Structure

Key Features of Short Story Structure

Key Features of Short Story Structure post header

One of the main story elements I analyse here at Feedback For Writers is story structure. Short stories, due to the very nature of the form, have particular requirements, and  I’d like to examine these so I can give you  guidance on some of the main pitfalls I see when reading other people’s work.

What structural elements need to appear in all stories?

First off, I should point out that you need to be telling a whole story.

A short story isn’t like a compressed novel. A short story is not “part of a novel”  or a first chapter; neither is it simply a vignette or a character description . It’s not the introduction to the real deal—the short story is the real deal.

A short story is a complete entity, which should be able to stand and survive alone.  It has the usual story beats but they might be implied or ‘felt’ rather than detailed. Some of the story might appear in the gaps, in what is not said, as much as what is.

Should A Short Story Have All the Same Features As Classic Three Act Structure?

Well, a short story should contain within it a beginning, a middle and an end, and the key narrative beats of those, so in many ways, yes, it should. In other words:

  • We have to introduce our character or characters. Our character needs a problem or situation. We need to be immediately clear about the world they are in and the main conflict they’re facing. Your reader needs to know who your protagonist is, where and when they are, their problem, their desire, their main antagonist & problem. The reader needs to know this quickly.
  • Then, we need to maximise the conflict inherent in that situation. “Put your character in a tree, and throw stones at them,” before getting them down again. We need to throw the stones. We need perhaps a twist in the middle that turns things on their head and that they react to, while things get worse and worse. From there, we need the story to reach a climax somehow. The worst of all worse situations for our character where they confront “The Thing” that we’ve known they needed to confront all along. They’ll most likely realise something – or purposefully ignore it, depending on what our view of life is like but it will be the whole point of our story.
  • Then we need to end our story, a sense of moving into the future at the end, although you don’t need everything tied up nicely with a bow around it. In short stories, what often is most effective is the  possibility of a new story beginning at the end,  a future emerging, like a new creature, hitherto buried under sand.

What Structural Problems Are Specific To Short Stories?

The single biggest problem is not having enough room to tell the story you wish to tell.

Timeframe is a key issue. And focus. You simply don’t have time to spend pages going into this or that backstory or exploring some irrelevance, or putting half a page of beautiful description of setting just to build up the background scenery when you’ve said nothing about the situation your character is in. You have to find a way to keep it spare.

Short stories are usually about one thing. One or two characters, and one moment; the reason you’re telling this story in the first place, so you need to make it a doozy.

And one of the biggest— and I think most fun— challenges  is to find a way to compress the story into a single timeframe.  This is one of the reasons why short stories are often experimental. To compress the whole story into a single timeframe while still making sure you hit the key narrative (and emotional) story beats; the exposition, the conflict, the rising action, the climax, the denouement. You may have all the beats, but they might be in a different order. It’s not always possible, but try if you can you fit the entire story into a timeframe of 24 hours or less. Also, make sure the story is being conveyed scenes and you are showing not telling.

Be brutal with this, and getting it as spare as you can. Ask yourself what’s the minimum information you need to convey in a scene in order to give the reader what they need? Can some things be implied in the gaps, in what is said and not said, shown and not shown? What events happen off-stage? Might some gaps between scenes draw the reader in more from an emotional perspective? What’s the minimum number of scenes you need to have to convey to your reader just what you need them to know?

In my next post, I’ll be looking at the specific problems I see most often with short story structure – and the actions we might take to resolve them.

 

Check out one of my Sample reader’s reports to see the kinds of feedback on your work that I provide here.

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Into The Woods – John Yorke

Into The Woods  A Five-Act Journey Into Story

The author of this relatively recent and increasingly popular book is TV producer John Yorke, ex-Head of Drama at Channel 4 as well as former Controller of Drama at the BBC. So it’s fair to assume that Yorke is a guy who knows his stuff with regard to story and narrative structure.

Throughout the book, Yorke seeks to uncover the universal patterns underlying story. He argues that these – like Jung’s archetypes – are universal because such narratives are an intrinsic expression of our human nature. Yorke explores the way that narrative patterns pleasingly echo those that occur in nature. He gives the example of fractals (patterns in nature that exists at the smallest unit level and are repeated in larger units.)

Then we get to his in-depth examination of story structure. Essentially, he concludes that all stories follow a distinct pattern. Yes, even when their writers are adamant they are not doing so! Yorke believes this pattern can almost always be mapped to a five-act, rather than the classic three-act, structure. He then breaks this down in detail for the reader.

