elements of story


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI’ve nothing against the gangrenous undead or a serious bloodsucker (as opposed to those vampires who appear to have gotten lost on their way to a Calvin Klein photo shoot). But when I want something to really scare me off to dreamland–the kind of story that’ll force me out of my warm cozy bed to check the doors and windows one more time–I’ll take the shredded wallpaper and that nice etching. Or a sandbar on the Danube.

The really terrifying stuff is what you don’t see. The greatest horror writers don’t hit you over the head with a bloody bucket of chum. They unlock doors to primal human emotions and let you have the fun of trying to wrestle them shut again.

Stories I think essential to every horror lover’s collection include Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, M. R. James’s The Mezzotint and Casting the Runes, and Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows. They’re oldies, all right–but they haven’t lost any of their vigor.

All four tales are masterworks of psychological terror; only in  Casting the Runes is actual blood spilled. But not in front of us.

Over the years, The Yellow Wallpaper has been a darling of feminist scholars. Gilman, who had her own unpleasant run-ins with analytical types, doesn’t require interpretation and is best enjoyed straight-up. Her heroine speaks for herself just fine.

Too much contemporary horror writing seems like sadistic versions of the shaggy dog story. A little mayhem is fine. But when authors keeps tossing bodies in various stages of dismemberment at me, my blood stops curdling.

One of my favorite stories on Every Day Fiction does involve a horde of the undead closing in on two hapless victims. Check out Willow Road by Lindsey R. Loucks. You’ll see why I couldn’t get it out of my head.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day FictionFlash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

[This article first appeared at http://tgenedavis.com.]

by T. Gene Davis

t gene davis

Congratulations! An editor loves your prose. You’ve sold your story. Feel wonderful. You should.

After the euphoria collapses, you wonder when the fan mail and comments will start pouring in. Experienced authors acknowledge, selling the story is only one of many steps necessary when building a fan base.

Selling your story to readers begins before you get the editor hooked. You must write your story for your market—the web skimmer. Most magazines publish or advertise stories on the web, and most users of the web skim. Close to 80% of all people visiting your story or story’s advert will skim the page, rather than read the page.

Gaining readers is the act of converting skimmers into readers through a three-step combination of hooking them with a great title, convincing them to read on with an engaging first sentence, and pulling them into the story with a compelling first paragraph. I’ve heard this approach summed up with the words, “Catch, grab, and keep.”

Skimmers are embryonic fans. Convert skimmers into readers by catching their attention. Your title must stop the skimmers’ eyes from roaming the page. Story titles are critical to readership. Trite as it may sound, your title can make or break your story. A catchy title is your first hook. If your story’s title stops the skimmers, you now have the chance of converting them into a reader.

Catch the skimmers’ attention with a title that fills them with wonder. They need to wonder if the rest of the story is as good as the title, or they need to wonder what the title is describing. Either way, you have one title to create an unfulfilled need in that skimmers. You must create a desire in the skimmers to read your first sentence.

Follow up the title with an amazing first sentence. Realize, your story’s first sentence must keep those skimmers from going back to their unhelpful skimming ways. Opening with a shocking or humorous statement may catch their attention. The first sentence must interest the readers, and leave them hanging. If your readers doesn’t have at least one unanswered question because of the first sentence, they may go back to skimming. The key, again, is creating unfulfilled needs in the readers. The readers must feel a nagging desire to know what happens next.

If your title and first sentence engaged the skimmer, you’re ready for the power play—your first paragraph. You have almost turned a skimmer into a fan. Don’t blow it with a boring first paragraph.

Your first paragraph must make your readers care, and leave them wanting something. If the first paragraph fulfills the readers’ needs and answers all their questions, it must introduce more questions and needs. Remember, unfulfilled desire keeps your reader reading. When your reader stops wanting something from your story, you lose your reader.

One rule of thumb I’ve heard, is to give your reader no less than three reasons to keep reading. If you’re skilled, the readers might care about one of the reasons enough to continue reading. At this point, you have turned a skimmer into a fan.

Catch the skimmers with an amazing title that makes them want to know what your story is about. Grab them with an engaging first sentence. Keep them reading with a paragraph that gives them answers, but leaves them asking even more questions.

That’s what you need to do to hook the skimmers.

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T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software. In the 1990s, he spent six years editing and publishing the zine, Of Unicorns and Space Stations. These days his zine mania has morphed into three blogs: one for speculative fiction (tgenedavis.com), another for hobby farming (davishobbyfarm.com), and yet another for shogi and computer programming (genedavissoftware.com). Follow his daily exploits on Twitter @TGeneDavis or visit Gene’s speculative blog at http://tgenedavis.com.

 

by Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

No longer simply a genre of heaving bosoms and discreetly closing doors, Romance burst into the digital age as one of the broadest, most forward-looking—and profitable—genres in the publishing business. Harlequin was the first major publisher to make all its books available as ebooks. Romance titles represented $1bn in sales last year, or 13% of the adult fiction market.  Academic conferences on Romance as a genre have been held as such august institutions as Princeton University.

