Writing Fiction and Short Stories
Handout: Form and Strucure
© Nils Osmar 2012, All rights reserved.
Instructor: Nils Osmar Email: Nilsosmar@gmail.com
For a full list of classes, visit: www.classesandworkshops.com
Stories may be told in any number of forms, including:
• verse and poetry
• songs and ballads
• prose (short stories, novellas and novels)
• combinations of monologue and dialogue (stageplays, radio plays, teleplays and screenplays)
There are also nonverbal ways of telling stories, such as a sequence of paintings or printed images, or interpretive dance. (Or a combination of words and images, as in a movie or graphic novel)
Form is one consideration; structure is another. Here’s a description of a common story structure, used in both short stories and novels. I’m not saying you have to use it in every story, but it’s good to be aware of:
1) Most stories begin with a set-up, in which the author establishes the status quo. (Who are the characters before the action starts? Where do they live? What are their lives like? What do we need to know about them, to make the action meaningful?)
In a short story, the set-up usually occurs near the beginning. It may take a sentence, or a page or two, depending on the story’s length. (In a novel or novella it can take longer. In some novels the author might take a hundred pages or more to set up the characters and environment before moving into the action.)
2) The inciting or precipitating incident. After the set-up, an event occurs which disturbs the status quo and results in conflicts or contradictions that need to be resolved. The inciting incident throws things out of kilter and leads to a series of actions culminating in the story’s climax (which leads to a resolution of the tension), and the conclusion.
The inciting incident can be something dramatic (a death, a sudden marriage, an explosion), or it can be as small as someone stopping to pet a dog on the way to work, dropping an envelope, shoplifting a pack of cigarettes, smiling at a stranger on the street, or falling asleep on a bus.
Stories aren’t always told sequentially, in the order of the events. Sometimes a story begins after the precipitating incident, and flashes back later to acquaint the reader with the status quo that was disturbed by the incident.
I’ve used examples from movies below (rather than books) because the stories are likely to be familiar:
In STAR WARS (the original movie from the 1970s), we learn in the first few minutes of the movie that a conflict is brewing between rebel forces and an oppressive government in deep space, while the protaganist, Luke Skywalker lives a quiet, meaningless life on a farm planet with his aunt and uncle. (This is the setup, or backdrop, for the action.) Then Princess Leah sends a message to the planet Luke is living on, asking Obiwan Kinobe for help. (This is the inciting incident.) The message is intercepted by Luke, and the action starts. This action on Leah’s part (sending the plea for help to Obiwan Kinobe) sets all of the other key events in the movie in motion; if she didn’t send it, there would be no story.
In THE WIZARD OF OZ, we start out by learning about Dorothy’s rather boring life with her aunt and uncle on a farm in Kansas. Then her little dog, Toto, gets away from her and starts chasing a neighbor’s cat. The dog bites the neighbor (Miss Gulch), who threatens to have Toto destroyed. To save Toto, Dorothy runs away from home. This means that she’s away from home when a tornado comes… and ends up in the house, not the storm cellar, when the tornado carries it off to the land of Oz. If Toto gone running after the cat, Dorothy would’t have ended up in Oz, she’d have spent the movie in the storm cellar waiting for the tornado to end, and we wouldn’t have a story.
In Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID, the set-up is a peaceful but boring world under the sea. The inciting incident is the bust of a handsome sailor falling overboard from a passing ship, where it’s spotted by a young mermaid, who then decides to defy her father and swim to the surface, where she spots the human being she falls in love with. (One thing leads to another, to another, to another — but there has to be an inciting incident to set it all off.)
Structurally, a story may be based around a single incident or a series of incidents. But in a well-plotted story that follows the traditional model, there is always one single, key incident that sets up the contradictions or conflicts that begin the action, which it’s the author’s job to resolve.
Again, I’m not saying the incident has to be earth-shaking. It may be as low-key as a character getting on the wrong bus, or walking through the right doorway at the wrong time — or missing a bus or subway, as in the movie Sliding Doors. Or it can be as extreme as a character dying, blowing up a building, or stealing a nuclear weapon.
3) After the inciting incident, events in the story lead to complications, and a climax…
4) …which ends in a resolution of one sort or another.
The resolution may be uplifting or depressing. It may solve the characters’ problems or leave them in a deeper morass. But it does need to resolve the emotional tensions in the story, one way or another.
Being aware of this traditional structure can help when you’re having difficulties with your story. You may feel that something’s wrong with it, that it’s not going where you want it to, but not be sure where the problem is.
Looking at story structure in this way helps us identify some COMMON WRITING PROBLEMS, and possible solutions:
1) Stories that ramble on in an endless set-up, describing characters and situations, without going anywhere. (i.e., there is no precipitating incident; the story is just a series of descriptions.) (In this case, you don’t technically have a story, you have a long nice word piece with some interesting descriptions) (The solution is to find an inciting incident that brings focus to your narrative, gives it direction and transforms it into a story)
2) The set-up may take us off into issues or characters who have no importance in the resolution of the key problem. (If you’re writing a novel, there may be room for this, but in a short story there isn’t.) The solution is to chop anything that doesn’t contribute to the heart of the story.
3) Your set-up may be good, but be overly long.
4) Your set-up may be too short for us to connect with your characters and feel involved with them, before you come in with the inciting incident.
5) Your set-up and inciting incident may be fine, but the story may continue too long after the resolution, leaving the reader with the sense that another story is beginning which is never completed.
DOES YOUR CHARACTER CHANGE?
Stories can have a lot of characters, but there’s usually one LEAD character, who can be defined as:
• the one who suffers the most
• the one who is most actively involved in the resolutions of the problems he or she is dealing with
• the one who is most profoundly changed by events in your story.
In STAR WARS, Luke goes through hell, and changes from a listless teenager into a Jedi Knight.
In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy gives up her search for a place removed from all her troubles, and realizes that there’s no place like home.
In THE LITTLE MERMAID, the mermaid Aerial goes through a hell of sorts also, after which she is transformed into a human being and married to a human. There are other important characters in all of the stories, but Luke, Dorothy and Aerial are the leads.
If your story isn’t satisfying, you may need to ask: what is my character like at the beginning? What is she or he like at the end? How do the events in the story change him or her? If they don’t, your story may need a structural overhaul to make it work.