1 Tojazuru

Fiction Short Story Essay


In my fiction, the characters deal with issues and conflicts common to all—although their methods of coping can be unusual and, at times, detrimental to their well-being.



Acceptances for 2018 Publication:
“12 Days Before Christmas” by Bethlehem Writers Roundtable
“Lost and Found” by Ariel Chart

My short stories have appeared or are scheduled to appear in the following:

Ariel Chart | One Person’s Trash | Two Cities ReviewEdify FictionPage & SpineToasted Cheese Literary JournalStreetlightMagazineTalking River | Bethlehem Writers Roundtable | Down in the Dirt | St. Anthony Messenger | Wild Violet | EWR: Short StoriesAlfie DogHypertext | Full of CrowFiction365Red FezThe Chaffin Journal | Xtreme | Wanderings | Office Number One

Contest Placements

The following are some excerpts from some of my published stories.

Visit my Story Bites page for an excerpt from one of my works-in-progress.

“Going Home”

Image from Pablo

“Can you tell me please which way to Union Station?” 

No one answered her, no one stopped to point out the streets to take, the buses to board. They looked right through her — she didn’t exist, not for them.

Sara should have been used to it. Two years on the streets of LA had provided her with an education she had not expected, and the first lesson was: you are invisible. So unlike when she had lived at home under the watchful, critical eyes of her mother. Sara was never invisible to her mother. She could see everything that Sara did, or thought she had done, wrong.

Except she had never seen Sara leaving, although the signs were there, like itineraries scattered around the room. The drinking, the drugs — what else were they but a form of escape?

One Person’s Trash

“Listen to Me”

Image from Pablo

“Listen to me. I want to tell you what happened today. On the bus. On the way to the doctor’s. There was this girl, well, maybe not a girl, she was maybe about twenty-two or twenty-three, it’s hard to tell these days, and she was wearing one of those things in her ears and she wasn’t even watching the baby…”

His mother’s voice followed Roger as he went into her kitchen. Hanging his jacket on the back of the kitchen chair, he turned his attention to the cabinets. The last time he was there, he noticed one of the doors hanging slightly askew. A loose screw—and he had made a mental note to bring his hand tools with him when he returned. Now, focused on fixing the problematic hinge, he heard her words in the background, the way you would hear someone talking when you’re underwater. Muffled sounds, the consonants and vowels vaguely familiar but not quite the same as when your ears were above the surface. Something about a girl and a baby and a bus…

Edify Fiction

“Boxing Life”

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer”—Zora Neale Hurston

This is the year that asks questions. It must be, because I have no answers, no answers at all.

I have spent the better part of the past month packing boxes—writing directions with a fat black marker on rectangular white labels: “Put in storage room,” “Put in bedroom,” “Leave in garage.”

I keep thinking that, if I write out enough labels and put them on enough boxes, all the scattered bits of my life will come together like giant jigsaw puzzle pieces to form a new picture. One that is better, happier, safer than the old. One that holds the promise of tomorrow without any overshadowing threats from yesterday.

Two Cities Review

“The Candle”

As Margaret leaned forward to light the tall white candles, she wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to die. It wasn’t that she wanted to commit suicide—at least, not exactly. But she had given death a great deal of thought in the past few weeks.

Her long blonde hair swung forward and, for a brief second or two, Margaret let the carefully-cut ends hover dangerously close to the flame.

Suppose, just suppose, she stayed that way—her hair close to the lit candles. Soon there would be that peculiar odor so typical of burning hair, growing stronger and sharper as the moments slipped by.

Then the golden strands, fed by the heat, would twist and turn with a life of their own. Fire would race along the shaft, hungrily seeking a pathway to her body until she herself became a flame-tipped candle, burning in death with a fire she had never know when alive.

Toasted Cheese Literary Journal


“Come on! You’ll like it! It’s fun!”

In the five years we had been together, I had heard those words from Tally’s mouth more times than I cared to count. Each time, I had learned the hard way that her version of fun wasn’t at all mine.

Like when she convinced me that bungee-jumping would be fun and so I agreed—only to find out that vomiting while hanging upside down is not on my top ten list of activities I want to repeat.

Then there was the couples cooking classes—“Learn how to make famous Italian specialties”—that she promised would be an unforgettable experience. She was right. It is hard to forget the result of an incredibly sharp de-boning knife coming in contact with the tender skin of your palm that, according to the ER doctor as he merrily stitched away “just missed taking off your pinkie! You’ll have a cool scar though!”

