In this entry I propose to offer you:
- The Definition of a Structured Short Story
- The Two Basic Forms of Short Stories
- An Introduction to the Elements of Structure, including –
- The Exterior Elements of Structure (Narrative Arc)
- The Interior Elements of Structure (Character Arc)
- The Artistic Challenge in Balancing the Exterior and Interior Structures for a Specific Effect
This will not be a pep talk. This is a music lesson.
You’d be right for wondering “He’s just showed up, who the hell does this hot dog think he is?” Well. You don’t have to be Chopin to give music lessons. Allow me to step forward with the frank and noble stride of a grenadier to exclaim that there are way more prolific and successful writers on this list that have way more talent and experience than I do.
This is of course the advantage I have had from the beginning.
Not having had all that much of my own talent to rely on, I’ve had to fill that abysmal abyss with hard study and dogged practice and asking people dumb stuff. That’s what I bring you. I’ve read a lot of craft books. Most of them say the same basic things, but some of them have had a profound influence on me that helped me around my limitations. Think of all this as a gesture of gratitude to all the people, including some individuals on this list who have helped me and continue to help me. My opinions aren’t that interesting anyway, so instead let me share what I know for sure is true about the endless artful journey of storytelling.
The Definition of a Structured Short Story
A structured short story is a scene or a series of scenes during which a Deciding Character experiences an initial Causative Event, instilling in this Deciding Character a specific desire or a specific problem to pursue, and with the Deciding Character’s Governing Characteristic influencing the Deciding Character’s decisions, this person attempts to solve the problem or satisfy the desire. After an escalating series of obstacles the story proceeds to a plausible conclusion.
Listen to the guy telling you about this big fish he caught, or how his boss screwed him over at work. There is structure there. Listen to a little kid tell you about something that has just happened to him. Dig up some old Bill Cosby records and listen to the Coz tell stories about his childhood. Listen to his perfect pacing, dialogue and characterization. It’s all right there. We’re born with this stuff, the rest is typing.
The Two Basic Forms of Story
Most modern short stories can be divided into two forms – the Vignette or Lyric story, and the Plotted story.
A vignette follows the basic form of the structured short story except that it is confined to one impressionistic scene or event. Most flashers are vignettes. Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote both forms of story, defined a short story as having all elements strictly combine to form “a unique and single effect”. That describes a vignette. A one scene, one act story where the exterior and interior elements combine to produce a single focused dramatic effect.
You could care about this if you’re submitting to a publisher who is looking for stories of a restricted length, as most vignettes will be under 2000. Writing a vignette will mean that you’ll be writing something like a prose poem, with a limited budget of words, character arc and narrative arc. A lot of what is being said will be buried under the surface or off stage, the way Ernest Hemingway does in his vignettes “A Clean Well Lighted Place” and “Hills Like White Elephants”. The pacing will usually be immediate, moment by moment, without sub plots or jumps in narration. If you try to do the pacing differently, you’ll be working in a form closer to traditional fairy tales, which are usually plotted stories dwarfed into little bonsai trees with broad pacing and very thin character development (“The princess languished in the high tower for ten years. One fine day, a handsome prince was riding by and glimpsed the princess waving to him from a window in the tower.”)
A well crafted vignette can pack the emotional wallop of a gunshot to the face if it is based on a strong image or a unique premise. My two personal favorites are Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts”, both of which I plan to reverse engineer here some day in a future entry. “Masque” is a strong image story that begins with broad pacing which very quickly narrows down to the minute by minute events of a single evening. It has essentially only one character of substance, Prince Prospero, surrounded by a nameless crowd and eventually a red figure with no speaking lines. It is a masterpiece of description and atmosphere. It perfectly achieves Poe’s ideal of a “unique and single effect”. “Guts” has a unique premise it presents through a single narrator, telling a series of short vignettes, ending in a vignette of his own experience. “Guts” is one of the most notorious short stories ever written, known for causing audience members to faint in horror during public readings – even when read aloud in foreign translation. You can read either story in the time it takes to drink a Tall Latte at Starbucks. In the case of Guts, you may not be able to finish your latte for other reasons. “Guts” is a masterful example of pacing and description also. The descriptions are sparse, reported as dryly as Hemingway and yet you’ll soon find yourself cringing.
