Character In Conflict

To create a plot, begin with the three questions about the protagonist that we asked in Chapter Three 1. What does the protagonist want to accomplish or gain in the course of this story 2. What will be the consequences, to her and to others, if she hits or misses this goal 3. Who or what gets in her way These questions establish the nature of the conflict. The plot is the means by which the conflict is resolved. It describes how the protagonist does (or does not) overcome the obstacles that...

Word About Theme

Someone may ask you, What is the theme of your story and chances are you won't know what to say. Come on, this person will persist, every story has to have a theme. Well, perhaps. It's true that in many effective stories the small, specific details of the characters, the setting, and the events that take place serve to illustrate some abstract concept or larger idea the nature of justice, say, or the consequences of exploiting the environment, or the difference between romantic and parental...

Acknowledgments

I would like to express my deep appreciation and gratitude to The students in my writing classes, who have challenged and inspired me with their questions, their insights, and their wonderful stories. My writer colleagues and friends, with whose encouragement I have discovered so much about what I know about writing. To mention only a few Dave Bischoff, Lawrence Block, Janet Dawson, Susan Dunlap, Syd Field, Suzanne Gold, Jonnie Jacobs, Theo Kuhlmann, Bette Golden Lamb, J.J. Lamb, Janet...

Beginnings Middles and Ends

Notice that in Cinderella there are two turning points or moments of crisis. In effect, they divide the story into three acts Act One is the setup, in which the stepsisters' cruelty to Cinderella is established and we see the preparations for the ball. This act includes the inciting incident and the first complication, and ends with a turning point the arrival of the fairy godmother. Act Two is the development, in which the fairy godmother performs her magic and, under its spell, Cinderella...

Bringing Readers Into The Conversation

Though readers never get to put in our two cents' worth, you want us to participate in the scene, to be avidly watching and listening, when your characters speak to one another. As the conversational ball bounces back and forth, your first task is to lay out the spoken words on the page so it's clear who is speaking to whom, where they are, and what they're doing. Your second task is to step out of the way and let the characters speak for themselves. Let their words, not yours, convey what's...

Bringing Your Characters to Life

Meeting new and interesting people is one of the great pleasures of reading and writing fiction. Our favorite characters take on lives of their own. In a novel, when we have more time to spend with them, they come to seem like friends. One mark of a successful book is the reluctance of readers to part company with characters we've grown fond of. In a short story, you don't have sufficient space to let your readers establish long-term relationships with your characters. Yet the sense that the...

Choosing a Point of View

In fiction, point of view refers to the vantage point from which readers observe the events of the story. In other words, whose eyes will we be looking through as we read As the author, the choice is up to you. The ways you can handle point of view fall into two major categories, first person and third person. Each has its benefits and disadvantages. In the first person point of view, one character acts as the narrator, directly telling us her own version of the events. The narrator refers to...

Exercises Discovering and Developing Your Voice

Choose three short stories by different authors to read and think about. For each story write brief answers to the following questions a. Which three of the seventeen qualities of narrative voice contributed most to the way the author told the story b. Which three of the qualities of narrative voice contributed least c. Considering the three authors together, which one do you think had a particularly strong, effective, or interesting voice Why 2. The paragraph below tells us about Larry and his...

Give Readers The Experience Of Being There

It's time to invite readers to join you in your story world. These techniques will help you draw them in and keep them there Orient your readers quickly. As you open the story and at the beginning of each subsequent scene, give us a sense of the time and the place, not necessarily in every particular, but enough to give the action a context and let us visualize what's happening. If we can't create a mental picture, or the one we come up with is muddled and confused, we're likely to lose...

Give Them Emotions And Contradictions

What is most telling about characters is not the details about their lives and personalities it's how they feel about those details. Their thoughts and emotions are what truly define them. For example Susan is 45 years old. Is there another age she'd rather be Does she regret no longer being young, or does she feel she is blossoming now that her children are grown Michael stands almost six and a half feet tall. Does he enjoy being that height Does he take advantage of his power to intimidate...

