Sunday, November 14, 2010

PNWA 2010 Conference Review: Jump-Starting a Short Story by Bharti Kirchner

Since all my work can be considered "short" by way of word count, I decided to attend the Jump-Start a Short Story With These Techniques workshop, hosted by Bharti Kirchner.  She is the author of four novels, four cookbooks and numerous articles, all of which can be found on her website:

Ms. Kirchner is a pleasant and engaging speaker, who clearly understands the artistic differences between writing a short story and writing a novel, especially since she has experience in both forms.  One of the most discernible differences between these two from is in their word count.  Novels are tomes that can weigh-in anywhere from 25,000 to150,000 words. Translation:  That's about 100-600 pages for a hardcover.  Whereas the short story lightweights can range from 2.500 to 5,000 words, or 10-20 pages.

The common misconception is regarding the two is:  Writing less pages is easier.

Here are my notes from Ms. Kirchner's workshop explaining why "shorter" does not equate to "easier" and what you, the writer, can do to improve the effect of their short works.

First of all:  What is a short story?

Unlike a character sketch, it describes an incident that has a deep impact on a character.
Each sentence must have an impact and be economical--you don't have hundreds of pages to drone on and on about something.
You must create an emotional effect on the reader--and this is where most short story attempts fail.
Short stories are often described as "little earthquakes"--something small but intense.
The writer must create a sense of amazement.
Unlike all the plot twists in a novel, a short story's narrative goes in a straight line with a "little bump," or only one unexpected turn of events.
The short story starts near the end of an event and focuses on a character with a problem.
These problems can be:  A misunderstanding, a crime, some injustice or an accident.
Whatever it is that has happened, it must mean a lot to the character.

Despite the differences in word count, short stories and novels do share some commonalities.  These are:
There must be an internal change within the main character.
A change of awareness or mood is also necessary--from dark to light, or even from light to dark.
You want their readers to feel something emotionally.

What makes a short story work, that is, something emotionally satisfying for the reader, is that it is highly structured.
As mentioned previously, the story moves in a linear direction, but takes an unexpected turn towards the end.
The character realizes something and as a result changes, or at least looks at things different.
Limiting the story to one theme, or message works best for short stories.

With only 10-20 pages to describe the action, what is the best narrative time-span for a short story?  That is, how much time passes for the characters in the story?
Short stories don't have to have a limited time span.  The narrative can take place within an hour, a few hours, a day, a few days or even a week.
However, it is best if the subject matter is narrow and not discussing long-term issues like climate change.

With only 10-20 pages to work with, this doesn't leave a lot of room for multiple characters and their subplots.  For a short story, it is best to limit the number of characters to one main character and 1-2 secondary characters.

The basic elements of a short story are the same as with a novel, except--well--shorter:

Plot:  Events happen and the character takes action.  There must be a "cause & effect" element at work which carries the events forward.  These events cannot be random and must be connected.

Character:  The main character has something to gain or lose.  You must make readers care about the main character.  There must be conflict, or opposing forces, where the main character wants something, while someone/something else is trying to prevent it.  There must be a lot at stake:
  • What does the character want?
  • What motivates them?
  • What are they afraid of?
Dialogue:  Is the most important element in a short story, if it doesn't work, the story won't work.  Fictional dialogue is not the same as real dialogue.  That is, unnecessary words must be removed.  Dialogue must make a point, but not in a direct manner.  Remember, the writer needs to have that "bump" at the end of the story.  Characters can say or do things that are unexpected.  One can also describe a character through dialogue.

Point of View (POV):  Who's telling the story?  And where is the "camera?"  In order for the reader to answer these questions, it is best to stick to 1 POV--the person telling the story, by using simple 1st or 3rd Person POV.  One technique is to have a "narrator" introduce a story then "fade back" as one of the characters takes up the narrative.

Voice:  Use a style in which the narrator introduces himself and the story.  Use words like they're coming from a real person.

How to begin a short story:

As with a novel, the opening line and first few sentences are crucial.
Start the story as close to the major, transformative event as possible.
Establish a baseline on what the main character is like.  Choose the right and important details about the characters, but use only 1 or 2 facets.
The first paragraph tells the reader what kind of story this is going to be.

Methods of beginning a short story:

  1. Give a context summary.  That is "tell," before you "show."
  2. Set a scene.  Just the opposite of #1, that is "show," instead of "tell."
  3. Start with a dialogue.  Although if not done correctly, the reader will be confused as to who's talking.
  4. Start with an arrival.  Someone "comes to town."
  5. Start with the weather.  But one of the characters must be introduced very quickly.
  6. Show what the character desires.
  7. Give a journalistic run-down of--who, what, when and where.
  8. Start with an absent character.  And finally, you could--
  9. Write a letter.
Even with a short story, it is easy to get writer's block.  What to do if you get stuck?  Ms. Kirchner suggested the following:

Explore and discover what the character wants and why he can't have it.
Introduce another character opposite the main character.
Or, introduce another character that wants the same thing.
Think of the ending--then work back from there.
Write a sentence or two every day.

Whether you're writing a novel or a short story, I hope with these notes, you'll never get stuck!


Gallia said...

Your Bharti Kirchner notes are clear, useful and prodigiously interesting. Thank you.
Gen. Pettygree Blog

Ted Henkle said...

Thanks Bill!
I love your blog! (Although I must admit, I'm way behind in reading-up on the adventures of Gen Pettygree). Keep up the good work!