort of), although you only NEED one. If you're writing a thriller, or what is sometimes called "Commercial Fiction", the characters are not as important, they're still important, but what is more important is the story itself (i.e. what's happening to them). Commercial Fiction is all about the story, you read it for entertainment, like watching an action movie. In "Literary Fiction", your charcter, particularly your protagonist, is the single most important thing in your story. Literary Fiction is about Character development, how your character has changed, or the realization he or she has come to. The difference between Characters in Commerical Fiction and Literary Fiction is this: In Commercial Fiction the focus is what happens AROUND your character, in Literary Fiction the focus is how your character REACTS to what happens around him/her. One more important thing about characters was said by Kurt Vonnegut, "Your character has to WANT something, even if it's just a glass of water." This is very true, after all, you have to explain to us why this person is the focus.
3. Symbols - Every story should have at least one symbol. A symbol is an object that represents something greater than itself. Take Moby Dick by Herman Melville; some literary critcs would argue that the Whale is a representation of God's Divine Providence. The whale is white, a symbolically holy color (in Christianity), and Ahab continually chases it to no avail, eventually losing the boat because of it, a symbol that God's plan for humanity is set in stone, no matter how hard we try to change that. I'm not saying you have to go all out, sometimes one symbol is all you need, but the more you use symbols effectively the more literary merit your story has. Make sure when you do use a symbol, it is in line with the theme of the story, which I will discuss next.
4. Theme - The theme of your story is arguably the most important piece to the puzzle. The theme is essentially the answer to - "What does all of this mean?" Make sure your theme is obvious enough for most readers to understand, but if it's too obvious, it will probably be cliche. Your plot, the way your charcters react to the plot, or what they learn from the plot, and what symbols you use within the story should all tie into the overall theme. There can be more than one theme, but make sure one is a wee bit more important, or stressed, than the other(s). Even your dialogue and descriptions should tie into the theme - good example of this being slightly overlooked is in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" (cool book by the way). In "The Jungle", Sinclair's theme is corruption in corporations and politicians. It's basically muckraking in an attempt to spread the word of socialism and overthrow corrupt politicians like Boss Tweed, who laundered tax dollars and gave breaks to corporations for bribes in the early 20th century. This is all fine and dandy, except that isn't what the book is known for. The book is actually known for completely revamping meat packing policies that were unsanitary and incredibly dangerous. Sinclair went on tours in meatpacking plants before he wrote the book, and wrote of how they used old meat, rotton meat, unsafe working conditions, and wrote about them in the book because his protagonist, Jurgis, worked in a meat packing plant in Chicago. These descriptions are a very small part of the book, but he goes into such great detail that we forget about the corruption in govt, which to the reader seem to pale in comparison to the meatpacking atrocities. Sinclair himself even stated that he was happy he could reform the meatpacking industry, but also dissapointed that readers missed the real theme of the story. So in a nutshell, stay true to your theme, if you sidetrack with something, make sure it doesn't have its own unintended theme that overshadows the one you're going for.
Ultimately writing a story is a chain. Everything must sync up. Your characters must learn something from the plot, which will translate to your theme, with the help of symbols you throw in to aid the characters in the learning process (and the reader). If you can do this, you will be on track to creating a great story.
The last thing I will say is this: I know everything I wrote seems very methodical, but creativity and spontaneity are very important in writing as well. You can outline before you write the story until your fingers bleed, you're still going to come up with good ideas on the fly. Use them, seriously, because stories that stick strictly to an outline are going to read like an outline robotic. All I'm saying is be aware of "the rules" if you will, and work them into your story, don't work the story into them (whatever that means). The single most important thing in a story is creativity, which translates to originality. You could have incorporated everything I typed here into a story, but if it's about a frustrated writer who loves a married woman named Daisy, settles for a golf player named Jordan, and ponders the mysterious life and death of his rich neighbor/friend, you've written "The Great Gasby", and I guarentee your version isn't as good as F. Scott Fitzgeralds.
Thanks for reading everyone, keep writing, next I'll probably do descriptions and dialogue.
Added on December 23, 2009
Last Updated on December 23, 2009
About"Working on leaving the living" - Modest Mouse (I'm kidding about the content of the quote, I'm happy with my life) My name's Tony Woods, hence "T.Woods" if you still need confirmation, but I'm not..