Step two tracing the promise

You already worked on this step as you wrote. Now try to look with fresh eyes at the three parts of your story beginning, middle, end in terms of the implicit promise. You're still reading as a reader here, not a writer. Reread your first two pages, and then set the story down to think about them. What kind of experience do they seem to promise the reader Characters he can identify with A glimpse into a different world Thrills and excitement An intellectual puzzle to solve Insights into human...

Making sure the reader stays on track formal structural designs

In a short story, it's usually not difficult to make sure a reader doesn't become confused. A short story has room for only a handful of events. Most are narrated in chronological order. Usually there aren't more than three or four important charac ters to keep track of. As long as you provide sufficient transition phrases (Two weeks later . . . It had been different back in college . . .), nobody gets lost. A novel is a different proposition. Some resemble short stories in their...

Developing the promise

The middle of the story can be defined (perhaps arbitrarily) as everything after the introduction of the main characters conflict and before the climax. Note how slippery this definition is. In a very short story, the main conflict may be underway by the second paragraph, which may be part of the first scene especially if the story has only two or three scenes. The beginning seamlessly becomes the middle, with no real dividing point. On the other hand, a longer story often has a clear...

The ending of a traditional plotted story

It's similar to the ending of a novel, and the same requirements apply (see the last chapter). However, because a short story is briefer and contains fewer characters, the climax sometimes includes the denouement that is, we find out during the climactic scene what happened to everybody who counts, and so the story ends. At the end of any story, something must be different from the beginning. Something must have changed in a meaningful way. An important consideration in writing the ending to a...

Flashbacks You Can Go Home Again

The Swimming Pool Theory also applies to another type of second scene, the flashback. For a flashback to succeed as part of your beginning, it should meet three criteria. First, it should follow a strong opening scene, one that roots us firmly in your character's present. This means that we have enough sense of her as an individual, and of her present situation as dramatic potential, so that the flashback doesn't seem to be happening to a cipher. This passage wouldn't make a good story...

The Story In Your Head

There's a story in your head or maybe just the start of a story. Characters are walking around in there, talking to each other, doing things to the furniture, gesturing and shouting and laughing. You can see it all so clearly, like a movie rolling in your mind. It's going to be terrific. Excited, you sit down to write. But something happens. The story that comes out on the page isn't the same as the story in your head. The dialogue is flatter, the action doesn't read right, the ifeeljust isn't...

Step five image patterns

I've left revisions on image patterns until after the major rewrite, because until the basic scenes of your story are in place, it's difficult to control how those scenes use imagery. But now you've got your story in its almost-final form. Put it away for a few more days, and then look at it again in terms of the images you use consistently throughout. In the last chapter, for instance, we looked at Stephen Mi-not's use of coldness and warmth in his short story Sausage and Beer. In the...

To epilogue or not to epilogue

The Jurassic Park denouement is set off in its own chapter, which is called Epilogue San Jose. What do you gain by labeling your denouement an epilogue Although there are exceptions, contemporary novelists generally set the denouement apart in an epilogue only if it differs significantly from the main narrative in time or place, or if it's going to be in a radically different style. Thus, the action of Jurassic Park's epilogue occurs off the island, in a city more than twenty miles away, days...

Varying Narrative Mode Cinderella Redux

All fiction is created out of five different ways of presenting information to the reader, called narrative modes dialogue, description, action, thoughts and exposition. Some writers rely more extensively on one mode than on others. Hemingway makes heavy use of dialogue, while romance writers often include lots of description of characters' appearance, clothes and homes. A complete story will use all five modes, but very often the opening scene is characterized by the predominance of one mode...

The ending of a contemporary literary short story

Much of what was said above also applies to the contemporary literary short story but not all of it. This kind of story also evokes some emotion at the end, although the emotion may be mixed and ambiguous. There also needs to be a change of some sort from the beginning of the story to the end, and that change should be embodied in an action. However, the action may be very slight, and, as mentioned earlier, the full import of the change may be carried mostly through symbol. For instance, the...

Who Are These People Introducing And Developing Your Characters

So far we've talked about writing the first two scenes to develop conflict and imply change. Notice, however, that in everything I've said so far is an implicit assumption Different characters will have different kinds ofconflicts and changes. The Jane who reacts to the fight with her husband by going to church to pray is not the same Jane who reacts by pouring three fingers of Scotch. Another Jane, in fact, never would have had the fight in the first place. She would have simply pretended not...

Backfill The Swimming Pool Theory

Backfill is basically expository background, explaining who these people are and how they got into this mess in the first place. It can be handled in two ways as straight exposition in the author's voice, or as a sort of pseudoreminiscence in the voice of the point-of-view character. Avery Corman's popular novel Kramer vs. Kramer, for instance, opens in a delivery room, during the birth of the Kramers' first child. The next few scenes are backfill about the course of the pregnancy, both...

A final word on revision the temptation to polish forever

In Gail Godwin's novel Violet Clay, Violet's Uncle Ambrose is a novelist who has been working on his second book for decades. He has seventy-five pages written, which he keeps revising over and over, occasionally reading them to appreciative women. He never gets the rest of the book written. Once you have one or two good scenes, it can seem so much easier to polish them sharpening details, switching sentence order, adding grace notes than to write the next scene. Here are concrete words, and...

The Implicit Promise Framework For The Whole

Every story makes a promise to the reader. Actually, two promises, one emotional and one intellectual, since the function of stories is to make us both feel and think. The emotional promise goes Read this and you'll be entertained, or thrilled, or scared, or titillated, or saddened, or nostalgic, or uplifted but always absorbed. There are three versions of the intellectual promise. The story can promise 1 Read this andyou'll see this worldfrom a different perspective 2 Read this and you'll have...

Resolution versus resonance

Short stories divide into two broad, overlapping categories the traditional plotted story and what, for lack of a better name, we'll call the contemporary literary short story. The traditional plotted story is easy to recognize. Its ending is like that of a novel The plot complications are resolved, for better or worse, and the fates ofall the major characters are made clear. This is the kind ofstory we all grew up on Cinderella and Peter Rabbit and the mystery stories in Boy's Life. Cinderella...

The denouement marryin and buryin

Everything after the climax is called the denouement, whose function is to wrap up the story. Mark Twain referred to the denouement as the marryin' and the buryin'. It shows us two things the consequences of the plot and the fate of any characters not accounted for in the climax. Consider again Michael Crichton's best-selling novel Jurassic Park The climactic scene, which takes several chapters, concerns the cloned dinosaurs' attacks on the human compound and the humans' counterattack with...

Fear of failure the tolstoy syndrome

My 1981 short story Casey's Empire is about Jerry Casey, a graduate student struggling to be a writer His professors spoke blithely of Shakespeare's minor plays, Shaw's failed efforts, Dickens's unsuccessful pieces. Stories that Casey, stretched out on a flat rock under the blank Montana sky, had thrilled to and wondered at and anguished over, were assigned grades like so many frosh comp papers. B to Somerset Maugham and Jane Austen. B- to C.S. Lewis and Timon of Athens. His own half-finished...