The last one—an eight-hour bike ride followed by a relaxing night in a Victorian inn—should have been as romantic as the brochure had promised. But what Tally hadn’t taken into account (and how could she, given the difference in our physiology?) was the consequence of having a majority of my weight divvied up between my shoulders and my butt for that length of time.

By the time we reached our room, I could barely move my head, thanks to a pinched nerve in my neck, while my “manhood” was feeling the effects of reduced blood flow and refused to rise to the occasion, so to speak.

Page & Spine

“Accidents Will Happen”

Catherine carefully dumped the coffee grounds onto the center of the front page and then folded over the four corners, making a neat bundle. Robert didn’t like to read the news and she was always careful to remove the paper before he came down. The headline would have really set him off: CYANIDE KILLER CLAIMS ANOTHER VICTIM!STOMACH REMEDY DEFINITE LINK!

She carried the bundle of paper to the trash bin, wincing a bit when she raised the lid. Her shoulder was still sore, although the bruise had nearly faded. At least it wasn’t her face this time.

Catherine herself didn’t like the stories about violence. She didn’t approve of violence, especially when it led to someone’s death. Except maybe during a war, although it had been a war that had given Robert those “violent tendencies,” as the psychiatrist’s report had called his rages. But when she read the report, Catherine noticed the typist had left the “n” out of “violent.” From that time on, she always pictured an angry Robert surrounded by purple clouds, as he himself turned a darker violet.


“Memories of a Sunday Afternoon”

“I brought this knife with me, hidden among the small bundle of clothes they let me take.” Her grandmother had told this story many times, but Elizabeth was still entranced, listening as though for the first time.

“I thought that, if he was waiting for me, I would need a knife for our kitchen. A good, sharp knife, to cut what meat I could find, or slice the bread I would make, or chop the vegetables for soup. If there was food…” and her voice trailed off, as her stomach ached in memory of the deprivations that had preceded her arrival.

Starved to gauntness before she left her homeland, too sick to eat in steerage, there was little left of the round, red-cheeked farm girl he had married. She knew that, and knew as well that, if he refused to take her as his wife, she would use the knife one last time.

Down in the Dirt

“Memories of Music”

It did not seem possible, on sunny days like this, that his wife would not be waiting at home for him…. He did not know, until she was gone, how much of his strength came from her presence, how much grace and music she had brought to his life.

But at the end, the music played for her alone. He had brushed her white hair back from her face and held her closely. She smiled at him then, the ghost of a young girl still in her eyes, but the music was stronger and little by little, she had danced away.

St. Anthony Messenger

“To Whom It May Concern”

“To whom it may concern…”

What should she write next? Maybe a brief summary—just hit the main points and don’t be long-winded. George always complained that she went into too much detail, that by the time she stopped talking, no one remembered what her point was. She didn’t agree with him—sometimes you needed all those details to make your point—but in this case, he might be right. Besides, she didn’t have a paper and pen handy so she had to remember all the sentences until she could get somewhere to put it all down.

Bethlehem Writers Roundtable

“Remember Mama”

Slipping her fingers through the fine white strands, Maggie gazed with love and pity at her mother’s face. With her eyes closed, her mother could be like any other old woman, just growing a bit more forgetful as years passed. Sometimes, Maggie could almost convince herself that this particular fantasy was real.

But then her mother would open her eyes to gaze blankly at her surroundings. The confusion that had been hidden behind those paper-thin lids would be painful to see, as Maggie watched her mother struggle to recall some recognizable pattern from the fading fabric of memory….  It was almost as though her mother was gradually releasing her hold on reality, allowing her mind to drift farther away while Maggie watched helplessly from the shore, unable to bring her back.

Talking River

“When Ann Calls”

Ever since Ann had called with the news… she had been unable to think of anything else. Baby names, baby clothes, the smell of baby powder and the feel of baby skin—Sarah delved deep into her own past and brought back those magical moments, from the time she knew she was expecting to the time when Ann was brought to her, “wrapped in swaddling clothes” like the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth.

She had hoped to see more of Ann, had longed to watch her daughter grow heavy with child, but instead, months passed since the call and all she could do was imagine the fullness of her daughter’s belly, the swelling of her breasts. Sometimes, she would place her hand on her own soft, flabby abdomen and try to recall the flutter of a baby’s movement, how it seemed her insides were turning upside down as the baby kicked and turned and rolled.

Wild Violet

“The Accident”

When the telephone rang for the fourth time in a row, Margaret frowned in impatience. She had so looked forward to an afternoon of quiet while Megan played at Billy’s house, but the interruptions usually caused by one small five-year-old had been replaced by those of the telephone….

