Well-structured dialogue

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Dialogue is a powerful tool in the development of character, conflict, humour, drama, tension, suspense and pace. But dialogue must be handled skilfully in order to accomplish any of its objectives. Without a proper understanding of how this is done, a story will always suffer for it. In this blog post, we look at why well-structured dialogue is intrinsic to plot and scene structure.

Every dramatist will tell you that dialogue is a great skill unto itself. This makes sense when we realize that the play is structured from the spoken word. Setting, action, body language, tone of voice, these are obviously all relevant to the play but do not structure it. If the dialogue is poorly structured, the play pays a high price for it. Every word has a reason for existing in the play and it is always related to character and the overall plot arc. Although the dialogue in our story is embedded in the narrative, which obviously includes much more than dialogue, in some respects the dialogue in our story is very similar to the dialogue in the play.

Let’s try an experiment! When reading over part of a well-written story that is set indoors, has no inner monologue and is made up of about fifty per cent dialogue, let’s imagine that we are actually reading a play when reading the dialogue. Now, rather than see everything else outside of the dialogue as part of the narrative, instead we will imagine it as instructions for stage setting, props to be used and prompts for the actors to perform actions, body language and tone of voice. When we view the story from this angle, we can see the absolute necessity of having our dialogue structured properly because we see clearly how it is an integral and fundamental part of narrative structure.

Even though it often seems to ramble, real-life dialogue is also structured because it has purpose. The structure required of this type of dialogue will depend on situation and context. Even casual conversations between casual acquaintances in the street work this way: they are generally brief and the context is highly unlikely ever to encourage the talkers to divulge personal and intimate details about themselves.

Imagine saying to a casual acquaintance on a chance meeting in the street, “Hello. How are you?” and receiving for a reply a long list of their ailments with details thrown in regarding each one. This isn’t the response you would expect or you would never have asked the question. This is the type of response you offer a doctor. Socially, most people understand what is meant by “How are you?” and giving a long list of ailments as a reply would be an inappropriate and anti-social response.

Think of a job interview. Would we tell a prospective employer about the view from the window next to our desk on our present or last job? Would we tell them about the type of sandwiches we ate at work? Would we ramble on giving details about what others had for lunch? What about detailed descriptions of our work colleagues and their annoying habits? Of course, we wouldn’t say any of this. We are in a particular setting and have to abide by a set of protocols in our interview. There are a narrow range of subjects we will discuss and all our cues for discussion will come from the interviewer. She will set the subject matter and control the language, tone, rhythm, pace, and order and length of discussion on each subject. In other words, she will structure the interview’s dialogue. She will do this because there are only certain things she wants to know and find out about us. If we ignore her cues, her structure, and go off on our own tangent we will not be considered suitable material for employment in that company.

Imagine our reader is like our potential employer who is interviewing us. They expect certain things from our story. They expect a well-written and well-structured plot. Everything in the story must abide by that expectation. The reader doesn’t want rambling dialogue any more than rambling description of any kind. If we let them down on this point, they will very likely lose interest in our story, which, of course, is the equivalent of the interviewer dropping our job application in the bin.

How can we ensure that our efforts at writing dialogue make it an integral part of the plot structure? Well, let’s think of what the scenes in a story are actually trying to achieve. All the story’s scenes must fit together to make a continuum in which the plot develops smoothly and the tension is constantly rising. Because every scene must support the overall plot arc, we know that each scene must be structured accordingly to achieve this end. We know that each scene also has a beginning, middle and ending. It has a high point and an arc of rising tension. Therefore, whatever dialogue goes into the scene must support this structure.

Let’s analyse a scene to see how it actually works in practice. Below is a small scene from my children’s short story The Meanie in the Sweetshop. This is a good example as it is made up almost entirely of dialogue. The two boys, the two protagonists, are discussing the meanie with the other schoolchildren. Up to this point in the narrative, the reader only understands the meanie’s horrible behaviour through Dan’s and Bill’s experience. Now we discover that other children are just as exasperated with her. This is an important point to raise in the story as it explains why many children will go along with Dan’s plan in the last scene. The scene triggers the idea for Dan’s final plan. The scene is well-structured and sits as a link between two action scenes. It is short, quite fast-paced and with rising tension and excitement. Necessary information is passed across dramatically and it ends on a question the reader wants answered.

The meanie’s reputation had spread throughout the whole school and many were ready for a revolt.

  1. “The way she treats us boys,” one said. “You’d hardly believe it.”
  2. But a girl said, “Yesterday she told us we were like cockroaches swarming all over her shop. She said from now on no more than two of you inside at any one time. I said to her, ‘supposing it’s raining outside?’ She laughed, ‘then you girls get wet!’”
  3. “This is outrageous!” cried another boy. “Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we can be treated this way. We’re not criminals. We’ve done nothing wrong. Our money’s as good as anyone’s.”
  4. “We could avoid the shop, but where else might we go? There’s nowhere else around. And we don’t have a shop here in our crummy old school.”
  5. A small boy with a shy face, who rarely ever spoke, now said, “We need to teach her a lesson. She seems to like counting. But would she like it so much if she had to do it all day?”
  6. Dan’s eyes swelled with excitement. “Yes, what if she had to count all day? And look how many of us can’t stand her. You’ve given me a great idea.” Later, he said to Bill, “We’ve been going about it all wrong. The monkey and the disguises weren’t going to do the trick. We need to really put the pressure on and make her so sick of working in the shop that she’ll never want to work there again.”
  7. “How will we do that?” asked Bill.

The scene is broken up with numbering for analytical purposes.

  1. We know already how badly boys are treated because of Dan’s and Bill’s experience and the meanie is always running down boys in general. But this declaration from the boy leads to …
  2. … the discovery that girls have been treated just as badly
  3. Here another child speaks with indignation for all children.
  4. Another child explains how stumped they all are for another sweetshop.
  5. Here a boy says something that leads to …
  6. … Dan getting a new idea in how to tackle the meanie.
  7. Here is the question the reader wants answered.

From 1 to 7, the scene, almost all dialogue, builds rapidly to a climax dealing quickly with important points along the way.

Of course, the scene could be expanded on to include lots more dialogue that is still relevant to the plot. However, we only need so much to make our point. We don’t needs lots of children expressing their opinion. There is no point and it slows down the pace and wastes valuable words. And when a character speaks, they only need to say what is necessary to make their point.

Let’s take part of the scene and think about expanding it.

But a girl said, “Yesterday she told us we were like cockroaches swarming all over her shop. She said from now on no more than two of you inside at any one time. I said to her, ‘supposing it’s raining outside?’ She laughed, ‘then you girls get wet!’”

The girl could have gone on to give other examples, but she gave what she considered to be the best example of the meanie’s rudeness. She doesn’t need to say more. She doesn’t need to start saying who was in the shop with her. We don’t need elaborate detail. Make the point succinctly and then move on. This way we keep the dialogue from rambling, we keep the scene tight and well-structured and we keep the tension high.

