9 Characteristics of Great Short Stories This is not a definitive list. Most short stories do not contain all nine characteristics listed below, but the great ones contain almost all of them. 1. The story's action is based on the protagonist's desire for something important. The writer reveals this desire subtly or overtly almost immediately-- usually in the first paragraph. The protagonist might not know how important their desire is-- they probably call it by another name, but the reader must sense it. A character who wants enlightenment or love or wholeness usually doesn't come right out and think that. If they do, the character probably comes across as way too self-absorbed to be interesting. Instead, the protagonist generally attributes those larger themes to a concrete object or event with this intangible quality. For example, o A woman wants vindication and obsesses about catching her husband in bed with a real or imaginary mistress. o A man wants freedom from his abusive wife and frets over the survival of a nest of Canadian goslings he finds on his property. o A man who wants to be immortal desperately socks away enough money to get plastic surgery he really can't afford o A teenager wants acceptance and winds up stealing a pair of shoes she believes will win the admiration of her peers 2. Condensed action: Story tells of a single event or a related chain of events. Short stories are rarely comprised of more than a few scenes and are often comprised of just one. That scene may be interspersed with flashbacks, but in that case the memories serve to augment the main event. 3. Focus concentrated on one character’s perception of that event. Multiple characters may influence the outcome of the story, but we are not privy to all of their inner lives, only to that of the protagonist. There's no more than one protagonist. 4. Swift and deep development of protagonist’s character is usually evidenced in the character's inner thoughts which reveal his/her desire, perceptions, and plans. 5. Reader is privy to protagonist’s thoughts. 6. Nearly immediate allusion to the story’s central conflict creates a nagging, troubling, even fearsome tension that the reader senses throughout. 6. Protagonist changes as a result of the story's events. The writer evidences the change concretely. The emotional tenor at the beginning of the story differs from the one at the end. 7. Original, poetic prose: Author has an unmistakable style, and undeniable talent: a gift. This is the hardest aspect of writing to develop, although the simple act of writing prolifically will never make up for lack of great talent, it will ensure that the average writer becomes a superior one. 8. Use of symbols by way of deft imagery, often in the form of metaphors and similes. Short stories tend to be so symbolic because they are written by economic writers who do not waste words on unimportant images. Every image and every word is there for a reason. 9. Unique, often profound, insight into an aspect of the human condition offered, usually through the exploration of a dominant theme (forgiveness, vengeance, jealousy, hypocrisy etc.) If the writer's insight isn't new enough, interesting enough or developed enough, the story will leave most readers feeling shortchanged. Scenic Writing Handout A scene happens right before the reader's eyes. Scenes are fictional or non-fictional mini- stories-- sometimes complete stories-- and as such have: point of view, setting, & characters. A scene generally takes place in real time (though it can be interspersed with summary) and contains nothing but the characters in action. It's distinct from exposition (where explanations are given) or summary (where events are compressed). Individual scenes are what you remember most in writing, theater, and film. Where do you start a scene? At the moment where what you envision happening in the scene becomes necessary to the action of the story. Sometimes you have to write a scene long, then cut the head off to find its real beginning. A scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each has its own incident (that sets the scene in motion) and rising action (what characters say and do and how they respond to each other) and moment of truth. A moment of truth is where the situation changes in some way for the POV character. This change can be large or small, but it coalesces around a core emotional journey played out in the beats of action. Say a woman's husband comes in late, drunk, and with a cut on his head and blood on his shirt. He tells her he got in a bar fight. The scene between these two would be composed of their actions and dialogue. The inciting incident is when he wakes her up, perhaps fumbling with his clothes by the bed. Then what? Does he take his clothes off while he speaks, avoiding her eyes? Does he re-enact the fight, excited that he kicked the guy's ass? Does she get up and make him a bed on the couch because she's angry that he's drunk again? Whatever will happen, the scene will move along to the point at which everything has changed. Maybe the wife listens to the entire story, and something in the very last detail convinces her that he's lying; he wasn't in a fight at all but with another woman. Perhaps she turns out the light while he's still talking to her. She's decided she'll leave him in the morning. (Turning out the light is both a real action and one that carries additional meaning-- she's shutting the light out on their marriage.) Something has happened which has changed things for the characters. Things to think about o Why do I want this scene? (What does it do for the story?) o What is the scene's occasion? (Why are these characters together?) o What does the character want in this scene? How is the character thwarted? o What are the beats of action? (Moment by moment, what do the characters say and do?) o How do those beats link in action and reaction? (Jo pulls Mary's hair, so Mary spits at Jo.) o Where is everyone in terms of power and emotion at the beginning? At the end? o Is there a shift in circumstances and emotions of the POV character? o What are the key moments and how do they stand out from the general action not only in terms of