Writing Fiction: Part Three

We come to Part Three and a couple of questions that would normally be asked about short fiction, although one can say the same for longer works such novellas and novels.  How long should my story be?  Ah, the old Abe lincoln story who was once asked in jest just how long a man’s legs should be?  His answer, “Long enough to reach the ground.”  How long should a short story be?  Long enough to reach the end.  An example would be Poe’s “Telltale Heart”, a very short and tightly written story.  Some stories don’t need more than a thousand words.  On the other hand, Somerset Maugham  often wrote stories of forty pages.  I tend to like to keep my own stories to about 1200 to 1500 words but on occasion I have needed four to five thousand words to reach the end.  Theme plays a hand in length.  It’s all about flow.

Flow is not logic, by the way.  A story has a natural progression and a natural length.  Think back to times you have listened to various people tell an oral story, maybe something of their experiences.  A few people tend to be the straight through to the bitter end with no deviation.  Unless one is a master of drama, the straight line story is hard to maintain interest.  One of the things we learn while growing beyond the age of twelve is the appreciation of the twist in the story.  We like to be kept guessing what the ending will be.  Call it teasing, call it love of drama, but it is something that works when done well.  And if we are clever we might indulge in two twists.  More than that and the reader starts to lose interest.  Triple crosses work in suspense, detective, and science fiction but not in general fiction.  Too much complication makes the reader work too hard.  On the other hand, the writer of novels can have two major twists and several minor twists and still write a good novel.

Now we consider editing.  Yes, that is something many writers do not do well.  The first pass of editing is looking for all the grammatical and spelling errors.  Spell check works wonders but I would not use Word grammar checker, it has its problems.  After that first pass then we need to read for continuity or flow.  Does the story make sense?  Do not confuse logic with sense.  The fact is that real life is stranger than fiction.  They are events that occur that the best fiction writers could never make up.  But we need to understand that human behavior is at best semi rational.  Emotions, perceptions, culture, and a host of other influences make the individual do strange things.  On the other hand, individuals usually have a pattern of behavior.  Think about that for a minute.  We tend to be predictable, so when we act out of character we have entered into a “different story” of our lives.  We write about those exceptions because they illustrate life as we often experience it.  Just as old faithful George can be relied to act the same way every day for the past ten years, the one time he acs differently is called to our attention and often with humor.

Check for verb usage, never combine in the same sentence or paragraph past, present, or future verbs unless there is a strong reason to do so.  Look for alternative ways to describe actions, scenes, people, and the lack.  Look at how you have phrased the actions, descriptions, and so forth.  And eliminate unnecessary verbiage.  We want to keep it tight, make every word count, use just the right amount.  When we write the rough draft we often make a great many mistakes and the point is to take the story and polish it brightly so that it stands out, is memorable.  Lastly, have a couple of friends who are willing to read you work and give them explicit permission to trash it without mercy.  We writers are the worst judges of our own words.  We fall in love with them and want them to live forever.  Hence, never be afraid to kill words, phrases, paragraphs, and even a bad story.  This is the art of writing, the art of storytelling.

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