Dialogue has great immediacy and can bring a character to life quicker than description. But it is a very tricky part of the writing craft to master and we must always consider its structure in doing so. Dialogue exists for a purpose. Therefore, it must be structured correctly in order to effectively fulfil that purpose. Its structure must also conform to the rules of scene structure, as dialogue’s overall goal, like the scene itself, is to develop character and plot.


This post is a slightly edited extract from Chapter 7, Good, well-structured dialogue from the book How to Write Children’s Short Stories (for the Middle Reader), by Jerry Dunne.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

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The plan: a bird’s eye view

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Before reading this post it is a good idea to read, The 3 act plot structure for the short story, if you do not understand the 3 act plot structure. This plot structure works as equally well for novels as for short stories.


Writing fiction is a very personal and absorbing experience and therefore it is very difficult for a writer to stand back and look critically at their work. Yet, it is very easy to make any number of mistakes and to keep on making them. A plan gives us (and an editor) a bird’s eye view of our potential story and so acts as a great aid in helping to pinpoint weaknesses early one, particularly structural ones. In the long run, spotting problems this way will save time, energy and heartache. The more we get used to planning out our work, the sharper we become at discovering and correcting problems early.

How much to plan is up to the individual. I make a plan mainly to keep an eye on the plot arc: to make sure the stakes for the protagonist and the tension of the story are constantly rising (for both the short and the novel). I work out my main characters’ plot-related attitude here, too. This way I have the skeleton of my story in place, and that’s enough at this stage. With the skeleton properly structured, I do not have to be restructuring the whole story at some later date which can be quite aggravating and time consuming.

When planning your story, whether it’s a short or a novel, you can work on plot outline, scene outline, character, setting, POV (point of view) and tone. In this post, we are just going to discuss the plan with regards to plot outline.

Plot outline is about placing chapters (or just scenes in the short) in the right order and making sure that these chapters contain all the necessary rising plot points. Every chapter (and scene) must be fully plot related and help push the protagonist deeper into the problem of the story even as they seek to solve the problem. This way the tension keeps rising.

First, plan each chapter (or scene) briefly, just showing what its aim is in relation to the overall plot arc and which characters will be involved in it. Keep thinking of that bird’s eye view. Only later will we bother to pad out details for each individual chapter or scene. Once we have planned this basic plot arc, our bird’s eye view will show us clearly and simply what is in front of us. Our story is about deepening conflict and raising stakes for the protagonist and this means the tension must always be rising. As far as plot outline is concerned, this is all we need to see before us at this stage.

Let’s think how this plot arc of rising tension would appear on a simple graph. The horizontal axis at the bottom measures from the inciting incident to the climax. Rising tension is measured on the vertical axis on the left side of the graph. The line working across the graph from the inciting incident to the climax on the horizontal axis while also working with the rising tension axis represents our plot arc, which must always be climbing at a steady angle, and obviously represents a steady rise in tension throughout the story. We won’t see this rising plot arc any clearer than in our plan. If there is no rising tension in the story, the plot arc line would be perfectly horizontal between the inciting incident and the climax. If tension rose in the first act and then fell off during the second, our plot arc line would rise from the inciting incident to that part of Act 2 where the tension fell off. From that point on, the line would continue horizontal for the rest of the second act or until the tension picked up again. Thereupon, the graph line would start to rise again. Draw the graph and see for yourself.

Every time we draw up a plan for our plot structure, we can also draw this graph and see very clearly whether or not we have planned our plot arc with rising tension. This is really such a simple thing to do, and works equally well for any piece of fiction writing.

The following plan of my children’s short story Paddy’s Beard shows how to make quick and simple notes of each scene (chapters with a novel) with an eye on its place within the overall plot structure. The stakes are always rising for Paddy (by scene 6 he has lost not only his beard but the hair on his head) and the tension with it throughout each scene. Once we’ve done our simple plan like this, we can check our plot arc by drawing a simple line graph.

Act 1.

Scene 1. (Big action scene.) Set-up and inciting incident. Mr Scalppen starts at school, terrifies the class, tells them he hates hair, spots Paddy, pulls his beard, demands he gets rid of it.

Act 2.

Scene 2. (Small scene.) At home. Paddy licking his wounds. Mum really annoyed; going to ave it out with teacher.

Scene 3. (Biggish conflict scene.) Head’s study. Mum and Paddy have it out with Mr Scalppen. Mr Scalppen wins argument over the beard but lies to get his way. Mr Scalppen doesn’t admit to wanting the beard gone because he hates hair: he says, the beard makes Paddy stick out and not conforming this way will have the other children doing their own thing and then the dress code will be shot to pieces (important point here: Mr Scalppen’s lie comes back to haunt him in the last scene). Paddy must get rid of his beard before the new term.

Scene 4. (Small scene.) At home. We find out mum makes potions. Paddy had measles when young. Mum gave potion to help get rid of measles and beard started growing as she mixed potion too strong.

Scene 5. (Big action scene.) In classroom between Paddy and Mr Scalppen. Ends in a draw.

Scene 6. (Smallish scene.) At home with mum. Lowest point for Paddy. Mr Scalppen has slipped something into his drink and made him go bald. Mum decides to fight fire with fire.

Scene 7. (Tiny scene.) In school. Paddy brings in lemonade mixed with hair-growing potion. Still a low point for Paddy as things don’t go according to plan. Teacher won’t drink lemonade but lets the class drink it. End of term.

Act 3.

Scene 8. (Big action scene.) Start of new term. Last scene and final showdown between Paddy and Mr Scalppen. Mr Scalppen’s lies from Scene 3 come back to haunt him as he has to try and deal with an unexpected twist related to Paddy’s mum’s potion. Paddy’s classmates now have beards as the teacher gave them the hair-growing lemonade to drink. Now Paddy is the odd one out – he has no beard. So the head insists it’s only right and proper that Paddy should grow a beard so as not to stick out from the others. That was Mr Scalppen’s whole point and why the head gave in and told Paddy to get rid of the beard in the first place. The teacher has been caught out. Unable to take all this hairiness a moment longer, he flees the classroom never to return.


The plan enables us to look at our plot outline from a bird’s eye view, which makes it easy to see whether or not we will have rising tension throughout the story. This is one of the most useful things for a writer or editor to see in the plan. Rising tension means that the story has plenty of developing conflict, the fuel of any story. Once our notes are done, we can also draw a simple line graph to show even clearer our rising plot arc, or lack of it.

The plan is just that, a plan. The story is organic, and we may make big or small changes along the way. Even a short story can throw up unexpected twists and turns in the plot. Nevertheless, it would be useful to incorporate these changes into our original plan, so we are able to check our rising plot arc is still in place.


This post is a slightly edited extract from chapter 11, the plan: a bird’s eye view from the book How to Write Children’s Short Stories (for the Middle Reader), by Jerry Dunne.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

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From stereotype to complex character with speed and ease

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Stereotypes are not real people, as real people are multi-dimensional. All the same, with only a few simple but poignant attributes, a stereotype offers an immediate, energetic and powerful impression. By using the stereotype as a template, it is easy to build on these strong features. With the addition of just a few relevant and interesting attributes to the template, the stereotype shifts into a more complex and multi-dimensional shape, but without losing those original traits which made it immediate, energetic and powerful.

