Very often, people start writing stories but stop after a page or two. There’s nothing wrong with that if what’s been told is a complete story.
There are types of short story that are very short. You can find them online as ‘flash fiction’. The Amy Hempel story, ‘Housewife‘, is just one sentence long.
But many stories a couple of pages long feel incomplete. Not enough has changed for the characters or the reader. Or both have lost energy.
From now on, I would like you to make sure that this doesn’t happen to your stories.
So, I am going to give you some Rules. When writing a story, during the time you’re doing the Writing Course, you must stick to the Rules.
Your story must contain at least two people.
Your two people must be very different from each other.
Your two people must make decisions by talking.
You’re now going to begin a story, using Exercises 3, 4 and 5 from the last Lesson. You already have someone, somewhere and something. Get them where you can see them.
There’s only one Exercise in this Lesson, but it has several stages. When you’ve finished, you should have another page of your story.
I want you to put the someone to one side. They will come in later. For now, I want you to look again at the something and the somewhere. This is the basis of your story – but what you’ve written are just notes. A nothing draft.
For this exercise, you are going to have two new people, two new someones. I want you to make one of them a child and the other a grown-up.
You’re not writing the whole story now. You’re not even thinking of writing a whole story. You’re just making a beginning that needs to go on.
You will begin by describing what the child and the grown-up look like as they walk or wheel along together through the somewhere.
You are using the third person past tense, so you say ‘They were’ and ‘He saw’ and ‘She thought’. You don’t use ‘I’. Have some fun. Write for a few sentences.
Have the child and the grown-up walk through the somewhere, then have the child find the something. No need to describe the something. You’ve already done that. Instead you describe the different reactions to the something of the child and the grown-up.
Make sure they speak throughout this. Don’t worry if the dialogue is a bit clunky, just keep them talking.
Then, and this is the most important part, you have them talk about what they’re going to do with the something – and they must disagree. One wants to do one thing. One wants to do another.
That’s all. That’s as far as you need to go today. Re-read these instructions, then start.
Take as long as you need. Don’t write more than an A4 page, though.
When you’ve finished, write the word ‘Finding’ at the top of the page. That’s what we’re calling this scene.
Then scroll down.
Why have I been restrictive? Why have I given you these three rules?
Well, because I have written and read so many stories that didn’t go very far, or weren’t very interesting, because they were about the opposite.
A story with a single main character, on their own, with no-one to speak to, and no-one to disagree with, is much harder to keep going than a story with two characters who speak and disagree.
I hope that, on finishing this exercise, you felt a bit of a desire to keep going. There’s more to be shown, more to be said. This is a good feeling to have.
Last time, you read Lydia Davis’ short story ‘In a Hotel Room in Ithaca‘. Have another look at it.
In this story there are two someones, or three if you count Socrates. There’s the narrator and there’s April, the housekeeper. The somewhere is a flat surface next to a coffee-maker in Ithaca. The something is the piece of paper. The some time is just the implied time of picking up and reading the note.
What’s where it shouldn’t be? On first reading, I would say it’s the smiley face. The detail of the smiley face next to a quote from Socrates makes the note remarkable – and comic.
On a second reading, it’s April who is where she shouldn’t be. If she’s quoting Socrates, why is she working as a housekeeper?
But then, ultimately, perhaps it’s the narrator staying in a Greek hotel room who is where she shouldn’t be. She doesn’t expect housekeepers to quote Socrates. It surprises her. Perhaps it shouldn’t. Perhaps her view of the world needs to expand.
Your interpretation of the story may be different to mine. I hope you’ll see how it depends on the four needed things – someone, somewhere, something and some time.
You also read George Saunders story ‘Sticks‘. Even though it’s very short, it includes lots of different elements. It manages to get a man’s life and a whole load of American culture. Like the first story, the more you think about it the deeper it gets.
The story obeys Rule 1 and Rule 2 very clearly. Rule 3, it dodges. Dialogue is absent. Words seem not to be important. But then they suddenly appear, and the change between ‘LOVE’ and ‘FORGIVE?’ is huge. The silent man, who speaks through his metal pole, has finally resorted to language.
If you were driving past this house, you would probably slow down. That’s a good test of a story – would it draw your attention, in real life?
There is a big difference between the father and the children, referred to as ‘we’, and between the father and the young couple. That final difference ends the story.
Note how every sentence moves the story forwards. Nothing here is just a description.
I would like you to read the story Lady with Lapdog by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov.
Please think about how it relates to my definition of a story –
A story is about someone
dealing with something
that isn’t where it should be.
Thanks for following the course.
If you feel like it, please let other people know about it.
You can go straight to Lesson 4.