Giving Your Characters a Voice

Convincing, natural-sounding dialogue is one of the sharpest storytelling tools at your disposal. It can also be one of writing's toughest challenges, unless you happen to be blessed with an excellent ear for the nuances of how people speak. But your ear can be trained, and it's worth taking the time, effort, and care to learn to do dialogue well. Dialogue is a form of action. It captures the attention of readers in the same way action does, and we take a certain pleasure in overhearing other...

How to Devise a Story That Readers Wont Want to Put Down

To create a story, pick up your protagonist by the scruff of the neck and drop her headlong into a conflict. Most of us try to avoid conflict in our lives, or so we contend. Yet without conflict we would have no challenges to meet, no obstacles to overcome, no victories to declare. Life would be easy, with happy outcomes assured. But it would also be flat, dull, and boring. So it is with a story. Without conflict a story has no fuel, nothing to propel it forward, and no reason for readers to...

If You Dont Write Your Story It Wont Get Written

Writing a story is not a task you can delegate. In the process of creating a story, you bring your own insights, experiences, and imagination to bear. Whatever the genre, whatever the subject matter, no one else could possibly write the same story that you would write. If you don't write it, no one will ever have the pleasure of reading it or the benefit of sharing your vision. There is a saying among writers I don't want to write I want to have written. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the rewards...

Ignite A Ticking Bomb

Set your character in a race against the clock. Not only must she solve the problem and overcome an obstacle to achieve her goal, she must do it within a certain time frame with serious consequences if she fails to meet the deadline. In action movies, the ticking bomb is frequently an actual explosive device. Sometimes the villains kindly provide a digital readout, pressuring the heroes by letting them count down the minutes until the device detonates. Your bomb doesn't have to be destructive...

Let Characters Use Slang Jargon And Regional Or Ethnic Expressions

Use a little slang or a lot What kind Use professional argon (A doctor uses different words than a computer hacker or a cop.) Use expressions common to the region where he or she lives or grew up Speak with a dialect and accent (These can be tricky to get right. It's better to hint at it rather than try to replicate it with unconventional spellings and usages that can make dialogue hard to read.)

Make The Place Threedimensional

Just as three-dimensional characters come alive for readers, so do three-dimensional settings. When you incorporate aspects of all three dimensions into your depiction of setting, your story world becomes more realistic and vibrant. Physical. The physical environment encompasses all the factors our senses can discern sizes and shapes, colors and textures, scents and sounds. For large-scale settings, it includes climate, terrain, natural features, and all the ways human beings have put their...

Movement Forward In Time

The dictionary is correct, if incomplete, in calling a plot a series of dramatic events moving forward in time. The chronological progression of incidents is what gives the story a beginning, a middle, and an end. The plot of a story is everything that occurs between Once upon a time and They lived happily ever after. It answers an important question Then what happened How much time is involved depends on the story. A plot can cover a few minutes, an hour, a day, a year, a lifetime, or more....

New Setting Equals New Story

A good story is a successful blend of people, plot, and place. Ask yourself Where could this kind of situation arise Where would someone like this be living or working or hanging out If you aren't sure, try the what if game. A good use of what if is to test your people and your premise in various settings. Let's try an experiment. Choose a character and a situation from a story of your own or one you've recently read. Now write a series of short paragraphs, installing the character in each of...

Plot and Structure

How to Shape Your Story and Keep It Moving Forward Characters in one hand, a conflict in the other this is the point where you begin structuring a story. The story's structure is its organizational system, the means by which you establish the relationships of its various elements and bind them into a coherent whole. The structure gives the story its shape in the same way that a framework gives shape to a house. Most of the time in fiction, structure equates with plot. Although there are other...

Resolution Or Closure

The advantage of having a story goal is that it gives you a direction to head in and a destination to reach. When you arrive you're rewarded with a sense of resolution or closure that's rare in real life. Both writer and reader get to find out how it all comes out. This means that the major questions posed by the story get answered before the words The End appear. It doesn't mean that there can be no ambiguities left, or that the reader will know for sure that the characters will (or won't)...

Setting and Atmosphere

How to Bring Readers into a Vivid Story Word Now that your characters are in action, it's time to put them in their place. That place is your story's setting. Setting does not mean scenery. Far more than just a painted backdrop against which events play out, the setting is a vital force that impinges on the characters and their situations. The setting influences their behavior and provides obstacles that must be overcome. It creates moods and affects emotions for characters and readers alike....