The purpose of using the stereotype as a template for creating more complex character has two main advantages. The most important is of use in the short story. With the short story’s limited word length – as with other aspects of the narrative –character must be built up deftly, and the stereotype template is very handy as an aid for achieving this. The stereotype shows us just how few attributes are needed to create poignant character, and so, when we build our complexity on top of our template we see that it is quality and not quantity of attribute that is necessary. Also, if we use the stereotype as a template, then we are fully aware of this fact, and, so, we will certainly not end up with further clichéd character.

Let’s have an example of how to create complex character quickly and easily from our stereotype template. Here we will use the young male writer/artist/sculptor/actor who is pretty much housekeeping and work shy, often broody, difficult, self-indulgent and on and off in his relationship with his girlfriend. Not only that, but if he’s a novelist, for example, he’s never even finished a full novel, but certainly has a list of excuses as to why not that could in themselves fill a book. Many young middle-class women will have dated this type at one time or other and so will know him well. Yes, of course, each one of these young men is an individual in his own right but in other ways he readily fits this stereotype. The point is that he’s easily identifiable from a handful of poignant attributes.

These days his girlfriend views him as the stereotype. Maybe once he (novelist) seemed interesting, but since she’s struggled to remember what she ever saw in him. However, one day, not having read any of his creative writing for a long while, she picks up some of it by chance and sees he has attempted to write some ‘sayings’. She’s unexpectedly taken by several of them and one in particular sticks out for her.

Of course you are not a stereotype. It’s just that an awful lot of people see you as one.

His saying jolts her into realising that as the months have passed and she has become more disappointed and critical of him, that she has actually turned him from the individual she once liked and admired into an object of her scorn. Another way of saying this is that the more she distanced herself from him emotionally, the more she reduced him to a stereotype in her own mind. The more distanced you are from someone, the less you know of someone, and so the more likely they are to appear as a stereotype to you. Now she asks herself some questions: Is the saying about her? Nowadays, how does he see her? Is the saying suggesting that her cynicism has widened the distance between them? Has her critical attitude toward him turned her into a stereotype in his eyes? Has she become the sniping, critical girlfriend type?

You see what’s happened here. We get nineteen words from the boyfriend’s pen and already the stereotype has been fractured. These nineteen words of creative writing give us a witty and interesting take on the nature of stereotypes. In other words, the boyfriend has offered us an interesting perspective about something. It is almost always the case that an interesting perspective makes for an interesting person in some ways; and, if a perspective is not banal then the person holding it can hardly be a stereotype. The saying also offers us a take on the writer’s emotional depth; namely, that he can interpret aspects of life through the use of wit. The boyfriend’s perspective, through the saying, has pulled his girlfriend up short and got her seeing him in a new light (moving away from the stereotype) and thinking deeply about their relationship. His nineteen words have awakened her curiosity and now given him an air of mystery. It is like she is discovering him anew.

The girlfriend starts thinking back, recalling what attracted her to him in the first place. She had first seen him surrounded by a circle of people, all laughing at his banter. She’d got talking to him alone and told him that she’d recently broken up with her actor boyfriend because he was always putting on airs and graces and it had really annoyed her in the end. She recalls the specific thing he then said to her which had made her laugh out loud, and which had been the start of her attraction to him.

He had said, “An actor only puts on airs and graces to hide the fact that he is almost always out of work.”

Here is individual background and possibly backstory (if it is relevant to the story’s plot) and once we have individual background or backstory, the stereotype is completely shattered, as these elements also help deepen and enrich character. And look how little we have done to destroy the stereotype. Of course, we can go on deepening his character with attributes related to appearance, mannerisms and so on, and will certainly do so with the use of further dialogue, action and possibly inner monologue, but in a short story (if not in a novel, too) we look for the most poignant details to help bring our character speedily into a multi-dimensional life.

If we were developing our characters for a short story, we might start with her present thoughts on the boyfriend, where she has turned him into a stereotype, before we are presented with the first saying and then the backstory. If we do it like this, if we juxtapose the stereotype against the original wit of the non-stereotype and yet we are shown they are both the same person, this then creates a sense of mystery for us. What has happened in between her first laughing at his wit and her present point of view of him? The twist could involve the fact that in order to turn him into a stereotype she has become a stereotype in his eyes, as she suspected, and, so, either she or both of them together have created a stereotypical relationship with each other. The theme might consider how people distance themselves from each other by the use of the stereotype and its consequences for a relationship.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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Inspiration from inside an empty matchbox

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

This post demonstrates how conflict fuels and develops a story. An understanding of our simple example will help the writer with both good story structure and the search for new ideas. It’s the ideas angle (for short stories in particular) we’re going to focus on here.

Character and conflict are the story’s two most essential ingredients. Character is used to grip the reader emotionally, yet even with minimum (clichéd) character the mechanics of a story will still work well. But with minimum conflict the mechanics of a story will only splutter along. Plot, tension and suspense will fail to materialise without a sufficient injection of conflict. With no conflict, there is no story.

Character is the heart of the story and conflict the fuel that makes the body (story) function. A body still works with a poor heart (clichéd character) but becomes dysfunctional with little fuel and fails to work at all with no fuel.

This simple but compelling perspective on the story’s mechanics can lead us on to quite a radical approach in our search for new short story ideas. Rather than searching for ideas based on character, or situation (though this obviously involves conflict), we can search for conflict on its own, in a pure form, so to speak, and without worrying too much about the other storytelling essentials at this early point.

The most amazing thing about taking this approach is how quickly we discover the prevalence of conflict in the world around us. Yes, we may even find it inside of an empty matchbox. Let’s put this to the test.

Whatever conflict we discover inside of our empty matchbox, let’s structure it into a gripping plot plan by using the 3 act plot structure, a common formula used to aid the rise of tension in the story.

Act 1
We start with a set-up, where a protagonist (our hero) is introduced into a setting where a problem is about to hit him. Here we have the inner part of our empty matchbox lying face up on a table in the centre of a windowed room that has a door leading into a hallway. At the moment, the matchbox is full of light. The light is our protagonist, our hero.

What triggers the story and kicks the plot into gear is known as the inciting incident. This will be something that both disturbs and challenges the protagonist (the light on the inside of the inner part of the empty matchbox). As night begins to fall, the dark (the antagonist, the baddie) begins to creep over the room, and we see the first ominous signs of dark’s desire to become master of the inside of the inner part of the empty matchbox. Therefore, dark has challenged light, our hero, for possession of his territory. The conflict has begun, and light must respond to it, creating further conflict, or we have no story.

Act 2
This is the main body of the story where we develop our plot by adding more fuel (conflict). We must raise the stakes here for our protagonist, our hero. Every event in this section must head toward a final and inevitable clash with the antagonist, the baddie, where either he or our hero will walk away the winner. The last event in this act will have a high point and the darkest moment. At the high point, it will look like our hero has got one over on the opposition, but then unexpectedly, the darkest moment arrives, and all he has tried to achieve now looks to be undone. It seems as if he has completely failed in his quest to sort out the story’s challenge. This is an essential moment in the story that forces the tension even higher.

