Saturday, August 4, 2012


One problem new writers ask experienced professionals is how to tell a story. They have a great (to them at least) idea, have (hopefully) done their research, and (supposedly) possess basic skills in the English language or at least know how to use spell and grammar checkers. What they don't have is the  experience necessary to compose the story. A lot of the good experience comes from a lot of really bad experience that is a necessary part of growth.  Each time you try you learn a little more and, eventually you build up some successful structures in your mind, and it is these successful structures that let you get on with the story telling instead of worrying about which goes where.

Before starting to compose the story a writer should have a basic structure in mind.  Sure, you need characters, settings, some proposition or problem, and a solution or resolution.  Helps to throw in a bit of humor, maybe a few asides, and even some bit of knowledge or opinion you want to share.  If you only have those elements and nothing else you do not have a story.

Early in my writing journey I stumbled across Algis Budrys' explanation that a good short story was structured just like a joke.  I though that was a superficial observation but after reflection I realized that it was on target and, for a number of years I used that as the starting point.

Any joke begins with a setup in which you lay out a proposition that will eventually reach the punch line and should somehow tie to that line.  Good joke tellers do not give away the punch line at the outset, or at least do not make what is to come obvious.  This opening sets up the reader's mind to the joke's environment.

The next bit of stage business is to expand on the various story elements - all that research, characters, etc that I mentioned earlier.  This exposition explains the set up in more detail.  This part can contain flashbacks, flash forwards, exhausting narrative explication, and damn near anything you want. It's free form for the creative and the story can wander as far afield as the writers imagination, available space, and how quickly the deadline is approaching.  Eventually, the exposition part MUST eventually get to the.....

Epiphany! (You knew I was going to say that, didn't you?)  Of course, the epiphany is where the point of the set up is suddenly revealed, where all the blinders fall from  the reader's eyes, and where the true nature of the tale is almost, but not quite revealed.  This is the straight line that brings on the ....

Denoument, which is the punch line that crystalizes the entire dialogue. This part should be mentally as close to the opening setup as possible so that the reader's mind immediately bridges the gap, realizes that they have been missing the obvious, and, hopefully, feel that the effort of slogging through all those words has been worth it.

So there you have it:  A good short story (joke) is composed of just four elements; the setup, exposition, epiphany, and denouement. Use that framework and you'll have a decent story.

Of course, you still have to write the words.

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