Pace the story

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Narrative pace concerns how fast or slow the plot movement feels to the reader as they make their way through the story. Good pace enables the narrative to offer a feeling of smooth and constant movement, with no feeling of sluggishness or anti-climax anywhere in the story. Good pace isn’t just about fast plot movement; sometimes the pace needs to slow. Pace will vary. A slower pace at certain points is crucial in a story. Variation in pace contributes to the plot’s overall rising tension and so helps prevent the reader from losing interest in the story.

Pacing is one of the toughest skills to develop because it is entangled up with other narrative skills, and until we have mastered them we will simply not have the necessary ability to pace our story well. So pace is best understood by describing how it works within aspects of the narrative.

Here we will examine its dynamics within plot structure in the children’s short story (for the middle reader). An argument can be made that the perspective shown here is of equal importance to any type of story, so this post should be useful for all types of fiction writer.

Plot structure is static. The pace flows through the different plot points like a cross country runner over a course. The course itself is like the static plot and determines how the runner will pace himself at different points over its terrain. Early on in the race, the runner must conserve his energy and not run off too quickly. At certain points on the course, he may get bogged down in muddy ground or be forced to run slower uphill. At other points, he may run faster and effortlessly; for instance, downhill or on flat, hard countryside; and near the end of the race he might be sprinting against the competition in a tight finish. A smart runner will study the course beforehand so that he knows the right pace he must use on different sections of the ground. Just as he will know his course in order to prepare his pacing plan, the writer must also know his own terrain, the plot structure, so that he can also plan his pacing. The writer, of course, has one big advantage over the runner: it is his own course he is studying.

In the plot arc structure, where we have the set-up and inciting incident in Act 1, plenty of conflict in Act 2 and the climax in Act 3, we will be linking all the scenes of conflict/action by non-action scenes that must also help the tension rise. For this to happen, they must be paced correctly, which means we have to work out which scenes will be faster and which ones slower and also make sure slower ones don’t directly follow each other.

If you are not familiar with the 3 act plot structure it might be a good idea to read that post before continuing with this one.

Our conflict/action scenes will actually be slower paced and the non-action scenes faster paced. These non-action scenes are where the protagonist is ‘licking her wounds’. She is dealing with the consequences of the last direct bit of conflict while working out what to do next to overcome her opponent, the antagonist. Because these scenes are a link between the conflict/action scenes they need to be brisk paced and full of tension. The reader knows that greater conflict and risk is coming (or should be), and uncertainty prevails as to its outcome, so if we write these non-action scenes properly, the tension will only rise considerably.

The idea of pace can be quite confusing, especially as it is linked to tension and tension only makes the reader more absorbed in the writing. If pace is not only about length, but also about being absorbed in the narrative then we might ask: why aren’t the action scenes also seen as fast paced? Well, action scenes are slower paced because they are generally longer in a children’s short story with much more description added. When the reading is highly absorbing, it will seem as though we get through long scenes quite quickly. In the faster-paced scenes, there is less writing, particularly description, and so the actual reading is done quicker. This is why we get a smooth feeling to our reading when both types of scene are done well. If our linking scene was pointlessly long (overly described, for example), it would corrupt the smooth pace of the story because it would become unnecessarily slower. It would cause a drag in the story.

Below is the plot outline of one of my children’s short stories Paddy’s Beard. Here we will look at it from a pacing perspective.

This first scene builds quickly with direct conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. The scene is longer and slower paced than the following one.

Scene 1. 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.

The second scene is faster in pace. Here the protagonist is licking his wounds and uncertainty and tension hang in the air.

Scene 2. Small scene at home. Mum really annoyed. Paddy licking his wounds. What to do?

Next is a conflict scene with lots of dialogue, slower paced but with plenty of tension.

Scene 3. 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 plot 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.

Now we have a faster-paced, short scene with tension.

Scene 4. 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.

Next is a slower-paced, big conflict/action scene.

Scene 5. In classroom between Paddy and Mr Scalppen. Ends in a draw.

Then we have a mid-paced scene, full of tension.

Scene 6. 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.

Then a faster-paced, tiny scene, full of tension.

Scene 7. Paddy brings lemonade to school with hair-growing potion in it. 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.

Finally, a slower-paced, conflict scene.

Scene 8. 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.

Here it is really condensed so we can’t possibly miss the pattern. The story is 4,550 words long and has 8 scenes. Note the difference in word length between the faster-paced scenes and the slower-paced ones.

Scene 1, (1,055 words) slower paced, action,

Scene 2, (206 words) faster paced, licking wounds

Scene 3, (649 words) slower paced, conflict

Scene 4, (225) faster paced, licking wounds

Scene 5, (715 words) slower paced, action

Scene 6, (446 words) mid paced, licking wounds

Scene 7, (141 words) faster paced

Scene 8, (1,106 words) slower paced, conflict

This switching between action and non-action scenes and their different and appropriate word lengths within the plot structure gives the plot movement a feeling of smoothness.

Let’s use an analogy with juggling to show how pace variation in these conflict and non-conflict scenes work in another medium. This will demonstrate why pace variation is necessary for the continual rise of tension. When the juggler is in the middle of a spectacular demonstration, things seem to slow down and work in slow motion due to the increased tension. In fact, a long time might pass but it is hardly noticed by the audience who are too busy marvelling at the spectacle. This is his slower-paced period because he is much more involved in his activity and is taking longer over it. Then, in between these exciting activities, he is still juggling a little but is really resting and preparing himself for the next highlight. This resting is his faster-paced period because it is much shorter in time and his juggling will be much less involved. This is a necessary interval in which both he and the audience can catch their breath and refocus their attention. But something else of great importance is happening here. Soon his body language indicates that he is getting ready to up the stakes and do something much more spectacular, thereby increasing the chances of dropping the skittles. The tension is rising now, and continues to rise during each resting period because he is always preparing to go on and do something even more spectacular and risky.

Now we know it is the same for the story. We crave the spectacle but we don’t just want continuous action. We just as much crave the build-up between the combative action scenes because that gives us a moment to savour the feelings of rising uncertainty and tension regarding what will follow next. Pace variation greatly helps to achieve this.

So remember: The pace moves through the plot structure like a cross-country runner moving over a course. The runner’s change of pace, faster or slower, will depend on the terrain on various points of the course. The flow of the pace in the story, faster or slower, will depend on the type of scene it is travelling through. We will have more description and therefore slower pacing in the action scenes, and faster pacing with far less description in the non-action scenes which are usually much shorter in length. Switching continuously between action and non-action scenes keeps the pace feeling smooth and lively.

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This post is a slightly edited extract from Chapter 8, Pace the story, 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

Amazon co uk horizontal link

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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.

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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

Amazon co uk horizontal link

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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.

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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.

Summary

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.

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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

Amazon co uk horizontal link

Posted in Writing fiction, Writing short stories, Writing short stories for the middle child reader | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.

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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.

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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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
Set-up
Inciting event
Act 2
Conflict (rising tension)
High point and darkest moment
Act 3
Climax
Resolution

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.

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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