Current works and upcoming books by Dana Littlejohn
Thursday, September 15, 2016
Thursday tips: what is a story?
Welcome back to another Thursday tips day! Today we ask, what is a story? A story is simply a tale of events that are linked by cause and effect. It can be true or it can be a work of fiction. We expect stories to have a beginning, middle and end. They involve at least two characters, and some type of event take place.
Though there are three major contemporary types of written story:
The short story
The life story (biography or autobiography)
For the purposes of this blog (because it's for fiction writers) I will only give tips for the short story and novel. (I will be glad to come back and do a separate blog for the life story if there is a call out for it)
A short story is a piece of fiction under 20,000 words. More typically, a short story will be 1,000 – 10,000 words. (Pieces under 1,000 words are “flash fiction”, over 20,000 and they’re novellas.)
How to Write a Great Short Story
Like any story, your short story needs to have a beginning, middle and end:
The beginning is where we’re introduced to the characters, especially the main character and his/her problem
The middle is where the action and plot develops. The main character will face difficulties such as opposition from other people or a challenging environment.
The end is where the main character triumphs over his/her biggest challenge (or fails, in the case of a tragedy). The resolution should be satisfying and conclusive for the reader.
Even in literary and experimental short stories, it’s important that something should happen. Much of the action might take place inside the characters’ heads, but there should be a real change as a result.
By the end of your short story, your main character should have experienced an internal change. This means that they’ve grown and developed as a person – perhaps overcoming a fear, or recognizing an unacknowledged truth about himself or herself.
A novel is a piece of fiction that’s 50,000 words or longer (shorter books are novellas). The typical novel is around 80,000 – 150,000 words, depending on genre.
Novels and short stories share similar structural features, but novels give the author a much wider scope. A novel might have:
More than one main character (though attempt this with caution!)
A large cast of characters
A long time frame – potentially covering several centuries and several generations
Novels tend to be much more popular than short stories with the reading public, and almost all full-time authors are novelists rather than short story writers. A novel is a much bigger undertaking than a short story.Even if you are able to write short stories without much planning, you’ll need to plan out your novel in advance. There are a number of ways to do this, but whichever you choose, ensure:
You have enough plot to meet your word count target
Your main character (protagonist) is sympathetic – readers of short stories will put up with a dull or unlikeable character, but novel readers are stuck with the character’s viewpoint for much longer. As the writer, you’ll need to be able to become your characters.
You have an escalation of events throughout the plot. Things need to get worse and worse for your characters, until they finally overcome their problems or enemies.
Share Your Story Writing Efforts
It’s hard to write in isolation, and sharing your work with other writers is a great way to get feedback and suggestions. Look for a local writers’ circle, or join an online forum. You want to find somewhere that’s supportive but where people aren’t afraid to offer advice about things that aren’t working in your story.
Writing is a craft that you can learn, like any other. There are hundreds of books on all aspects of writing, from the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation to writing in specific genres. You can also find free advice on the Internet (on blogs like this one). You can even take a degree or post-graduate course in creative writing.
As well as learning about writing, you need to practice. That means writing regularly – ideally daily. As you write more, your stories will get better – your characters are more “real”, your plots are convincing, and your endings are deeply satisfying to readers. You’ll also find that writing itself becomes easier: you’ll spend less time struggling to find the right words, and more time enjoying seeing the story spill from your fingers.
All authors need to revise their work. Your first draft might have a lot of problems – inconsistent characterization, scenes which don’t really fit, holes in the plot, incorrect pacing or tension. Don’t worry if this is the case: most published authors have to extensively rewrite their first drafts too. Always allow time to revise your story, and if possible, do several rewrites. Most authors recommend letting your story sit unread for a few days or weeks when you complete a draft, so that you can come to it with fresh eyes.