You can read “Guts” for free courtesy of Chuck Palahniuk at his web site:
For an example of a vignette, I will also volunteer my own poor stuff, because that is the easiest for me to access. Here is an example of a vignette I wrote from the ERWA Treasure Chest called “Fidelis”:
A plotted story follows Aristotle’s classic three act model of a beginning, a middle and an end. Each act has a defined responsibility it has to accomplish before moving on to the next. Most popular genre novels and most movies and TV shows are variations of plotted stories.
The opening scene of a plotted story and to a lesser extent also of a vignette must establish roughly 11 items as quickly as possible:
- Time and Place
- Purpose of Scene
- Five senses:
- Deciding Character
- Governing Characteristic
- Causative event
The first scene should draw the reader into the action. It introduces the Deciding Character, reveals his governing characteristic, provides a panoramic view of the situation, eventually unpacks the causative event and presents the first obstacle or attempt by the deciding character to respond to this event. That first obstacle usually marks the end of the set up and the first act.
For example, try this exercise.
Imagine standing inside of an old barn. Look at the barn, and describe the barn. Now describe the barn from the point of view of an older man or woman who has just walked in. That’s the deciding character. Now – have the character describe the barn during a passionate sexual experience – that is a causative situation interacting with a governing characteristic, depending on how they feel about sex. Voluntary? Rape? Describe the barn from the view of walking in after the deciding character has received the news minutes ago, that a son or daughter has just been killed. Sex. Death. Same barn. Very different view.
My Favorite Hookers
One of my all time favorite hookers is the beginning of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, that old thing they shoved down your throat in high school. The first sentence goes:
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish.”
Now that dry little sentence is one hard working hooker. Break it down. In stark sweeping lines like a Zen ink and brush painting he has given you the deciding character (“He was an old man) with a governing characteristic (who fished alone in a skiff) a panoramic view (“in the Gulf Stream) and a problem and a desire (“he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish.”).
Here’s the beginning of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”, my favorite novel of all time:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-Lee-Ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
I defy you to read that and not want to know what happens next.
he middle act begins immediately after the causative event that ends the action of the first act, and the deciding character has been set into motion with a specific desire or a specific problem to overcome. And there must be one, whether it’s a vignette or a plotted story. Hear me. A desire. Or a problem. Or even better – both. By the end of the first act of a plotted story the reader must know what the deciding character is after and why. I’ve seen so many stories up for crits in ERWA’s storytime that had an interesting premise but the deciding character was weak either because he/she wasn’t up against something or he/she was passive, acted upon instead of acting. The deciding character doesn’t have to be the narrator, the deciding character doesn’t even have to be likable but the deciding character is the one who drives the narrative arc forward starting from the causative event. I come from the old school of pulp fiction, along with many of my literary heroes. With Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard the story always came first, and it had to come at you two fisted and fast. The hero/heroine had to definitely be after something in a manner that kept you turning pages. Whatever genre you write in, if the deciding character is passive or unmotivated, that story will fall flat.
Coming to Death or “Would you like cheese on that McGuffin”?
The middle act will usually begin by the deciding character trying to achieve the object of desire. Alfred Hitchcock had a generic word for this thing, a “McGuffin”. A McGuffin is whatever the deciding character is chasing after. It could be his kidnapped wife and daughter, a briefcase with nuclear codes, a piece of ass, true love or just a little peace and quiet, but the McGuffin has to be there somewhere and someone has to be chasing it. The middle act is about the McGuffin and the changes that are occurring to the deciding character and the people around him, including the villain, in their mutual pursuit of the McGuffin, whatever that is. The obstacles and the scenes ideally should build in a rising crescendo of tension with increasing difficulties with the last obstacle leading into a very special moment. Romance formula writers call this “The Come to Realize” or “Black Period”. Adventure and thriller writers often call it the “Coming to Death” (no jokes please). It’s that moment when everything is lost. No hope. Kaput. Honked. The two lovers hate each other’s guts beyond words. The hero is fatally wounded. The McGuffin is beyond any hope of reach. It’s all failed and gone to shit. That’s when act three begins.
