Last week, we learned four ways to find story ideas, and today we’ll learn four things that every story needs as Chelsea Pennington helps us write our short stories. This is the second of three guest posts for the Turning Point Story Contest, which is open for writers age 9 to 13 until January 30th.
So, you’ve got a story idea! It’s shiny and new and you can’t wait to write it. But…how exactly do you translate your amazing idea onto paper? Each story will be different, and each writer will have a different process, so it’s important to know that what might be great advice for some people won’t work for you. But generally speaking, it’s important to have these four things in your short story.
Okay, seems obvious. But there’s a lot riding on the opening of your story. You want it to capture the reader’s attention, and also make sure they know the basics of what’s going on. So how do you do that? I like to think of my beginning as a series of questions.
The reader will start out with some basic questions: Who is the main character? Where do they live? When is this story taking place? These are the questions that you should probably answer pretty quickly. The trick is answering them in a way that won’t bog down the reader. Don’t write paragraph upon paragraph telling us every single detail. We don’t need all that yet! Give us the main character’s name, and then the when and where.
Most readers will naturally imagine the story taking place in modern day in the country they live in, so if that’s not where it’s set, let us know. Are we on the moon? In a fantasy world? In the 1940s? Again, we don’t need paragraphs of information, just small descriptions like having your character glance out the window to admire the rocky view of the moon or use a rotary telephone. Readers will pick up on these clues and understand that things are happening at a different time or place from the one they live in.
Then we move to the more intriguing questions. This is what draws in your reader. In “Backstays of the Sun,” the short story I wrote that won the 2018 Story Embers Contest, I open with a man in the waiting room of the hospital. So the reader’s first question is: Why is he in the hospital? This is a more immediate hook to grab the reader’s attention. Fairly quickly I answer it: He’s at the hospital because his wife gave birth, but something went wrong and now she’s in surgery.
This is the driving question of the book: Will his wife survive? Will the baby survive? And more than that, we find out that he and his wife were in a fight before she went into surgery, so the question is: Why were they fighting? Now the reader is invested, and I won’t answer this question until the very end of the story.
But, before we can get to the end, we have to make a few stops along the way. The first big plot point for any story is the inciting incident. This is the moment when what you’re writing goes from “just describing someone’s life” to A Story. By that, I mean it’s when your main character makes a decision that spurs the action of the story. Maybe your character says yes to going to a party, or decides to fight the dragon on their own, or to sell their locket to have enough money for food. If you imagine your story as a line of dominoes, the inciting incident is the thing that knocks down the first domino.
The rest of the dominoes
In a full novel, you’d have a lot of these dominoes, but for a short story, you need far less. This is the part Cara wrote about her article where you ask yourself, “What could go wrong?” What choices will your character make, and what are the results of that choice? Based on that, what choice do they make, and what are the results of that choice? And so on.
It’s important to make most of these dominoes falling the result of a choice your character makes, not just something that happens by chance. If too much randomly goes wrong (or right!), the story will feel forced and can be boring. Readers will connect with a character who is making a choice (even if, sometimes, that choice is to do nothing).
The other reason it’s important to have your character’s being active in this way is because, with each choice, your character is probably learning something—even if they don’t want to admit it yet. Maybe they’re resisting telling the truth and keep getting themselves into a bigger lie. Maybe they’re scared and keep hiding from their fears. They’re probably either making the wrong choice, and slowly realizing why it’s wrong, or they’re trying to make the right choice but it doesn’t turn out the way they hope, and they’re uncertain it actually is the right choice.
All these falling dominos have been leading up to one thing: the climax. This is where you’re answering that driving question we talked about at the beginning, the one that has kept the reader going to find out what happens. In my short story “Backstays of the Sun,” the climax is actually a flashback of the fight—we’ve known throughout the story that the husband and wife were fighting, and we finally find out why.
In another story the climax might answer, “Can the hero defeat the super villain?” or “Will the main character tell her mom the truth?” The choices your main character has made previously have actually been preparing them for this final choice. They’ve learned from their mistakes and are ready to make the right choice—we hope. If you’ve built tension throughout the rest of the story, the reader will be truly worried that the main character might not have what it takes to do the right thing.
And there you have it! These four elements are the basic building blocks of a story. One important note is that, even if you have all these things, once you’ve written your story, it probably won’t be very close to what you imagined in your head. The bestselling author Victoria Schwab likes to say that the idea in your head is a glass orb, and when you write the story, you end up throwing the orb against a wall and watching it shatter. Then, editing is carefully piecing the orb back together until it looks like it did in your head. So if your story doesn’t feel quite right yet, don’t panic! Keep an eye out for the next post in the series that will teach you how to glue your orb back together.
About the Author
Chelsea Pennington lives in Colorado with her husband and their dog, Pippin. Her first story was Pokémon fanfiction in kindergarten, and she’s been writing fiction ever since. She’s published several short stories as well as a novel The Mistletoe Connection. When she’s not writing or reading, you can probably find her listening to podcasts or hiking outside. You can connect with Chelsea online at www.chelseapenningtonauthor.com where she strives to inspire and equip growing writers to create amazing stories.