What Drives a Story?

When I first started writing, I wrote short stories.  I love ’em, and sometimes I think it’s harder to write an awesome short story than it is to write a book.  Books take longer, yes, but they also give you more wiggle room.  In short fiction, there’s no room for mess-ups, so I think it’s harder to tell someone how to write a great short story than it is to explain the parts that add up to a good book.

For a book, we know the drill:

  1. A hook that grabs the reader’s attention
  2. A protagonist we can empathize with, who hits a major problem that he has to fix because it deals with an internal problem that he has to fix:)
  3. Tension that cranks up the longer the book goes
  4. Conflict of some type in every scene
  5. Characters, both major and minor, who stay with us, one way or another
  6. Pacing that keeps the story’s momentum moving
  7. A big, dark moment near the end that leads to resolution of some type
  8. A satisfying ending, either happy or not

What do you say about writing a short story?

My early short fiction was all based on ideas, sort of like delivering a punch line.  The shorter the story, the truer it held.  One of the first stories I “sold” (for free copies) was about a house that had been loved and cherished by the people who’d lived in it until the city changed, owners died, and it became a vacant building where kids came to drug up.  The house suffered until it called for its dead owner to return and save it from having to witness any more.    (It’s better if you can’t read the words.  I wrote this a LONG time ago, and I cringe when I read it now).

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The story hinged on an idea.  I think most short stories do. With a few more pages, we can become attached to a character, but even then, if the story’s short, we only watch one slice out of that person’s life.  But what a punch that one slice can deliver!  The more pages you add, the more elements you can add to the whole.

For friends who’ve told me that they can’t write short, it might be because they’re trying to use the same elements to write a short story as they do to write a book.  Yes, we still use a hook and strong verbs and specific words instead of general ones.  We still vary sentence length, so the tools are the same, but the technique’s different.  A short story has a tight focus.  Every part of the story is used to deliver on that one idea or slice of life.

And if you’d like ideas on how to write short from a pro, here’s Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: http://www.openculture.com/2015/04/kurt-vonneguts-8-tips-on-how-to-write-a-good-short-story.html

For extra good measure, here’s advice from one of my favorite short story writers, Nancy Pickard:  http://writerswhokill.blogspot.com/2011/05/warren-and-nancy-pickard- discuss-short.html

 

My author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JudiLynnwrites/

My webpage:  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

On twitter:  @judypost

 

 

Five Books That Matter To You

I read a blog post yesterday that stuck with me.  The author listed five books he thought people should read.  When I was younger, I read my share of classics (mostly British, not American).  Fell in love with Pride & Prejudice, fought my way through Dickens (his wordiness was a struggle for me), became enamored of James Fenimore Cooper.  Took a class on Shakespeare, read Vanity Fair, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Tess of the d’ Urbervilles, among others.  All worthy reads, and I’m sure they made me a better writer.  But when the time came, and I actually put pen to paper (all right, fingers to keys) years later, they were dim memories.  The books that influenced my writing the most were the ones that made me crave the next novel in the series, the ones whose characters lived in my mind, and whose plots made me keep turning the pages.  I have a sad feeling that I’m a genre junkie, and this list will prove it.  (These writers are listed in the sequence I discovered them, not in order of preference, and if I staggered between 2 authors in the same time period, I listed both–sort of a cheat, but there you have it).

1.  Agatha Christie.  For me, no one can compete with Agatha’s complicated, convoluted plots, red herrings, hidden clues, and complex puzzles.  It was fun to strive to match wits with her, hard to beat Poirot or Miss Marple to a conclusion.

2.  Nancy Pickard and Carolyn Hart.  These two women both wrote brilliant, traditional mysteries.  Nancy Pickard’s Jenny Cain had depth of character that I strove to achieve in my own writing.  Her short stories were extraordinary.  Carolyn Hart’s Max and Annie series mixed a playfulness with serious plotting ability that I admired.

3.  Elizabeth George.  When I read Great Deliverance, it blew me away.  Elizabeth George writes literary mysteries, and her writing bedazzles me.  I can burrow into her language for the long haul and return to the light a happy girl.

4.  Martha Grimes.  I have to warn people that it’s better to start at the beginning of Martha Grimes’ novels, because occasionally, her characters have become almost caricatures of themselves in her later books.  Each of her titles is the name of a pub in England.  Her writing can go from poignant to hilarious in the turn of a page.  Few authors do children as well as she does.  And quirks and eccentricities and all, I thoroughly enjoy her.

5.  Patricia Briggs.  I have to admit, I’ve only read her Mercy Thompson series and a few of her earlier novels.  I was charmed by When Demons Walk.  It felt like a fun and witty romp.  But I fell in love with Mercy Thompson.  She’s a heroine who feels REAL.  And the interplay between Briggs’ characters of all varieties seems genuine.  Briggs is the author who hooked me on urban fantasy.

My bookshelves are crammed with many more books, many more authors whom I can’t bring myself to part with.  So this is only a bare-bones list of the writers I love to read.  I chose these five because they influenced the direction of my writing.  If you had to pick a top five–of your own making–who’d be on your list?