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The Elements Of Writing Short Stories- What is a short story? What's a plot? etc.

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Writing Short Stories

By: Holly Abidi

         Writing short stories is a wonderful way to practice your writing skills. It allows the writer to express creativity, meanwhile having some fun with building a strong plot and characters. It doesn’t require as much time as say, writing a novel would. But a short story still can be powerful and dynamic.

         Writing a short story is not complex, but there are some things you must know before you start. So first, let’s examine what a short story is. Then we will take a look at the elements of a short story.

What is a Short Story?

         In brief, a short story is basically a story that has as little as 1,000 to 10,000 words in length. It consists of three basic parts. These parts are simply, the beginning, the middle, and the end.

         Within a short story you should find the setting. The setting should create the stories atmosphere. Which can then introduce the main character or characters and explain to the reader where the story will take place.

         Also a short story will have a strong theme, or message for the reader, which will most likely be apparent throughout. Although sometimes the theme is not always clear. Instead, it can sometimes be up to the reader to figure out.

         Another very important part to a short story is the plot. A plot is the sequence of events in the story, from beginning to end. A short story should also contain a strong conclusion. Often the writer tries to make it unclear as to what is going to happen, until the conclusion or denouement. This is where the story is then cleared up, and the conclusion itself ties the information together.

         A short story should flow easily from one chapter to another, or from paragraph to paragraph. A short story isn’t always packed with detail, so it is often to the point and vague on other details that are less important. Although, much of the details can be left unsaid, a short story should be clear and easy to follow. It should contain suspense, theme, and draw the reader in.

The Elements of a Short Story:

         The elements of a short story are important. There are 5 basic elements of a short story and they are as follows: plot, character, setting, conflict, and theme. These elements offer a kind of guide, to help put the story together.

         A short story itself can be broken down into three main parts, the beginning, the middle, and the end. However, each of these three parts mentioned have very specific structures. Based on the stories plot, each of these three parts will contain very important elements. If you examine a short story, you’ll find that there is more than just these three parts. So we are going to discuss this in greater detail, by going through the 5 basic elements.

The Five Basic Elements of a Short Story

#1 Plot:

A plot should follow a sequence of events, as mentioned above. Usually they are put in this particular order.

1.          Exposition: This is where the story begins; therefore it should have essential information needed to understand the story, including the setting and atmosphere.

2.          Complication: This can be referred to as the conflict. This is where the story begins and a major conflict is introduced. A problem, or conflict is mentioned early on in the story. This problem is what helps support the character or characters and the whole theme. It is this complication that creates the overall situation.

3.          Climax: This is where the story has reached its highest peak of excitement and suspense. It is typically called the turning point in the story. This is where the character or characters try to resolve the complication.

4.          Resolution: This is simply the end of the story, or conclusion. It is basically where the events of the story lead up to a close. The complication is solved and a conclusion is made. This is the denouement of the story and its events.

#2 Character:

         A short story can have one or more characters. Usually a short story involves the protagonist, or main character that is often a good character. Then the story will also have a character called the antagonist or bad guy. Sometimes however you may have more characters. But commonly you as the reader aren’t familiar with these characters. For example, if the main character in the story enters into a crowd of people. As a reader you only associate with the main character. The rest of the crowd you wouldn’t normally know or even discuss.

         In any short story the character is probably the most important part of the story. So developing a strong character is necessary. By developing a strong character, you are able to usually gain the reader’s sympathy, or understanding. It is through the character that your story becomes more than just a story, but something a reader can understand, learn from, and relate to. So we are going to look further into the character’s personality.

Character Personality:

         Lets examine how we get to know a character first. There are a few ways the writer can familiarize the reader with the character.

1. Through the physical description of a character the reader can tell a lot about that characters background, style, or personality.

2. Their actions can speak louder than words. If a character doesn’t speak much in the story this is a wonderful way of representing a character. Actions are often straightforward and don’t require a lot of explanation.

3. Their words and spoken language tell the reader what the character’s internal thoughts are. This allows the reader to get inside any characters head, in order to see what the character is really like.

4. The character’s inner thoughts also are a wonderful way of showing emotions, or personality. If your character happens to act differently toward certain people in the story, by showing the character’s inner thoughts, you’re able to find out what the character feels and thinks. Sometimes this can justify the character’s behavior.

5. Through what other characters say and think about them the reader can see exactly how the character presents his or herself to others. Showing clearly how the character behaves in different situations. This can tell the reader if the character has an attitude, or a kind disposition.

         Now we are going to examine another element you’ll need to know in order to create a short story, along with its characters.

         There are several points of view a writer can use to help enhance the character and present the story. This is basically what type of voice your character has, or what voice is used throughout the story. Whether it is the character’s view, or the author’s view himself.

Points Of View:

1) Objective Point of View:

This is more of the author’s view. It doesn’t explain what the character thinks or feels. The only explanation used is what is stated in actions or dialogue. The narrator remains a detached viewer, and explains the story in the same fashion.

Example A:

Superman jumped from the rooftop.

“Up, Up, and away,” his voice rang out.

Example B:

The robber raced across the parking lot, clutching the bag of money.

When he heard the policeman yell, “Stop.”