plot, but also in writing style (shorter/longer sentences? faster/slower pace? more poetic language? more/less dialogue?) o Where does the action turn? o What, specifically, has changed, and going forward, what does it mean for the character and the story? o Is this scene overwritten? Too direct? Insufficiently grounded? Does it go on too long? o Is the dialogue banal? Do characters have voices distinct from one another. And if the narrator is not the POV character, is the narrative voice distinct from characters' voices? o Does it add up? o Are we in a different place than where we started? Key Terms: Function: Necessity of the scene, its purpose o Is there a clear purpose for the scene and does the scene satisfy it? State purpose in one sentence and summarize key outcomes. o Do flashbacks, description, and interiority break up the flow? o Is it possible to enter the scene at a later point? (Should you "cut the head off"?) o Would it be a loss if it were summarized or integrated into another scene? Be sure to avoid unnecessarily repeating actions and character behaviors you have already explored. You want, always, to be adding something new to what has come before, illuminating aspects of character and pushing the plot forward. o Is this the right place for the scene? Does is convincingly arise out of what has come before and lead to what comes next? Pulse: The heart of the scene-- what matters most to both the characters and the reader o Once you know what purpose the scene serves within the story (may be the only scene, if writing a short story), relate that function to the overall line of action to help pull the thread of reader concern through it. There must be a driving desire, need, or question that runs though the story. (e.g.: Can she get him to fall in love with her? or Can she be made whole?) It may not be obvious at the beginning, but the reader should have some awareness of it at the beginning. That pulse should grow in urgency as the story evolves. Each scene should contribute urgency and importance to that driving need or question. The pulse of an individual scene is like a current in a river, both pulled by and pushing the water. There are times when the reader may not understand the relationship between the water and the current, but she's drawn deeper into it as the story progresses nonetheless. o What's the dilemma? Each scene has a dilemma or puts pressure on the POV character, and the resulting pulse must be sufficient in its importance to drive the action and feeling. The pulse accelerates the scene. Think of it as the scene's engine-- its combustion. o How does the pulse interact with the other elements in the scene? The event must be sufficient to hold the actions that are fueled by the pulse. Actions must be clear and rise in intensity. Something is happening and furthermore, something is going to happen. And that something matters to the character and the reader. o Organization, clarity, specificity, certainty, lack of clutter, and successfully illuminating the need or desire of the POV character (the pulse) strengthen scenes. You can have lots of interior musing, description, and dialogue, but the words must add to the awareness that something is happening, something is at stake, and it matters. Event/Occasion Actions + Actions = Event The things that happen in a scene "add up" to something significant, something with consequences. POV Character: o What does she want? How much does the desire matter to her? To the scene? Is the pulse of the scene strongly related to the desire? They can be different but should be related. (e.g.: What she wants is to pass the calf. She wants to do it to impress her lover. So the pulse is that she wants to impress her lover.) o What is the response to the event of the scene? Is the response all interior (hopefully not), or can we see it in actions? o Is there something to care about in this character? o Is the POV character's thwarted or satisfied? State the goal or intention clearly. o How is the POV character different? Does this change relate to the pulse of the scene? The story? Tension and Release Tension is often built through action, arising from the pulse, but it's created through conflict-- it's the source of intensity in a scene that provides focus and increases reader involvement. A question is raised and the reader's sense of anticipation is heightened: Will he kiss her? Will the soldier die from his wounds? Build tension by holding back information, introducing questions and intensifying concerns about the answers. making the reader uneasy about the harmony of relationships. Sometimes leave the scene in a moment of caught suspense. Tension is released when... o Adversaries move toward one another in a positive way o Adversaries step back, defer the conflict and retreat o One adversary suppresses the matter inwardly o One of the adversaries has a sudden insight that breaks the tension o Adversaries escalate the tension into direct confrontation-- possibly violent. Beats The event broken down into several actions: small units of character action and reaction. Action and Response o What happens? Is it large or small? o Does your character reflect on an aspect of what is happening? On a relevant aspect in the past? o Does the character reflect internally or through dialogue? o Does the internal response feel immediate? o What is the character's emotional experience? Does it lead to a response that bursts into an action? Or does it lead to a subtle action that projects the emotion? o What questions does the emotional response cause the character to raise? Does she raise them aloud or to herself? o What goals or plans does the character formulate in light of the first action? o What action will she initiate next? Emotion Identify the character's emotional states at the beginning and end of the scene. They should be different and the action should be responsible for the change. Focus What the scene keeps coming back to-- could be a topic of conversation, a disagreement, a person, an event in the past, or a pending event. Focal Point Where exactly does the action turn? Look for the precise moment.
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