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The Art of Story Writing : CHAPTER III The Writing of a Short Story

by Nathaniel C. Fowler, JR   

CHAPTER III The Writing of a Short Story

THE number of short-story writers is legion. Probably more than half a million men and women in the United States and Canada think that they can write, and do write, short stories. Not more than five per cent of these are published, unless they are sent to country weeklies, which are not likely to pay anything for them. It has been said that it is more difficult to write a short story than it is to compose a novel. At any rate, I think there are more successful book writers than there are short-story writers. It is extremely difficult to handle any subject, or any character, in a few thousand words.

The short story, then, to be successful, must cover its ground, not only by the words it contains, but by inference. It must pass quickly from one scene to another; the dialogue must be bright and snappy; and, as in a play, the author must make his characters self-explanatory to a large extent.

Many short-story writers make a great mistake in attempting to handle too many characters and situations. It is better to have not more than two or three prominent characters, and to confine the action of the story to one place or to a very few places. If more characters are used, it is difficult, within the limited space, to show reason for their existence; and if they are frequently transplanted from one place to another, some explanation must be given, which lengthens out the story and makes it too short for a book and too long for a short story.

The book writer has opportunity to describe his persons and places. The short-story writer must get down to business, so to speak, present characters, which will be readily understood, and confine the dialogue to quick action, more or less self-explanatory, pertinent, and to the point. He must so arrange this dialogue that, although it is obviously incomplete, it will comprehensively curry the story. Let us suppose, for example, that his characters are talking upon a certain subject. It is obvious that they would naturally say many times as much as the author has room for in his story. He must weed out with a harrow, and yet, in doing so, not make his dialogue jerky or apparently incomplete.

Most of the successful short stories are, at least, half dialogue. Much space can be saved by omitting " he said," " said he," " replied he," or " he replied," which need not be used, except when the omission would confuse the reader. In a dialogue, " he said " and the like need not accompany more than a third of the spoken words. Of course, when more than two are speaking, it is necessary to precede or follow their remarks with "John said," "I said," or "I replied," otherwise the reader will become confused.

The characters should not be permitted to speak more than two hundred words at the outside without an interruption. If necessary for them to deliver a sort of lecture, what they say should be broken up into paragraphs, with the use of " resumed he," " he resumed," or " he continued."

It is popularly supposed that characters will write themselves, so to speak. This is true, to an extent, but occurs more in books than in short stories.

The short-story writer should lay out his plot or scheme in advance, using the fewest number of characters, and one or two places. With this working outline in his mind, he places these characters in their situations and makes them work out his story, rapidly, and yet not apparently abruptly.

If the story is one of adventure, or largely descriptive of some particular place, there may be less dialogue or conversation. It is always advisable, whenever it is possible to do so, to make the characters explain the situation, rather than to have long descriptions or explanations between the " heats " of conversation. The inexperienced short-story writer is very prone to moralize, to overdescribe, to make what he calls a character-study. It is, then, more of an essay than a story, and is less interesting to the reader.

A short story must fairly radiate life and action. The characters must do things and say things. It should end with a sort of climax, not necessarily a sensational one. Either the conversation, or a short explanation, should bring things up to a finish. If the leading character is to die in the last paragraph, he either must have completed his work, or else his sudden taking away must be satisfactory to the reader. Stories with sad endings are not popular. If you are writing a sentimental short story, either marry the couple or assure the reader that they are going to be married. If there is a villain in the story, he should receive his deserts before the story closes. Either punish him or reform him. Do not leave him where he was in the first place.

If the story is of adventure, do not let a wild beast kill your hero in the last paragraph. He must come out ahead of the game, but there is no particular objection to allowing a lion to get the better of the villain. If a husband and wife lead the story, and they have misunderstandings, let them kiss each other before you are through with them, or obtain a respectable divorce, each to marry somebody else.

If there is nothing sensational, or out of the ordinary, then your characters must be unusually brilliant and their conversation about common things above the average in wit and pointedness. The public does not want to know how a mother toasted cheese, unless the toasting of cheese plays an important part on the domestic stage. Each character must either do something which is a little unusual, or say common things in a brilliant way. They should act and talk as they would probably do, if placed in the situations created for them, subject to permissible exaggeration. If they merely appear to represent the author's style, and do not have what is an apparent personality of their own, then the story, even though it may be filled with conversation, is but a verbal essay.

The characters should show diverse characteristics. There should be no two of them alike. Each one should appear to be a sort of specialist of his kind, however natural the portrayal may be.

Descriptions should dovetail into the policy of the story. If, for example, your hero is a miner, there is no need of describing the general conditions of his mining town, unless they have a bearing upon the story itself. Better keep your miner in the mine or near the mine, and let him associate almost entirely with those he comes in contact with in real life. Do not run off at a tangent, and attempt to describe what is not pertinent to the story, or to take the character out of the story's environment. Concentrate both composition and description, keeping close within the lines of what it is necessary for the reader to know, that he may understand the situation. Do not have too many sides to a character. Do not attempt to cover the whole town. The successful short story is about a few people, and what they do in a short period of time within a limited territory.

Of course, you can allow several years to elapse between one incident and another, but even then you need not change either your characters or horses on the trip, and the lapsing period of several years requires but a line for explanation. Short stories may begin with a conversation, or with a description, and may close with a few words of one of the characters, or the story may end with, a brief summing up. Short stories should contain not less than twenty-five hundred words, nor more than five or six thousand.