Meaningful stories leave you with memorable solutions to complex issues. A story shouldn’t stand behind a podium and spell out the lessons you’re supposed to learn from it. But it should tackle complicated questions and conclude after the characters have embraced (or, in some cases, rejected) the answers. That’s why resolution, the literary term for a story’s ending, contains the word solution.
All of us are experts at sad stories. We’ve read novels that schooled us in death scenes, betrayals, fractured relationships, and harrowing pasts. These examples taught us that tormenting the protagonist is easy: just thwart his deepest longings. Then we can type “the end” and congratulate ourselves for accurately reflecting our fallen world. But the real sad story is how untrained we are in the art of weaving meaning into tragedy.
A non-writer friend once told me that I seem to enjoy making my characters suffer. I disagree. Sure, portraying pain can be an exciting challenge, but I don’t relish putting my characters through trials. If their hearts are breaking, so is mine. Despite this, I realize that characters, like people, grow through adversity, and oftentimes they experience the greatest change when their circumstances can’t get any worse. In storytelling terminology, this hopeless moment is known as the low point, and it happens shortly before the climax.
“The first draft of a novel is supposed to be terrible.” We’ve all heard that charming advice, and it’s usually true. But why do many first drafts fail? Because writers lose steam halfway through. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve abandoned after hitting a rough patch somewhere between the midpoint and the final act. Only a handful of my novels have ever reached “the end,” and the most structurally sound one came from a short story.
Despite a writer’s best efforts to be original, familiar plot and scene devices often sneak in. But you’re not a bad writer just because your manuscript contains clichés. Writers with less experience or narrower reading lists are more prone to gravitate to common tropes—not because they lack talent, but because the situations, characters, and settings are new to them. If you’re struggling with this issue, don’t be discouraged. Your storytelling senses are not broken.
Many writers, myself included, tend to devalue short stories because of their brevity. “Real” writers are supposed to craft novels. Some of the most famous authors of the twentieth century, however, were masters of the short story. Think William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor, and O. Henry. At only 5 or 10 percent the length of a novel, a short story may seem far less intimidating, if not downright easy, to write. But short stories come with their own set of challenges that can help hone your skills for larger projects.
When faced with an empty page, finding the ideal place to begin your story may seem impossible. The task can become such a burden that you might avoid starting altogether. In Story Genius, Lisa Cron summarizes the problem thus: “What, specifically, will happen to start the chain reaction that will cause everything to happen?” She’s describing what is often known as the hook. Because it’s the very first taste of your story, it can be the most difficult to determine.
In the kitchen, a competent cook uses a handful of thickening agents to improve the texture, stability, and even the flavor of a dish. Similarly, a skilled writer tackles plot problems with an arsenal of techniques. And I’m going to show you three that you can experiment with to transform your story into something savory and delicious.
You’ve probably heard the expression “That was epic!” thousands of times. But what does it actually mean? Epic is used to describe a myriad of experiences, but we typically treat it as a synonym for big, awe-inspiring, or just plain cool. Movies are full of epic clashes between good and evil. And if you’re hungry enough, hamburgers can be epic too.
Short stories are a powerful medium. In just a few thousand words, they send us on meaningful emotional journeys that linger with us for the rest of our lives. “The Gift of the Magi” illuminates the tender beauty of selflessness, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” exposes us to the torture of a guilty conscience. As much as I love the drawn-out impact of a novel, the quick punch of a short story has an appeal all its own.