Let’s see how this works with our little story. The dark has challenged the light for ownership of the inside of the inner part of the empty matchbox. Soon, as night comes deeper, the dark on the inside of this part of the matchbox is strengthening its hold, and this in turn is weakening the light and driving it out of its home. But then, suddenly, the door of the room swings inward and the hall light sweeps in, vanquishing the cloying and intensifying darkness in a moment and replacing the light once more in its rightful home. This is a plot plan for a very short story we are writing, so this can be our high point. After a while, though, the door of the room pulls to and the light is chased right out of the box by an inrush of the enemy that sweeps over it with the sudden and brutal execution of a cavalry charge. The dark has settled in the box with an even greater strength as night has now completely fallen outside. To make things worse, the light outside the door goes out. This is the darkest moment in the 3 act plot structure, and it is also literally our darkest moment of the story. All seems lost. Night has come, no light is on in the house; the inside of the matchbox has been colonized by dark. Has light, our hero, lost the battle for the inside of the inner part of the empty matchbox?

Act 3
The climax is where our hero has his last battle with the baddie. It is an all or nothing moment where everything he has striven for will turn to dust if he loses at this point.

Because our battle for the inside of the inner part of an empty matchbox will be a short story, let’s add a twist in our plan.

Suddenly, as though by a miracle, we have a cloud break and the moonlight pours in through the window, driving the dark out of the box and vanquishing it to the far corners of the room. Heavenly wise moonlight bathes the box in a warm and silvery glow. Here is our resolution. We have victory for our protagonist, our hero, the light. We end the conflict here, so the story ends here.

By looking for fresh short story ideas solely from the perspective of conflict, we can find ideas just about anywhere because conflict exists just about anywhere. Of course, our example is on an abstract level, but despite the minimum (clichéd) character involved, the mechanics of the story will still work well. We proved this by easily structuring the conflict of the tale into a basic and solid short story plan using the 3 act plot structure, which is designed to create rising tension. But if we minimised the conflict, the mechanics of the story would suffer for it. We would struggle to put together a 3 act plot structure with little conflict.

Further, at least here, our abstract idea can be used as inspiration and guide for concrete ideas. The simplest crossover would revolve around a conflict involving physical space. For instance, two people struggling with each other for seat or elbow room on a bus or train. The conflict could evolve in a subtle and possibly witty way. The matchbox story demonstrates just how subtle conflict can be. This sort of story may sound like too simple an idea, but let’s remember that it’s the conflict that fuels the story and gives rise to the increasing tension, as we have just discovered in our example, which is as simple an idea as any. And, of course, very simple ideas can make great short stories with the right injection of fuel.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

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The short story’s storytelling elements

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Here we examine the short story’s storytelling elements and the restrictions placed on them in comparison to those of longer pieces of fiction. The main storytelling elements consist of character, point of view (POV), plot, conflict, theme, drama and setting. Many of the best short stories will also include irony and a twist so we will look at these, too.

Character definition and development is limited in the short story, and must be completely plot and theme related. Character depth is more hinted at rather than drawn. However, complexity of character is a given and must be three-dimensional. The stereotype belongs to the fable. Usually, one major protagonist is in conflict against one major antagonist. The protagonist, as well as the antagonist, are almost always human, though the antagonist can also be an ideal, an urge, an emotion (like guilt), a psychological, a social or a cultural trait or disorder. As the reader is not making a big emotional investment in the story because of its short length, unlike with the novel, the writer has room to experiment. Character does not have to be particularly good or morally upstanding, and the ending may be unhappy. For example, our heroine’s life may end in tragedy. Or, in the ending of a crime story, the baddie may come out on top; and, if it happens in a fashion which is believable and unexpected, the reader will be happy in a way very unlikely with the novel.

Point of view (POV) is obviously restricted in the short story to one, possibly two perspectives.

The plot will have a beginning, a middle and an end. If there is no plot and no conflict, there’s no story. It’s a vignette or an anecdote or a sample of a story, or some other piece of writing. Of course, the plot does not have to be linear. We could start the story with the resolution and work backwards. The plot will often be broken into scenes. Each scene can be viewed as a piece of a jigsaw that fits perfectly into the overall plot structure. Plot strands or subplots are considered a no no in the short story, though you might make an argument that in the longer length short story (10, 000 words) you have some leeway for it. But if this is the case, the plot strand should only develop on the theme and the main plot.

Once we have the set-up (see the 3 act plot structure) the story’s conflict should begin with the inciting incident and continue until the climax in the third act. Conflict has no particular restriction in the short story in and of itself. Other elements will naturally restrict its development.

The theme is the message or philosophical angle in the story. It is a very powerful element of the story, particularly when it is a timeless and universal theme. Sometimes it’s obvious what the theme is, sometimes not. Most themes can be explored reasonably well in the short story but are done so in a much tighter and more specific way than in the novel.

Setting may be incidental or critical to the story. If the setting is not necessary for character, plot or conflict development, or for the creation of tension or suspense then the setting is incidental and described very briefly. A critical setting may be important to character, plot or conflict development, and if so, then the setting will also help evoke mood and build tension and suspense. Descriptions of critical setting should be used strategically and sparingly in the short story.

Drama is conflict fuelled by the addition of moral choices. Most modern fiction has drama as an intrinsic element of the story, unless the story is aimed solely at humour.

In particular, irony will be an important part of the story when the theme is based on a plot-driven universal human flaw(s). The character’s or characters’ flaw(s) will push the action that will create the conflict, and the irony will rise out of the conflict, exposing the human flaws in an ironic light.

Irony and the twist are closely related. The twist usually arises out of the irony which means the twist will come naturally and not appear to be forced.

Although it is not really a storytelling element as such, we will mention time period here as in the short story it is generally restricted to help keep the story focused, intense and immediate. A short time period is less likely to introduce new scene or character. However, if the main storytelling elements are kept tightened, the time period may stretch, and the story may still keep its focus. Much depends on the type of story and the skills of the storyteller.

The restrictions on number of characters and character development, POV, plot, setting and time period imposed on the short story help to build a clear and intense focus on a single ‘issue’ or ‘concern’, unlike in the novel where the focus can involve many characters, plot-strands, POVs, settings and a lengthy time period. The single ‘issue’ or ‘concern’ is usually an isolated or self-contained event or incident of some sort. This concentration of focus is designed to create a powerful influence on the reader’s psyche that will keep the purpose or message of the story in the reader’s mind long after the reading is over.

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The 3 act plot structure for the short story

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

The plot isn’t a series of events that move forward in a random way. The events are connected by cause and effect and have a very definite structure to them. The plot for the short story can be structured like a 3 act play and like in a play the acts are divided into scenes. Within each scene the structure is like the play itself with a beginning, middle and end, culminating in a high point.

Let’s take a closer look at this 3 act structure.

