I was sent this email recently:
I am a 17 year old student and I have just started my Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). I found your contact details through the website "contactanauthor.com" and would really appreciate if you could spend a small amount of your time to offer me some advice....I want to learn the appropriate techniques to effectively tell a story, to make a meaningful piece of writing... I understand that you may be very busy but it would mean a great deal to me if you would be able to give me some response about how to tackle writing a short story... I really feel that communicating with a professional writer will allow me to improve the way that I go about tackling this project.Thank you so much for taking the time to read this email, I hope to hear back from you.'J'
I wrote 'J' this answer:
Read some stories critically. That is, think hard about them as you read. Have a notebook and make some notes.
In real life, almost everything ‘just happens.’ There’s no plan behind it. I once volunteered at an Adult Literacy Class. The first day I turned up, I went along to the classroom and found the whole class of about ten people standing outside. I joined them and we all stood there for an hour, chatting as we waited for the tutor to arrive. She never did. The class were surprised. It wasn’t like her. After an hour, we gave up and went home.
But imagine that this was a story you read. Nothing in a story is there by chance. Especially in a short story, where the writer might only have a thousand words— or 300. Every single word has been chosen rather than another word that could have been used instead. Why write ‘chuckle’ when the word could have been ‘giggled’ or ‘laughed?’ Why write ‘concerned’ when it could have been ‘worried?’
Is the story third-person or first-person narration? Why? The writer made that decision for a reason.
Is the new volunteer the main character and if so, why? What point is being made by the volunteering— something about his/her character?
Who are the pupils waiting outside? What do they talk about? Why are they made to talk about that and not something else? Do they realise the newcomer is a volunteer tutor or do they think s/he is another student? What difference does their impression make to the story?
Is the whole conversation there just to introduce something that’s going to happen next? Or to give an account of another character before that character appears? If there is no such purpose to the conversation, is it worth including it?
Yet another way of saying it is, ‘Start every scene as far into it as you can and get out of every scene before the end.’ This is good advice, I think, for any kind
of writing. (Which doesn't mean you should follow it to the letter, every time.)
You probably have to write your scene or your story at full length first, so you know all about it. But don't consider every word you write to be untouchable. Be prepared to cut any passage. Put every paragraph on trial. What is it doing for the story that it deserves to stay? Is it establishing character or place? Is it showing character? Is it preparing for a turn in the plot? Ideally, it should be doing more than one of these things at once. If it isn't, cut it.
The point of the story about the woman being knocked down could be that she thought she was all on her own but finds out, when she’s laid up in hospital, that she has more friends than she thought. Aaaah.
My advice would be: Start with the story you want to tell, and then build the characters who will best allow you to tell that story. What age do they need to be?
What personality works best for the tale you have to tell?
The story must always seem as if it’s being pushed along by the characters. Never have something happen, or turn up, just because it solves a problem for a character. Their struggle to solve the very hard problems you invent for them is the story.
But as the character pushes the plot, the plot should push back. If you want to write a well-shaped story that will seem to have a point, then your plot and characters go forward in lock-step. Your character is part of your plot, was invented as part of your plot, to help you to tell the story you want to tell.
So, in my Sterkarm Handshake, I made the hero a 16th Century riever who's been trained
|The Sterkarm Handshake|
since childhood to ride, fight, steal and kill. I don't particuarly admire his attitudes but, in the story, he has to lead a riever band on raids, so I had to give
him the ability to do that.
It might have been 'quirky' to make him a scholarly type who hates violence and only wants to curl up with a good book -- but such a character would have been useless for telling the story I wanted to tell.
The heroine is scholarly -- she's a historian so keen that she's agreed to travel into the past and endure all the discomfort of life in a reiver tower, to experience it for herself. She's from the 21st Century and a gentle, peace-loving soul who, as the hero remarks, 'thinks that it's possible to get by without anyone ever being hurt.' (He knows it's impossible.) She spends a lot of the book trying, without success, to prevent people getting hurt.
But her character is as much dictated by the plot as the hero's. I needed a 21st-Century character who could explain the 16th Century to my readers, and I needed to explain why she's 'living in the past.' I also needed a contrast to the reiver's harsh beliefs.
I could have given her a leather breast-plate and thigh-boots and sent her out to fight battles at the hero's
side, but that wouldn't have fitted the story I wanted to tell. (Although I might have sold more.)