What Do Editors Want, Anyway?

Most beginning writers, especially those who’ve suffered a few rejections, wonder about the answer to this post’s subject question. What do editors want?What Editors Want

I can’t pretend to speak for all editors. I’ve not reached the point where all my stories get accepted. I’ve never worked as an editor myself.

However, a few years ago, one editor* gave me his answer to that question, and it’s a good one. He wrote, “I’m a stickler for a story having not only a clear protagonist, antagonist, and plot, but a resolution of the plot (in which the protagonist participates) and a change in the protagonist on some level. I like stories that, as Twain once said, ‘accomplish something and arrive somewhere.’ Most accomplish nothing and arrive nowhere. It’s dreadful to read through an otherwise good story and have it end without ending.”

Let’s accept that as a working proposition and break it down.

  1. Clear protagonist. The reader shouldn’t have to wonder who the main character is. I believe the editor chose the word ‘protagonist’ rather than ‘hero’ since the main character need not be particularly heroic.
  2. Clear antagonist. Stories must have conflict. There must be some entity against whom the protagonist struggles. The antagonist need not be a person; it could be nature or the environment. Once again, once finished with the story, any reader should be able to name the antagonist.
  3. Clear plot. By this, I believe the editor was saying the story must portray events in a logical order. The events must relate to the conflict and follow each other with a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Some events will escalate tension and others will relieve it. Overall, there needs to be a gradual buildup of tension until the resolution.
  4. Plot resolution in which the protagonist participates. The resolution is that part of the plot where the conflict is resolved (the bad guy is defeated, the two people fall in love, the protagonist overcomes a character flaw, etc.). It’s important that the protagonist take action to bring about this resolution and not be some bystanding witness to the action. Note: the word ‘resolved’ does not imply happily or favorably. Resolution of the conflict could be accomplished by the protagonist’s death or other defeat.
  5. Protagonist changes on some level. If your protagonist is the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, the reader will wonder what the point of the story was. The clause ‘on some level’ refers to the fact that conflicts are generally classed as external (bad-guy antagonist or unforgiving environment) or internal (character flaw, irrational fear, grief, unreasonable guilt, psychological problem, etc.). Many stories impose both internal and external conflicts on the protagonist. For internal conflicts, the change should be an overcoming of the condition, or at least hope of such problem solving. For external conflicts, the protagonist’s change is generally a maturation of some kind.
  6. Story accomplishes something. This is part of the Twain quote, and is a restating of points 4 and 5. The plot and conflicts must resolve and the protagonist must change. A great way for a story to accomplish something is if it says something useful about the human condition.
  7. Story arrives somewhere. By this, I take Twain to mean that the story must end at an appropriate point, not before the conflict resolution, and not too long afterward.

Save your editor some time, and save yourself another bout of rejection-grief. Check if your story meets all of the above criteria before submitting it. If it doesn’t, it’s not ready.

Of course, even if your story does meet these criteria, that’s no guarantee of acceptance. Who can pretend to know what all editors want? Certainly not—

Poseidon’s Scribe

* Note: the editor who wrote that is David M. Fitzpatrick, of Epic Saga Publishing. He accepted one of my stories for an upcoming Epic Saga anthology. David has gone into more detail about what he looks for in submissions; see this wonderful blog post here, which includes some great writing exercises, too.

When Characters Wrest Control

Sometimes, while playing God, writers get surprised. Occasionally, while we’re creating our little worlds and our little people to inhabit them, one of those people doesn’t stay in the intended space.

Wresting ControlToday I’ll consider the topic of characters getting too big for their britches, and assuming a bigger (or different) role than the one planned for them. When this happens in your writing, should you take it as a good thing or a bad thing?

This has happened to me a few times. In my story “After the Martians,” the character Frank Robinson is a war AftertheMartians72dphotographer. He’s meant to be a secondary character, pursuing a parallel plot line that intersects the protagonist’s life near the end in a meaningful way. However, Frank became a little more compelling than intended and darn near overshadowed the protagonist. I kept most of his exploits in, so the reader cares what happens to him and follows his plot line with interest.

RippersRing72dpiIn “Ripper’s Ring,” Diogenes is a Bassett hound owned by a Scotland Yard detective. You know how some movie actors dread performing with animals because the animal might steal the scene? That nearly happened with droopy old Diogenes, whose seeming lack of interest in following a scent made him an endearing comic character in an otherwise dark and philosophical story. I kept him that way.

