Short Story Master Class Part 2: What Makes a Good Story?

If you missed Part 1, you might want to CLICK HERE to read.

 

Most times, as writers, we focus on the art of writing, neglecting the art of storytelling or story-crafting. A lot of us are good writers, but some of us have trouble telling a good story. When your writing is up to par, and you’re still having trouble getting your stories accepted for publication, it’s time for you to master the art of storytelling. Storytelling is what takes your writing from raw sentences to real entertainment. It is like the glaze on a ceramic sculpture that makes it look finished. If writing is artistic expression, storytelling is artistic direction. The two are like hand and glove. And like hand and glove, they can be separated.

In this discourse, we will not focus on writing, but on storytelling.

Begin by asking yourself what the story you want to write is about. Can you say it in one sentence (called an elevator pitch)? Whenever you’re trying to figure out what a story is really about, begin by looking for the internal conflict.

In a good story, there are usually two types of conflicts: the external one and the internal one.

Why?
Because a well-developed story makes us appreciate a character’s inner turmoil, his emotional/ psychological struggle, and in the end, it says something about life. Stories with internal conflicts are deep. They paint pictures about the human condition, the human struggle, the human mind, the human character, the human virtue, the human resilience, and more.
Ultimately, their resolution by characters who show humanities (even if they are aliens) gives your story its meaning, gives it an underlying message, a lesson that can be framed into one sentence called the thematic statement.

Below is a short story published on the Kenyon Review. It’s titled The Bus by Brock Clarke. Please read it. I’ll get back to you after you do, and we’ll analyze the elements of fiction in this story.

The Bus
Brock Clarke

My car won’t start. So I call my wife Therese and tell her that. She says “Oh no!” and then offers to pick me up right away. It’s almost five o’clock. I’m in the parking lot outside my office. It’s been a long day, the kind of long day that the only thing that gets you through it is the thought of going home. But I tell Therese “No.” Because I’m still angry about her and Eric, and as punishment I will . . . not let her pick me up? Before I became a victim, I thought they were noble and righteous. But now I know a victim is like a petty thief, armed, but only with weapons that are prone to misfire, and that in any case are mostly pointed at himself.

So anyway, no, I will not accept Therese’s offer. Instead I will take the bus home. After I tell Therese this, she asks, “How much longer are you going to keep punishing me?” I do the math. It’s been four months since she told me she’d had an affair with Eric, which means I’ve been punishing her for four months already. The affair was over by the time she confessed, and she refused to say how long it had gone on before she ended it, so it’s difficult to know how much time to add for that. But Therese was the one to end it—she told me that and I believe her—and that she was the one to end it definitely counts for something. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, Eric is my
best friend, was my best friend.

He was also Therese and my twin sons’ Little League coach, and when Therese told me about the affair, it happened to be when she and I were in the car driving to pick the twins up from practice, and when we got to practice I jumped out of the car and ran into the dugout and grabbed one of the bats out of the rack and. . . . “One more month,” I tell her, and then hang up. It feels good and hopeful, to have that deadline, to know everything will be back to normal soon. The bus arrives.

It’s a twenty-minute ride. For the first ten minutes I feel virtuous, the way people who don’t usually take public transportation feel when they take public transportation. Inside the bus the air is warm, and smells like boots and candy. Outside the world is alive with snow. Bunnies of it are swirling around on the streets. I see someone on the sidewalk tip his head up and open his mouth and wait for the snow to fall in. What a great thing to do! What a great world that gives us a chance to do it!

