As a writing instructor for the past 13 years, one of the areas I teach is how to write short fiction. Many of my students are brimming with story ideas, and their enthusiasm motivates me to be the best instructor I can be. Yet sometimes--in the beginning at least--these eager students have difficulty transferring their ideas to paper to create an engaging story and memorable characters. And I understand—I’ve been “there” myself a time or two...
On the overall, I see three common problems I regards to writing short fiction. Let’s take a look at them now, point-by-point.
A fictional story must first start with an engaging character that struggles with a conflict or a problem, or has a quest to pursue. In order to assign your character this essential conflict, you need to first dig deeply into the character’s inner life to understand what makes them tick, what motivates them. For example, can you list their hopes and dreams? What are their likes and dislikes? Their fears and vulnerabilities? What do they want more than anything else in life? For example, if the story is a romance, the viewpoint character (usually the heroine) wants to make a lasting commitment with the hero—although she might not realize it at the beginning of the story. Yet there are simply too many walls that stand between them (the conflict) and threaten to keep driving them apart. The couple must solve their difference before they can declare their lasting love for each other. If your story is a fantasy, say, maybe the POV character’s conflict or quest is to find the buried treasure that will reveal who their real mother was, or in the case of a time-travel, to discover the secret portal that will transport them back to the present, thus fulfilling their destiny.
Next, once you know your viewpoint character on a deeper level, it’s time to determine how their conflict will challenge their efforts to reach their goal. (Remember, without a strong underlying conflict to drive the story, there simply isn’t a story.) Let’s say, for instance, we’ve learned our heroine’s greatest vulnerability stems from her fear of failure. Perhaps she lived with an abusive father who told her she’d never amount to anything in life. Maybe later she was moved into the foster care system and unjustifiably blamed herself for her frequent moves from family-to-family. (I failed again. I must’ve have done something wrong; that’s the real reason why this family can’t keep me any longer.) Maybe, too, she suffers from a phobia for test-taking, and every employment exam she’s ever attempted resulted in failure.
Okay, that’s her back-story, her personal history. But now when the story opens, she’s a young single mother with a toddler to support. Because a friend put in a good word for her, she’s been offered a position in a high-paying company—a unique opportunity she might never encounter again. She realizes this dream job could be the answer to her financial problems. It would undoubtedly help her escape from pending foreclosure on her modest home and put food on the table for her child and her. But first she must take a placement test—and the old demons from her past rear their ugly heads. Can she conquer her fears and risk the possibility of failure? Is she willing to bear the consequences for the sake of her child and her home?
· Show Don’t Tell
Sometimes I read manuscripts that are written in all narrative—in other words, most everything is told and nothing is shown. Granted, there are times when narrative passages are necessary, for instance to portray interludes between fast-paced scenes, to function as a transition from one point in time to another, and so forth. But when a story is entirely “told,” the readers are kept at an arm’s length from the POV character. They are robbed of the opportunity to get inside the viewpoint character’s head and experience the story through the character’s thoughts and emotions.
Consider the following example of telling:
On a snowy late November morning in Oregon, Darla awoke. It had been snowing all night. She climbed out of bed, and after peeking outside at the still accumulating snowdrifts, she showered and dressed. At the kitchen table, she sipped her coffee and she scanned through the posts on Craig’s List and read the morning paper. Darla knew she needed to find a job in order to begin supporting herself again, plus earn enough cash for Christmas gifts. Two months ago, she’d lost her job at the drug store where she worked as a pharmacy aide. Now she lived with her folks until she could get back on her feet.
Her mom walked into the kitchen and told Darla she was late for work. Darla, in turn, informed her mother that she was going to drive into town to start looking for a job of her own—even if most of the job applications were on-line. Darla’s mother tells her to be careful driving in the ice and snow, and Darla inwardly wishes Mom didn’t baby her so.
Okay, now let’s take a look at a similar passage that “shows” instead.
Darla shivered as she pulled the covers up more snugly around her neck. I bet it snowed all night, she thought, sitting up and remembering the snow drifts that had accumulated by the time she’d gone to bed. She sat up, stretched, and climbed out of bed, then peeked through the slatted blinds covering her bedroom window. Snow blanketed her backyard like a white, puffy quilt. Smiling, she sang, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas...” Yet her muscles tensed at the thought of the approaching holidays. How will I ever get enough money to buy gifts, not to mention to begin supporting myself again? I need to find work soon. Carla had lost her job at the local drug store where she’d worked as a pharmacy aide, and she was living with her folks until she could get back on her feet.
After showering and dressing, she seated herself at the kitchen table with the morning edition of The Oregonian, her laptop, and a cup of coffee. The rich scent filled her nostrils as she stirred in a spoonful of sugar. The computer hummed as she booted it up and logged onto Craig’s List. The newspaper and the computer—two good places to start, she decided.
“Good morning, honey,” her mother said as she waltzed into the kitchen. She grabbed her car keys off the kitchen counter and headed for the hall closet. “Sorry I can’t chat for a while, but I’m late for work. There’re fresh bagels and cream cheese in the fridge for breakfast.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Darla met her mother’s gaze. “I’m not hungry this morning, so coffee will be fine.” Her laptop pinged, indicating an email had just arrived.
“Be careful if you plan to go out today,” Mom said as she shrugged into her wool coat. “I’m sure the snow plows and road sanders have been through by now, but you never know.”
“I will. I’m gonna drive into town today to start job hunting, even though it appears as if most of the applications are on-line. ” She lifted her coffee mug to her lips, hoping her mom wouldn’t say any more about the road conditions.
“Well, good luck, honey—but remember to watch out for black ice.”
Darla sighed. Why does Mom have to baby me so? All the more reason to get back out on my own.
In the first example, I told the reader what was happening in the story—but that was all, just narrative telling. In the second example, I incorporated dialogue, thoughts, body language, and action—and that helps take the reader inside Darla’s head, to experience the story from her own unique filter. Big difference, right? To quote Hemingway: “Show the readers everything. Tell them nothing.”
· Lack of Proactive Resolution
Finally, I see many potentially good stories, but they are actually more “slice-of-life” pieces that lack a beginning, middle, and ending. And a strong ending is ultimately what determines the POV character’s success in having solved the story’s underlying conflict. By the resolution, our character should have been tested in challenging ways, met with tough complications that made him sweat and struggle. If the author has been too easy on the POV character in the middle of the story, then the resolution will probably be too easy as well. For instance, perhaps the character wakes up and discovers that all the bad happenings were nothing but a dream. That’s the cheater’s way out, and your readers will feel cheated as well. Or perhaps Providence or another character or a stroke of good luck has solved the problem—not your POV character. In other words, his “answer” just falls in his lap. How convenient! Our protagonist hasn’t struggled at all. There’s not one drop of sweat on his brow.
So in closing, remember to give the readers a character they can root for. Give them a character that will grow and change as a person—all due to his or her own strong, proactive efforts. And when the readers finish reading the last sentence of your story, they’ll smile and say, “I knew she could do it! I knew she could slay her dragons and claim the victory!”