ATaleMoreTrue72dpiThere’s a French servant named Fidèle in my story “A Tale More True” who almost ended up having a more compelling personality than that of his master, the protagonist. Once again, he was a secondary character meant to provide comic relief and to showcase the protagonist. However, he tended to get the best lines, and to be the one suggesting the right course of action. I kept him as I’d written him, since the story is a voyage of learning and discovery for his master, and Fidèle is a necessary part of that.

WithinVictorianMists9Another servant, this time a plump Irish one named Daegan MacSwyny, nearly took over my story “Within Victorian Mists.” I’d meant this secondary character to be funny and unintelligent, but he ended up being secretly wise in almost magical ways. As with Fidèle, he gently prodded his master, the protagonist, toward the right answer at every step, though it’s never clear whether that’s by intention or accident. MacSwyny and all the Victorian Mists characters appeared again in “A Steampunk Carol” but there the servant kept to his secondary status.

In each case, a secondary character threatened to take over the story by force of personality and by being more endearing than the protagonist. That’s just the way my muse rolls.

But not only mine. Other writers have blogged about this phenomenon. Mae Clair lets it happen, for the most part, and later writes separate stories featuring such characters.

Melanie Spiller had written such a good scene about the death of a character whom she hadn’t meant to kill off, that she kept the scene in. She’d once been told a character wresting control of the story is a sign you’ve created a believable character.

When a character takes on a bigger role, you have choices. You can:

  1. Let that character go in this new direction, at least to some extent.
  2. Rewrite the story to keep the character as intended.
  3. Delete the character.

So far, I’ve always chosen option 1. Other writers choose either 1 or 2. It would be gut wrenching to opt for 3, so I suspect that’s rarely done.

When you play God by writing fiction, do you have characters wresting control every now and then? If so, what do you do? Or do you just like that word ‘wrest?’ Rise above your role as a blog post reader, and leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Ex-Out Deus ex Machina

Strange term, that ‘Deus ex Machina.’ All it means is ‘the god from the machine’ and if your story’s got one, you probably don’t want it.

Deus ex MachinaAlthough the concept comes to us in its Latin wording, it dates from the plays of Ancient Greece. Performed in amphitheaters, these plays sometimes featured an actor playing the part of a Greek god, who would descend into the final scene apparently from the sky by means of a crane with ropes. The ‘god’ would solve the play’s central problem by means of magical powers.

Over time, the phrase came to mean the late and unexpected introduction in a story of a character, ability, or object that seems to resolve the story’s conflict in some miraculous way.

     Not Recommended
You’ll want to avoid Deus ex Machina (DEM) in your stories because it’s the mark of an amateur writer. You get positive points for burdening your protagonist with difficult dilemmas to solve. But you lose those points and more when you’ve painted your hero into a corner and you can’t get her or him out without resorting to some external savior entering the action at the end.

The presence of a DEM cheats the reader, who is expecting a story about the human condition.  The reader has, therefore, invested some emotional energy in your protagonist, following that hero along through all the conflicts, both external and internal. The reader is wondering how your protagonist will prevail. To introduce a DEM, therefore, is jarring and disappointing.

     Difficult to Avoid
Sometimes you’re working along with your manuscript and you find you’ve put your protagonist in such trouble that, try as you might, you can’t think of a way out. You like the story otherwise, and really don’t want to rewrite in a way that lessens the difficulty and allows your hero to win the day through innate virtues.

These are the times you might be tempted to call in the aid of a DEM. Again, for reasons noted above, it’s best not to do so. In most cases.

     When It’s Right
In the hands of a master storyteller, DEMs can work in two situations I’ve discovered: (1) when the author is making a larger point, and (2) in comedies.

For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the French army conquers the town, enters the Inquisition, and frees the narrator from his horrible prison. But Poe is making a larger point about life and the freeing of the soul to enter heaven when the clock (pendulum) of life ceases.

In H.G. Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds, it’s true the invading Martians are defeated by tiny bacteria. But Wells is making a statement about Britain’s encounters with cultures having primitive technology. He’s saying that, but for the microbes, even mighty Britain would have been annihilated.

In Monty Python’s movie “Life of Brian,” Brian is saved from a deadly fall by a passing alien spaceship. The DEM literary device is used here for comedic effect.

