Er, I mean, F. A. Hyatt is going to post today on the subject of short story forms and techniques. Next week, some examples. After that, we’re into the April A-to-Z blogging challenge, in which I post every day on a topic that begins with subsequent letters of the alphabet. Sundays, other than April 1, are excluded, and I’ll still be doing #SampleSunday.
Now here is Mr. Hyatt:
Short story techniques
It goes without saying that the shorter the story, the more focused the idea presented behind it needs to be. There is no extra space within the form for side plotting or rumination. However, beyond that, the form chosen for the presentation also becomes more important.
There are several forms a short story can follow:
One of my favorite forms is the Bow Tie. A bow-tie is a story whose ending connects back strongly with its first lines, or completes the initial idea presented. The shorter the length of the story, the more powerful this device is, because the reader maintains a fresher image of those starting words. This can extend the sense of a story, effectively using the opening twice, once to provide a hook to get the reader interested, and again as the object of the story, or its ending, for instance.
Another is the twist. This is in common use, where a situation becomes resolved in an odd or unexpected way. These are largely two-part stories. An initial situation is presented, then the situation is resolved in a non-intuitive fashion.
A third is the fable which, while partaking of the above forms, serves to provide an object lesson or moral, brought forward forcefully in the ending sentence or two.
A good short story should be a study in inference. You do not have a lot of words to play with, so depth, background, characterization, history and milieu usually need to be largely inferred; that is, these elements must tie to simple referents in the story that direct the reader’s mind to imagine and fill in without needing much detail in the text.
For example, referring to a character’s background as military, or wealthy, or a hobo directs the reader to think of him/her as a general type. The reader likely maintains an internal image of one, so that might be used, rather than detailing a history, or particular string of events. Sometimes this is sufficient, and can save space. Alternately, detailing only one scene that typifies the character’s condition quickly works well. Finer definition rests in how you manipulate the character and his or her outlook during the story. If the story is set in the future, just one important-to-the-story feature, a particular device or activity that cannot be construed as other than futuristic, is sufficient. Limitations on the number of stages or backdrops used helps. Like a one act play, if the entire story can be played out in one location, that saves a lot of descriptive text, that can be then lavished on the telling of the tale.
In a sense, you need to work with the reader, draw upon some common pool of memory triggers, so that some of the story is “writ” by the reader, to extend the story. Like a crossword puzzle, the reader is asked to work his/her mind to achieve some of the story’s goals. Because of this, the target audience needs to be carefully considered. I once wrote a short short that was basically a joke, but required some particular set of science awareness to get the point. It was either amusing or opaque depending on the reader’s background.
While some amount of information dumping can (often must) be done for certain kinds of short stories, if the dump does not also achieve a particular advance of the story logic, or precurse its denouement, it is best to think closely about the audience. You are either writing to the wrong one, or adding unneeded information your audience should already know. In general, if you can preface even a short dump with the words “You see, what I mean is” or “You need to know that” or “About this time in history” fairly seamlessly, you need to rewrite it or direct the story to a more confined audience and omit it. Note I am not saying rewrite the information into the story. A dump is a dump. In a short story you won’t often have the word count available to stretch it out within the prose. If the reader wants to know, needs it, provide it, and move on. Or write a different kind of story.
Now, these are devices, meant to save space without ruining the flow of a short. Some stories are nothing but the detailing of a personality, a vignette. Some are a still life, a picture of a scene in words. But, if you have a plotted story that needs to come in under, say, 2000 words complete, and three quarters to your goal you find yourself typing paragraph after paragraph of characterizations, scene elements, explanations and back-story, then look up to find your self at 5000 or more words, it can be helpful to look back at these elements.
If you are writing general fiction, this process is fairly easy to master, because your stories are set within a large frame of common experience to draw from. If you are writing genre short stories, this is much more difficult, because the common frame is small to non-existent. Inferring a genre world build will be an challenge. Still, it is done successfully every day, and is well worth mastering.
WRITING PROMPT: Take a well-known story — a child’s tale or a fairy tale or a commercial — and write it in one of the forms above.