How-To

“Look, it isn’t that hard. Just pick an inciting incident.”
“How do I know if it’s exciting?”
“Not exciting, inciting! Some sort of beginning. I like to start my stories in the middle of the action – sometimes even in the middle of a character’s speech,” he continued. “It throws the readers off balance, makes them have to pay attention.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t help,” I complained. “What do I really need at the beginning of a short story?”
“Well, first off, you need to introduce the characters,” Jack said, slipping into his lecturing tone. He knew that I hated it, but it was an intrinsic part of him, just like his hawkish good looks that made the ladies flock to him at the bars. “Setting also helps, although most of that can be left to the imagination. The reader fills it in for themselves,” he added.
I couldn’t help but nod along as I shifted to a slightly more comfortable seat on our ancient, beat-up couch. I used my foot to hook one of the milk crates we were using in place of ottomans in our cramped apartment, pulling it close enough to support my legs. “Right, setting and characters,” I repeated. “Can I use a narrator?”
Jack shrugged. “First person is best, in my opinion,” he said. “You have to make sure the narrator doesn’t know anything he shouldn’t. But it makes it easier to describe feelings, emotions, fill in the backstory to explain the beginning of the story.”
I already regretted asking my roommate to explain how he wrote short stories. For some reason, the question had seemed innocent enough at the time; Jack had been published multiple times, while I was just starting to try my hand at writing. I was already wishing that I’d kept my mouth shut, however, as he went on.
“Once you’ve got your characters, your setting, then you need to expand on the inciting incident,” Jack went on. “For example, let’s say you started with a conversation between two people.”
“Like this one?”
“Sure. Well, you need to build that conversation – the story has to develop, to go somewhere,” he said. As he talked, he stood up from the couch, slowly pacing back and forth in the small space between the couch and television. “There has to be some sort of change; either a revelation, or one of the characters really takes over the conversation, leads it in a direction while the other character is forced to tag along, basically limited to just asking questions.”
“Where is he leading the conversation to?” I asked.
Jack stuck up a finger. “Hold on. First off, ‘to where is he leading the conversation’. Don’t end on a preposition.” I glared at him, resenting the grammar correction. “And he’s leading not just the conversation, but the whole flow of the story! He’s your drive, bringing the story to its climax!”
“And what do I use as a climax?”
As he explained, Jack was growing more and more animated, waving his arms as he walked back and forth in front of me. “Something that’s important to one of the characters!” he shouted. “Something that’s revealing, that gets at the whole heart of the story! If you started things with a question, then the answer to that question is going to be at your climax!”
“In fact,” he continued, stopping to point a finger at me, “sometimes the best climax is simply a repetition of your question, now answered! How do you write a short story? It’s simple. Start with the inciting incident, fill in your characters and setting, and then build to the climax! Writing a short story – it’s that simple!”
#
“So do I just end the story after the climax?” I called out as Jack, his point made, headed to our fridge to grab a beer.
“Up to you,” he shouted back. “Some people do, but I think that it feels too abrupt. No, you need to wind down the story, find some way to tie all the loose ends together.”
I sighed to myself. When I had agreed to live with Jack last year, both of us fresh out of college and naively looking forward to our entry into the work force, I hadn’t realized the price that came with his success. I enjoyed tagging along with him to the fancy parties, letting him pick up the tab at the bar as we both did our best to impress the ladies, but I had quickly grown frustrated with living in his shadow. Maybe that was why I had decided to try my own hand at writing – Jack always made it look so easy, like everything he did. He could always dive effortlessly into a job or hobby, while I was forced to slog my way through, fighting hard for every inch of progress. My father had told me that my determination was my strongest quality. With Jack, that quality was constantly being tempered.
Jack stuck his head around the corner. “Actually, a good way to end the story is with some insight into the main character,” he commented. “A personal glimpse into his deep thoughts, to leave us feeling connected to him.”
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