     A Final Example
If you’re really, really good, go ahead and use a Deus ex Machina. Otherwise, best to avoid them. Let your characters figure their own way out of their jams.

Hmm, as I write this, I have no idea how to end this blog post.

Enter Poseidon, appearing out of nowhere.
Poseidon: “Silly mortal. Just write ‘Poseidon’s Scribe’ below your other babbling text, the way you’ve signed off every other post.”
Me: “Oh, hehe. Thanks Poseidon. You mean like this:

Poseidon’s Scribe.”

When Your Protagonist Meets You

It saddens me to report that author Ann (A.C.) Crispin died a few days ago, on September 6.  Before I discuss my connection with her, I should give you a brief bio.

ac-crispinA.C. Crispin was a science fiction writer who established herself with “tie-in” novels delving into the characters of established universes of Star Trek, Star Wars, the V miniseries, and others.  She also created her own Starbridge series of novels.

Angered at how some agents, editors, and publishers cheat beginning writers, Crispin co-founded a group called Writer Beware in 1998 to both warn writers and to help law enforcement agencies prosecute scam artists.

I don’t know exactly when, perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, I enrolled in a creative writing course at my local community college.  A.C. Crispin taught it.  I recall her being a tough teacher, direct and honest with those whom she thought should consider non-writing pursuits.  She usually said encouraging things to me about the homework I submitted, though.

A.C. Cripsin’s lectures contained references to the great works of literature, and she’d look around the class for flashes of recognition.  When she didn’t see any, she admonished us to read the classics if we wanted to write well.

She asked us all a question on the first day of class that has stuck with me.  None of us answered it correctly, and she’s written about the question in her essay, “The Key to Making Your Characters Believable.”

If the protagonist of any of your stories saw you walking along the street, and recognized you as the writer, what would he or she do upon meeting you?  The answer, if you’ve done your job properly, is  the protagonist would punch you in the nose.  After all, your story drags that protagonist through bad and progressively worse situations.  You’ve challenged that protagonist with tests of character that force him or her to confront deep, inner beliefs or fears.  Perhaps in addition, you’ve pitted the world against your protagonist, multiplying the external problems that character must face.  No wonder that protagonist is furious with you!

While you cowered from the rain of your creation’s blows, your nose bleeding, you’d be blubbering that you had to do it, you were forced put the protagonist through Hell for the readers’ benefit, to make a compelling story.  That would probably sound pretty hollow to your character, I suspect.

Luckily, your fictional creations won’t be meeting you on the street or in any dark alleys.  You are free to force them to crawl through mud and gore, to confront giant monsters, to face their deepest terrors, to suffer the despair of lost love.  All with complete impunity.  Go ahead; they can’t strike back, and your readers expect you to write stories like that.  That was A.C. Crispin’s message to the class.

Goodbye, Ann Crispin, and thank you.  Not only did you touch readers with your novels, you protected budding authors through your Writer Beware group, and inspired many beginning scribblers, like—                                            

                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

September 15, 2013Permalink

Ay, Now the Plot Thickens

When George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham wrote those words for his play “The Rehearsal” in 1663, I believe he had today’s blog post in mind.  For, ay, I intend to discuss how to plot a story.

First, what is a plot?  It is simply a series of connected fictional events.  Here are two rules about these events:

1.  In a non-humorous story, the connections between events should be logical, with a minimum of lucky coincidences; the events should be related by cause and effect.

2.  To make your story appealing to readers, there should be a certain structure to these events.  That is, experience has shown this particular plot structure (sometimes called a “dramatic arc”) to have a maximum emotional impact.

But how are rules 1 and 2 related?  What does it mean to have a cause-and-effect chain of events that rises and falls?  Think of it this way.  Your story must have a protagonist with a problem, a conflict of some kind.  Often there is both an external and internal conflict.

I’ve said before that stories are about the human condition.  More specifically, stories show human ways of dealing with problems.  It may seem strange to generalize that way, but without a problem or conflict, you have no story.  Even if there are no humans in your tale, your non-human characters are really just standing in for people.

Plotting diagramsBack to plotting.  Think of the series of events (Rule 1) as events showing your protagonist encountering an initial obstacle, overcoming it, then encountering a worse one, overcoming that one, etc.  Each obstacle thrown at her causes her to struggle against it.  Her struggle causes the antagonist (which may be a person or nature or anything) to oppose her even more.  That’s what Villiers described as a plot thickening.

