Tag Archives: Dramatic Structure

Short Cuts

ShortstoryEVERY writer I know has written at least one short story in their time.

As I writer, I don’t think there’s any mystery as to why: the short story medium provides an accessible, immediate writing experience.

And so it was for me. After fifteen years’ ‘writing’ myself off for having any fiction writing abilities, I eventually found my voice and pumped out ten rather long short stories in late 2009.

I’ve been editing them ever since, primarily by reading them and researching what makes a great plot structure. As a result, I’ve observed a few interesting things about how to effectively edit short stories.

Read it

Sure, there are editors in the world (I am one by trade), many of them highly skilled and ready to edit any writer’s material. Take it from me, every editor will know when you haven’t read your own work. They’ll accept your money (they’ll deserve it, as your first audience), but things could get very sticky between you, and it won’t be all the editor’s fault. Print out your story, sit with it as you would a published title, and read it from beginning to end. Your gut will tell you where to start reshaping your story into what you envisaged when you first began to write it.

Don’t delete, adjust

It’s my assertion that editing is like a multiple choice examination: the answer is somewhere on the page. It’s tempting but dangerous to start ad-hoc cutting. After you’ve read, and reread your own work, decide on some method of ruminating on it – take a long walk, do your exercise session, use your commuting time. As you turn your characters and plot over, ideas will come to you. You may find yourself writing more instead of cutting. If you do cut (and there is nothing wrong with cutting), always keep what you cut somewhere where you can retrieve it if needed.

Size might matter

Everyone will tell you what the word length of a short story is. A rule of thumb suggests that if your reader can complete your story in one sitting, it’s a short story. If you’re entering a competition, stick to their guidelines, but if you have more to say than 1000-1500 words allow, you can generally call your story “short” if its upper word length is anywhere between 7500 and 20,000 words. Longer than that and you’ve written a novella or a long story. Flash Fiction is generally anything under 1000 words.

The dramatic arc still applies

The good news about short story plotting is that you can land your reader right in the climax of your storyline! However, plotting a short story does not mean dispensing with a dramatic arc, rather it’s about framing parts of your plot with windows that focus the reader on certain sections: the rest of the plot should still be there, it’s just not seen from your windows. Many short stories have gone on to become great novels, once the author expands on their existing storyline, but the short story version often remains the punchier experience of the writer’s inspiration.

Rule benders

I’ve already written about the five-act dramatic structure widely purported to be the benchmark for good writing, but in my short story editing process I’ve discovered the ways I’ve bent these rules for the sake of the short story medium. The antagonist of one story was born moments before its exposition ended, for example. The protagonist of another story did not ‘win’ the battle of the story’s climax, the antagonist conceded victory: turns out there’s a big difference. If, like me, you find a ‘rule’ missing, have fun working it back in. I added a three-line climax which made a problem story work in just five minutes, preceded by four years of rumination, of course, but who’s counting?

Keep it simple

WRITE REGARDLESSAlthough a dramatic arc is needed for a short story, it’s probably unwise to layer it too much. Subplots are not a common ingredient in short story plots – there’s often just no time. Short stories, by their succinct nature, generally limit character numbers, locations, time periods, and other ‘luxuries’ that longer formats allow, but don’t let that prevent you writing Gone With the Wind in 1500 words.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Plotting to win

BATTLE LINES "Who do you think you are kidding ..." if you don't write with a well structured plot?
BATTLE LINES “Who do you think you are kidding …” if you don’t write with a well structured plot?

Plot: 1. A secret plan or scheme to accomplish some purpose, especially a hostile, unlawful, or evil purpose: a plot to overthrow the government. 2. Also called storyline.

This week I am feeling like a legend, because I’ve completed the first draft of a novel.

For three-and-a-half years I have religiously slogged away at this piece of work, and I have barely reread a word of it for fear of giving up and not completing the task.

Along the way I have made a study of the elements of good storytelling, particularly plotting, and how it can be applied for the benefit of entertaining the reader/viewer.

Now, faced with editing and rewriting my own work, I have created the following toolkit for myself, which I hope may be a help to other writers. But, a warning: This toolkit is not for writers who don’t care about entertaining their readers.

Creative rules are meant to be stretched, that’s what I call being original, but remember, even Picasso, one of the 20th century’s greatest abstract artists, could utilise realistic composition as well as any traditional old master. He knew the rules before he broke them.

I have transposed my research into battle parlance because compelling stories are not about people sitting around contemplating their navels in isolation, they are about conflicts, winners and losers. The Catcher in the Rye is as much of a battle as Gone With the Wind, and I guess ‘plot’ has two meanings for a reason!