One thing that I loved about Into The Woods was the chart at the end  listing all the main screenwriting gurus and methods (yep, so there we have our Truby, Save The Cat, Linda Aronson, Vogler, Syd Field etc etc). He shows how all their separate “methods” and structures are just different terms for what is essentially the same pattern. By doing so, Yorke clearly seeks to set himself above all those pesky cowboy screenwriting gurus. I have to say, however, that I’ve personally found that each “guru” does in fact have a little something different to bring to the party in terms of practical approach and application, all of which I’ve found useful in my writing.

Another thing Yorke does far better than most is offer plenty of salient examples from recent TV shows and movies, examples with which all readers should be familiar. It takes away the element of snobbishness that we sometimes see in theoretical discussions of this sort. I also liked his chapter on repeated patterns at the beginnings and endings of stories.

I did however feel that the book was overly repetitious and muddled in places. It came across more to me as an academic thesis and personal labour of love for the author than a practical guide for other writers. I found its ideas interesting but not especially new. And I’m afraid that when I tried to apply them practically and incorporate them step-by-step into methods I already use, I found myself oddly frustrated. It feels rather that Yorke goes very in-depth on some elements and skims over others. That said, Into The Woods has fast become a modern classic for students of writing, story and structure. If you are unfamiliar with the underlying theories of these, I can see why it could be considered a key addition to your writing-book collection.

 Useful if you are:

  • After a detailed analysis and overview of story structure
  • Looking for the whys and hows of story and narrative
  • Interested in storytelling theory and philosophy
  • A fan of psychoanalytic theory
  • Wanting lots of recent examples and are happy to have them from film and TV

Less Useful if you are:

  • Seeking a step by step guide to storytelling
  • After examples from novels and short stories, not film
  • Looking for a guide that will help you unpick story problems
  • In need of a practical guide to story-building
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5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters

 Fiction writers and screenwriters; totally different animals, right?

Screenwriters and fiction authors. One group writing to meet the often harsh demands of the film and TV industries, the other striving to create Booker-winning literary masterpieces. Different markets and forms, different audience. In other words – with about as much in common as cats and dogs. Or so you might think. What could one group of writers possibly have to teach the other?

Different Forms, Different Requirements

The difference in form certainly makes an impact on focus. Since film is a visual medium, screenwriters deal primarily in visual imagery and dialogue. This is then translated onto screen and into the final creation by directors and actors. Fiction writers, however, get to invoke all five senses in the imagination of the reader, using just words on a page. Because it is relatively free-form, fiction also has far more structural possibilities. Prose fiction allows, I think, for much more playfulness and a wider range of styles when telling a story.

So what’s the problem? Is there one?

Having worked in both forms, I was very surprised when I came to fiction groups, books, and classes and realised few of us seemed to be being taught the basics of Story and Story Structure. Or not in the way that most screenwriters would view as pretty fundamental. There is nothing about writing prose that should mean the story is less important than it would be in a script. But in  the fiction-writing world, there seems to be an over-reliance on the idea that once you have the characters and a few scenes, structure and story will just magically emerge by itself. As if even talking about it will destroy some sort of mystique.

I’m not sure why that is.

Maybe it’s arisen out of a certain snobbery about books versus films.. Indeed, choosing your “genre” is far more of a necessity in film which I guess aligns it in many people’s minds with commercial fiction.

Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of the distinction between Plot – the series of events that happen in a story – and Story itself In other words, the combination of multiple elements to create a complete piece that is meaningful and says what we want it to say. That the art of something as ethereal and poetic as “literary” fiction could not possibly be subject to the more workaday structural approach screenwriters take to achieve this.

And yes, I have noticed this cultural difference between working fiction writers and screenwriters many times in person. I’ve often found it frustrating that tools that could be made available to budding fiction authors rarely seem to be, and that they’re essentially left to muddle through alone.

 

5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters

 

1. It’s All About The STORY

I get why sometimes the kinds of “systems” advocated by some of the screenwriting gurus can seem frustratingly restrictive, dictatorial and “uncreative”. I get that overanalysis, overplanning and picking work apart can sometimes be destructive to creative flow. And I get the fear of producing generic work, or a seeming over-reliance on plot over character – although, as I said above, I don’t believe that “Plot” is what “Story” is all about.

Here’s the thing. I’ve seen far more instances where a greater understanding of overall story and the elements that pull them togethe  would have been useful for the prose writer. I believe that whichever form you choose to write in, you are using it primarily for the purpose of conveying meaning to your reader or audience. And that, for me, is what “Story” is all about.  I’m unsure how new writers are meant to create great stories without getting to grips with ways to build them and the materials needed to do so. For screenwriters, Story is everything. Its principles tend to be taught and discussed quite overtly. This is rarely the case with fiction writing. Everything I’ve learned about the fundamentals of story, I’ve learned from screenwriting. And screenwriting teaching is streets ahead on this front.