Think of the dramatic arc (Rule 2) as a portrayal of the increasing difficulties for your protagonist as she contends with her problems. Tensions should increase in this section, culminating in a climactic turning point.  There she must confront both her external and internal problems.  The remaining events convey the resolution of the conflict and represent a decrease in tension.

Although I’ve geared this discussion to short stories, all fiction is similar.  Screenwriter H. R. D’Costa has written a wonderful blog post providing the secrets of movie plot structures.

Oh, one more thing about problems and resolutions—if you have a problem with what I’ve said in this blog post, leave a comment and I’ll try to resolve it.  I also accept praise by the heapful.  I’ll close by saying, Ay, now the plot’s been thickened by—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

September 1, 2013Permalink

Tightening the Screws

Today I’m discussing why and how writers increase conflict in their stories.  Long-term fans of this site with keen memories will recall that I promised to get to this topic in a previous blog entry.  Far be it from me to let you down.

Conflict is a necessary part of all stories and it’s a good idea to ramp up the level of conflict as your story proceeds, both to hold your reader’s interest by building tension, and to subject your protagonist to a progressively more difficult test of character, forcing him or her to confront inner fears or character flaws.

220px-Jurassic_Park_posterLet’s look at a couple of examples.  In the 1993 movie “Jurassic Park,” directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a novel of the same name by Michael Crichton, we see a gradual step-up in conflict.  The central protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant, is persuaded to leave a paleontological dig to conduct a review of a theme park.  Once there he is awed that the park engineers have re-created living dinosaurs.  He is put in close contact with children, which he dislikes.  When part of the park’s security system is deactivated, a Tyrannosaurus attacks the group.  Grant and the children must spend the night in the park, with predatory dinosaurs on the loose.  They encounter cunning Velociraptors, and finally both Velociraptors and the Tyrannosaurus.

Fiddler_on_the_roof_posterConflict need not be physical, or even dangerous.  In the 1964 musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, the conflict is of a different nature but also increases.  The village milkman, Tevye, must first contend with the fact that his eldest daughter has chosen her own husband against tradition and his wishes.  Then his second daughter likewise makes her own marital match, but with a political and cultural radical.  Later his third daughter seeks to marry outside the Jewish faith.  Finally, on orders from the Tsar, Russian authorities expel the Jewish villagers from their town.

Notice how, in each case, the author chooses plot events that begin with small conflicts and then escalates, figuratively tightening thumbscrew devicethe screws as with the medieval torture device, progressively challenging the characters with more taxing situations.  Just as the protagonist resolves or comes to terms with one disaster, a worse one occurs.  Moreover, the nature of the conflicts is such that they strike at a character flaw.  In Dr. Grant’s case, it’s his dislike of children.  In Tevye’s case, it’s his over-reliance on tradition.  The protagonists are forced to grapple with their own weakness and try to overcome it.

It’s sad, in a way, that writers must put their characters through the torture of increasing conflict intensity, just for the sake of reader enjoyment.  But as long as the characters stay imaginary, it’s all legal, so ease your mind about that.  You’re welcome to comment on this topic of increasing the level of conflict.  I’ll return now to my Work in Progress (WIP).  Please don’t mind any screams you might hear as the screws get tightened by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

December 30, 2012Permalink

Writing for Young Adults

Want to write stories for Young Adults?  Hard to blame you.  It’s a large market, and some authors have become successful in aiming for it.  If you, like J. K. Rowling, happen to write a YA story that also appeals to adults, then your story’s market is that much bigger.

Perhaps your purpose in writing YA stories is more complex than a direct desire for money or fame.  One web commenter has suggested writer Robert Heinlein wrote YA (then called ‘juvenile’) novels to shape a young audience, to prepare readers for later buying his brand of adult novels.  If true…wow!  That’s thinking ahead!

Whatever your reason for wanting to write for it, the YA market is an interesting one.  It took until about 1900, several hundred years after the first printed books, for the following confluence of events to make a YA market possible:  (1) the price of books dropped to be within a teen’s budget, (2) teen buying power rose so they could afford books, and (3) teens weren’t working so long and had available time to read.  Once the market emerged, authors began aiming for it.

