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#13--The Well-Crafted Short Story

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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#13--The Well-Crafted Short Story

Postby glorybee » Mon May 24, 2010 6:36 am

Today’s Quick Take: If you find yourself using both “reason” and “because” in the same sentence, you probably need to re-write it.

Incorrect: The reason I ate the rest of the chocolate cake is because I was feeling blue.

Correct: The reason I ate the rest of the chocolate cake is that I was feeling blue. OR

I ate the rest of the chocolate cake because I was feeling blue.

In formal writing, you should also keep ‘why’ away from ‘reason’.

Incorrect: The reason why I’m going to the store is for more chocolate cake.

Correct: The reason I’m going to the store is for more chocolate cake. OR

I’m going to the store for more chocolate cake.

‘Reason why’ is becoming more acceptable in informal writing and in dialogue, but it’s not strictly correct, as the ‘why’ is redundant.


***
Continuing with the Challenge Judging Criteria, then—I’m still working on ‘how well crafted was this entry?’ I don’t think I can cover fiction, poetry, and nonfiction all in the same thread, so I’ll stick to fiction today and cover those other genres in the coming weeks.

So what makes a story ‘well crafted’? First of all, it’s all that stuff you learned in school—spelling, grammar, punctuation. And I can’t cover those here; it’s far beyond the scope of this thread. If you find that you’re getting frequent comments about spelling, grammar, or punctuation, here are a few recommendations for you:

1. Visit Ann’s “Grammar Basics” thread here on the boards.
2. Get a proofreading buddy. I say that with a bit of hesitation, as there’s potential for skirting the rules (and intent) of the writing challenge. In the past, it’s been approved to have someone in your level proofread your story for mechanical errors only. Any discussions about content, clarity, plot, characterization, etc., are prohibited.
3. You can find free grammar tutorials online.
4. Buy a grammar book, or see if your local school has any extra that they’ll be willing to donate. Most schools order new textbooks every several years, and have piles of old ones moldering in storage. Grammar doesn’t get out-of-date, so if you can locate an old grammar workbook, you’ll be fine.

However, a story may be error-free and still not be particularly well-crafted. There are many components to an exquisitely-constructed story; the following is a very partial list.

A. Choose your words well. I covered that in this lesson, so I’ll move on.

B. Vary your sentence structure. Sometimes you want a nice, lengthy sentence, with several clauses set aside by commas or other punctuation—like this dash. Sometimes short sentences are best. Or even intentional fragments. When you vary your sentences, your story has an ebb and flow, rather than a predictable rhythm.

If you write in 1st person, be careful not to start too many sentences with ‘I’. Similarly, if you write in 3rd person, don’t start too many sentences with your characters’ names or with pronouns.

Construct your sentences so that they begin or end with the most interesting words.

C. Vary your paragraph structure. In the format of the Writing Challenge, very long paragraphs should be avoided, as they’re difficult to read on the screen. Some of your paragraphs should be several lines long—and some should be quite short. Short paragraphs are great for sections that should be rapidly paced: action sequences, conversations, transitions. Longer paragraphs (but no too long) are better for slowing down the pace a bit—reflection, description, plot development.

Incidentally, I've read that publishers and agents look for 'white space' in a manuscript. Of course, you get white space by having lots of quick-paced dialogue and shorter paragraphs.

D. Be sure that your story contains conflict. This draws readers into your story as they look for resolution. Conflict can be present in any kind of story—don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s just for the writers of mysteries or adventures. Humor, romance, children’s stories—you need conflict in all of those.

E. Although you can’t squeeze all of these elements into one little 750-word story, if you’re ready to bump your craftsmanship up a notch, pick one of these terms and research it. Any one of these might take your story out of the this happened, then this happened, then this happened… mode.

Foreshadowing
Irony
Surprise
Suspense
Symbolism

F. Show, don’t tell. This may well be the writers’ creed. I find the best way to illustrate this is in showing your characters’ emotions.

Telling: Susan was angry at Tim for spending money on gambling when they needed it to pay bills. She was frustrated that money that should have been going for diapers and baby food was being spent on poker and blackjack.

Showing: Susan looked up from the pile of bills; Tim was at the door, the smell of the casino clinging to his jacket. She shifted the baby in her lap and swallowed the rock that had been lodged in her throat for hours. “There’s only one more diaper, Tim. I’ve been saving this one for you.”

Got it? Don’t tell me that Susan was angry and frustrated, show me by what she does and what she says.