Act 1
Start with a set-up. A set-up can be viewed in a simple way: introduce a protagonist within a setting where a problem is about to hit him. What triggers the conflict’s story and kicks the plot into gear at the same time is known as the inciting incident. This incident or problematic situation will be something that both disturbs and challenges the protagonist. It comes as close to the beginning of the story as possible. Once character and setting are introduced in the set-up, the inciting incident should happen. The end of the inciting incident signals the end of the first act.

Act 2
This is the main body of the story. Here we are placing scenes that develop character, plot and conflict in a smooth and logical manner and the tension must always be rising, even in quiet periods of reflection; which means that the stakes are rising for the protagonist and that everything is heading toward a final and inevitable clash with the antagonist.

We have two or three events here where the protagonist and antagonist clash to keep the tension rising, bearing in mind that the inciting incident may be the first clash. The last event in this act will have a high point and the darkest moment. At the high point, it may look like our hero has got one over on the opposition, but then unexpectedly, the darkest moment arrives, and all he has tried to achieve now looks to be undone. It seems as if he has completely failed in his quest to sort out the challenge of the story. This is an essential moment that forces the tension even higher. It is the nail-biting moment in the horror film when it looks like the monster is dead but then it rises up sneakily behind our hero getting ready to devour him. Our hero is surely doomed now.

Act 3
The climax is where our hero turns round in time and has his last battle with the monster. It is an all or nothing moment where everything the hero has striven for will turn to dust if he loses at this point.

In the resolution all the loose ends are tied up.

3 Act Play
A short story plot arc can be structured like a 3 act play. This covers the set-up through to the resolution and the overall objective/problem to be tackled.

Act 1
Inciting event
Act 2
Conflict (rising tension)
High point and darkest moment
Act 3

The 3 act plot arc structure is a common formula that works for many popular films and novels really well, so for the short story we may need to tweak it a bit or even quite a bit. But to do this successfully we need to understand the underpinning psychology of why the formula creates rising tension and holds the reader or audience spellbound to a high degree. We can use a sporting analogy as a reference point to explain this underpinning psychology. Let’s think of a tug of war contest.

Act 1 is the set-up and the inciting incident or challenge.

The two teams get ready. The game begins. One team screams out a challenge to the other and tugs hard on the rope (antagonist does the challenging) pulling the other team (protagonist) toward the line. It is aggressive and confrontational but exciting for the spectators (reader, in our case).

Act 2 is the middle part with conflict and rising tension, and has a high point and darkest moment.

The challenged team (protagonist) might manage to pull the other side a few feet forward, but then the challengers (antagonist) dig deep and pull the challenged team forward close to the line. This exciting to-ing and fro-ing is constantly forcing up the tension. The most exciting moments come round possibly three times, so it’s like three little scenes of conflict within the overall match. The challenged team (protagonist) pull the other side right to the line (high point) and it looks like they’ve got it won. But the challengers recover, and soon drag the challenged team toward the line. One of the members of this team slips and falls, releasing his hold on the rope. Surely they’ve lost now. (Here is the darkest moment for the protagonist.)

Act 3 is the climax and resolution.

The losing team (protagonist) suddenly finds its second strength. It pulls back hard and regains a step. The other side pulls back hard. Another fierce struggle ensues, but this time the challenged team (protagonist) pulls its opponents over the line in a nail-biting finish (climax). The winning team get their medals and everyone shakes hands (resolution).

You don’t have to be a tug of war fan to understand this sporting analogy. It is a simple and expressive example and gets the basic points across clearly. If you were just to have a match, where within the opening seconds one team pulled the other over the line, or a match that lasted minutes but one team looked like it would win right from the start with no real balance in the struggle between the contestants, it would not be anywhere near as exciting. Of course, you can’t plan the most exciting outcome for a sport, but you can for a story.

Although the conflict here is described in physical terms, the same rules apply if the conflict is psychological or emotional. The emotional plot in a story has its challenges, its conflicts, its ups and downs and its bruises and tears just like in the physical plot.

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How to write a modern fable for the adult reader

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

Here we will look at how to write a modern fable for the adult reader. As this is our first attempt, to make it easier we’ll use one of Aesop’s fables, The Ass, the Cock & the Lion, for both inspiration and guidance. We’ll define a fable then analyse our old fable before planning and writing out our modern fable. At the end are some pointers for crafting the fable.

What is a fable?

A fable is a short pithy tale consisting of characters that are usually animals, though plants, humans, inanimate objects or natural forces are also used. The characters are anthropomorphized (given human characteristics) and act as props for human character traits and expression. In the fable, each character fulfils a very narrow set of consistent characteristics. For example, the wolf is always a clearly defined predator with the nature to go with it; the fox is cunning, tricky, not to be trusted. Character is kept within simple boundaries so as not to interfere with the clear purpose or message/moral of the fable: to reveal a single aspect of the universal weakness of human nature.

The Ass, the Cock & the Lion

Below is the Aesopic fable we will use as a template for our modern fable.

An ass and a cock were in a cattle-pen together. Presently a lion, who had been starving for days, came along and was just about to fall upon the ass and make a meal of him when the cock, rising to his full height and flapping his wings vigorously, uttered a tremendous crow. Now, if there is one thing that frightens a lion, it is the crowing of a cock: and this one had no sooner heard the noise than he fled. The ass was mightily elated at this, and thought that, if the lion couldn’t face a cock, he would be still less likely to stand up to an ass: so he ran out and pursued him. But when the two had got well out of sight and hearing of the cock, the lion suddenly turned upon the ass and ate him up.

Analysis of the fable

The theme/human flaw or message
The theme or message is the most important thing about the fable. In order to bring this message across clearly in the tale, character must work as a simple stereotype. The theme must flow simply and clearly through this plot prop without any complications or hindrance. With the message, the fable is powerful. Without the message, the fable is worthless.

The message or moral of this fable is: False confidence often leads to disaster.

Character here is drawn as usual in simple stereotypes. The ass acts as expected, as does the lion, a predator, and the noisy cock. The ass misjudges the situation which in turn leads him to underestimate his opponent. Consequently, his confidence swells out of all proportion to his talent and his subsequent action gets him killed by the king of the beasts.

The plot
An examination of this fable’s plot in the abstract will allow us to manipulate it easily for our own aims. The abstract plot has a physical as well as an emotional side.

Here is the abstract physical plot: B flees from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B. But B turns on C and destroys him.

Here is the psychological or emotional side: B flees in fear from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B, assuming that because he’s much bigger than A, he’ll scare C even more. Unfortunately for C, B turns and slaughters him.

Human nature is full of irony as it is full of splendid contradictions. When a character acts on a human flaw, as in this fable, irony often arises from the action. A fable with irony works better than one without, especially if irony is combined with an unexpected twist. It is odd that the sound of the cock should scare the lion, but odder still that the ass should make the assumption from this that he himself can scare the king of the beasts even more. The irony lies in the consequences of that assumption.

Plan the modern fable

Theme/human flaw
This is the easy part as we already have the theme/human flaw from the other fable and even the way it is delivered as a message.

False confidence often leads to disaster.