(If you’re interested in learning more, you might want to check out my review of screenwriting guru John Truby’s Anatomy of Story here)

 

2. Tell A Story in Scenes

Remember “show, don’t tell”? That basic rule we’re all told to abide by in fiction-writing? Screenwriters have it way easier than fiction writers in this respect. The restrictions of the form means they can’t do anything else. Unless they make extensive use of voiceover (not cool), what they write is what the audience will see and hear. Visuals. Dialogue. And when you think that way, it’s easier to start thinking about what scenes you’ll need to use to get your characters and story across.

When you’re writing fiction, how easy is it to slip into an authorial narrative voice? Telling us for paragraph after paragraph about a character’s history and so on. Now imagine you no longer have that option. If you were writing this character for the screen, if you were going to move this part of their story along, what scenes would you use to show it?

You’ll often find thinking this way forces you into a more effective method of conveying what you want to say.

 

3. Structure Is Not A Dirty Word…

In fact, it’s crucial. Structure is the foundation on which the successful telling of the story rests. Your building blocks. The way you choose to structure a piece of writing feeds directly into how well you are able to convey your story’s meaning. Rather like someone building their own home – it helps to know what you’re doing. An understanding of what story structure is and does, rather than just bumbling along blindly hoping it will work, can make the process of writing a lot easier

That isn’t to say that there is only one structure possible. Not all will stories follow the classic Three Act Structure, at least not overtly. That said,  I find it is often helpful to understand such a longstanding structural form and its rules and conventions before you try to break them. Sometimes it helps to know what works and why or why not, and Three-Act is a classic dramatic structure for a reason. You will often also find that even those who encourage the breaking of the old Three-Act stranglehold recognise the debt their structural analyses owe to classical structural forms.

I think fiction writers have far more options in terms of overt structures to play with than screenwriters. But it’s important that you have a grasp of the basic principles that underly these. If a key structural element is missing from your story, you will often find that the story as a whole fails as a result.

 

4. …And Neither Is Genre

Which is not to say that all stories have to be old-school generic, or even plot-driven, which I suspect is at the heart of much snobbery about any discussion at all of genre and its many forms.

But if you think that, say, literary fiction isn’t a “genre” of sorts, with its own conventions and expectations (and no-no’s), then you are very much mistaken. It is true that commercial fiction tends more towards the old-school genre conventions used by the film industry, and that publishers often reflect that in their marketing. But that isn’t the complete picture. (See my more detailed post  Genre and Why It Matters here.)

Genre isn’t just the old-school categories. It’s more about the fundamentals of type of story – the expectations of the reader,the reasons you are telling it, the tone, whether something “fits” or not, even if the writer is consciously using a specific genre to subvert expectations. You’d be surprised at just how often I’ve fed back on a draft story that doesn’t “work” precisely because there are significant issues in the story with the muddling of genres. Or the writer doesn’t quite seem to have control of the type of story they are telling or a grasp on its conventions. Genre in its widest sense, is about “the type of story you want to tell” and why. A clear understanding of genre and the purposes and history of different types of story can be a powerful tool.

 

5. Writing Is Not Some Mystical Thing. It’s Work.

If I had a pound for every time someone has inferred to me that Fiction Writing is somehow analogous to Relaxation, I’d be a rich woman. It’s not a hobby , it’s not painting watercolours, and frankly, if I want relaxing Me-Time, I’ll go to a spa or just run myself a bubble bath or something.

I’d certainly agree that creativity and the act of being creative is pleasurable, can be profoundly satisfying. And that sometimes we make it harder for ourselves than it needs to be. But creating a satisfying piece of work, telling the story we want to tell in a way that others will want to read, is not all lounging around in scarves on chaise-longues, being poetic and getting some minion to feed us grapes, I can assure you.

If you want to finish your short story, or publish your novel, you’re going to have to work at it. Exercise some discipline to get it done. This can be a long hard slog, especially on longer projects.

A lot of people dream of writing a book; far more, I suspect than those who dream of writing a screenplay. It’s always one of the top fantasies, isn’t it? Yet very few achieve it. Why? Because ultimately, it’s such hard work, that’s why. Drafting, editing, painstakingly rewriting, over months or even years.  Many screenwriters I know, including those who are budding, seem to take a far more pragmatic approach to their writing than those who just dream of being fiction writers. This is possibly because those who dream of screenwriting tend to be closer to the realities of the industry – they know people, they get involved, get their hands dirty. I think as fiction writers,  we have to be prepared to do the same.

 

So what are your thoughts? Have I missed anything off my list? Are the forms so different that they can never meet? Feel free to leave any thoughts and comments below.

 

 

 

 

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