On Stories and Scenes
I’ve been noticing some confusion in some of the works that cross my desk. So, let me give a few tips that may help you short story writers out there and especially those of you who write Flash Fiction.
First of all, a scene is simply a setting where some action, usually involving one or more characters, takes place.
On the other hand, a short story, no matter how short, is not the same as a scene. Every short story must have a beginning, a middle and an ending. Sounds simple, but it really isn’t. Let’s take them one at a time.
Your beginning, also known as “The Hook” needs to do three things.
First, it must introduce one or more of your main characters. You don’t necessarily have to name them at this point, but it is usually easier and more engaging than using a pronoun such as he, she or I.
Second, it must establish or at least hint at some form of tension or conflict. In a novel, there may be multiple layers of conflict and tension and you might want to start with a minor one and introduce the major conflict of your story later. That’s fine in novels, but in shorter works, especially flash fiction, you usually won’t have the luxury of space to do this.
The third thing your hook should accomplish is to set the scene. You need to give the reader at least some idea of the world your story takes place in.
Here is a fine example of how all of this can be done in a very few words: “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” From “Waiting” by Ha Jin, 1999. In these thirteen simple words, Ha Jin has accomplished all that is required of a hook. We know who two of the main characters are, where the story takes place, and presumably, we’re dying to find out why he keeps divorcing his wife (tension). Perfect.
The second element of your story is the middle or body of the work. This is where the action takes place in one or more scenes to move the characters from your hook to your ending. For writing in general, more so for Short Stories and most especially in Flash Fiction, every word must either move the story forward or illuminate and develop the character. Here is a good example of how a simple line can illuminate a character. “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” From “Diary of Anne Frank” by Anne Frank. Here’s another that both moves the story forward and illuminates the character. “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” From John Green, “The Fault In Our Stars”. Of course, not every line we write will be as great as these, but they should be both a template and an aspiration.
The final element of your story, appropriately, is the ending or denouement. This is where your main character achieves his or her goal, or alternatively, fails utterly. This is where you draw any loose threads of the story together to give the reader a satisfactory conclusion. Here, too, is where your main character realizes how he/she has changed over the course of the story.
So, a story is much more than a scene although scenes are necessary to building your story.
Until next time, write happily and write well.
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