The Beginning Pulling The Reader In

You must grab our attention, set up the story, and ignite our desire to read through to the end. Here's how you accomplish this Start with a strong narrative hook. Like the hook on a line that snags fish, a narrative hook catches readers. It lets you grab our attention and reel us into your story. Compare these two possible openings Version 1 Once there lived a woman named Cinderella. She was beautiful but sad. Her two stepsisters were mean and evil. They...

The End Providing A Strong Satisfying Finish

In the final section of your story, Act Three, the action marches inexorably toward the climax. You have turned the last corner. The final complications are those that directly bring about the confrontation between the protagonist and the main opposing force. This showdown is the moment you have been building up to, the one that rewards your readers for sticking it out until the end. At last we learn the answers to the questions and discover whether the protagonist succeeds or fails. These...

The Middle Keeping Up The Momentum

The middle, Act Two, is the longest section of your story. Your task is to make sure the story keeps rolling and the readers keep reading. In writing the middle you have four objectives Develop the characters and their relationships. As the story proceeds, we should come to know them better and better their personalities, their motives, the basis for the kinds of choices they make. Prevent them from reaching their goals. In Act Two the characters are attempting to straighten out their conflicts...

There Is No Magic Formula

An editor with a New York publishing firm I'll call him John Samuels once told me about an experience he had when he was speaking at a writers conference. His topic was, What Editors Look for in a Manuscript. The room was packed with aspiring writers eager to achieve publication. They were bright-eyed and excited. Their notebooks were open and ready. Yet as he spoke, addressing some of the same subjects we'll be talking about in this book creating strong characters, devising a compelling plot...

Third Person

When you write in the third person, the author, rather than a character, takes on the narrator's role. There is no I or me in third person, except in dialogue. All of the characters, including the protagonist, are he, she, and they, as in this example from my story, No Wildflowers That spring there were no wildflowers and the grass did not turn green. Every day Sarah scanned the huge blue Oklahoma sky for signs of rain. Occasionally a small white cloud, like a bit of dandelion fluff, would blow...

Tip Sheet Narrative Voice

What kind of vocabulary does the author favor Does she use long words or short ones, Anglo-Saxon words or Latinate words, colorful words or plain ones, an expansive vocabulary or a limited one, lots of slang and jargon or very little Does the author rely more on verbs and nouns, or on adverbs and adjectives Does the author choose words for their literal meaning, or for their color, sound, emotional weight, and subtle connotations Does the author favor short or long sentences Short or long...

Treat Time As The Fourth Dimension

Time adds a fourth dimension to your setting, as important as the three dimensions that characterize the place. Day or night, summer or winter, today or two hundred years ago you can use time to establish an atmosphere, provide complications, and influence the characters' choices and actions. As time passes, the characteristics of a place change. When you write a story set in the past or the future, your concern is not the physical, sociological, and psychological aspects of the setting as they...

When Your Story Is Written

A Quick Guide to Submitting Manuscripts Q. I've written a short story that I think is pretty good, although it might benefit from a little more work. But I'm so close to it, I can't really judge what it needs. How can I find out A. Let someone read it who will give you thoughtful, honest, and supportive criticism. All three elements are vital. You want a reader who is willing to point out both flaws and virtues and who is discerning enough to be able to explain why she feels an element in your...

You Dont Have To Get It Right The First Time

As you sit down to begin a new story, you're likely to feel unsure of yourself. There is so much about these characters and this situation that you don't yet know. Even if you did know all about them, how can you get it all down on paper so that it reads well Not to worry You don't have to get it right the first time. You can take advantage of a wonderful invention called the second draft. One thing that intimidates new writers is the infernal internal editor that dastardly creature that sits...

Direction Toward An Answer Or A Resolution

A short story answers a question several questions, in fact. You set them up at the beginning to engage the readers' interest. The story itself is your promise that they will be answered, and the plot is the means by which the promise is fulfilled. The first question is the most obvious Will the protagonist get what she wants You may bring in other questions as well, especially if the story concerns some sort of secret Who done it What's in the box Where did the stranger come from There is...