Then the bus stops at a bus stop. This is not so strange, of course. But nobody gets on, and nobody gets off except for the driver, who runs across the street and into a combination KFC/Taco Bell. There is something extremely disturbing about bus drivers who abandon their buses mid-route and who then sprint across the street into fast-food restaurants, leaving you to wonder about the severity of their diarrhoea. But then again, maybe the guy is just really hungry. Let’s not think about the bus driver, I tell myself, let’s focus on the guy trying to catch snowflakes with his tongue. He’s still at it, head back, mouth open, tongue out. This goes on for another couple of minutes, to the point where it stops seeming sweet, or magical, and starts seeming that maybe something is wrong with the guy, that he’s some sort of pervert, insatiable for snow, or that he tipped his head back and it got stuck that way and that he’s just helplessly waiting for someone to notice his plight and push his head forward or at least call a doctor. No one does. He stays like that for at least five minutes. Meanwhile people are making mutinous noises on the bus, which is still running. A man near the front of the bus yells, “Does anyone here know how to drive a bus?” and another man in the row in front of me yells back, “I do!” and a woman in the seat next to him says, “No, you do not.”  Then they furiously whisper at each other. I can’t hear what they’re whispering, but I can imagine that it might be something like what Therese and I would have been whispering had she told me about her and Eric while on the bus instead of in our car. In our car, we did not whisper; we shouted. At least, I did; I shouted some awful things, including how I was going to kill Eric. I didn’t kill him, of course. But I did hit him in the knee with that bat, which was aluminium. It made an awful sound—somewhere between crack! and ding!—and I’m convinced it was the sound more than the sight of my striking their coach, my best friend, that made the twins start crying, and then of course Therese started crying, and then of course I started crying, and then some of the other kids on the team who had nothing to do with anything started crying and pretty soon everyone on the field was crying, everyone except for Eric, who was sitting on the ground, holding his knee, but otherwise looking quite calm,quite adult, quite handsome, and God, I wanted to hit him with that bat again, and the twins must have sensed that because they tried to wrestle the bat away from me, saying, Daddy, no, why, why are you trying to hurt Coach Eric (they called him Coach Eric) and do you know that I was upset enough to say, Why don’t you ask Coach Eric and your mother why, and. . .. There is nothing else for me to do on the bus but think about all this, and so I do that and I do that until another passenger shouts, “There he is!” I look out the window and see the bus driver running back across the street.

“There he is!” I repeat, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a person in my life, until I notice that the bus driver doesn’t have any food with him and so there is no doubt about what he went into the restaurant to do and then he climbs back into the bus and waves at us in apology and I notice that he’s still wearing his finger-less gloves and I wonder if he took them off when he wiped himself and I wonder if a month is going to be enough time, if any amount of time is ever going to be enough time, and then I feel sick and know that I either should have just taken the ride from Therese or not gone home at all.

End

Welcome back.

Listing the elements of fiction, we have
1. Plot
2. Theme
3. Setting
4. Character
5. Conflict
6. Style

Things like, Point of View and Voice, Tone and many others fall under Style.

Let’s look at Plot, Theme and Conflict in the story we’ve just read, The Bus, to appreciate how distinct they are from one another.

1. Plot is what happens in your story. It usually revolves around an external
conflict.

In The Bus, what is the main plot? What is the major thing that happened in the story?
A man took a bus home.

The plot is about a man who is taking a bus home. That is the summary of what actually happens in the story, the plot outline. (The other events are backstory)

Why is he taking the bus home?

Because his car broke down.

This is the external conflict or problem, how to get home after his car breaks down.

Having to get home by bus after his car broke down at the close of work is the external conflict.

2. The Theme is what your sub-story (your deeper, underlying story) is about. And that sub-story revolves around your internal conflict.
A man refuses to let his wife give him a ride back home when his car breaks down.

Why does he do this?

Because he is still mad at her over her affair with the school coach, his best friend (which, apparently, they have resolved), and because he wants to give her a hard time over it.

So the internal conflict is the emotions he still has to deal with concerning his wife’s unfaithfulness, now that he has knowledge of it.

The theme here is unfaithfulness, or dealing with the unfaithfulness of a spouse.

The sub-story or internal conflict hints at what the story is really about. The story is not about a dreadful bus ride. The bus ride is what happens in the story. That is the plot. The theme will give you what the story is about and it usually revolves around a sub-story.

From this, you can see that Conflict (both external and internal) is a distinct element of fiction, different from Plot and Theme. Plot and Theme usually revolve around conflicts—the external and internal conflict respectively. Plot is what happens in a bid to resolve some external conflict. Theme is both the idea and the message the internal conflict brings to our attention.

Now, you can see why you should consider what your conflict will be before you start to type your story. If you do, you’ll be clear on what your plot and your theme will be (clear on what will happen in your story and what your story will be about). Simple.