The five-act dramatic structure

The narrative hook – announcing a war!
On page one, grab attention by extrapolating why your war is worth telling. Prevent readers/viewers from putting your book down or finding another movie in the multiplex. See my post on the Sh%t, click moment.

Act One – an exposition describes both armies, and the battle lines
Introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’). The protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped: Can they possibly win?

Act Two – rising actions show the armies testing one another’s strength
A series of events unfolds in which the antagonist puts obstacles in the pathway of the protagonist, events that show us who both of them really are. These might result in minor skirmishes between the two armies.

Act Three – the climax starts the battle, and the combatants charge!
The climax must show the start of the major battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, including a devastating point of no return, after which there is no going back for either.

Act Four – falling actions show one army losing
The battle between the protagonist and the antagonist continues, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.


Act Five – The dénouement ends the battle, but not the war
Everything that created this battle unravels (dénouement means ‘to untie’), or dissipates, or is resolved. In a comedy, the protagonist is left better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.

Good luck with your plotting!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

The call to action

UNCLE SAM WANTS you to get out of your comfort zone, for the sake of a good story (J.F. Flagg's 1917 poster).
UNCLE SAM WANTS you to get out of your comfort zone (J.F. Flagg’s 1917 poster).

THERE’S a nifty three-act dramatic structure, generally used by screenwriters (but drawn from the older five-act dramatic arc), which gets a plot moving a bit faster than a novel and contains a great plotting tool – the Call to Action.

One of the reasons we go to the movies, or distract ourselves by reading, is because we want to step outside our lives, temporarily, for entertainment.

It might sound incredibly obvious, but this distraction requires writers to create work so deliciously escapist that the reader/viewer is taken beyond the sphere of their own lives for a short time.

Writers don’t have to create an alternate universe (although some do, to great effect), we just need to suspend the reader’s disbelief. Even getting them a centimetre off the ground can be enough.

To achieve this disbelief, writers need to have their main character – the protagonist – step outside their world. The protagonist’s ‘call to action’ is the trigger for this step.

Situated at the heart of a plot’s exposition, the protagonist is going about the business of what seems like an average day, when something happens (an old friend calls with some unusual news; a car crashes into their front room; a stranger turns up at their door … it can be anything).

Those of us who live the average Western life, where most of our needs are taken care of, do not get wake-up calls like this, but we love to imagine what we would do if we did.

It’s this attractive energy that publishers, agents and eventually audiences crave, and it’s even become a marketing tool. It’s why we buy the book, or the movie ticket.

Now, I hear a bunch of literary fiction writers screaming: “Nooo, it’s all about the Art!”. Well, as a fan of literary fiction myself, I say let ’em scream: literary fiction writers need a call to action for their protagonist every bit as much as Agatha Christie did.

Would Nick Guest, the protagonist in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, have gone on such a compelling emotional journey had he simply moved out of the Fedden family’s house the minute their daughter Cat started cutting herself? (he wanted to).

Would Stevens, the Butler of Darlington Hall in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, have decided to take a car trip to visit Miss Kenton, the former Housemaid, had his new boss Mr Farraday not ordered him to take some time off ? (he didn’t want to).

Of course they wouldn’t. Had Nick moved out, and Stevens never gone away, both storylines would simply peter out. Neither piece of ‘Art’ would have garnered the critical and financial successes of their Booker Prize wins.

The protagonist’s call to action is linked to a plotting device covered in my posts on the dramatic structures of two films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Sum of Us. This is the compelling question needed in every plot’s exposition, in fact, they are almost one and the same: if you get the protagonist’s call to action right, a compelling question will naturally be posed.

CROSSING THE LINE Protagonist Nick Guest in the television adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty
CROSSING THE LINE Protagonist Nick Guest in the TV adaptation of The Line of Beauty (Photo: Nick Briggs).

By keeping Nick Guest in the Fedden’s home, exposing him to family secrets, and relying on his character’s already-established empathy, Hollinghurst poses the compelling question of his plot: When will the Feddens and their British upper class friends discover the reason for Nick’s empathy is his homosexuality?

By sending Stevens (who we already know is staid and a little unreliable in his recollections of his employment history) out into the world, Ishiguro poses his: Is Stevens so deluded he actually believes he can revive a stunted love affair that barely even began twenty years before?

Some authors, particularly crime writers, bury their protagonist’s call to action in mystery – a murder in the exposition is a particularly effective trigger for the most common of all plot questions – Whodunnit?

It’s for this reason that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are Christie’s great antagonists – they foil her murderers (read: protagonists) at each and every turn, showing how antagonists are also locked into the plot by the protagonist’s call to action.

WRITE REGARDLESSHead spinning? Just remember that plotting isn’t meant to be a formulaic set of rules. Stretching and manipulating these conventions, in interesting ways, is the real ‘Art’ of writing.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!