Building a Short Story, Part 1

You can see other writing exercises here.

Putting it all together.

This week, we’ll start putting together a short story. I will go over an example story of mine as we go – you can check mine to see how well I follow my own advice! As with anything I share, I love feedback and will keep working to make it better.

We’re going back to the first month of exercises.

I’ll draw on some exercises from this blog back in March. We need:

  • A one-sentence description of a character (March 9)
  • One or two very important desires your character has (March 16)
  • Conflicts that stand in the way of those goals (March 23)
  • A main problem in the story that makes things worse (March 30)

I’m going to work with one of my old stories here and try to improve it. The story is called “Memory Exchange” and it was in an early self-published book. Here are the details I get when I put the story through the March exercises:

Two word & single-sentence description:

Ambitious magician: Robert is an ambitious stage magician who learns a real magic spell, along with the terrible cost of using it.

Character desires:

Robert wants to be a rich and famous magician. He is also passionately in love with Carla, the seasoned performer who taught him real magic.

Story Conflicts:

Robert’s mom is alone for Thanksgiving, but his next show is right after – he needs to be with her.

Carla wants him to use his new magic to get to his mom and get back quickly, but Robert realizes he will have to sacrifice a special memory to power the teleportation spell.

Carla convinces Robert that he can control which memory he loses and he can give up an unpleasant memory. He doesn’t realize that she is conning him and has other plans.


Now I want you to try.

Tell me about your main character, his or her desires, and some potential conflicts for your story idea. I’ll share the beginning of my work on Thursday, and we’ll see how well it sets up the story. See you then!


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Exercise 4 Results – Raising the Stakes

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On Tuesday, I asked you to raise the stakes for your characters.

Now I want you to go back and assess how well you raised the stakes. Here are some criteria to look for in your answers to Tuesday’s exercise:

  • Does the main problem threaten the character’s life or the completion of a goal that is super-important to that character?

  • After you raise the stakes, is it now even more difficult for your character to achieve his or her goal?

  • Even if you did not write it out, do you have some sort of solution in the back of your mind?

  • Does the solution draw on the character’s established set of skills or something they learn or find during the story?

The first two points above are to help you generate a nice, suspenseful thrill for your readers, while the last two are to help you avoid painting yourself in a corner. Things should look grim for your character, but you have to have some solution in mind.

Special note – if your character does not survive:

In doing this exercise, you may use a character who does not make it to the end of the book. Okay, death happens and it sucks, but it can absolutely be the best thing for your story. Perhaps death is the tragic solution to your character’s problem – they were on a fool’s errand from the start, and only death would stop them. Perhaps their goal was something worth dying for, and their death solved the problem or enabled somebody else to solve it. Just avoid the trap of saying “Oh dear, the character is dead now, so their problem is gone.”

If the High Knight of Exampliphar was on a quest to clear his family name, he might die in his attempt, but you should avoid saying “Welp, his family name was never cleared. Sorry folks.” No, either his quest to clear the name is such a big or foolish errand that it becomes the end of him, or his death is exactly what clears the name. To just leave the family name hanging there, forever tainted, is far too much like real life (this is fiction, after all). There are authors who can pull off such realism and still have interesting stories, but I think it takes many years of experience – for beginners, I’d recommend having some sort of conclusion to each of the major threads you create (even if some of those threads span more than one book).

Okay, let me go back and re-assess my own Conflict 1 from Tuesday:

Character: William Flynn

Goal: He wants to be a respected news reporter.

I can look at two parts of this – respected, and news reporter. He gets flung across the universe, so there’s no news outlet he can work for. He still wants to be respected – as a rookie and a husband-to-be, it makes sense that earning respect is vital to him. He can also still desire to be a reporter – someone who chronicles the lives and struggles of others.

Problem: He is thrust into a unique role among his crew and has to figure out where his skills fit in.

His desire to be respected is threatened by a sudden change in role. His crew no longer needs a news reporter, but can his skills help in other ways? Perhaps he can still find ways to connect with the crew and their struggles?