What Is a Short Story

We begin with a couple of dictionary definitions. The first defines a story as the telling of a happening or a series of connected events. Another definition of a short story is a narrative designed to interest, amuse, or inform the hearer or reader. These are the first of many definitions we'll encounter in the course of this book. Each definition has its uses, although none completely captures the essence of what a short story is. When taken together, they will all contribute to your sense of...

Exercises Creating Characters

Choose three short stories to read and think about. For each story, write brief answers to the following questions a. Who is the protagonist Why do you think the author chose to make this person the central character b. How does the author handle the point of the view c. Which characters in these stories seem to be the most three-dimensional, and why d. How does the author work in the back story e. What techniques does the author use to convey the characters to the reader 2. Create a character...

Show Them Inaction

When we're getting acquainted with friends, neighbors, classmates, or coworkers, we don't do so by reading their bios. We come to know them through what they tell us about themselves, what other people say about them, and what we observe about their behavior. With characters in a story, the readers' strongest relationships are formed in these same ways, with an added bonus In the case of viewpoint characters, we can listen to their thoughts. Providing a background summary is the easiest but...

The Interaction Of People And Place

Places shape people, and people shape places. This is why the effect of your choice of setting is so profound. The interaction of characters and setting plays a big role in determining what the story is. Take Jerry, a fifty-year-old flower child who has never recovered from the Summer of Love. He still dresses in tie-dye shirts and pulls back his hair, what's left of it, into a ponytail. Years ago he played bass in a rock band called the Bamboozles, dreaming of hitting the big time. The band...

Actual Settings Fictionalizing A Place Thats Real

Should you choose a real place or an imaginary one in which to set your story One could argue that there is no such thing as a real setting. An author who sets a story in an actual place uses it as a model on which to base a story world. He selects certain details, ignores others, and invents still more, bending reality to suit the needs of the story. The place depicted in fiction may bear considerable resemblance to the one on the map, but it is being viewed through a filter or a lens that...

Three Key Questions

To figure out what kind of conflict your protagonist is facing, ask her these three questions. The answers are the keys to her motivation and will drive her actions throughout the story What does she want to accomplish in the course of this story Just like any real person, a story character has desires and goals, things she yearns to obtain or achieve love, money, justice, recognition, to hide a secret, to be popular, to conquer the mountain, to win the game, to land a better job, to escape the...

Thinking Story The What If Game

Writers train themselves to think story to look at people, places, and situations with an eye to discerning what dramatic potential they might contain. Your subconscious constantly gives you clues about where to begin. Whenever something jiggles your mind enough to make you think, That's interesting or, I wonder , it's a signal that a story idea is there, waiting for you to discover it. The next step is to think, What if Make it a game to discover the story possibilities around you. Suppose...

Distinctive Voice For Each Character

When a friend phones you, you recognize without being told that it's Jim on the line and not Harry. Even before you peek at the signature on a letter, you can tell from the way she describes events that it came from Karen and not Melissa. Everyone sounds different. Not only does the sound of the voice have unique qualities high-pitched or low, breathy, raspy, musical but the words we choose and the way we string them together are individual as well. Listen to the three characters below. Each...

Fall In Love With Words

Your stories benefit when you appreciate how words work, keep them sharp and polished, and use them with care and accuracy. Writers delight in words the way skilled cabinetmakers take pleasure in beautifully crafted implements for their trade. Writers enjoy word games. They read dictionaries for fun. Okay, they may not curl up with one in front of the fire, but when double-checking a word they get caught up by intriguing new words and their meanings, derivations, and...

Exercises Constructing a Plot

Choose three short stories to read and think about. For each story, write brief answers to the following questions a. What is the organizing principle Is it plot or something else b. What do you think the central issue of the story is c. What is the inciting incident and at what point in the story does it occur d. What is the protagonist's goal, and what complications interfere with reaching it Are the sources of the complications internal or external e. Are there plot points or crises that...