There couldn’t be a better time to be writing Romance, so whether you’ve ever hidden a Harlequin between the covers of the latest Pulitzer Prize winner, or if you have no idea what all the fuss is about, prepare for a brief encounter…with Romance.

The Basics

A Romance story has two crucial elements, according to Romance Writers of America (RWA), who should know what they’re talking about:

  • A central love story
  • An optimistic ending

The Central Love Story

Romance comes in many flavors (and many sub-genres: Contemporary Romance, Historical, Paranormal, Regency, Multi-Cultural), but every story must have a central love story between two characters.

Marcy Kennedy, author of A Crash Course In Romance Sub-Genres, points out that “those two ‘people’ don’t have to be human.” This is certainly the case in the popular sub-genre of Paranormal Romance, where the love story can be between a human and a supernatural creature (think “Twilight”).

The most important thing is to show readers why these two characters belong together. “We need to know why they belong together,” says Kennedy. “Even if they don’t see it at first (and they shouldn’t)…you’d be surprised how many authors forget that they can’t just tell the reader these characters are perfect for each other—they need to show it too.”

Unless you’re writing erotica, there has to be more to the lead characters’ attraction than just lust.

Readers of Romance want to relive the rush of falling in love. More than that, Romance readers want to feel “emotion, emotion, emotion,” according to Kat de Falla, editor of Romance Flash. For a central love story to work, the writer has to combine the escapism of meeting and falling in love with the agony of all those near-misses, all those obstacles that come between the lovers, before they ultimately end up together.

The Optimistic Ending

Ah, the happily ever after…

Well, it turns out that Romance doesn’t require a Happily Ever After. In fact, in flash fiction, you’re unlikely to have time to construct a Happily Ever After (more on this later). Instead, Romance, according to RWA, merely requires an optimistic ending. The possibility of a Happily Ever After. This is good news if you’re a writer who doesn’t want to end every story with the characters getting together in the second last paragraph. Instead of consummating the relationship at the end, you can leave your characters on their way to a happy-for-now ending and still satisfy dedicated Romance readers.

Marcy Kennedy shares one more definition, though:

“If you have an ending that’s sad or bittersweet, you’re probably writing women’s fiction (think Nicholas Sparks) rather than Romance.”

Romance Sub-Genres

There are many well-defined sub-genres in Romance. While some can cross over (like Contemporary and Paranormal, or Historical and Mystery Romance) others cannot. Regency, for example, is set in a strictly defined time and place (the 1790s-1820, in Great Britain) and couldn’t be mixed with Contemporary Romance. Fans of Regency Romance are looking for Jane Austen-esque wit and banter, social scandal and innuendo, not sex scenes, whereas Contemporary Romance fans are probably looking for a more realistic kind of escape.

You can find a good definition of many of these sub-genres both at the RWA site and in Marcy Kennedy’s primer, but if you really want to know what these sub-genres’ audiences expect, there is no substitute for reading it yourself.  Luckily, hundreds of new Romance stories are published ever month, in every conceivable sub-genre. However, before you get excited about the size of the audience and decide to switch to Romance and cash in,  LaShaunda C. Hoffman, editor of Shades of Romance, has a word of caution.

“As a writer you have to find the sub-genre that you are comfortable writing in.  If you pick something you don’t care about, it will show up in your writing.

In other words, even if Paranormal Romance was still the new big thing, it would be dangerous to try to write it if you weren’t reading (and loving) the sub-genre.

How To Woo Romance Readers

“Romance readers are idealistic believers in eternal love and in the incessant search for one’s soulmate,” says Kat de Falla of Romance Flash. “If an author can elicit an emotion from a reader, they are doing their job.”

Just because there is a formula of sorts to a Romance doesn’t mean your writing can be formulaic. Characters must be rounded. They must have character traits that make them attractive and inner demons that cause problems. The settings must be well-researched and there must be tension…lots and lots of tension.

“We know,” says Marcy Kennedy, “the couple in a Romance will end up together. It’s a Romance after all. But as we’re reading, we should feel like there’s no possible way for this to work out for them. Part of the fun in reading a Romance is in the agony that comes from worrying they won’t end up together after all and the emotional release when they finally do.

She adds that one of the ways to add tension is, “..whether you’re building toward a kiss or much more, drag it out. Give them a couple of “almosts” before the actual act. Torture them and your readers.”

But just throwing obstacles in their paths (or removing them) isn’t enough. Remember that every development should further the plot by developing the characters. Kennedy explains,

“Every time your characters are physically intimate—regardless of whether that’s holding hands, hugging, kissing, or sleeping together—it needs to forward the plot. It should mean something more than simply the physical act. The ripples from that touch should be felt across their relationship, across their relationship with others, and across the external circumstances in the story. A touch is never just a touch in a truly great Romance.”

Romance In A Flash

In Flash Fiction the challenge is in the constraints: what to include and what to leave out. Now that you know the two essential ingredients for Romance (the central love story and the optimistic ending) it’s a little easier to make those choices.