Sometimes a story may have several external conflicts and several internal conflicts. But it should have one main internal conflict. If you have two or more main internal conflict (i.e. You shift from one to the other), you could end up telling two or more stories instead of one. That’s not a crime per se, but it is a little too much aesthetically, if you ask me. This is not advisable from an artistic perspective, better to break them up into chapters or write two short stories. If you agree that what a story is really about revolves around an internal conflict, then having two stories would mean… You have a story that is really about two things. (If you are writing a novel, try to have one main internal conflict per chapter; if you are writing a short story, stick to one internal conflict for the entire story.) This is why it’s important
to decide what your internal conflict or sub-story will be before you start writing. If you don’t, you could start with one story and drift to another.
Also, note that one internal conflict can result in several external conflicts in your story and that’s perfectly alright.
For instance, if the story The Bus had been longer, the narrator could have gotten off the bus at his stop, and then be chased by muggers. This would result in a new external conflict, one that takes place outside the bus (or his bus trip). It would expand the plot into a man’s effort to get back home after his car broke down (with two parts: the bus trip and the chase).

A story can have several themes. A theme is an idea that revolves around an internal conflict. Several ideas could revolve around one internal conflict. For example, in The Bus, one idea could be unfaithfulness. Another could be
resentfulness.

Earlier, I said the theme is both the idea (concept) and the message (statement) your story makes. If you have an internal conflict, you already have an idea or a concept. What remains now is what message it’ll make.
Your theme is not complete unless your story says something about it. And you make it say that thing you want it to say usually by how you end your story.

So, what do you think is the thematic idea or concept of The Bus?

How about, ‘Letting go of our grievance/resentfulness vs. Feeling resentful’? Or ‘What we go through to make those who are sorry for hurting feel sorrier’. From the ending of the story, what do you think is the thematic
statement of the story? ‘Resentfulness after reconciliation leads to regret’? Or, ‘It doesn’t pay to still begrudge those who have told us they are sorry’. Or, ‘Refusing to let old wounds heal begets new pains’.

The other elements of fiction, Character and Setting, are self-explanatory. I won’t go into what they mean.

Depending on the length of your story, you ought to devote a certain amount of words to developing your Character and your Setting. In flash fiction, character development is either omitted completely or done in very few words.

The last, Style, also called & writing style or narrative style, embodies the writing aspect of your art, your literary expression, and includes things like POV choice, Voice, Tone, Diction and more. It is very broad.

Remember how I said there’s a writer and there’s a storyteller? Well, a good writer is not necessarily a good storyteller and vice versa.
Writing is literary expression; Storytelling is literary direction. Think of the other five elements (outside style) as all the things you need to
plan out before you start writing, things that will make you a good storyteller, a good story craftsman. On the other hand, consider style as
everything you need to apply to your work that will make you a good writer.

So folks, direct your art and then express it as best you can. In other words, come up with a story, decide how you want to go about telling and then decide what technique you want to use to write it before you start to write.

If I’m asked what makes a good story, I would tell them it’s a story that deploys the six elements of fiction (plot, theme, conflict, setting, character and conflict). So the next time you write a story, start with a story plan that looks something like this:

1. Plot Summary (in one or two sentences)
2. Theme (in one word)
a. Concept (in more than one word)
b. Statement (in one sentence)

3. Setting (place and time period e.g. present-day, 1994, medieval times.)
4. Characters (List all your characters with their relationship to the
protagonist or their relevance to the story in brackets.)
5. Conflict
a. External
b. Internal
6. Style
a. POV
b. Voice
c. Tone
(You can add other aspects of style you consider relevant)

 

Charles Opara is a programmer with the National Population Commission in Nigeria. He is a short story writer and speculative fiction novelist who enjoys the logic involved in creating programs and stories. His short stories have been published in Flash Fiction Press, Zoetic Press, and Ambit Magazine.

Miriam David

Miriam is a creative writer, short story blogger, editor and contributor on creativewritingnews.net . She is an alumnus of the great University of Benin, a philosopher and an aspiring author of best sellers to come. When she is not writing, she is either working, keeping up with social media trends,reading novels, listening to good music, seeing movies or dreaming up stories.

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