It might sound a bit obvious, but it’s still worth pointing out that it’s not really possible to construct an effective story without using the basic elements of story structure.
- Rising Action
- Falling Action
- Resolution [Denouement Optional]
You’ve probably heard of some or all of these before, and I’m sure you recognise them as the elements of story structure, with special reference to drama and short stories. Following a structure like this will make it a great deal easier for markers to identify and evaluate your narrative and central ideas. While stories which break from this convention do exist, it is generally much easier to write a coherent and effective narrative using these elements as your scaffold.
Probably the most vital thing to remember is that each of these parts must be structurally and conceptually linked. The chosen setting should be one in which the complication makes sense. It generally wouldn’t make sense, for example, to set your story in the trenches of WWI, and then kick off with a complication around not being able to make friends. Sure, such a thing is possible, but it violates certain fundamental conventions of story telling, and most probably not in a good way. The same applies for the rising and falling actions. These can’t be a random series of acts and events. The rising actions must arise directly from and in response to the complication, and the same for the falling actions.
Another key point is where to place the discovery. This must be placed at or before the cllimax, which should be roughly two thirds to three quarters of the way through. The most common trap new writers fall into is putting the discovery at the end. What this does is remove any chance of talking sufficiently about the effects of discovery, which is a key part of the rubric.
Jumping right in and just ‘going with the flow’ may be tempting, but it’s highly risky. Probably the best known aspect of short stories is their shortness, which means that every single word, thought, description and incident, must serve the central purpose of the story.
Most of us will be limited to an absolute maximum of approximately one thousand words, this being about as much as can be hand-written in forty minutes. This means that you’ve no room to spare for anything which does not directly serve to deliver your story’s central themes. This means you’ll definitely need a plan.
Let’s take a moment now to see what a detailed plan might look like.
Central Incident: Discovery of (x).
Major theme: Effect/Ramification/Nature/Process of discovery.
Person: First, second (not recommended), third.
Point(s) of View: Limited or omniscient.
Tense: Past, present, future (not recommended)
Narrative Structure: Linear, circular, parallel, etc.
When deciding on story elements, the following questions need to be asked for every single one:
FUNCTION: How does it help to establish/move the story forward?
RELEVANCE: How does it relate to/develop the central theme(s)?
And finally, many students are mystified as to why certain ideas are accepted, and others rejected, without any apparent regard to quality. This is because the syllabus contains a definitive list of subjects they do not wish to see stories about. These are as follows:
- Avoid clichés and general laziness with language. The demonstration of sophisticated language skills is a significant factor in marking.
- Avoid the overuse of action or other ‘thriller’ type elements, as these will chew up word count without developing your central ideas.
- Avoid writing stories about any of the following:
- Issues with parents
- Explicit sex
- Sparkly vampires
- Avoid writing so much dialogue you run out of room for plot.
- Avoid indiscriminate telegraphing of insignificant detail. A well constructed story should only contain description which is relevant to the story, themes and characters.
- Avoid being too obvious about the ‘discovery’, whatever it happens to be. A lack of subtlety will generally count against you.
- Having said that, also avoid being so subtle it becomes impossible for anyone to figure out what your story’s actually about.
- Avoid melodrama. Long lost twins, apocalyptic gun-battles and fiery explosions are seen by most examiners as having no place in literary fiction.