Before I learned how to write a story and set about writing a novel, I wrote short stories to cut my teeth as a prose writer. I recommend all would be novelists write as many short stories as possible.
Short Stories Make You Disciplined
Writing short stories is in and of itself a worthy goal. The skills and discipline you acquire when writing short stories will also stand you in good stead if you want to become a novelist. Economy, focus, plot development, character development, these are hard in a short story. They’re hard in a novel, too. But when you’re starting out as a writer it’s a lot easier to spot just how and why it’s hard (and what to do about it) in a short story than in a novel.
If you can’t knock out four short stories that people like to read, maybe you aren’t ready to write that book yet. The novel you write afterwards will be better written and take less time because of the lessons you’ve learned from short stories. Also, a great many novels start as a short story. Then the writer goes “Wow! That’s so much better than my other stuff, and the subject matter really lets me express myself. If only it were longer . . .”
I’m always on the look out for good advice. I don’t mind that I keep hearing the same thing in slightly different ways over and over. It’s the small differences that allow old ideas to present themselves in new ways. I even like to read about writing in mediums I don’t even write in, just to get better perspective on the way writing is for all of us. A nineteenth century treatise on fairy tales in puppet shows?
Bring it on!
How to Write a Story: Start Late & Finish Early
A short story is, by definition, short. The best are masterpieces of economy. All stories want to start late and finish early, but in a short story it’s fatal not to. You must open as far into your story as you dare, the very last moment when someone can come in, look around, and know and care what happens.
As your story progresses there will be important questions that need answers. For instance: will the hero find true love? Will the villain get away with
his awful crime? When the hero has the girl and the villain is under arrest, it’s time to wrap it up. Your story is done. Can you end it any sooner without causing confusion? If you can, you should.
A story is a story is a story, so I’ll use examples that everyone knows.
A good example of a story that starts as late as it can is The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
The world of the book, or rather the universe of the five part trilogy, is complex. There are stories within stories everywhere, and many of them happened well before the first book. Yet the first book opens at just the right moment. Arthur Dent is about to have his house demolished to make way for a bypass. He protests, but is persuaded to give it up as a bad job by his friend Ford Prefect who explains that the whole Earth will shortly be demolished to make way for a bypass, so they need to get out of there.
Could this story have started any earlier? Not really. Arthur is our hero and until he discovers he needs to leave earth and start hitch-hiking around the galaxy, the story isn’t underway. Could it have started any later? Yes, we could have started with Arthur being beamed into the Vogon spaceship. But it wouldn’t be the best choice, because the smallness of Arthur’s life beforehand and the change it’s going through wouldn’t have been so well expressed. In moving from Arthur’s house about to be demolished to his world being demolished, the worst problems of Arthur’s old life are put into perspective by his new adventures. We also come to feel Arthur is us: an ordinary man shot into a strange universe with no idea what’s going on. If we’d missed Arthur trying to save his home, we wouldn’t have got that.
The Monkey’s Paw
If you want to learn how to write a story with a snappy ending, you could do worse than study The Monkey’s Paw by W.W Jacobs. This classic is perhaps all the more amazing because Jacobs made his name writing comic short stories about the sea and a poacher named Bob Pretty.
This is important.
W.W Jacobs other works (which have sadly been all but forgotten) are all structured like jokes, and therefore end on a punchline. Which is also the soonest possible moment a comic story can finish. The Monkey’s Paw is not funny, in fact it’s terrifying, but Jacobs’ skill at ending on a punchline stands him in such good stead that he hit the nail right on the head with this departure from his usual form and instantly produced both one of the greatest horror stories and one of the greatest short stories of all time.
In The Monkey’s Paw, bereaved parents come across a monkey’s paw that can grant three wishes. But the paw doesn’t play nice, and gives people what they wished for and not what they really wanted. Their son was mangled in a horrific accident, so naturally the couple wishes for him to be alive again. Something turns up at their door, but we get the feeling that junior doesn’t look quite the way he used to since his accident.
The wife goes to open the door to let their son in, and the husband rushes to make his third and final wish. We don’t hear what he asked for, we just get the last paragraph:
The knocking ceased suddenly, although the echoes of it were still in the house. He heard the chair drawn back, and the door opened. A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him the courage to run down to her side, and then to the gate beyond. The streetlamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.- The Monkey’s Paw, W. W. Jacobs
Now that’s an ending. Short, quick, final and filled with a heady mix of emotions. It’s the punchline to a cruel joke that fate played on the couple by appearing to offer them their hearts’ desire.
What’s your punchline?
Master the art of the late in, early out approach and you’re one step closer to knowing how to write a story.
Benet Simon & Mike Mindel
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