That’s enough to absorb for one lesson, I think. I’m going to send out a plea to the Masters and Advanced writers for their input into what makes a well-crafted story; I hope they’ll post their ideas on this thread.

HOMEWORK: Let’s concentrate on item F—show, don’t tell. Write two little snippets, just as I did above—one that tells, and one that shows. Please keep them to about that same length.

You have next week off—I’m headed to Florida to visit my daughter and her husband, and I hope to meet up with Deb Porter and Pat Guy while I’m there. I’ll be back here in two weeks with a lesson on the well-crafted poem.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby pheeweed » Mon May 24, 2010 7:09 am

Under the topic of sentence structure: I tend to start my sentences with a clause. I guess it's the way I think. So I write what comes naturally to me, but then I go back and change the sentence structure to start with the action.

For example:
Trying to find an idea for the challenge always makes me want to eat chocolate.

Corrected: I always want to eat chocolate when I'm thinking of ideas for the challenge.

Phee
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Postby dub » Mon May 24, 2010 8:05 am

Interesting points:

Incorrect: The reason I ate the rest of the chocolate cake is because I was feeling blue.

Correct: The reason I ate the rest of the chocolate cake is that I was feeling blue. OR

I ate the rest of the chocolate cake because I was feeling blue.


The second correct sentence is preferred. The first correct sentence employs an adverb which does nothing to describe the second clause.

My thoughts from a very tired old English prof.



Snippet 1.

Hot days bothered Jake, especially when he worked on old cars.
----
Jake wiped his brow. "Whew it's hot." He glanced at his work. "But, this old car won't fix itself."

Snippet 2.

Fan blades barely moved. Sweat dripped from the men lined up along the bar. Josey took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his forehead and ordered a beer.

-----

"Gimme a beer." Jose's silver dollar bounced on the bar.

A man standing next to him turned. "I'd give ya buck for a cube of ice." His perspiration bounced next to the silver dollar.
"Here I am Lord, send me."

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Postby Sarah Elisabeth » Mon May 24, 2010 10:34 am

I love short, snappy dialogue (though not constantly of course) especially when it's strengthened to the point that dialogue tags aren't needed or not even note who is speaking.

I'm hesitant to give an example, I still roll my car on the learning curve :roll: But this might help:

"Will you go to the doctor with me?" Susan asked nervously.

"Mark, I really need you to go with me. Please."

"Nervously" is the dialogue tag. Next time you write, try removing the tags and re-read. Was it really necessary? Could you strengthen your dialogue a little more?

And on the show not tell law, as Jan so expertly showed, dialogue can show so much of the conflict, the character's emotions, the plot, twist, turns...ah, I love great dialogue :D

Thanks, Jan, I learned so much in this lesson, I need to be more diligent in coming! Thanks :hugs2

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Postby glorybee » Mon May 24, 2010 11:15 am

pheeweed wrote:Under the topic of sentence structure: I tend to start my sentences with a clause. I guess it's the way I think. So I write what comes naturally to me, but then I go back and change the sentence structure to start with the action.

For example:
Trying to find an idea for the challenge always makes me want to eat chocolate.

Corrected: I always want to eat chocolate when I'm thinking of ideas for the challenge.

Phee


Phee, can you talk more about this? Not about the chocolate--I totally understand that! But I'm not sure what you mean by 'starting with a clause'--and both of your sentences have action at the beginning.

If you were talking about starting with -ing verbs, I'm totally on board with you there. It's not stricty ungrammatical (although it can lead to problems--see below), but it's often overused by beginning writers.

A common problem with -ing verbs--sentences like this one:

Pounding furiously on the door, my eyes lit upon a woman in a torn leather jacket.

That sentence reads as if my eyes were pounding furiously on the door.

Your example didn't fall into this trap, though...and now I'm off to find some chocolate!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Mon May 24, 2010 11:18 am

Dub, thanks for your input!

I'm just guessing here--is it hot where you live?

Your examples of 'showing, not telling' were great, and they include the deft dialog that I always expect from your work.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Mon May 24, 2010 11:22 am

Sarah, thanks for mentioning dialog again. It's definitely a hallmark of a well-crafted story--such a powerful tool!

There are threads on dialog here

and here

and also here.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby PamDavis » Mon May 24, 2010 12:20 pm

My favorite tip was about using conflict in all types of stories. Conflict is something I try to avoid at all costs! I don't like to rock the boat. I understand now that it keeps the readers attention. Great advice!

Homework:

Tell:
My Dad served in the military. I think about him on patriotic holidays. He used to bore us to tears with all his stories about the Army. We thought he should concentrate on the present.