We can also shift across relevant aspects of character from the other fable. The theme centres on the ass’s character flaw, which makes him the most important character in the tale. To keep him intact as a character, all we have to do is carry across his old attitude to the new situation and we keep intact his character flaw, too. If we do not keep intact this character attitude, we could very well end up delivering on a different message, which means we may as well have not bothered using this fable as a guide. Our characters will be a man and a woman and the situation modern, but obviously they must remain stereotypes. The man will become the equivalent of the ass and the woman the lion in our fable.

Let’s look again at the abstract plot from the old fable.

Here is the physical side: B flees from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B. But B turns on C and destroys him.

Here is the psychological or emotional side: B flees in fear from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B, assuming that because he’s much bigger than A, he’ll scare C even more. Unfortunately for C, B turns and slaughters him.

Now here’s the abstract physical plot for our fable: B dates A. This triggers C to chase B. But B turns on C and destroys him.

Here is the abstract psychological or emotional plot: C lusts after B, but until B dates A, C doesn’t act on it. As C thinks himself superior to A, he now chases B from a position of over-confidence. Unfortunately for C, B turns and slaughters him.

When we get the plot like this in the abstract we can easily see that both plots are the same.

The story
In the office, a man has wanted to make a move on a woman for quite a while but never had the confidence to do so. This is the equivalent of the ass who would never ordinarily dream of going after the lion. Up to now the woman has dated men with more money and better looks than our man, but now he discovers that her new boyfriend has less money and fewer good looks than himself. This is the equivalent of the lion fleeing from the crowing cock and the ass putting his own spin on the reason for it. Our man also puts his own spin on it, believing she is only dating below her league because she has lost her confidence. This makes him over-confident, and he gives chase. But as with the ass, the man learns too late that he has misjudged the situation. She cuts him to pieces for his assumptions.

Setting and Situation
Setting is stated rather than described in a fable.
Situation refers to the way the story plays out its conflict sequences. In our fable, the conflict will be done with dialogue. In the old one, the conflict is accomplished with physical movement.

In our fable, the man’s human flaw leads to action which creates an ironic twist. The woman’s reason for giving him the brush off has nothing to do with money and looks, as he had supposed, but with his poor attitude toward her. Yet it was this poor attitude that had first given him the false confidence to pursue her.

The modern fable

Now it’s time to have a bash at writing the fable itself.

One of the features of the fable is that it is named after the character types in the story; e.g. The Hare and the Tortoise. We are going to hold to that tradition here.

The Man & the Woman

A man lusted after a woman at the office, but kept from approaching her, fearful that she’d laugh off his advances, as her dates were always men with far greater looks and income than his own. One day, he discovered her new date was not as good looking as himself and earned far less income. Now his chest swelled with confidence, and he pounced on her, expecting a date. But he was rebuked with a laugh.

Shocked and angry at the rebuttal, he lashed out, “No longer able to date the classier men, you now date a man with fewer good looks and even less money than me. So why should you turn me down?”

She laughed again, “Your assumptions are all your own. I don’t judge men your way. My latest man is as good as any man. Your confidence was raised only because you thought mine was lowered and therefore my standards with it. You underestimate others in order to overestimate yourself. That’s why I’d never date you.”

Our theme or message rises clear and simple out of our fable: False confidence often leads to disaster.

Summing up

We are able to take the same theme/message, character attitude, and even the same physical and emotional abstract plot and sense of irony from the old fable and place them all in the modern fable, and yet on the surface they both appear very different to one another. And notice how relevant our modern fable is to our modern world! This is evidence (if needed) of how well the old fables encapsulate human nature, and do so in a witty and entertaining way. It also means that we can quite easily use these old fables as both inspiration and guide to create fresh and relevant fables of our own.


Pointers for crafting the fable

Play with the formula
Fables tend to be very formulaic. This is not a bad thing as it allows the writer to concentrate on the delivery of the message within a well-established framework. However, now that we know what strengthens and what weakens a fable, we can play with the formula to make the fable a little more dynamic.

Story type
Story is often pure fantasy in the fable, which reflects in the use of anthropomorphic character. There is no effort made to convince the reader of the reality of the situation; it is the reality of the human weakness portrayed that is the function of the tale.
The main way to break with the tradition of the formula is to give it a context and situation of realism.

We can follow the style of the Aesopic fable or take the vocabulary and imagery from elsewhere; from the modern world around us, for example. The more elaborate our language, though, the longer the fable is likely to be. For our example here, we more or less stuck to the tradition of style found in Aesop’s translations.

Description must be plot-related and kept to a bare minimum. Language is often condensed and connective words and phrases used to push the plot on quickly.

To show difference or opposition use connectives like, ‘on the other hand’, ‘on the contrary’.

Causal connectives are words and phrases like, ‘consequently’, ‘because of’, ‘under the circumstances’.

Temporal connectives point out when things are happening and the passage of time. Examples are, ‘at this point’, ‘afterwards’, ‘then’, ‘on another occasion’, ‘winter arrived’.

Dialogue is cynical, witty, innocent, honest, often contrived and preachy when delivering on the message, but always short, sharp, to the point and effective.

“Aha! You never thought to come to this, did you, you who were so proud!”

Our Aesopic fable here lacks dialogue. The fable might have been more entertaining, if, for instance, the lion had informed the ass before devouring him, “The sound of the cock might scare me, but you, on the other hand, only make my mouth water.”

It’s a good idea to establish setting and character in the first line, as we must move to the plot as quickly as possible. ‘A woodman was felling a tree on the bank of a river…’ ‘An ass and a cock were in a cattle-pen together…’

Or we might get stuck into the theme (the human weakness) straightaway. ‘A bear was once bragging about his generous feelings…’

But we must at least introduce character in the first line. ‘A very unskilful cobbler, finding himself unable to make a living at his trade…’

The narrative works purely toward the final statement/message which may well be delivered with an ironic twist. This sort of twist gives the ending a lot of punch. But whether we have a twist or not, once the message is delivered the fable must end. There is now no reason to go on writing and to continue doing so might distract from the message and even leave the reader confused.


For more on fables see: How to develop credible and insightful short story ideas from a fable.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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How to create a saying

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

The type of saying we will look at here expresses nuanced truths in an ironic and often witty way. This might sound like quite a lofty thing to try for but it’s not as difficult as it might at first appear. The saying is really a sophisticated joke, also with a set-up and a punchline. The first half usually sets the reader up for an expectation that is not met in the second half. Instead, we get an ironic twist. The effect is to jolt the reader into seeing the truth (message or theme) of the saying from a fresh and poignant perspective in a way they would not otherwise have thought about, if they had ever thought about it at all.

So for us to create a saying, we obviously need a sense of perspective that involves wit and irony, as well as a topic and a theme or message to deliver. In the saying’s first half, we will introduce the topic and then throw into an unexpected and ironic twist in the second half. We accomplish this by matching two concepts that usually never go together but in doing so create a spark. That’s why we get the irony and the twist and the message delivered in a fresh and poignant way. This is pretty much how wit works everywhere.

