A story needs four things, and I’m going to tell you what they are.
Let’s be clear – I’m going to be making some strong statements about how stories work and what they they need.
Yes, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. I know this. And you can spend your time trying to think of exceptions. ‘But what about…?’
Or, you can take these statements on trust – for the moment. You can try them in your own stories. And then you can come back to them later, and pick and choose what you need from them.
But for the moment I’m keeping things as direct as I can, and so I won’t always be saying ‘but…’ or pointing out that so-and-so found a way to do it all differently.
Today, you’re going to be doing three exercises – gathering together three of the things a story needs.
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 time for free.
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 surroundings and memories, you’re not going to be writing about them as you.
So, before we start, write the pseudonym you came up with in the last Lesson at the bottom of the page. That’s the name of your invented writer who isn’t you. 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.
The reason you are writing all three exercises in the third person past tense is so they fit together when they’re done.
If you’re not certain about what third person past tense means, read the next bit. If you know exactly, skip to where it says EXERCISE 3.
The third person means you don’t begin sentences ‘I’ or ‘We’, you begin them ‘He’ or ‘She’ or ‘They’ or ‘It’.
And you’re writing in the past tense.
The past tense talks about things that have already happened. For example, ‘She went…’ or ‘He saw…’
Write a description of an object that is extremely desirable. The object must be one that you could pick up and carry. Write five or six sentences, double spaced.
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’.
And don’t make up a situation.
The ring was on display in the window of the old jeweller’s, off the High Street.
Instead you need something like:
The diamond in the ring was as big as a little toe.
Just describe the object itself, as if there was nothing else around it.
Take as long as you need to do this Exercise. But don’t overthink it.
Write each Exercise on a separate side of A4 paper.
When you’re finished, scroll down.
Well done. You’ve got something down that didn’t exist before. It’s something you can come back to and rewrite, or chuck away and never think of again. But you’ve begun a story – by inventing one of the things a story needs.
Write a description of a place you knew well in the past but to which you can’t 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.
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. Make them up from your imagination. Write four or five sentences.
This is a more challenging exercise.
Don’t put the information that this person is in disguise into your description. Just do a factual list of what they look like.
Imagine you’re a neutral observer, simply recording facts.
The woman had very curly blonde hair that came down a lot lower on the left side than the right.
It’s a lopsided wig! Of course, but you don’t say that it’s a lopsided wig.
Now scroll down.
Brilliant. You’ve finished with the exercises for a while. Relax. You’ve now got all four elements of a short story in place.
What does a story need?
You did those Exercises without knowing where they were leading. 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.
Did you guess any of these when you listed the four things a story needs? 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 ‘a character’. Someones can be robots or dogs.
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, hiding, forgetting. Lots of good story stuff.
Now, here is my definition of a story –
A story is about someone
dealing with something
that isn’t where it should be.
(That something, very often, can be the person themselves.)
To understand this better, you can flip it around –
If everything is in its routine place, there isn’t a story.
When I said ‘should 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 or it 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.
Your first story, which you’ve started without even knowing it, 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.
Now think about this –
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 person doing that stuff be more or less intriguing than the story you’ve come up with, without thinking about it?
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 the person who placed the advert – the mother or father or other person related to 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 moves forward.
Think about what is and isn’t routine.
If you like, you can go straight to Lesson 3.