Show:
Dad enlisted in the Army, served his country and received an honorable discharge. Pearl Harbor destroyed America’s false sense of security and Dad’s future plans as a civilian. He was drafted and brought back into active duty. Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Independence Day observances nearly move me to tears. Only as an adult can I appreciate the detailed stories of Army life and the pride he experienced serving in an Honor Guard for General Eisenhower.

Pam
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Postby glorybee » Mon May 24, 2010 12:49 pm

PamDavis wrote:My favorite tip was about using conflict in all types of stories. Conflict is something I try to avoid at all costs! I don't like to rock the boat. I understand now that it keeps the readers attention. Great advice![/i]

Pam


Pam, please keep in mind that conflict doesn't have to involve sin, or disagreement, or violence. Think of it as a problem for your main character to solve, or an obstacle for her to overcome. It might be a disability, a decision, an accident, a rainstorm, an emotional roadblock, a misunderstanding, a broken shoelace.

I'd like you to take another shot at the 'show, not tell' homework. Although you changed the emotion from boredom to pride in the second paragraph, and you gave us more details about your dad--there's still quite a bit of 'tell' there. In fact, the second paragraph really has more 'tell' than the first.

You're looking for actions, sensory impressions, and dialog that allow your reader to understand what you're feeling--without telling her outright. Something like this:

A shadow box on my living room wall contains the folded American flag from my dad's casket, his medals, and a picture of him--young and stern--in his crisp Army uniform. I never pass it without running my fingers on the polished wood. Thanks, Daddy, I whisper, and sometimes I can hear a phantom bugler playing reveille.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby PamDavis » Mon May 24, 2010 1:01 pm

Jan,....Yes, I understand about conflict.

I'll try again with the homework. It's clear to see why you are the teacher and I'm taking lessons!

Pam
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Postby pheeweed » Mon May 24, 2010 2:07 pm

glorybee wrote:
Phee, can you talk more about this? Not about the chocolate--I totally understand that! But I'm not sure what you mean by 'starting with a clause'--and both of your sentences have action at the beginning.

If you were talking about starting with -ing verbs, I'm totally on board with you there. It's not stricty ungrammatical (although it can lead to problems--see below), but it's often overused by beginning writers.



It's been so long since I took a grammar class, I probably used the wrong word. One of my problems is staring with ing verbs. But I was also talking about this:

As Thanksgiving break approached, Susan almost dreaded it.

That is awful in a lot of ways - including telling - but it makes my point about not starting with the action.

Doesn't it?

Corrected: Susan stared at the book on her desk and listened to the sound of laughter from the room next door. Thanksgiving was next week and her mother would ask about the friends she had made. What would she say?

Phee
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"And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise." Philippians 4:8 NLT

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Postby glorybee » Mon May 24, 2010 3:14 pm

Ahh, I see what you're saying. You're right--that first sentence is weak-ish, but not necessarily because it begins with a clause. It's the little whimper of that last word--'it'.

I suspect that we're really talking about a difference in writing styles, anyway, rather than something that's really 'wrong'. Beginning with clauses can give you nice, complex or compound sentences. Here are a few from a a couple of my most recent stories:

When I awoke, I found that Beau had taken my hand, and was holding it in the vicinity of his heart.

Slightly hindered by his hobbled ankle, he hauled out the pot and glowered at his captor.


(Those were from two different stories, by the way...)

And yes--your second example, with Susan at her desk, is a great example of 'showing, not telling'. Well done!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby PamDavis » Mon May 24, 2010 5:04 pm

Homework #2

Dad rambled as he shared his war stories. “In the Honor Guard when Eisenhower came to London.”

His words fell upon deaf ears and eyes to blind to see the history woven before me. He sat in a favorite recliner unaware of his current frailty as each army episode carried him across the barriers of time and space.

“Lost my best friend Mike in the Battle of the Bulge”…. The sorrow and sting of a lost mate was dug up along with happier buried memories.

Regrets give birth to respect. My pride in Dad and the sacrifices of our veterans deepens. Bugles ring out taps. Old Glory waves in the wind and I repress tears on national holidays.

Pam
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Postby PamDavis » Mon May 24, 2010 5:05 pm

Oops! Eyes too blind to see....

Pam
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Postby glorybee » Mon May 24, 2010 5:11 pm

Much better, Pam! There you go!

By the way, you can edit your own posts, so you don't have to post 'oops'es. Just click the little 'edit' button at the upper right corner of your post, and you can fix your typos, then re-submit the post. I can't tell you how much I love that little 'edit' button.
Jan Ackerson

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