Conflict With A Force Of Nature

Nature offers a convenient boon to writers a wealth of dramatic possibilities in the form of mountains, deserts, jungles, oceans, drought, heat, ice, and storms. To make life rougher for a character, pour rain on her parade. When the story's central conflict sets the protagonist against a force of nature, that force becomes the antagonist. The cliff she must climb or the blizzard she must survive functions as a character in the story. However, this doesn't mean you should anthropomorphize it in...

Scenes The Building Blocks of a Plot

The building blocks you use to construct the story or, if you prefer, the individual dominoes or the links in the chain are scenes. A scene is a unit of story action. At a particular time and in a specific place, something happens that is significant to the plot. For instance A character is introduced or has new light shed upon him. The nature of the relationship between two characters is established. An event takes place an action, a consequence, a complica-tion that moves the story forward. A...

Synergy Ideas In Teamwork

The truth is, one idea is seldom enough. Suppose you have come up with a wonderful idea on which to base a story, one that keeps nudging at your brain, demanding to be written. But all you have is a fragment an image of an old woman riding a train, an offhand comment made by a friend, a glimpse of an old house that surely must be haunted. The flour just sits there in the bowl, waiting for you to decide on the next ingredient. When you figure out what you want to add to the flour, that's when...

Pumpkin Coach And A Glass Slipper

To get a better idea of how narrative structure works, let's apply it to a familiar tale a Disneyesque version of Cinderella. You remember Cindy. She's the sad drudge who is forced by her evil stepsisters to dress in rags and do the household scut work while they preen in silken finery and indulge themselves in pleasures. The central issue of the story is Will Cinderella break away from the family's clutches and find happiness The inciting incident occurs when the household receives an...

Exercises Finding Story Conflict

Choose three short stories to read and think about. For each story, write brief answers to the following questions a. What is the protagonist's main goal or desire in this story How does it change as the story proceeds b. What is the central conflict in this story Who or what is the antagonist or main opposing force c. What obstacles or problems does the protagonist encounter in trying to resolve the conflict and reach the goal What sources of conflict does the author draw upon to create...

Exercises Making a Setting Vivid

Choose three short stories to read and think about. For each story, write brief answers to the following questions a. How important is the setting to this story b. To what extent does the author bring in physical, sociological, and psychological dimensions of the place where the story occurs c. How does the setting influence the events of the story, or of particular scenes d. Would you consider the setting to be a character in this story Why or why not e. If you changed the setting, how...

Choosing a Protagonist

Whose story is this Who will be your protagonist This is one of the first decisions you must make. The protagonist is the hero or heroine of your story. He or she is the central character, the person around whom the events of the story revolve and usually the one who will be most affected by the outcome. The protagonist is the person with whom readers most closely identify, with whom we form the strongest bond. You want readers to care about him or root for her to succeed. This doesn't mean...

Use Words To Show Not Tell

Introducing me as a guest speaker in a sixth-grade classroom, the teacher asked the students if they could tell me the number one rule for creative writing. In one voice, twenty-seven excited kids yelled out Show, don't tell Perhaps it's not the number one rule There are no rules, remember , but it's pretty good advice. The difference between showing and telling is this Telling Katie was humiliated when the other kids laughed at her. She tried to tell them that what happened wasn't her fault....

Bad Guys Hurricanes and Fatal Flaws

This brings us to a consideration of the kinds of conflicts and opposing forces your characters might face. What could get in the way of the protagonist's reaching her goal The possibilities are as limitless as your imagination. Frequently the opponent is another character, but not always. Your main character may face impersonal adversaries events and circumstances that threaten to thwart her efforts to achieve her goal. She could even prove to be her own worst enemy. For example, in Bharati...

Tip Sheet Dialogue

How to Give Your Characters Distinctive Voices 1. VARY THEIR DEGREE OF ARTICULATENESS. Rambling Direct and to the point A user of filler words uh, ya know, etc. 2. VARY THE LENGTH AND STRUCTURE OF THEIR SENTENCES. Use short, clipped sentences Run-on sentences Drop words at the beginning of sentences Use incomplete sentences get halfway through and then switch gear into a new sentence Fail to complete thoughts, but let them trail off 3. VARY THE LENGTH OF THEIR TYPICAL SPEECHES. Talk a lot or...