“How to Write Short Stories” by Sharon Sorenson

This is a very useful basic guide to writing short stories. Most of it I have read or heard elsewhere (e.g. “show, don’t tell” – ever heard that one before?), but what I found useful was the examples used to illustrate the lessons.

The examples were good because I’ve always thought of formulas for writing short stories as, well, a bit formulaic. I wanted to write stories that didn’t follow a formula, or stories that deliberately broke with the formula. But what I understood from reading this book is that there is a lot of room within the formula for originality. The formula Sorenson defines is:

Exposition – introduces the characters and setting, establishes point of view, gives background information

Opening – leads the main character to a conflict

Incident – begins the plot

Rising Action – builds the conflict, adds new, more complicated incidents

Climax – raises conflict to greatest intensity, changes the course of events or the way the reader understands the story (may be either an event or an insight)

Falling Action – reduces conflict, prepares reader for resolution (not always used)

Resolution – ends the conflict, leaves the reader satisfied

But “Rising action” doesn’t have to be real “action” action – it can be much subtler. “Conflict” doesn’t have to be external or explicit. The “resolution” doesn’t have to be neat. As I read the examples in this book, I didn’t think of them as formulaic at all, even though Sorenson shows afterwards how they fit into the formula.

I’ve concentrated on plot here, because it’s the part where I’ve always struggled with following a formula and wanted to break away, but there’s also good advice here on theme, characters, point of view, setting, dialogue, description and endings. At the end there’s a chapter on getting into print – again lots of good advice, although some of it sounded a little outdated in my edition (1998), talking about typewriter typefaces and the bond and rag content of the paper you should use, with no mention of the internet – how much has changed in a short time. Some things are timeless, though, like rejection slips.

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