Plot and Theme
The subject is what the story is about that is the topic, for example 'romantic love', 'mother-daughter relationships', 'jealousy', 'fate', etc. A short story normally only deals with one or two subjects.
The theme is the central message of the work. The theme can be expressed in sentence forms, for example, true love can overcome all obstacles, people shouldn't tamper with nature, jealousy is destructive). Themes can be implied and/or explicitly stated. A short story usually focuses on one central theme, but may also touch on other themes.
MotiveAll of your characters should have a motive for acting the way they do (even if the characters themselves don't know the motives). The motives of the central characters in a short story drive the story. In The Gift of the Magi, Della's motive, explicitly stated, is a strong desire to demonstrate her love for Jim in a tangible way.
The plot refers to the sequence of actions and events as presented in the written work, not necessarily in chronological order. An example of plot not presented chronologically would be a story which opens with a hero in danger and then goes back to explain how the situation came about. Subplots are the less important stories that weave in and out of the main story. Action stories, for often have subplots of friendship and/or romance. Short stories usually don't have subplots.
Short story plots often follow one of these types.
Longer stories often have several different types of plot interwoven into one work. In The English Patient, for example, there is internal conflict (a man and a woman must decide whether to have an illicit affair, a nurse has to overcome the loss of several friends) a mystery to be solved (the patient's identity), and a mystery to be revealed (the fate of his lover). Short stories, on the other hand, usually just follow one type of plot.
Sequence of Events
This is the order in which things happen in the story. If your story contains 20 events, will you go from 1-20 in order (i.e., chronological order)? A plot does not have to follow chronological time. The following devices can be used to move forward or backward in time.Flashback, flash forward, framing device and backstory are terms used to refer to specific plot devices.
Stories, particularly those based on conflict, are generally structured around the following plot elements:
Aside from introducing the main characters (see course notes on characterisation), the opening of a short story often establishes the situation and the setting.
The situation refers to the set of circumstances in which the work begins (e.g., one of Franz Kafka's most famous stories, The Metamorphosis, opens with the protagonist waking up and discovering that he had turned into a cockroach). In The Gift of the Magi the situation is that Jim and Della, husband and wife, love each other but are struggling to make ends meet. In a short story, the situation is usually established very quickly, often within the first couple of paragraphs.
Setting refers to the places where the story takes place and the time (or times during which it takes place). The writer doesn't usually specify the exact location, but there are usually clues as to when and where the story takes place (an event on the news, a reference to a famous person or landmark, a description of a trend, a description of the clothes people wear, etc.). A short story usually involves very few physical locations and takes place within a short period of time.
The opening paragraph of the story can begin with a the sense of foreboding (a hint of something to come later in the story, usually something bad), an arresting statement that immediately catches the readers attention, a description of a character, a passage of action or a description of the setting. The following are examples of opening paragraphs
Disruption and Consequences
The disruption is whatever causes conflict or changes the situation in any way. This part of the story introduces the conflict, the mystery or the decision to be made. The disruption sets into motion the events that drive the rest of the story In short stories, the disruption usually comes very early on, often within the first couple of paragraphs as paert of teh opening. In The Gift of the Magi, the disruption is simply the impending arrival of Chistmas. This is the event that has the consequence of Della haivng to take action to ensure that she can give her husband an ideal present. Stories are often built upon a series of such consequences. Longer stories, such as those in novels, often feature what are called complications these are events that temporarily prevent the characters from fulfilling their motives. They often have little relation to what went on before, but once introduced into the story effect what happens next.
This is the deciding point (e.g., when the crime is about to solved, when the secret is about to be revealed, when the hero faces the villain in a final battle). In the part leading up to the climax, the story should show 'mounting tension' or 'rising action'; this means that the action and/or sense of suspense becomes intensified.
This is when the conflict is decided, the villain is defeated, the mystery is revealed, the decision is made.
Some stories end with the resolution, but others include a denouement which comments on what has happened or shows how a character has changed. For example, the play Romeo and Juliet ends with the following commentaty:
Writing from Personal Experience
When writing fiction you are free to write about anything you want: ghosts in Argentina, soldiers in WWII, xykomorphs from the country of Grlanyph beyond the great deserts of Oshk. But where do your ideas come from?
Writers often make use of personal experience--things that happened to them, things they saw, people they met. This is the principle of Write What You Know. You can try to imagine what it would be like to be an African doctor in a remote village trying to educate people about AIDS. But it would be very difficult to accurately describe the setting, the medical procedures, the hospital administration and even the protagonist's motives.
Often short stories are based on interpersonal relationships. Think of all the people you know well--friends, family members, teachers, classmates, neighbours, etc. Can you think of any relationship that. . .
Such a relationship could be the basis of an interesting story.
Another method of brainstorming for ideas is to think of a scene from your childhood or teenage years that remains vividly in your memory (e.g. a place, a view, a conversation overhead). The scene is probably vivid for a reason--think of why it may have special meaning to you.
Write down as many words as you can to describe the memory (use all five senses if you can). If you can't think of the exact word in English, write it in Chinese and look it up later. Try to use concrete words (remember: Show, don't tell)
Once you have the basis for a story, you need to transform it. Transformation involves taking your personal experience and altering some elements to turn it into fiction. Unconscious transformation occurs when memories do not accurately represent what really happened.Conscious transformation involves deliberately changing names, appearances, setting, etc. When describing what happened to you, for example, you may write in the third person and give yourself a new name. You might also shorten the time frame, strip away unnecessary characters, merge two or more real people into a fictional character and add scenes or omit scenes. Your choices will depends on what and you want your reader to focus on.
Everyone has a tale worth telling. What is yours?
Read a short story (you may like to choose one of the stories in the online readings section, or you may wish to look at a story that you have already read) and answer the following questions.