The challenge now becomes how to, as Kat de Falla says, “make us believe these two people belong together” without “rushing a story just to keep your word count,” a pitfall highlighted by LaShaunda Hoffman. “Readers can tell when a story is rushed.”

One suggestion on how to handle the shorter length comes from Marcy Kennedy who suggests that you write a story about a “meet cute”: the moment a possible romantic duo first meet. This moment should be unusual in some way—awkward, embarrassing, funny, oppositional—and then, “The tension in the story should come from whether or not these two characters will come through that moment with a desire to see more of each other.”

Follow this advice and readers will fall for your writing, in a heartbeat.

 

Further Reading

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Julie Duffy is a writer of short fiction and host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay May.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

It takes nerve, attempting a clever riff on a classic story, and genuine wit to pull it off. I thought Simon Barker’s The Non-Opening Window (7/16/12) captured the mood and voice of Saki’s (H. H. Munro’s) original perfectly and seamlessly updated it.

Saki’s characters live to take the mickey out of the credulous, unwary, or overbearing. That plot device can go off the rails pretty quickly if not steered with exceptional skill.

The frothy meringue of Saki’s humor didn’t disguise his contempt for an often vapid and hypocritical society. We laugh, but we get the point too.

Barker’s story has gentler barbs. His hapless victim is on a first date arranged via the internet, not an already fragile young man recovering from nervous prostration, but the storyline is faithful to its source.

With this sort of humor, either you like it or you don’t. Commenters familiar with The Open Window mostly enjoyed what Barker did here. Nine out of seventeen loved it. Those who didn’t know Saki’s story were mostly left cold. A couple of readers seemed offended that Barker borrowed his plotline, though he gave his source right up front.

The story certainly provoked significant response—33 readers took the time to vote. But it ended up with only 3.2 stars.

Take a look at The Non-Opening Window. I hope you’ll find it as tasty a confection as I did.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

Slipstream is one of the newest and most indefinable sub-genres to gain notice in the science fiction universe. According to some literary observers, it has been there since the beginning,

Considering the uneasy reception of Bradbury’s work by purist critics of SF, The Martian Chronicles could be said to exemplify what today is referred to as slipstream…From the moment of its naming SF has always had its slipstream—a steady line of texts that failed to contain themselves within the envisioned borders of the genre. – Paveł Frelik

Flash Fiction Chronicles contacted E. S. Wynn, chief editor of Smashed Cat Magazine, to find out more about this intriguing sub-genre.

Flash Fiction Chronicles: How would you define slipstream as a genre?

2523121E. S. Wynn: When defining slipstream as a genre, it’s important to be vague. As soon as you try to tack down, pigeonhole, or apply rules to set the boundaries of slipstream, you kill all of the potential it has to really soar. Slipstream is anything and everything. It’s Dungeons and Dragons meets Dragnet. It’s angels and cyberpunks. It’s Kafka, Lovecraft, Asimov and Anne McCaffrey all rolled into one story. It’s cosmonauts and argonauts teaming up to battle Huguenots in Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. It has no bounds, it slips between the streams, and the weirder it is, the more your fans will (probably) love it.

FFC: What do readers come to this genre for?

ESW: Slipstream is fresh. It’s new, it’s the final frontier. It’s the place where other writers have never dared to go. That’s what makes it good. That’s what fans of the genre look for. Newness, novelty, voices and perspectives they’ve never heard before.

FFC: Complete this sentence: Slipstream is probably for you if you’re the kind of writer who likes to_____

ESW: Slipsteam is probably for you if you’re the kind of writer who likes to mix otherwise incongruous elements into a fruity cocktail drink as potent as a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

FFC: What are the most common pitfalls when writing slipstream?

ESW: One common pitfall is a writer’s inability to really make things weird. Having a skunk for a pet is not weird. Finding out that the young, buff, handsome CEO crush of your story likes to wear lingerie when he’s alone is not weird. People from other countries than yours are not weird. Talking dogs from alternate dimensions that lead people through libraries full of hairy books whose knowledge can only be smelled, not seen– that’s weird. The basic premise can be as mundane as Michener, but the story itself won’t be slipstream unless the imagery and the meat are all outside the conventions of multiple genres.

Also (it doesn’t happen often) but the story can’t be too weird. Stay with me– if a writer puts together a story that isn’t coherent, readers won’t be able to get into it. Plant dragons that breathe methane and fly through space? Cool, but make sure it serves the story. Telling us about your plant dragons and then writing a bit of grandma’s apple pie recipe into the story for “weirdness” isn’t going to fly, most of the time. The weird is important, but it must make sense.

FFC: What difference does it make when the story is 1000 words or fewer?

ESW: All the difference. Writers these days have to compete with the fast pace of television, video games and Youtube. Stories in the 300-500 word range are all that most people think they have time for these days. If you can’t streamline your stories into a box that size, you’ll still find readers, just fewer of them.

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E.S. Wynn is the author of over fifty books in print and the chief editor of seven online fiction journals, including Smashed Cat Magazine.

Julie Duffy is a writer of short fiction and host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay May.

 

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