In all these Lessons, I’m going to make some very strong statements about what stories need and how they work.
There are exceptions. I know this.
There are always exceptions. And you can spend your time trying to think of those exceptions. ‘But what about…?’
Or, you can take my statements on trust. You can apply them to your own writing. You can come back to them later, and pick and choose what you need from them.
But for the moment I’ve decided to keep things as simple as I can, and not always be saying ‘but…’
This time, you’re going to be doing three exercises – gathering together three of the things a story can’t do without.
But I’m going to start you off by giving you one of the four things for free:
The fourth thing a story needs is time.
If no time is passing, it’s very hard for anything to happen. But, in fact, time passes in every sentence you write – because it has a beginning, middle and end. Even a long paragraph just describing a statue or a painting moves in time. So, time is inevitable. You get it for free, too.
One of the main things you’ll be doing, throughout these Lessons, is getting yourself out of the way of your writing. And so although you’re going to be drawing on your memories and experiences, you’re not going to be writing about them as you.
So, before you start, write the name you came up with in the last Lesson at the bottom of the page. That’s the name of your invented writer. That’s your pseudonym. These three Exercises belong to them, not you.
Third Person Past Tense
For each of these three Exercises you’re going to be using the third person past tense.
If you’re unsure about what that means, read the next bit. If you know exactly, skip down to EXERCISE 3.
The third person means you don’t begin sentences ‘I’ or ‘We’, you begin them ‘He’ or ‘She’ or ‘They’ or ‘It’.
You’re also going to be writing in the past tense.
The past tense talks about things that have already happened. For example, ‘She went…’ or ‘He saw…’
Most short stories used to be written in the past tense. More recently, writers have started to use the present tense.
The reason you are writing all three exercises in the third person past tense is so they fit together easily when they’re done.
Write a description of a very desirable object. The object must be one a person could pick up and carry. Write five or six sentences.
Careful: Before you start, make sure you stop yourself from writing ‘I’. This isn’t an exercise where you say, ‘I saw this diamond ring’. It needs to describe the diamond ring as if it were already in a story. So, for example, ‘The diamond in the ring was as big as a little toe.’
Take as long as you need to do this Exercise.
Write each Exercise on a separate side of A4 paper.
When you’re finished, scroll down.
Write a description of a place you knew well in the past but to which you cannot return. Write five or six sentences.
Again, be careful: You yourself are not in this Exercise. The place is described like a place in a story. Not, ‘I remember you could get into the garden through a hole in the wall.’ But ‘There was a hole in the wall halfway down the garden.’
When you’re finished, scroll down.
Write a description of a person who is wearing a disguise. Write four or five sentences.
Good. You’ve finished with the exercises for a while. Relax. You’ve now got all four elements of a short story in place.
Now scroll down.
What does a story need?
You did those Exercises without knowing what they were leading up to. Well done if you didn’t peek ahead.
Here is my simple definition of what a story needs –
A story needs someone, somewhere, something and some time.
When you listed the four things a story needs, last time, did you get any of these? Did you say character or setting? If so, well done. You were on track.
I have tried to reduce the four elements to their simplest form. So, someone rather than character. Someone can include robot or dog.
If you take away any of these elements, a story becomes incredibly difficult to tell. You either have someone floating in a void, or somewhere without a character there to do anything.
When you have all four of the elements, you can write stories of finding, losing, journeying, hiding. Lots of good story stuff.
Now, here is my definition of a story –
A story is about someone who is somewhere they shouldn’t be.
This can also run:
A story is about something that is somewhere it shouldn’t be.
To understand this better, you can flip it around –
If everything is in its routine place, there isn’t a story.
When I said ‘shouldn’t be’, I don’t mean morally. (Though stories are often about people doing bad things.) And I’m not implying disapproval. What I mean is more like, they would normally be somewhere else. If you prefer you could think of it like this, A story is about something that is out of place.
Stories (usually) are the opposite of routines. Stories aren’t about the day on which nothing happened. They’re about that day – the day on which something different happened. Very often, they’re about the day on which something changed forever.
If, instead of doing today’s Exercises, I had asked you just to start writing a story, you might have begun by describing a person going through their usual routine. Getting up in the morning. Going to their usual place. You would be giving a reader a sense of who they were and what they did.
Would that be more or less interesting than what you’ve come up with, without thinking about it? The something, somewhere and someone that you just made up.
Your first story, which you’ve started without realising, goes like this –
One day, there was a person. Here’s what they were like.
Read aloud your Exercise 1 – the someone.
They were wandering around. What they saw was this.
Read aloud your Exercise 2 – the somewhere.
They looked down and saw something. What could it be?
Read aloud you Exercise 3 – the something.
Before we finish, let’s go back to the story you read last time. Where are the four elements in that?
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Well, the something is obvious. It’s the baby shoes.
The somewhere is harder to find. We don’t have a description of a place. But several places are implied. There’s the newspaper in which the advert appears. That counts as a place. There’s also the place the baby shoes are being kept – a box in an apartment, perhaps. There are other places, but two will do for the moment.
Finally, there is someone. Perhaps more than one someone. These people are implied, but they are easy enough to imagine. There is a mother or father of the baby who did not live long enough to use the shoes. There is also the imagined reader of the advert.
What makes these six words a story?
I would say, very simply, it’s the someone who is somewhere they shouldn’t be.
The baby should be alive, in the world, and it’s not.
The shoes should be on its feet, and they’re not.
The more you think about it, the sadder it becomes – and all from six words.
Read ‘In a Hotel Room in Ithaca‘ by Lydia Davis. It’s a very short story.
Read ‘Sticks‘ by George Saunders. It’s a slightly longer story.
In both stories, think about the someone, the somewhere and the something – are they where they should be? What is out of place?
Think about how time progresses.
Think about what is and isn’t routine.