How does this problem get worse? List a few possibilities:

  • He regularly interviews crew members as he asks for opinions on the captain’s responses to crises, but finds that many people don’t trust him.
    • I think his desire for respect is pretty clearly at stake here
  • He has several drone cameras that can fly outside the ship, and these prove useful in some situations. In a heated battle, however, he still finds himself on the sidelines.
    • He starts to find other ways he can help, but is he really doing enough?
  • He tries to aid as an interpreter when he accompanies the captain to negotiate with alien enemies, but ends up getting seriously injured in a firefight.
    • He’s not a fighter, but the ship and crew keep getting into danger. The captain won’t need him if he’s a liability – just what can he do?

Flynn’s desire for respect turns into a more basic need to aid the survival of the crew as the danger increases, but it’s always in the back of his mind. I can’t tell you exactly what role he ends up playing in the end, only that it is shaped by his encounters and actions in the story, and that it is driven by his base need for respect.

Your character should also have one or two base needs that drive their actions and shape their progression through the narrative.

 


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Writing Exercise – Raising the Stakes for Your Characters

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Last week, I asked you to write about conflicts facing your characters.

I gave these examples:

Character Goal: Flynn wants to be a good news reporter.

Conflict 1: He can’t be a reporter because he is the story now. He has to figure out his new role, and how he can help.

Character Goal: Flynn longs to be reunited with his long-time girlfriend, Darya Fitzgerald.

Conflict 2: His ship is stranded in unknown space on the other side of the universe.

Character Goal: He wants to be adored and respected among the colonists of his ship.

Conflict 3: When aliens start talking to him first, many colonists are wary and some even fear him.

Now I want to make my problems worse. This is the part where I have to be a bit careful – I’m in danger of giving away too much about a book I hope to sell. Hey, I have kids to put through university about 12 or so years down the road – can’t blame me for wanting a bit of help, if my writing can help me get it.

But hey, I don’t have to tell you how William Flynn solves any of these problems, do I? The same goes for you – I actually don’t want you to tell me how your characters solve anything, but you should have some of the details about the solutions in your mind. You want to raise the stakes, yes, but you also have to make sure you have some way out in mind. I wouldn’t want you to put your characters in impossible positions, but if your problems seem impossible to a reader before they finish your book, you’re doing a great job!

I’ll start with Conflict 1:

Character: William Flynn

Goal: He wants to be a respected news reporter.

Problem: He is thrust into a unique role among his crew and has to figure out where his skills fit in.

How does this problem get worse? List a few possibilities:

  • He regularly interviews crew members as he asks for opinions on the captain’s responses to crises, but finds that many people don’t trust him.
  • He has several drone cameras that can fly outside the ship, and these prove useful in some situations. In a heated battle, however, he still finds himself on the sidelines.
  • He tries to aid as an interpreter when he accompanies the captain to negotiate with alien enemies, but ends up getting seriously injured in a firefight.

 

It’s time for you to try. What are some ways your character’s problems could get worse?

Character:

Goal:

Problem:

How could this problem get worse? List a few possibilities:

 


 

Writing Exercise – Why Can’t Your characters have what they want?

Last week, I asked you to write about your characters and what they want.

Now we’re introducing some conflict and setting things up for the real story. It’s time to figure out obstacles that stand in the way of your characters. Problems that they strive to solve, and thus give the reader an interesting story.

One key thing to keep in mind about this problem – it should be bad for your character, but not too bad at first. Later, we are going to make this problem even worse, so the problem should start off as something difficult, but surmountable.

I’ll give you an example. Here’s one of my characters from last week, and three potential problems for him to face:

William Flynn, rookie newscaster

William Flynn is a rookie newscaster who is chosen to report from a colony ship on its way to a new planet.

More than anything, he wants to propose to his long-time girlfriend, Darya Fitzgerald.

As a reporter, he wants to see history in the making and be the first to break the story.

He wants to be adored and respected among the colonists of his ship.

