Short Story Writing Can Have Massive Rewards
A famous writer once defined the novel as “prose of a certain length that has something wrong with it.” A short story can afford no such flaws. The story writer whose only aim is to write beautiful prose runs the risk of overlooking the story’s arc–its natural rise and fall. A story is held together not by fascinating characters, witty dialogue and lyrical scenes, but by the shape into which these critical elements are combined.
Let’s assume you’ve written a solid first draft about a character named Teresa, an ornithologist from Cornell University. Teresa hears of an improbable sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker–a bird thought to be extinct. Her colleagues scoff at the report, but Teresa decides to follow her intuition and embark on a wild woodpecker chase. First, she charters a plane and flies to a remote spot in Louisiana, with a pilot who drives her crazy by misidentifying all the birds they see en route. After she arrives, she hitches up with a guide who takes her three miles into the woods where the alleged sighting occurred. After four dreary days in the wilderness, Teresa gives up on her quest, dreading the thought of facing her colleagues. Profoundly disappointed, she again boards the plane, which makes one last pass over the forest. As it does, Teresa captures a fleeting and, alas, unconfirmed glimpse of the amazing bird.
This is your first draft. Your job now is to run it through a story-shaping process to see what you have yet to discover.
Stage One: Three Questions
The first stage of story-shaping requires you to answer three questions. There are two purposes to these questions: to identify the story’s general shape, and to determine whether the draft contains enough material to shape into a story.
* What does the main character want? In our example, Teresa wants to confirm the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker. That’s a simple answer that gives the story a destination–and a rudimentary shape.
Now, try taking this answer a little further. Why does Teresa want to confirm the bird’s existence? Does her career need a boost? Does she want more respect from her colleagues? Her true desires might be invisible, even to her; she might be chafing from a recent divorce, for example. Perhaps she is desolate and alone, and her desire to find a supposedly extinct bird is an impulse to confirm her fragile hope that not everything on Earth dies away.
To answer this question completely is to add color and dimension to the character, and the best stories evolve from character, not plot. To search out a story’s shape is to search out the story itself. The fulfillment of hope, rather than the confirmation of a bird’s existence, is the story’s new destination–one with considerably higher stakes.
* Does the story have a beginning, a middle and an end? This question helps you see the story’s overall shape.
In our first draft, the beginning shows Teresa hearing about the woodpecker; the middle takes Teresa through the plane ride, the hike, the disappointment; and the end shows Teresa’s frustrating glimpse of the bird. Whether there’s too much beginning and not enough middle, or vice versa, is not your concern yet. You’re simply verifying that the three basic parts exist.
But here’s the problem: Teresa isn’t just an omithologist anymore. She’s a woman with complex desires. In the course of answering the first question, you discovered that Teresa is grieving the loss of her marriage. The story line now seems thin and too plot-centered, for it lacks any treatment of Teresa’s true feelings. The ending, charming as it is, seems a bit contrived, more like a trick ending than a logical culmination of the story’s events.
Already you should be devising ways to infuse the story with a richer and more accurate sense of Teresa. Perhaps she looks out the plane’s window and remembers that the first time she saw a fairy tern was in a sky just like this, in Hawaii on her honeymoon. When she’s sweating in the woods, weighted down with camera equipment and waiting for the bird to show, she tells her guide the story of a camping trip she took with her husband to see the western grebe’s elaborate courtship dance. Do you see how the story is changing? It isn’t her smug colleagues Teresa dreads facing, it’s her empty apartment.
* Does the story have the makings of a central metaphor? If the answer is no, that’s fine. Not all stories contain or require central metaphors. Make sure you take a good look at the draft before answering, though. Metaphors are sneaky devices that often creep out of our unconscious, suggesting what the story wants to be about whether we recognize it or not.
Because Teresa’s life revolves around the study of birds, you can use a bird metaphor without seeming heavy-handed. The image of birds in flight can help you–and the readers–learn something about Teresa: Is she herself in flight? From what? Or, you could work the bird imagery in an opposite way, suggesting birds as a symbol of convention. Birds migrate in set patterns, sing identical songs, nest at predictable times and in predictable places, raise and fledge their young, and then start the same process all over again. Is this predictability (which she had in her marriage) something Teresa might want for herself? Whether you use the bird imagery or not, exploring it can help you flesh out the story.
By now you should have a wealth of new information about the character and situation you invented in the first draft. The next step is to incorporate that information into a new draft, and then move to Stage 2, which involves more specific story shaping.
Stage Two: The Classic Story Shape
The classic story shape consists of setup, complication, rising action, climax and denouement. Almost any story can be plugged into this shape; not all stories make an exact fit, but most will follow this general form. First, a brief explanation of terms, using a fairy tale as an example.
Setup: This is the beginning of the story, in which you set the stage for the reader. A family of bears, who live in a forest cottage, decide to go out for a walk.
Complication: This is an event or person that disrupts the setup and propels the story into motion. Goldilocks breaks into the cottage.
Rising action: Rising action comprises all the events that make up the story’s middle. The action, whether emotional or physical, creates dramatic tension by exposing hidden aspects of character, or by adding further complications to the plot. Goldilocks breaks Baby Bear’s chair, eats Baby Bear’s porridge, and falls asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. The bears return home and survey the damage.
Climax: This is the end of the story, the point at which the events of the story culminate in a reversal, a transformation or a realization. The bears discover Goldilocks, who wakes, screams and flees.
Denouement: This is the story’s last breath–a line, a paragraph, less often a page or two–that allows readers to absorb the climax and leave the fictional world. In some longer works, the denouement takes the form of an epilogue. Goldilocks never came back, and the bears lived happily ever after.
Let’s run through these story elements once again, using our story about Teresa.