Act three pivots on the turning point that ended act two. The two lovers will “come to realize” that yes, they do love each other. The hero will say “Yes, we’re going to die – but wait – what’s this button?” Something happens, something legitimate, something plausible. That’s why plotted stories are often hard to write well and easy to screw up at the ending. A legitimate ending has to rise organically from things that have gone before. You can prepare the readers but you can’t cheat them.
For an example of a plotted story I would like to offer “The Lady and the Unicorn”, again from the ERWA Treasure Chest. This is a fairly long story that captures all the elements I have just described:
The Exterior Elements of Structure
When I read a story I notice the elements, an exterior shell or presentation balanced against the interior world or soul of the story. This is where Poe’s admonition that a story should have a focused effect begins to mean something. The exterior elements of a story generally gather around the narrative arc. A narrative arc is just that, an arc of rising action reaching a peak and then dropping down. A narrative arc is based on a balance of creative choices, like paints in a paint box. These would include:
- The POV – first person or third person omniscient? Is the narrator also the deciding character? Why or why not?
- The pacing – moment by moment present, or broad stretches of time including jumps in pacing.
- Where should the story begin?
- Where should it end?
- Is there a back story?
- The tone – funny or sad?
- More telling or more showing? (Don’t be so sure)
- Vignette or plotted?
- Premise and Designing Principle
- Is there a villain? What is his/her purpose?
The Interior Elements of structureI often don’t know what the soul of a story is until I’ve overhauled it from the bottom a few times. The interior of a story, the soul of it, generally gathers around the character arc. Many stories fall down at the character arc. Even a vignette, with all of its technical limitations should have a minimal character arc. A character arc means that the character is not aloof to the events that she is going through. The exterior elements are pushing the interior elements through a journey of change. The interior elements are responding, yin and yang, driving the exterior events that cause that change. The decisions she is making are changing her way of thinking, making her a different person at the end than at the beginning. More than any other thing I am convinced this is what gives dimension to a character. As a general thing – not always, but generally – the hero of a story distinguishes themselves by their ability to be changed and arrive at the end as a different person in some way. As a general thing the villain, the Antagonist, does not change. Batman may be damaged but wiser by the end of the movie but the Joker goes out as unrepentant as he came in.
- How is the Deciding Character changed by the end of the story?
- Is there a self-revelation after the Black Period?
- Is there a moral decision by the time the final obstacle is encountered?
- Are there wounds? Weaknesses? Secrets that drive his/her decisions?
- What is the McGuffin? What does this person want?
- Are they behaving actively or passively? Acting or acted on?
These orchestral elements are creative decisions that you balance in proportions to each other to create an intentional result. If you want tension caused by sensual desire or mortal danger you’ll make deliberate decisions about pacing, depth of description and point of view. Next time you watch a thriller or horror movie see how the director slows everything down to a tight focus on detail when The Very Bad Thing is about to happen to somebody. Think of the shower scene in “Psycho”. It’s a very short scene, just under a minute. But it seems to go on and on. Hitchcock once described the art of suspense this way:“Imagine a restaurant where there’s a ticking bomb under the table, and we in the audience know it’s going to go off in fifteen minutes. Now imagine one of the characters knows it as well, but can’t reveal it. With this, the suspense ratchets to another level. Not only are we aware of the impending explosion, we share in the character’s anxiety to get away and the excruciating effort of acting totally unconcerned even as the bomb ticks down. The emotional connection we have to a character for whom this situation is a matter of life or death makes the suspense we feel that much greater.”
An exploding bomb you didn’t know about is a surprise. A ticking bomb you know about is suspense. That is a creative decision.
I had really wanted to go into some serious detail but this is already getting pretty long. Let’s do this. Next post will be “The Exterior Elements of the Character Arc” and it’ll have more detail. The next post after that will be “The Interior Elements of the Character Arc” and then the next post after that one will come on that foundation as “The Narrative Arc” and the next post, by golly, on the foundation of those will be something like “The Art of the Critique”. Right. That’s my plan. Unless the world gets hit by an asteroid. You never know. It happens.
As the Irish say, if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.
Or as my Aunt Myrtle used to say when I was a little kid and told her my big plans –
“Well bless your heart, dear.”
Till then, bless your heart too.