We’ll take three separate topics with a saying for each one and analyse them to see why they work. After that, we will introduce a fourth topic and attempt to create a saying out of it, using our three analyses to help us with inspiration and guidance.

Here’s our first saying on the topic of drinking:

Abstinence is the weakness of the faint-hearted; drunkenness the weakness of the strong-hearted.

What is this saying telling us? Those who choose not to drink at all abstain because they are too faint-hearted to drink (this is wit). It is suggesting that the non-drinker is afraid of what might happen to his personality if he lets himself go through drink. We know this because the second clause flips the subject of drink and abstinence on its head to suggest that abstinence would actually be a good thing for the strong-hearted who are only too ready to participate in alcohol overuse. The saying suggests that the faint-hearted would benefit by some alcohol and the strong-hearted (or headstrong) would benefit from some abstinence. These two concepts placed side by side in this way and delivered with sharp word play throw up wit and irony with a message that appears fresh.

Here’s our second saying on the topic of wealth:

Some people live in fifteen-million-pound houses and others in rundown public housing. But the same postal service delivers all our mail and the same graveyard accepts all our bones. Who says we don’t have equality?

This second saying is making a comment on equality, or lack of it, in society. Again, the matching of concepts that wouldn’t usually be placed together help deliver on the wit and irony in an offbeat way. The question at the end, of course, is our punchline. The writing is sharp and snappy and must be in order to carry the wit well.

Here’s our third saying on the topic of relationships:

Can romance really begin on first dates? Shouldn’t it start after you’ve had lots of time to get to know one another – like when the divorce papers have been signed?

Here we have another odd set of comparisons. The saying suggests that a couple need time to get to know one another before romance can blossom. How can we be romantic on a first date when we hardly know the other person? It ironically suggests that the best time for romance is when a couple have split up and are signing the divorce papers. Here is where you know the person best of all. But by then, of course, it’s too late. This saying seems ridiculous on the surface, and yet, people often don’t know one another very well at the beginning of a romantic relationship, and these same people certainly do know one another a lot better when the divorce papers are being signed. So when would the best time be to start the romance?

Our own saying:

We’ve analysed our examples and now have an idea of how things work. Let’s see if we can create a saying around the topic of journalism. What do we think of journalists? Well, they range from excellent to poor. Here we want to be witty, ironic and cynical all at the same time. We want to create something offbeat.

Journalism is a craft practised by journalists. (Makes sense so far). They take hard facts and attempt to make a story out of them. But often the story is biased, and, anyway, sometimes the journalist simply doesn’t know what he’s writing about, and at other times, he actually makes things up. Yet, the journalist attempts to persuade his audience that he is not biased but actually reasonable in his interpretation of the facts.

Let’s go into wit and irony mode now.

Journalism is a craft, which takes hard facts and turns them into stories; stories that are often biased or worse. Now it looks like more than a craft. The ability to twist facts to fit the biased opinion looks more like an art form.
Here we have found some key words which we can use to help us create the saying.

Journalism is an art form that takes hard facts and turns them into biased stories.

We’re already nearly there. We just need a little more punch, especially at the end.

Journalism is an art form that takes hard facts and turns them into fiction.

This is much better. The end is punchier but it is still not quite there. It doesn’t really give us the full ironic punch that we need. The journalist is trying to convince his audience he is writing the truth; he must appear plausible. Let’s stick the word plausible in at the end and see how it looks.

Journalism is an art form that takes hard facts and turns them into plausible fiction.

Plausible and fiction don’t go together ordinarily, but we are writing a saying and developing irony, and they fit in perfectly here for our purpose. Our ending is now fine and has the ironic punch we need. We can just make the first part a little punchier by writing it this way.

Journalism is the art of taking entire sets of hard facts and turning them into plausible fiction.

And there we have it: our first saying.

Summing up

We need wit, irony, a twist/ punchline, as well as a ring of nuanced truth about the topic, even if it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and a touch cynical. We achieve all this by matching concepts that would not normally go together and express them by using snappy and punchy words, some of which would not normally go together either.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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Those forgotten great ideas

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

This post is about two great ideas I had then lost, why I lost them, whether I even had them, but what I gained from it all, anyway.

One night, having twisted and turned for ages, unable to nod off, I eventually and gratefully felt the blanket of sleep settle over my shoulders. Except, at that moment – bam! The greatest idea I’d ever had for a story sprang into my mind.

If I dared to think more on the idea, the mental stimulus would lift me right out of any slumbering state. Likewise, if I leapt out of bed, turned on the light and reached for a pen, I knew I’d go on writing for a while; and even once back in bed, I’d continue mulling the idea over in my head. Sleep would be a will-o’-the-wisp then. It was already past three and I had to be up for work at seven. These thoughts had taken only a handful of seconds to complete, so I was still on the cusp of dozing off.

It occurred to me that if this great idea was so great – which it was – a night’s snoozing couldn’t possibly wipe it from my memory. This one-in-a-million idea must have just branded itself into my memory, so wasn’t going anywhere soon. Nothing except proper memory loss could wipe it from my biological hard drive now.  Secure in the truth of this fact, I allowed myself the pleasure of drifting away into unconsciousness.

When I woke next morning, I instantly recalled I’d thought up a great idea and why I hadn’t bothered to rise and write it down. But as to the idea itself, I had no memory. Zilch! I shook my head. I pulled my hair.  Zilch! I went to work with a frown carved on my brow. Lunchtime came. I sat in the cafeteria with pen poised, waiting for the great idea to reappear with a fanfare of trumpets. Lunchtime passed. But for a few pathetic doodles, a page in my notepad remained blank. The afternoon passed. The evening passed. Lying in bed again, I suspected the great idea would return in a flash of glory just as I was falling asleep. The bedside light and paper and pen were but an arm’s length away. That night sleep swept over me in a moment. Zilch! That great idea has eluded me ever since.

The second great idea arrived when my creative antennae were twitching away in a frenzy, so I knew an idea would arrive from anywhere at any moment. Whether from overhearing a conversation, reading a newspaper or even just gazing through the window of the pub, something lively was going to spring out at me. I was actually overhearing a conversation when suddenly a snippet of it clashed head on with whatever aspect of the brain ‘plasma’ sparks off the imagination. A loud firework exploded, unleashing a multi-coloured shower of streaks and sparks, and as they descended slowly to earth – all happening in my mind, of course – they began to pattern the air with the words of another great idea.

Two things I had to bear in mind at this point. One, I’d learnt my lesson thoroughly from the last episode when sleep had deprived me of the first great idea forever. Since, I had taken especial pains in writing every idea down, although none of them had risen high enough in my estimation to warrant the label ‘the greatest idea I’d ever had’ like the one that had gotten away. Second, I was somewhat in a state of intoxicated light-headedness, which has forgetfulness as one of its major downsides. So I knew I had to cut and paste this idea from my mind onto paper, and the quicker the better, or else face the possibility of another catastrophe.