What are YA stories like, and how do they differ from other genres?  Young adults, as an audience, are leaving the comfortable world of childhood and ready to experience adulthood.  They’re curious about it, anxious to try things.  Fiction gives them a safe opportunity to “try” things in a vicarious way.  They’ve grown beyond simple, moralistic tales.  They crave stories with identifiable, strong but vulnerable characters–complex characters who aren’t all good or all bad.  A good, solid plot-line is more important to them now than it was in the children’s books they no longer read.

In short, YA stories are very similar to those written for adults.  I thought I’d read once where Robert Heinlein had said writing for juveniles (the old term for YA) was just like writing for adults except you take out all the sex and swearing.  I can’t find that quote now, but it would need amending anyway.  Notice Heinlein had no problem with violence in YA stories, and that remains true.  As for sex, it’s probably best to leave out graphic descriptions, but don’t pretend the act doesn’t exist.  As for swearing, it’s my guess that mild swearing is acceptable in YA literature these days.

How do you write for the YA market?  I think it’s important to think back to your own teen years and pull what you recall from those experiences.  Remember when the world was new to you, when all your emotions were intense ones, when you longed to be accepted and wondered if there were others like you, wondered if you’d find even one special person for you?  Pick a protagonist who is aged a few years older than your target audience, either in the late teens or early twenties.  Don’t talk down to your readers; they’re old enough to look up words they don’t understand.  Don’t set out to write a moralistic story of instruction; teens are quick to spot a lecture and, frankly, they get enough of those from their parents.  They’re not about to shell out good money and spend their time reading a sermon from you.

My own reading as an early teenager focused on the Tom Swift, Jr. series published between 1954 and 1971.  After that I primarily read Jules Verne and other science fiction authors, mostly those writing hard science fiction.  Now as a writer, I think all my stories should be acceptable for the YA audience, though I haven’t consciously aimed for it.  My tales have very little swearing.  There is a sex scene (of sorts) in my horror story, “Blood in the River,” but nothing too graphic.  However, none of my published stories feature a teen protagonist.

Good luck with the YA story you’re writing.  If this blog post has helped in any way, or if you take issue with what I’ve stated, please leave a comment for–

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe



Give Your Characters Vivid Personalities

Figured out the plot for a story you’re going to write, have you?  Got some rough character ideas in mind?  You say the only problem is, you’re not great at fleshing out the personalities of your characters?  Well, you may have surfed to the right blog post.

I think the first rule of character personalities is–they must fit the story.  Sometimes the plot itself necessitates certain personality types for your major characters.  Of course, from the reader’s point of view, this fitting is the other way around.  Readers learn about the character’s personalities early as they are introduced and relate to each other, and then read about the plot events.  So from your reader’s perspective, it seems fortunate that your characters had just the right personalities, given what eventually happened.

You may have read plot-driven stories in which there’s a lot of action but the characters seem shallow or stereotypical.  These stories get published because the plot action is so riveting, and despite the character portrayals.  There are also character-driven stories where the characters are fully fleshed out, but very little action occurs other than people talking to each other.  These stand a better chance of publication because readers like compelling characters.  However, it’s best to have both a gripping plot and captivating characters.

Let me explain more clearly what I mean about character personalities fitting the plot.  The protagonist in your story will face a conflict consisting of increasing levels of challenges.  That’s what stories are about.  The conflict can be external or internal or both.  In the end, the conflict will be resolved somehow, and the protagonist may undergo an internal change.

So you could pick a personality type for the protagonist that suits her well for the conflict.  In that case the story line is about her dealing with the challenges as they arise, and the actions she takes in accordance with her personality help to resolve the conflict.  Or you could pick a personality type that’s at odds with the conflict.  (For example, the conflict requires bold action, and you’ve got a shy protagonist.)  Now the internal struggle within the protagonist is one more challenge she faces as she deals with the external conflicts.  The actions she takes may actually worsen the conflict initially and trigger the increasing challenges.

In addition to fitting the plot, a character’s personality should fit, and emerge from, his background.  As you figure out where the character was born, his birth order in relation to siblings, what his upbringing was like, and what occupation he chose, those background details might well suggest certain personality traits.  (Alternately, you can determine personality traits first and come up with a suitable background later.)  Keep in mind that people sometimes form personality types in reaction against their upbringing rather than being in harmony with it.

