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A short story isn’t just short–it requires focus. (Especially when that short story is for children or teens and the word length is often under 1000 words.) A lot has to be accomplished in a short space: establishing setting, revealing character, getting to the heart of the story, and resolving the problem with a satisfying ending. Focusing on different parts of story works for me as a writer and an instructor. Perhaps it will help you, too.
FOCUS ON THE PROBLEM
First, ask yourself these questions: “What’s the main character’s problem?” and “What will happen if this problem is not solved?” In other words, why does it matter? If there are no consequences, no stakes for the mc in solving the problem, no one will care.
Then move on to thinking how the problem might be solved and what the obstacles are in the mc’s way. Other factors to consider are age appropriateness of the problem to fit the main character and whether this problem can be solved in a physically short amount of time. You also might consider who would have this type of problem.
Here’s the Number One Rule of Short Stories: The Main Character Needs to Solve the Problem! Really. No acts of God. No coincidences. No secondary character fixing it–especially a parent. A main character can obtain advice, however. No suddenly acquired skills/tools, such as “oh, yeah, she’s a karate expert.” And, absolutely No Waking Up and Discovering It Was a Dream. (I’m not alone in hating this–it makes us feel cheated.)
Beginning: When I begin writing a short story, my goal is to establish the problem right away. The reader should know something about “what’s wrong” on page one. Make trouble for your main character.
Middle: When solving the problem, I sometimes use the power of three–the main character tries several solutions that fail, the third solution works. Or I might show the steps the character has to take. I want this as exciting or interesting as possible. Make more trouble for your mc.
End: When writing for children or teens, the goal is to leave the reader with hope. That means the problem is solved in some way. A story might come full circle to tie end to the beginning. It might be a logical progression. But tell what happened, so the reader knows how the main character solved the problem.
Late one evening at a writers’ conference, a large group of writers were sitting together in a circle. About half of them were fiction writers and the other half poets. One of the poets said she’d gotten a bat in her house. A fiction writer asked, “How did you get it out?” All the fiction writers leaned forward. “I can’t remember,” the poet answered. One by one, the fiction writers got up and left.
Unaware, the poets continued to sit and discuss the poet’s feelings about that bat in her house. They asked what she thought it meant. The fiction writers didn’t care about either those issues; they wanted to know how the problem was solved. They wanted to learn who the woman was through her experience of getting the bat out of the house. That’s our job–to show the character through the experiences of problem solving.
FOCUS ON THEME
What’s the main point you want the reader to learn? What idea or thought do you want as a “take away”? What’s the heart of the story? Answering this helps you clarify the direction of your story. If you don’t know the answer, it will be harder to reach a satisfying conclusion. Side points in a short story distract–they lead the reader off on a tangent. If you want to have the reader “get” another point, write a second story.
FOCUS ON THE MAIN CHARACTER
What type of character should you choose?
– the one who has the most to lose
– character who will have changed by the end
– the one who has the ability to solve the problem and bring about a satisfying ending
– the one who tugs at your heat and fascinates you
– the character who would be on-stage for the WHOLE story
Who is this person? You need to know things that will never make it on the page. A bit about her family life, his personality, her likes and dislikes. I love this question I’ve heard stated in a number of ways: “What is inside him that will make it difficult to solve the story problem?” As Jane Smiley says, “Story reveals character.” You need to know something about this person’s character so you can reveal it.
FOCUS ON SETTING
Where is your story taking place? In a city apartment? A suburban house? A country school? A park? There are thousands of places to use, but the sense of place needs to be established quickly. There’s usually only time to be in one or two places in a short story. (Maybe three.) Often short stories are told in one scene, which means one setting.
FOCUS ON STORY ELEMENTS
Probably one of the hardest things for me to learn, but so important, was “showing versus telling.” It helped me to think of it in parts.
Jumping into action can start the story off with a bang and can hook your reader. If a character is only sitting, the story probably won’t be very interesting. But if the character is doing something… Consider actions (or places) that put your character in a tense situation.
Let us know what the main character is thinking. For children and teen readers, you’ll never be in someone else’s head in a scene. (Multiple viewpoint books separate those viewpoints by chapters or sections.) Thoughts can explain dialogue or be counterpoint to dialogue. Either way it gives insights into the main character. Thoughts can reveal things that the character would never say.
Allow the reader to hear the characters talk. Dialogue can add life to your story. It can create tension as characters argue. It can add humor. Think of watching a movie with no one talking–boring!
Show what the main character is feeling. Don’t tell–she was mad–but show what she does when she’s mad.
Let us see where, when, how this story is happening. More than just setting, this includes sensory details. Use all senses: taste, touch, sound, sight, hearing and temperature. Use specific details–the ones that reveal the most. Think of three that really show something about the place and/or the character. What would he notice? Don’t use chunks of description, but mix it into the action.
Showing is using a combination of these elements. It puts the reader on scene and lets them “be there.”
I’ve heard writers say they don’t know how to finish a story. For me, knowing the problem, the theme, the main character, setting, and focusing on the story elements, gets me from start to finish. The less I know the harder it is to reach a satisfactory ending.
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