J.M. Williams

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What’s Your Crisis? – The Essential Component of a Short Story

Dec
29

The recipe for a short story is so simple, yet it is one of the hardest things to craft well. There are only two essential ingredients for a story, a well-developed character and a crisis. Within the word limit of your tale, you must make us understand your character, give him or her an issue to deal with and feelings about it, and resolve the issue in some manner. This is why flash fiction is so difficult to do well; micro is significantly worse.

Crisis does not only mean a fight or a conflict. The crisis can be a physical problem, a psychological issue, a goal, an emotion. Hating oneself for being overweight is a crisis, as is confronting the evil wizard. What is important is how the character deals with his or her issue. The character must be trying to do something, change something, otherwise what you have is a vignette, not a story. Ask yourself “What is this character trying to achieve?” or “What are they dealing with?” and keep your story focused on that.

I have been browsing WordPress today looking for stories to share. I read a micro story about a guy skiing. He dodges trees, makes it to the bottom safely and then goes back up. We are not told why he does it, why it matters, and thus the story ceases to matter–in fact, no story exists. I read another story (which I reblogged) about a girl going to a company that turns people into heroes. The world is very smartly developed but the character is lacking. We are given almost no detail on the character herself. We don’t know her motivations, what has led her to this decision, and thus it fails to be a crisis. In both cases, they are simply describing the passing of events rather than telling a story.

Here is a decent a story  for examination called “Hinterland” from the blog SchoolofWords:

I traveled through the wastelands with my head held high and my lights held low. I knew that a flash of this thing would rile up a pack of those detested Junk Rats. I was in no business of hunting those things, that was the job of the Skinners. I was just trying to move my way from one side of the city to the other without a hitch. No need for pointless bloodshed, or at least that’s what my people say. I couldn’t tell whether it was the middle of the day or the dark of the night from the clouds hanging above. All I needed to know was that the next set of tunnels were opposite of the city. The tunnels would lead me to the next settlement up north where hopefully I meet with some neutrals. They always tell you to go north in these scenarios huh? Wonder why. I reached the tunnel without a hitch, but there was one problem. I checked my map to make sure that I was actually at the right tunnels. It appears that I was, but the only problem was that my map didn’t tell me that a set of Hounds were feeding on a corpse at the entrance. Damn things, there must have been ten at least, all feeding on the last unsuspecting group of scavengers who weren’t warned. I guess this is why my people always used to call the tunnel openings hinterland. No one knows what will happen when you find one. I brandished Old Glory, the shotgun my grandfather passed down through my family. It was an old beast that has seen many wars and in some strange twist of coincidence now belongs in my hands, too bad the only ones who can see it in action are those mutants. I brought the sights to my face, and then checked my remaining shells. It’s going to be a long day.

There is a good world-building here, and tension. We have a sympathetic character, and a strong narrative voice. The crisis is presented early and clearly: “I was just trying to move my way from one side of the city to the other without a hitch.”  It is clear and direct, we know what our narrator is trying to achieve. So the first step in revision is to go through and remove anything that does not relate to that crisis or move it forward.

I traveled through the wastelands with my head held high and my lights held low. I knew that a flash of this thing would rile up a pack of those detested Junk Rats (This needs more to make it important for tension-building. Why is the narrator afraid of them? Otherwise cut). I was in no business of hunting those things, that was the job of the Skinners. I was just trying to move my way from one side of the city to the other without a hitch. No need for pointless bloodshed, or at least that’s what my people say. I couldn’t tell whether it was the middle of the day or the dark of the night from the clouds hanging above. All I needed to know was that the next set of tunnels were opposite of the city. The tunnels would lead me to the next settlement up north where hopefully I meet with some neutrals (If this is important  for the character’s motivation, build it into the crisis introduction, don’t leave it as a hanging detail that breaks the momentum of the story). They always tell you to go north in these scenarios huh? Wonder why. I reached the tunnel without a hitch, but there was one problem. I checked my map to make sure that I was actually at the right tunnels. It appears that I was, but the only problem was that my map didn’t tell me that a set of Hounds were feeding on a corpse at the entrance. Damn things, there must have been ten at least, all feeding on the last unsuspecting group of scavengers who weren’t warned. I guess this is why my people always used to call the tunnel openings hinterland. No one knows what will happen when you find one. I brandished Old Glory, the shotgun my grandfather passed down through my family. It was an old beast that has seen many wars and in some strange twist of coincidence now belongs in my hands, too bad the only ones who can see it in action are those mutants. I brought the sights to my face, and then checked my remaining shells. It’s going to be a long day.

World-building and exposition is important, but only in so far as it moves the crisis forward. The details about the origin of the shotgun do give us background on the character but don’t connect to the crisis, which is simply moving from point A to point B. Is the character abandoning some part of his past that this relates to? Does this emotion drag him down on his journey? If so, make it clear. He seems unsure of it in his hands, but that emotion is not reflected in his general confidence moving around in this dangerous world. The concept of the Skinners has no bearing on the story’s crisis; the character is not one, nor does he encounter one along the way. Same thing with the Junk Rats, but to a lesser extent.

The question to ask is “Does cutting this change the understanding of the story?” If the answer is “No”, then you should cut. Cutting the parts indicated does not change the story for us, the story being a person’s journey across dangerous grounds. There is a tendency in writers (including myself) to want to add more world-building details than are necessary. Storytelling is all about sharing your own worlds, right? We are very proud of our imaginations, of our creations, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to bog-down our writing with unnecessary details. It is something that needs to be reined in. And that takes a lot of willpower and focus. here we can cut the world-building and add some more character development. Why is he making this trip? That’s a key detail that we are missing here.

To reiterate, if your story doesn’t have a crisis, if your character doesn’t have a goal and if we don’t understand why, it is not a story. And this should be very clear to the reader, presented early on. The experience of reading a story is watching how a character deals with his crisis. In order to do so, the reader needs to know what the crisis is and how the character feels about it. And every part of the story should have bearing on the crisis, if not, cut it.

The editing tips above are my personal opinion, but a well-educated one. Other editors will cut it in other ways, but the end result will always be cutting. Revision is usually two-parts deletion, one-part addition.

I hope this analysis here helps you to improve your own writing. Flash and mirco is really hard to write. Many think that short equals easy, but in this case the opposite is true. Just remember “character and crisis” and you’ll do fine.

SchoolofWords is a nice little blog (I don’t know who the author is), with a lot of decent micro-fiction pieces. They are short and easy to read. I would suggest checking them out, or even following the author.

2 Responses to What’s Your Crisis? – The Essential Component of a Short Story

  1. This blog is definitely a welcome tool in my quest for better writing. Thanks!

    • Thank you. I hope it helps. Take a look at the other blogs and columns I share here as well. And I have a links page with some writing sites, too. I try to share helpful stuff that aligns with my views on writing. Bear in mind, though, that a lot of the formal editor types these days like things a bit more fancy than I prescribe. I stick to the tried and true methods and techniques.

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