I’ll start with the second problem – he wants to be good at his reporting job. A reporter, however, is supposed to be objective – but when an alien contacts the crew, it is Flynn who can understand and translate. He becomes the story, and can’t just sit on the sidelines anymore!

Let’s simplify this into a character goal and a conflict blocking the character’s progress:

Character Goal: Flynn wants to be a good news reporter.

Conflict: He can’t be a reporter because he is the story now. He has to figure out his new role, and how his skills can help.

 

If you are writing a short story or flash fiction, you may only have one protagonist and one goal to focus on. You’ll have just one main conflict, which will later get worse.

For longer stories, you’ll have multiple characters, and even have multiple conflicts for each character. Don’t get too carried away, though – you still have to be able to reduce the plot to simple elements for your book jacket, and the best way is to make sure you don’t go in with too many twists planned from the start.

Now it’s your turn. Take one character from one of your stories and describe their goal and a conflict that stands in their way.

 


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Exercise 2 Results – What do your characters want?

On Tuesday, I asked about the desires of your characters. I hope you think about the people in your stories and the things they both need and feel like they need.

Here are two of my characters and what they want:

#1 William Flynn, rookie newscaster:

William Flynn is a rookie newscaster who is chosen to report from a colony ship on its way to a new planet.

More than anything, he wants to propose to his long-time girlfriend, Darya Fitzgerald.

As a reporter, he wants to see history in the making and be the first to break the story.

He wants to be adored and respected among the colonists of his ship.

#2 Darren, single dad, retired superhero

Darren is a retired superhero and a single dad who is trying to leave his old life and superpowers behind.

He wants to be a good father to his daughter, Hanna.

He wants peace and calm after his glamorous life in the spotlight.

He wants a new love after being single for several years.

What do your characters want?


 

Writing Exercise – Character Desires

I’m continuing my feature on Characters with these Write, or Else Exercises.

This week, we look at what your characters want.

Exercise 2: What do your characters want?

Last week, I wrote 3 sentences about characters from 3 different stories. I described the characters as they appeared at the very start, before the major conflict of the story. Now it’s time to figure out what they really want.

Let’s start simple: What do you want?

List some things you really want. Not need, mind you – you could possibly survive without these things, but in your heart, they’re as important as needs. They can be material or immaterial – money, a kickass gaming rig, sex, a golden lager from the heart of Bavaria, financial security, love, freedom, adoration, anything.

Things I want (that I’m willing to admit on my public blog):

  • to write a darn good novel
  • money (who doesn’t want more?)
  • sex (see above)
  • travel and exploration
  • a good drinking partner (or coffee shop partner)

What do you want?

Now comes the fun part – what do your characters want? Your characters can want things that you want, or they can want very different things.

Try to think of what your friends and family members want, and also what people who are very different from you want. A devout Catholic priest will probably have a different list of wants from a Tibetan monk, so consider a few different people and decide which desires fit your characters. You can focus on one character, or list desires from multiple characters.

Things My Characters Want:

  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________

I’ll share my own answers with on Thursday. Let’s see some good wants!


 

Exercise 1 Results – Who Are Your Characters?

This Tuesday, I asked a pretty simple question:

Who are your characters?

Exercise 1: Who are your characters?

 

Here are each of the simple descriptions I came up with, followed by short sentences that tell you where they are at the very start of the story.

  1. Rookie newscaster 

    William Flynn is a rookie newscaster who is chosen to report from a colony ship on its way to a new planet.

  2. Heartbroken teacher

    Daniel is a heartbroken teacher who is talked into hiring a prostitute by his co-worker.

  3. Retired superhero

    Darren is a retired superhero and a single dad who is trying to leave his old life and superpowers behind.

 

Trying to describe your character in one sentence can lead to awkward sentences, yes, but it’s still a good exercise. It forces you to simplify the elements of your story into the most basic terms, which will help you develop your elevator pitch for the story later on.

In each example, I’ve stopped short of telling you about the actual conflict of the story (that comes later). The point here is to know your character’s situation before the story begins.

I hope you will post a few sentences about your characters!