In addition to having a protagonist’s personality fitting both the conflict and the character’s background, you should ensure your major characters have different personality types.  That makes their interactions much more interesting.  As a beginning writer I have found this difficult.  It’s easy to have characters act as I, the writer, would act in their place.  That results in characters with personalities much like mine.  A good writer populates her stories with characters of several personality types that are both revealed by their actions, and determine their actions in a believable way.  Ideally your readers should be unable to determine your personality type from your writing.

There are many sources of information about personality types that can aid you in developing your characters.  Internet searches on any of the following terms will provide plenty of information:

  • One (my favorite) is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which lays out sixteen different personality types.
  • There are four-color personality representation schemes which seem a little less useful to me.
  • Enneagrams provide nine personality types.  I have not used or studied this much, but it looks intriguing.
  • Astrology, either Western or Chinese, provides twelve unique personality types.

I listed these aids last because they are only useful to you in fleshing out a character’s personality type after you’ve already ensured the personality (1) fits the plot, (2) fits the background, and (3) differs from other characters and from the writer’s.

As always, feel free to leave a comment whether your personality clashes or matches with–

                                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

December 11, 2011Permalink

What? I’m Supposed to Learn Structure, Too?

Yes, you should know about short story structure to be successful in selling your tales.  Luckily, it’s not difficult.  To learn about structure, I mean.  The actual writing of successful short stories takes some effort, but so does anything worthwhile.

Let’s start with the basic structure of any story.  This structure is true for novels, movies, plays, even comic books.  We’ll then see how the structure applies to short stories in particular.

1.  The Hook.  This is an opening section meant to grab the reader’s (or viewer’s) interest.  I’ll have a few things to say about hooks in a future blog post. The hook needs to introduce your protagonist and his or her conflict.  It should set the story in a particular time or place.

2.  The Middle.  Here the protagonist tries several times to end the conflict, but fails.  It can even be the case that his or her attempts actually make things worse. In any case, the protagonist is tested in some way, either to physical limits or emotional ones, or both.

3.  The Resolution (or Dénouement).  In this section the conflict is resolved.  This usually involves the protagonist learning something, perhaps something about himself or herself.  The conflict could also be resolved by the protagonist’s death.

Aristotle called these parts the protasis, the epitasis, and the catastrophe.



The novelist Gustav Freytag later introduced the concept of the dramatic arc containing five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.  Essentially Aristotle’s epitasis includes the middle three elements of Freytag’s dramatic arc, though the falling action could be part of Aristotle’s catastrophe.  For simplicity here, I’ll stick to a three-part structure and use my titles for them.


In many story forms there will be no breaks or signposts separating these sections.  Even so, a reader who is looking for these sections will find them.  If you think back to novels you’ve read or movies you’ve seen, you’ll be able to recognize this structure.

With short stories, everything gets compressed.  The main feature of short stories is, in fact, their shortness.  This benefits the reader, since she or he can enjoy the story in a single sitting, thus remaining immersed in the world of the tale without interruption by the real world.  However, this brevity becomes the driving constraint for the writer.  The writer has to convey all three elements of story structure, but in very few words.

A short story needs a hook, like all stories.  However, an author of such tales cannot include a long description of the protagonist, other characters, or the setting.  Short stories have bare-bones hooks that just (1) introduce the protagonist, (2) introduce the conflict, and (3) set the story in time and place.

The middle section of a short story is likewise compacted down to the bare minimum.  There are fewer characters to interact with, few or no subplots, not even very many protagonist-testing events.  To keep the middle section short, some events or actions can be implied, letting the reader fill in the gaps in his or her mind.  This implication technique seems to contradict the “show, don’t tell” commandment, but it’s different, and it’s something with which I still struggle.

A short story’s resolution section also is a trimmed-down version, in comparison with longer works.  The section needs to resolve the conflict, possibly by having the protagonist learn something or otherwise grow as a person, or defeat the antagonist.  Nearly all the loose ends of the story need to be tied up in this section.  I say nearly all because it’s okay to leave some things unresolved or open to question–that’s life.

Throughout the writing of the short story, the author must take pains to keep a laser-like focus on the theme of the story.  Delete anything not directly supporting that theme, or necessary to having a meaningful story.

As you read more short stories by authors you enjoy, you’ll see how they employ the three-part structure I’ve described.  Soon you’ll be using it in your own stories, too.  As always, please send a comment if this has been useful to you, and address it to–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe