This is topic Short-story help in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Well, after a good deal of pinning, I've finally come up with an idea for a story and roughed out the plot line in a few hours. The story has everything I want in a story; it is character driven, it deals with some aspects of the human condition (like wanting to strangle people like Holden Caulfield), and with some social issues as well.

Hooray for me!

My problem is that as far as I can envision it at the moment, this story best suits a short-story format. The problem is I know nothing, or very little about writing short-stories. Can anyone point me in the direction of some good research materials on short-story structure, and pacing in particular. I'm afraid my short-stories will either turn out to be novellas or flash-fiction.

Thanks in advance.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Short fiction's difference from long fiction is a matter of limitation: limited moral truth discovery and moral transformation, limited complication and conflict, limited event sequence, limited setting's time, place, and situation, and limited character cast.

Like long fiction, a short story, any composition for that matter, focuses upon a singular and urgent "argument." The antagonal magnitude of the argument is lower and more limited for short fiction than long fiction due to word count allows for only so much action over a brief time span.

A fully realized short story spans less than eight thousand or so words and is of a reading time elapsed of roughly an hour maximum narrative time (one hundred fifty words per minute average for English readers). Narrative time is time elapsed reading and is more or less fixed per reader reading rate, thus the average is a useful metric because that's the customary convention for prose lengths. How much time a reader budgets for reading derives from an individual awareness of reading time elapsed -- narrative time.

Story time, on the other hand is the time elapsed within a story's setting -- the time that elapses while a story unfolds and is flexible. Story time may span an hour exactly, stretch time out and span a few moments, span hours, weeks, months, maybe years, or centuries within that one hour or so narrative time. Part of story time may span longer, part may span shorter narrative time elapsed.

The custom for short fiction is to summarize and explain and compress more than might be best advised practice. Too much story for too small a container is common for short fiction, as too little story for too large a container is common for long fiction.

Short fiction's too common excess tell lecture short-shrifts reality imitation's strong suit of scene mode. Tell slows, stalls, reverses, or stops forward narrative and story time flow. Scene mode slows, stalls, or stops composition time, though, from the challenges the method raises. A consequence of disparate narrative, story, and composition times is mis-paced narrative overall. The length of time draft and revision composition takes results in rushed narrative time and compressed story time.

A moral truth discovery is at root of an order of antagonal magnitude suited to length. How much time elapses for a moral discovery matters from how set in a vice habit a central agonist is, hence, how strong of transformative influences cause change.

For example, a want for a piece of chewing gum on its surface is of low antagonal magnitude. The longer an agonist efforts to acquire gum raises the complication's magnitude. Such a story is not intangibly about getting gum, though, superficially, yes, actually about morals really. Searching for gum could discover how messy a setting has been allowed to get, sloth, for example.

What then is the central moral vice-virtue struggle? Sloth-diligence? Gluttony-temperance? Or greed-charity, wrath-patience, pride-humility, envy-kindness, lust-chastity? Or other combinations, say, sloth-humility? Want for gum is obviously gluttony though the glutton discovers slothful housekeeping instead, for instance. That is possibly an artful misdirection scenario -- artful misdirection appeals to readers' intellects and thus emotions and imaginations. This is a subtle, sublime, and profound quality to be found in memorable and popularly and critically acclaimed narratives: artful misdirection, and artfully delayed revelation and reversal as well, to develop tension.

To artfully compose such a scenario, vivid and lively action is warranted: Want satisfaction progress and problem setbacks of proportionate antagonal magnitude oscillate back and forth. Perhaps while searching for gum the agonist stumbles down a staircase, then lies immobilized on the stair. That event is suitable for a post climax tragic turn.

For a beginning of a chewing gum search, a self-involved first cause is wanted. Say the agonist has an unsettling argument with a neighbor about hoarding -- now a protected class due to an obsessive-compulsive condition -- and the hoarding spills out of the agonist's physical boundaries and irresponsibly crosses social boundaries. The gum is a pacifier instead of, say, smoking tobacco or -- and -- drinking alcohol, taking drugs, eating excess comfort food, etc. The gum is meant to self-soothe, self-comfort. Hoarding and spilling out then match up to a vice-virtue clash from within short fiction limitations.

The chewing gum complication scenario above is intended to illustrate the most banal of situations can be a stepping off point for a suitably antagonal magnitude short or long fiction. For a short fiction, that would mean also a limited moral truth discovery and limited moral transformation, limited event sequence, limited settings, and limited character cast. This is short fiction: transcendentally expansive from within limited boundaries.

For online access to short fiction tips and guidance, many sites offer ample content, much of it dubious and oftentimes contradictory if not mutually exclusive. The short fiction form is the caldron of experimental prose (metafiction). The near infinite variety of potential is mere demonstration of short fiction's limitless limitations.

Anyway, one of the more useful theory sets of short fiction, applicable to long fiction, prose generally, is Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction. An online "Plot" excerpt from the text.

[ July 08, 2015, 06:11 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
The book that helped me the most was Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by Rust Hills. It's a small book so not very intimidating, and it has some great insights.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Added Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular to my to-buy-and-study reading list. Tel est la vie, no copy available for miles around. A sample preview of the text convinced me. Hills cites Edgar Allen Poe's poetics on the short story, among others, and in areas I'm working on. Save for Hills' propensity for journalism style instead of prose's, mostly journalism's punctuation, somewhat syntax, a noteworthy text. Then again, Hills was a serial publication -- magazine -- editor, workshop facilitator, and critic.
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
I don't really have any handbooks to recommend on short fiction writing, I'm afraid. I've been mostly operating on self-taught technique and some advice I got ten years ago in a creative writing class. The biggest difference between short fiction and longer fiction is scale. You're writing scenes instead of chapters. Hell, some short stories are only one scene, and that's just fine.

The basics of story structure are the same: conflict escalates to a climactic moment. The difference is scale. There's usually only one main conflict in a short story. There may or may not be a denouement after the climax of the story. It's very important to tie up any and all loose ends, because they're much more noticeable in short fiction than in longer works.

Do keep in mind, I'm still learning. This is just what I've learned thus far.

I can recommend some good authors of short fiction: OSC, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King come to mind, for starters. There's also a lot that can be potentially garnered from the sorts of stories that get touted around in literature classes and the like. I saved my old Literature textbook simply because of how many interesting short stories it held in its confines. (I'd recommend it, but it's actually surprisingly expensive even for the older editions, which is dumb.)

Don't be afraid of short stories. They're not as complex as novels, but there is an elegance in the simplicity of a well-written short. Jump in with both feet and see where it takes you. I look forward to seeing what you come up with! [Smile]
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
I am waiting on the delivery of my copy of Creating Short Fiction and am looking forward to reading it.

I have tried writing short fiction before; the time span is usually less than 24 hours, the major character 2 and the dramatic want is usually simple--like staying alive. However, I seem to always include a reversal scene. The twist at the end. But don't get me wrong, the twist isn't at the readers expense, it's at the character's. The things that have been happening and the reasons they've been happening aren't exactly what he thinks they were.

As for Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by Rust Hills, it seems to be available on Amazon right now. If only I had the money . . .

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
The much appealing "twist" end is a challenge to compose. So long as the dramatic turn is congruent to the tangible and intangible actions, and natural and necessary, inevitable, the reversal is a satisfying end. The turn, though, is set up at the start, by the moral truth discovery action.

If a turn, no matter when the turn falls in a narrative or more than one, is only necessary to fulfill plot needs, though, the turn will feel forced, and sentimentally melodramatic: false, in other words.

I meant the libraries hereabouts don't have Hills' book for preview before making a purchase decision.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
The seeds of the 'twist' must be sown in the first scene and, at the end, the reader must be able to go, "Aaahh!" and recall not just one, but a number of clues that become clear in hindsight.

The twist must also be inevitable and without contrivance. My original plot for this story ended with the MC being recruited for a job, The End. Once I had enunciated the story's premise and refined it somewhat, that 'forced' me to change the ending to one I had never considered before and one that, quite frankly, made me uncomfortable--but the ending is necessary, and a logical conclusion to all that comes before.

Have you got inter library loans? Mind you, you could be waiting a long time.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Public library lnterlibrary loan hereabouts is underserved. I've patronized better libraries. The last system -- a registered library cardholder could request interlibrary loans online. Not this one and the desk that processes them is often unstaffed. I won't say how abysmal the circulating selections are. Fortunately, the college library has better service and selection, though only enrolled students and faculty can use interlibrary loan. My alumni card entitles me to check out books otherwise and a guest access to databases. I'm between enrollments at present. By about February 2016 or so I'll learn if my PhD application was accepted.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Overdrive may be a possibility, extrinsic.

One of the "things" about short stories, according to some, is "one" or "unity" as it's also called.

The idea is that there is one setting, one (short) time frame, one want, one character, one complication, and so on.

Novels can have all kinds of multiples of the above, but short stories are supposed to focus on the single most impactful event in the character's life - the huge life-changer.

Anyway, it might help to consider how you can apply "unity" to the story you're planning.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
The story requires two 'agonists. The theme/plot/premise/idea is a single, simple one: survival of the fittest. There are multiple settings, there must be in a 'chase story'. There is a single, life-changing epiphany that occurs to the MC--if he survives. The ending has three possible outcomes that I'm considering leaving to the reader to intuit. He refuses victory and dies, he accepts victory and kills in cold blood, or he refuses to play the game.

If I'm going to leave the actual ending up to the reader, I still have to develop and explore the MC deeply enough so the reader can 'correctly' guess what the writer's preferred ending is.

Phew! Maybe I need to start another thread in the 'Fragments' forum. [Smile]


PS. This may all sound like I'm trying to pack overcomplicated into a small space, but I've never done simple. There are multiple layers of meaning, but only a single theme; and it all revolves around the main character and can be resolved within 18 hours (narrative time). I reckon I can do it in less than 7,000 words.

[ July 10, 2015, 09:27 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Acquired a hard copy of Hills' Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular: An Informal Textbook. No disappointment and worth the resource expenditure.

I disagree with Hills in several areas, a big picture one about distinctions between "literary" fiction and "slick" fiction. "Slick" is his term for commercial fiction, also cited by Gardner, what others label daydream narratives, and Hills acknowledges, citing Edgar Allen Poe's infamous distinction that worthwhile prose emulates the night dream.

Like many critics of magazine publication narratives, those forms from the '50s era of magazine publication's heyday, Gardner's "junk" fiction, for example, Hills misses that the practical ironies of "pulp" fiction are less accessible than the customary and somewhat readily accessible motif signals of "literary" fiction. Literary fiction's ironies, symbols, and emblems were at one time as experimental and as innovative as contemporary motifs are. In other words, the subconscious influences upon commercial fiction and convention-based genre fiction are often in a non-one-to-one correspondence of tangible and intangible representation.

Literary fiction's literal and figurative motif correspondences are only one-to-one because a large consensus accepts them as such. A symbol from literary fiction is an agreed motif that corresponds to a long history of the symbol's significance and meaning.

A non-one-to-one correspondence, though, is no less symbolic or emblematic, as the case may be, only that a use is perhaps innovative and therefore to a degree less accessible than a customary motif. The comparatively brief span of contemporary fantastical fiction motif customs, for example, allows limited access to them from their somewhat innovative applications; time travel, faster-than-light travel, and contemporary fantasy sympathetic revenant villains, for examples.

Another somewhat frustrating characteristic of Hills' is assertions that are conclusions, that beg the question -- circular logic, and lack of full realization of the points he makes. For example, Hills cites that character shifts fit exigencies of plot and are unnatural changes imposed to meet the needs of a plot's movement. Naturally, a necessary part of suiting drama's structural needs.

However, the alternative to character shift Hills asserts of character movement, a natural and inevitable though surprising dramatic movement caused by and an effect of basic, natural, and necessary character behavior and personality -- that of a character's self-involved wants and problems complications drive an action, not an action drives a character -- is a distinction without difference. Both character shift and character movement reconciles either shortfall. In any case, denying entire genres' innovations misses the social and cultural contributions of those innovations. Not to say they are new to the present, that they were part of the long human history of expression, as noted by The Poetics of Aristotle's disparagements of mass culture, common playhouse entertainments. Entertainments take many forms and customs.

I've long sought careful analyses of templates and models of acts, of starts, middles, and ends, of wholes and parts and parcels. Of first sentences' forms. Hills does to a degree analyze parts and their relationships, more intimately so than any method critic I've yet encountered. However, his analyses are shy of a desired full-realization mark.

I can only assume and conclude no one has yet turned a careful eye toward what I seek. I guess, as I have done, my satisfaction of those parameters must be my own. First and foremost, the criteria of a completed scene segment: setup, delivery, and transition. Hills does at least provide insight in the section about "Tension and Anticipation." That is, he labels and details the essential criteria "preparation, suspension, and relief." As other critics have remarked, what readers know beforehand develops tension: preparation. Suspension artfully delays relief. Chekhov's Gun, for example, pre-positions a firearm or other incindiary-like motif for a later scene segment, through suspension, builds tension and anticipation the firearm will be timely discharged.

Much to learn from Hills and compare with other method critics, though, and reimagine and adapt and adopt. Worth the resources expenses.

[ July 15, 2015, 02:34 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
Finally received my copies of 'Creating Short Fiction' and 'Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular' today. Looking forward to reading them.
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
I finished 'Creating Short Fiction' yesterday and, while a lot of the information in the book is not technically new to me, it proved a good refresher course and helped me notice some mistakes in my writing habits I could correct. Part 6 was my favorite section of the book, because that was less of the basic 'how to write' things I hear from every book and more 'here are some of the problems you will run unto as a writer and here is how other writers deal with them'.

I'll probably give it a few days before picking up Rust Hills' book, just to give my brain time to process lessons from the first book.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
I've read and reread Creating Short Fiction several times, and regularly resort to the text for review and paraphrases for sharing, posts, etc. New insights from each read, once a stronger and clearer appreciation for the content develops due to contrasts and comparisons with other texts and narratives themselves.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
I find that I am at the stage in my writing where I have a solid grasp of the fundamental theory of writing stories; practical application may be another matter. What this means is that in those places where books on the craft of writing do re-state these fundamental principles, I am reassured by the continuing validation of my knowledge of the basics.

You might then wonder: why bother reading such books if you know most of what's in them? Because sometimes a writer, such as Damon Knight in his book Creating Short Fiction, will re-imagine an often repeated dictum in a new way that gives me an "Ahhh!" moment and a new light is shone on some obscure point I had never properly considered. Although in Damon Knight's book, it was his ability to put into words my own creative method that I found the most enlightening revelation I've had so far.


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