Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Creative Writing: The Short Story (some notes from my second Creative Writing class)

The Short Story:

A short story is generally between several hundred and several thousand words long and aims to achieve a single, concentrated effect. The short story achieves its concentrated effect because the length imposes certain restrictions.

* Keep the time frame short.
* Keep the prose tight. You don't have space for wordy exposition.
* Focus on only the most important incidents.
* Begin with action and as close as possible to the climax.
* Restrict the number of characters in your story. Three or four with names and who do something significant are enough for a short story
* But really, in a short story, you have only one character, the protagonist. Your other characters help to illuminate him.
* A short story is essentially about one thing done by one person. It's an account of a key incident (or short series of incidents) that defines the protagonist or changes him in some significant way.
* Often, a short story tells about a turning point in the life of the protagonist. He can choose to turn in the new direction or refuse to change. But the choice is irrevocable.
* The issue or choice the character is facing is of crucial importance to the character.
* For the character involved, the choice is not automatic or obvious. Short stories usually show characters who are torn or who endure a personal trial, a test of character.
* Not only is the change irrevocable once made, but it's also unavoidable. Circumstances, upbringing or personality propel the character toward the choice that must be made.
* Short stories are about the change – good changes, bad changes or the failure to change. The change made or offered may be subtle, but must be definitive. (An exception: the genre story – Hercule Poirot never changes.)

The in-class assignment was to choose one or two concrete starting points and to write a very short story.
A few possible starting points that were suggested those of us in class:
A prisoner - actual or metaphorical
A bouquet - sent with no card or a bouquet of dead flowers or…

A canoe - on a misty lake, or tipped over or …
A hat - on the sidewalk or otherwise where it’s not expected

A clock - broken or stopped or keeping incorrect time…

A thunderstorm
“What the…”

Option 1: Finish, rewrite and/or polish the piece you wrote in class.

Option 2: Take a different starting point or two - an object, place or opening line, and use it as the starting point for a new piece.

Option 3: Continue working on whatever writing you have on the go, but bring in a couple pages next week to share withthe class.

I chose option 3. I am working on a story but it's in its infancy yet - will type it up as I can, but remember, it is incomplete.


deepThoughts said...

Very interesting! Thanks for sharing these notes with us.

I'm actually in the middle of a collection of short stories by Jeffrey Archer titled Twelve Red Herrings and I can see how so many of these restrictions are true and essential to making it a good short story!

Kudos to you for getting started with this creative writing course :)

booklogged said...

Can't wait for you to get published! I read on one of your posts that you had The Passion of Artemisia on your TBR list. I encourage you to read it. Also by Susan Vreeland is one of my favorite books, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Vreeland uses language beautifully and tells a well-crafted story.

Susan Abraham said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Susan Abraham said...

Hi Lotus,
Thank you for this. Already, your assignment options invoke for me wistful, alluring images...
Have fun with your writing!

Grumpy said...

I'd like to read what you've written. Keep up .

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks, deep!

Thanks for visiting. It's true, isn't it, the best short stories are usually ones that follow these or similar guidelines. Funnily enough, before this class I had rarely read any short stories, but now I have to read them for homework. This has given me a new-found appreciation for l'histoire courte!

Hi, booklogged!

So nice to have you here. No, no, I am not planning on publishing a story, I'm just doing this course to coax my right brain out of its apathy! :) I find fiction writing difficult; I might have an easier time with media writing. I have read "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" and I agree with you, it is a beautifully-written story and at the time I read it I recommended it to anyone who would listen to me! :) I can't wait to read "The Passion of Artemesia". Have you read her more recent one, "The Forest Lover"? I would love to know how that one grabbed you.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Suse,

Yes, it is a nice assignment isn't it? I got started on a nice story and halfway through I decided I didn't like any of the characters or the plot. It's my silly internal critic again, I've got to learn to stop listening to it!

Hi, Grumpy!

Thanks for dropping in. I should post the first page of my story soon. Hope you won't be disappointed you asked! :)

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Lotus, if it all seems slightly overwhelming for you, then I'd suggest you concentrate on just one or two characters for your short story.
Maybe probe their emotions or thoughts that tell a for instance someone recalling a memory. Then the plot instantly appears simpler and tighter.
For eg. through the memory,
he could be thinking..."I went here, did that, saw this person..." etc.
Then it may not appear too difficult and can be just as effective as one with characters in them. And of course, give the one or characters you choose, a lot of loving your best shot. love

Bhaswati said...

Hi Lotus,

Thanks for sharing this wonderful post with us! It's always good to come back to the basics, especially when one is attempting to write a short story. Excellent guidelines there.

I am adding you to my blog links too. 'Won't mind if you reciprocated :).

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Susan

Thanks for the excellent tips. I will have to add them to my guidelines. For someone that has never written a story in her life, every little tip counts - I am much obliged.

Welcome, Bhaswati!

Yes, I plan on sharing all of my creative writing lessons on the blog because, like you say, from time to time, it is helpful to be reminded of the basic rules for writing a good story.

I will be happy to link our blogs.


Angela in Europe said...

I always wished I had taken some creative writing courses, but I never felt talented enough. I like reading your "notes"; they make me feel like I am in class again instead of teaching!

booklogged said...

Lotus, I have read Passion for Artemisia but not I haven't read The Forest Lover. Am planning on it someday. Did you read it?

Lotus Reads said...

I have had "Forest Lover" sitting in my TBR pile for the longest time, but have never got around to it. I hope I am wrong, but I hear quite a few people say that it isn't as good as her previous novels! :(

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