I scribbled away like a child with a crayon, filling half a sheet. Then I tucked the folded sheet away deep in my jacket pocket, downed the rest of my pint, smacked my lips together with smug satisfaction and congratulated myself on a masterful piece of tactical thinking as I rose to get another pint. It even occurred to me that this idea might be the one and the same as the great forgotten idea and that some sort of karma had helped regurgitate it up from the depths of my memory, with overhearing the snippet of conversation as the trigger for this.

The following day, I had completely forgotten about last night’s great idea, though hardly surprising due to the pace of my drinking. Only when I found the note in my jacket pocket did I become aware of it.

Even at the best of times my writing is quite the scrawl and I often struggle to make out my own written word, though do generally manage it. But when considerably light-headed and writing excitedly, hastily, as I must have done due to the belief that I had discovered another great idea – I could just make out the words at the top of the note ‘a really great idea’ – this had obviously taken its effect on my scrawl and every other word in the note looked like a row of trees battered and scattered by a hurricane.

Then memories of the previous day jumped into my mind. Now I recalled having an idea, that snippets of conversation had prompted it (though couldn’t remember what they were), and that I had eagerly written the idea down. In fact, I remembered everything except the idea itself. Once again, zilch!

Without the clarity of these words ‘a really great idea’, I would never have put myself through the mental assault course which followed.  My excitement picked up, and I ploughed on, desperate to read more. There were actually one or two other readable words in the dozen or so sentences of the note but that was it. I had no intention of giving up though. I was not going to lose my second ‘really great idea’.

I worked on that note on and off over a number of weeks as though I was decrypting a secret code. I would try and guess some letters of a word to see if I could then recognize the word itself, and next, by using this word as a clue, try and made sense of the clause. Once or twice, working in this way, it seemed that I had broken the meaning of a clause, and this really excited me, but I truly couldn’t be sure, and anyway, I never was able to break the meaning of the next clause in that sentence, if it actually was a sentence. What was really frustrating was that I could not even get a hint at what the great idea was about. Zilch!

Eventually, I realised I was staring at a complete dead end.

Karma, indeed. More like the Gods playing games with me.

Of course, as a form of consolation, now I like to think that none of these ideas were actually great, that in the cold light of day or sobriety their weaknesses would have become apparent. It’s just that I rarely stick the label ‘great’ on an idea unless I think it is. Not knowing was what plagued me.

But maybe there is a real consolation to be gained from it all in the end, though. I suppose it amounts to this: a great idea lost, a little story gained. Could there be a bit of karma involved, after all?

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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What makes J K Rowling’s Harry Potter so successful?

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

We’ll look at Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book in the series, which set the pace and standard for the others to follow.

Certainly the book’s success partly reflects readers’ love of wizards, ghosts, monsters, old-fashioned school settings (though Hogwarts with its numerous shadowy corridors, banqueting hall, etc., seems to surpass most of them for sheer dramatic effect), horrible characters, funny characters, inter-house rivalry, sporting rivalry (Quidditch), paternal headmaster, both evil and good teachers, the eternal struggle between good and evil, a central mystery to the plot, and last, but certainly not least, a central child character who at first seems ordinary and is even mistreated by those around him, but soon discovers his aristocratic (wizarding) background.

But lots of tales out there already have these storytelling attributes, and yet pale into insignificance beside this story. So what makes this one so successful? There are several reasons, but let’s explore just one amongst them to make our point.

The story’s background detail creates more than a simple fill-in for the physical description and backstory of the wizarding world, though it performs that task very well. Rowling’s well-developed and imaginative details help give the story a pulse, which in turn creates tension and pushes the pace; it often familiarises the reader with the unusual; and without doubt much of it adds humour, charm and a never ending amount of surprises.
Let’s look at some examples.

A world not unlike our own

Here is a great example where the background detail familiarises the reader with the unusual.

When Harry is getting his first wand, Ollivander, the shop’s owner, says to him, “Your father, on the other hand, favoured a mahogany wand. Eleven inches. Pliable. A little more power and excellent for transfiguration.”

Harry is discovering a little about his father here but also a whole lot about wands as he learns that ‘every Ollivander wand has a core of a powerful magical substance: unicorn hairs, phoenix tailfeathers and the heartstrings of dragons. No two Ollivander wands are the same…’ He finds out that wands are made of beechwood and dragon heartstring, maple and Phoenix feather, ebony and unicorn hair, and lots of other combinations.

Harry must try many wands before finding the one right for him. But not only Harry, the reader, too, is receiving an education in the immense and marvellous detail of the world of wands.

However, what makes this scene really special and memorable is that it reminds us of our own experiences in buying our first school uniform or a brand new musical instrument, for example, which we couldn’t yet play. The memory of the smell and feel of my first school blazer returned to me here. Just like with Harry, on first entering the school clothing shop, the back of my neck prickled with expectation as soon as I saw those ‘narrow boxes piled neatly high’ and felt the dust and silence everywhere. Only with the tailor’s appearance and his show of enthusiasm in wanting to make sure I got exactly what was right for me did my unease disappear.

Harry is measured ‘from shoulder to finger, then wrist to elbow, shoulder to floor, knee to armpit and round his head’. The tape measure doing all the measuring by itself is an extra charming and surprising touch.

The magical elements of the scene weave in and out easily with this familiar real world setting. It is because of this similarity with our own experiences that we feel we know this shop and what Harry is going through. So we are right there with him as he gets fitted out for his new wand.

It’s like everything’s alive

What a surprise for Ron to find out that in the Muggle world nobody moves in a photo and what a surprise for Harry to find out the opposite happens in the wizarding world. But not only photos move in the wizarding world, of course. The people in the portraits keep going to visit each other and Harry is sure that suits of armour can walk about. The moving portraits give rise to lots of funny moments. One in particular is where Hermione wants to get back into Gryffindor Tower late one night. But the fat lady in the portrait has gone on a night-time visit, so Hermione can’t give her the password to get back in and instead stands facing an empty painting.

Then there is chess where the figures are alive, ‘which made it a lot like directing troops in battle’. Ron has an old chess set and knows his chessmen so well ‘he never had trouble getting them to do what he wanted’. Having borrowed some chessmen to play with and not being much of a player yet, Harry discovers that the chessmen have little time for him and shout out confusing advice during play, ‘Don’t send me there, can’t you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him.’

In the Restricted Section of the library, Harry feels the books might be whispering about him, as though they know he’s trespassing. When he opens a large black and silver book it lets out a blood-curdling shriek which continues even after he snaps the book shut. Despite events like this happening frequently, the screaming book still took me by surprise and I laughed at Harry’s reaction to it.

Even Hogwarts itself seems to be restless with staircases leading to different places on a Friday; doors that won’t open unless you ask politely, or tickle them in exactly the right place. Then there are solid walls just pretending to have doors in them. Harry found it hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot.

These little details about photos, paintings, chessmen, books and Hogwarts castle help to create a sense of unease in the story. You have the feeling of always needing to be on your guard and wondering what is coming next. These details help give the story a strong pulse, heighten tension and quicken pace. They conjure up a metaphor of a cauldron always bubbling away with some mysterious spell in the making. But is it a good or a bad spell? At Hogwarts it won’t be long before you find out.

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