He put up his hands and said, “I surrender, I'm unarmed.“

2) Third Person Point of View:

Here the narrator doesn’t participate in the story as one of the characters. Instead, the narrator shows the reader exactly how the character feels. It is often shown in an outside voice.

Example A:

He sat down beside her grave and cried. He hadn’t felt this way in years, it was like his chest was on fire and tears burned his eyes. He felt like his whole world was destroyed, it was lost forever, without her.

Example B:

The robber entered the bank feeling keen and prepared. No one knew he was a bank robber. It seemed to him to be a perfect plan. He smiled to himself and almost laughed, he felt so clever.

4) First Person Point of View:

In the first person point of view, the narrator participates in the story. The author writes explanations and describes the situations. You can tell it is written in first person point of view by the use of “I”. Often the writer adds in missing information and explanation. Sometimes the author will add in personal thoughts with the use of “I”. For example the author could start a sentence by saying “I thought …”

Example A:

I was looking out across the land, and wondering where my future would take me now. Just last year my life had taken a turn for the worse. I had come down with cancer. At first I thought I would die from it; but after I recovered, I decided to take a trip.

Example B:

I had been on duty that day, just driving around town, looking for something unusual. That was when I seen the man in the bank, holding a gun. Instinctively I radioed in that there was a robbery and prepared to handle the situation. The bank was on 54th street, just across from a small corner store. In a secluded area like this it was idea for a quick get away.

5) Omniscient Point of View:

A narrator that knows everything about the characters is all knowing, or omniscient.

Example A:

Her hair was gray and her eyes were filled with content. The wrinkles on her face showed her old age and her wisdom. It was Jenny’s grandmother that always supported her, and helped her through everything. As Jenny looked into the face of her grandmother she smiled. She had never appreciated how much her grandmother knew until now.

Example B:

The robber pulled the gun and yelled, “Everyone on the floor.”

The lady standing behind the counter was sobbing and shaking with fear. She kept praying he wouldn’t shoot her, or anyone else.

Outside the policeman radioed in that there was a man holding a gun, that there could be a possible robbery. His main concern was for the safety of the people inside. Was anyone shot or hurt he wondered but, he didn’t know.

6)Limited Omniscient Point of View:

A narrator with limited knowledge is limited omniscient. The author often only knows everything about one character, either major or minor, in the story. This means that the author still knows everything and all about at least one character. He doesn’t know about everyone.

Example A:

Kelly flopped down at the table and began to write her essay. She was angry with her mother. Her mother told her to finish her essay before she could go play. The only thing she wanted to do was finish her homework without interruption.
Kelly heard her brother enter her room and ask, “What are you doing?”

Kelly groaned, “Go away!”

Example B:

The robber grinned and was pleased. He had everyone in his control, as he demanded the girl across the counter to hand over the money. He watched her, as she filled the bag with money, never taking her eyes off the gun he held in his hand.

#3 Setting:

         The setting or sometimes it can be referred to as the exposition, is basically where the story starts. I say starts, because sometimes it doesn’t always mean the whole story takes place in this one setting. The opening paragraphs of a short story should contain detail enough to begin the story and set the atmosphere.

         The setting requires a lot of detail. It should set the stories mood and have all the detail that is essential. It explains what the reader must know in order to follow the whole story. It can sometimes introduce the main character or simply be focusing only on the setting. The setting can contain a time period or perhaps even a date. Thus, the story can have a time frame in which it will begin and end. Sometimes this adds additional suspense so consider this when you're writing next time. Once you have the setting complete you are ready to move further.

#4 Conflict:

         A short story can be about one character undergoing certain problems known as the conflict. The conflict of the story is what the character, or characters are working at solving.

         A character can have two kinds of conflicts either internal or external. Often the character struggles with something directly or within himself.

There are 3 common character conflicts that are either internal or external. They are as follows:

1 Man versus nature (external)

2 Man versus humanity/society (external)

3 Man versus himself (internal)

#5 Theme:

         A good short story should have a theme. A theme is the main idea behind the story. It’s the message the writer is trying to convey. For example, if you were writing about school, perhaps your theme could be about standing up to bullies.

         The story’s plot is sometimes confused with theme, but they are completely different. The theme is the idea behind the story and the plot is the events and twists that create and develop the theme or message. The theme is the message or main idea the author wants the reader to walk away with. Usually a theme is life’s message. It can teach us something, or show something important in life, that otherwise might have been missed.

         The theme isn’t usually vivid, but rather, it can be stated in different ways. Here are some examples of where theme can be shown or revealed

#1 The title of the story

#2 Important phrases and statements about big ideas such as courage, love, friendship, etc.

#3 The ways the characters change and the lessons they learn about life

         Now you have an overview of the elements of a short story. You also have a basic understanding of what a short story is. This should give you enough information to kick start your own short story.

         Not all of us are professionals at writing a story. It takes work and practice; therefore it is good to keep writing regularly. Try not to get discouraged if your short story isn’t the best on your first try, but rather try again. Hopefully this article will serve as excellent notes to refresh your memory, or to use as a resource when working on a short story. So go ahead pick up a pen and try it out. Have some fun with it.

© Copyright 2004 Holly Abidi (cougarcat at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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