Setup: The setup from the first draft is fine: Teresa is an ornithologist who gets a questionable tip about a rare bird and decides to follow her intuition. Because you know Teresa much better now, you can easily enrich this setup. You might suggest that following intuition is out of character for Teresa by describing the sanitized order of her office, or the precise way her earrings are perched on her earlobes. You might even suggest, through other details, that her marriage was a casualty of her reluctance to follow her “feelings.”
Complication: Here’s your first big discovery: The story has no complication. Teresa wants to find the bird, so she sets out after it. Nothing stands in her way. Besides that, not much is at stake. She has something to gain (some professional respect) by succeeding, but very little to lose by failing. A story without complication is a situation, not a story. You must make things more difficult for Teresa. What if she can’t get to Louisiana? No commercial airlines fly to so remote a spot, and the only person she knows with a private plane is her ex-husband, a pilot. Can you feel how you’ve just ratcheted up the tension? Part of her wants to fly her own way, part of her longs for the predictability of marriage. Isn’t this the conflict that the central metaphor hinted at? Suddenly you realize that Teresa’s real story is about reconciling her loss–and you’ve just placed the cause of her grief right in her face. That’s a complication.
Rising action: In the original draft, the rising action included a plane ride, a hike through the woods and a disappointment. Not much action here. Rising action doesn’t have to be physical, of course; emotional action can provide dramatic tension, too. In either case, what you’re after is a sense of escalation, which the first draft lacks. You could raise the stakes a bit–Teresa gets bitten by a snake (physical escalation), or falls in love with the guide (emotional escalation)–but chances are the rising action will still feel static. The problem in our first draft is that the rising action, no matter how good, doesn’t spring from a complication. Now that the ex-husband is in the picture, though, the story has a tantalizing pivot point from which the action can credibly rise.
Because you’ve introduced a complication, the story’s original middle must change. The pilot is now the ex-husband; instead of misidentifying birds, he identifies them correctly, showing Teresa that he learned something from her in their ten years together. This is surprising to Teresa, who always felt he didn’t listen to her. Furthermore, it’s the ex-husband, not a guide, who accompanies her through the woods. This new twist gives the story’s real subject, Teresa’s unresolved grief, a chance to blossom. As they walk through the stillness of the forest, the shadow of their other, similar times together looms large.
A mildly interesting story is now fraught with tension.
Climax: In our first draft, the climax was an anticlimax: Teresa gives up on finding the bird. In this new version, the same climax takes on a quiet resonance. On the last day in the forest, the ex-husband points out what he thinks is an ivory-billed woodpecker. Disappointed, Teresa tells him he’s found not the ivory-billed, but the common pileated woodpecker instead. To her surprise, he is thrilled anyway, because the pileated woodpecker is large and beautiful, and he has never seen one. His enthusiasm reminds Teresa of the sense of wonder she felt in her early days as an ornithologist. Chastened, she spends several moments watching this ordinary bird, trying to recapture that feeling. Whether or not she reconciles with her ex-husband, Teresa has retrieved something of herself on this trip that she plans to keep forever.
Denouement: The denouement, not surprisingly, is nearly the same as in the first draft. Often, a first-draft ending is exactly right–the hard part is finding the story that logically leads to it. In this version, the fact that Teresa can’t confirm her fleeting glimpse of the rare bird is irrelevant–the aching thrill she feels is its own reward. The denouement no longer smacks of trickery, because it is not a last-second twist but a fulfillment of the story’s themes of hope and loss.
As the transformation of this story should make clear, the classic story shape is not a formula. A formula requires you to do nothing more than move characters through a predetermined plot. A shape is much more complex; you must investigate your characters’ motives desires and change the story’s path accordingly.
Stage Three: Weight and Balance
A well-shaped story should look somewhat like a bell curve. The setup and complication occur at the beginning of the bell; the rising action takes up the dome; and the climax and denouement occur as the bell winds down at the other end.
If you give each part of the story the same weight–for example, two pages of setup, two pages of complication, and so on–the story’s tension dissipates because the weight is too evenly distributed. You end up not with a bell curve but a straight line, and readers can’t grasp the rise and fall of dramatic tension. The sighting of the bird becomes no more or less critical than the color of Teresa’s earrings.
Or, the story might suffer from poor balance. If the setup and complication take six pages and the rising action only two, then the story’s weight is bunched at the beginning, making it bottom-heavy. The shape becomes a long straight line that suddenly bulges up. A story’s weight should be concentrated in the rising action (the dome of the bell) because rising action is where you play out the consequences of the complication and prepare for the climax and denouement. Rising action is the meat of the story, and requires the bulk of the weight. The climax should be brief by comparison, and the denouement very brief (or, in some stories, missing altogether).
This balancing act is tricky but critical. Doing the hard work of examining each of a particular story’s elements makes the final shaping much easier. Because you’ve identified the setup and complication in this story about Teresa, you should have no trouble establishing both in an opening scene. After that, the weight of the story lies in the rising action, which you know must take place in the woods and involve an interplay between Teresa and her ex-husband. The climax, where Teresa takes time to admire the wrong woodpecker, is comparatively short. The denouement is even shorter–a paragraph at most to show Teresa’s fleeting glimpse of the right bird.
If you still have trouble envisioning a story’s shape, try spreading out the pages on a table and highlighting the story’s parts in different colors. Setup gets a green marker, complication gets a blue, and so on. This way you can create a graphic representation of the story’s weight and balance, and any deformities will be instantly obvious.
These story-shaping strategies are meant as guidelines, not rules. Not all stories take the same shape, nor should they. Lots of “shapeless” stories are gems of invention, and many well-shaped stories have no heart. Still, it never hurts to put a story through these paces. You can give an abandoned story a second chance, and you might learn something new about a story that already seems to works.