The voice on the other end spoke briefly, but it was enough to still her busy hands. She answered, “Yes, right away,” and carefully replaced the receiver on the hook. It wasn’t until the smell of burning chocolate invaded the kitchen that Margaret began again to move—slowly, stiffly, as though a painful eternity had passed since the telephone call.

Alfie Dog Fiction—nominated for 2014 Write Well Award

“In Springtime”

Each spring, the urge to plant something—a flower or vegetable or anything that would blossom and produce—pulled at her. It must have been a legacy from her grandmother who had, long ago, kept a garden of small and neat proportions…. There had been space and light for things to grow at her grandmother’s house—unlike here in the city where even weeds had a difficult time breaking through the ever-present asphalt.

EWR: Short Stories

“The Answering Machine”

“Davis, Bill in Contracts tells me you still haven’t finalized that Anderson deal.” Even on the cheap answering machine Bob had bought after leaving his wife six months earlier, the threat in his boss’s voice came through loud and clear.

“We can’t wait any longer. It’s been hanging fire for too long. You need to get him to sign this contract right now. When I hired you last year, despite your lack of recommendations, I made it clear that you had to perform—not spend company money taking multiple trips when one should do it! Your flight leaves at 7 AM. Get that contract signed this time,” the words “or else” not heard but implied….

Knocking back another scotch—the third that night—he contemplated how he would get even with all of them: his unreasonable boss, his stupid bitch of a wife, the damned super who still hadn’t fixed the air conditioner even though it was sweltering hot, thanks to the July heat wave. He hated them all, even the damned answering machine that never gave him good news, only bad.

Hypertext Magazine


I live on a street called Tall Oaks Drive, but the nearest trees are a half-mile away in the city park. And they aren’t even oaks, but birches—fine in their own right but not at all equal to the stately, majestic oak.

My apartment is on the third floor of an old brick building, behind an outer steel door and three inner security doors with narrow, mesh-lined windows set high. It’s like living in a prison, except it is one of my own choosing.

I like hiding behind doors and locks. I like knowing the world is outside. As my mother would say, “You can’t be too careful these days. You never know who is out to get you.”

Red Fez

“Ice Cream Sunday”

“You see, Eddie, she likes the music. Could she be as backward as they say if she likes the music?” His wife’s anxious words echoed in his mind. Millie never let go of the hope that the doctors were wrong in their diagnosis—that somewhere, underneath all those layers of unresponsive brain cells, lurked a child ready to learn, able to love.

Eddie knew better. He knew there was nothing there, that her brain was as vacant as the look in her eyes. Their daughter—the one he and Millie longed for—was somewhere else, with some other family. And in her place was this heavy body and empty mind.

Fiction 365

“Beautiful Dreamer”

“Annabelle, you look beautiful tonight.”

The words drifted into her mind, like leaves on an autumn breeze, settling softly in the forefront of her consciousness. She awoke to find the phone cradled between her cheek and the pillow, the insistent buzzing the only sound from the black receiver. Had there been a voice on the line? Or had she only dreamed it?

Full of Crow

“Aunt Aggie and the Makeup Lady”

When Billy said he repaired the gutters, I should never have believed him. That was my first mistake.

If I had checked them myself, I would have realized the job had to be done all over again—but the right way this time. Then, the three-day rain wouldn’t have loosened them from the roof. And I would have been inside the house instead of dangling from an aluminum piece ten feet off the ground, and Aunt Aggie and the make-up lady would never have had their fateful meeting.

The Chaffin Journal


I have never had much luck understanding the hidden message behind my nocturnal imaginings. Sometimes, I can brush them off in the light of day like so many cobwebs—vague, insubstantial.

Sometimes, though, the dreams are not so easy to dismiss. They linger, like a damp fog chilling my bones. Some, like the dreams of phone calls from some unnamed person, return again and again to haunt me.
I can remember one of the dreams: “What now, Anna?” the voice reaching to my ears through the wires. As I held the receiver, a hand snaked out of the mouthpiece to fasten around my wrist. The fingers were cold and unyielding.

Wanderings Magazine

“Still Life”

This is how it should be—

In the morning, I would go into my kitchen, with its golden oak cabinets and white tile counter tops and grind some fine brown coffee beans—a special blend, grown high in the Andes where the air is so sharp it can slice your lungs. When the coffee has brewed, I pour it into a delicate eggshell demitasse with a gold rim, and the steam rises, rich and fragrant, almost as satisfying as that very first taste.

I would take my cup and one freshly-baked, flaky croissant, and walk out onto the deck. From here, I can see the sun as it fights its way through the pine trees, struggling to reach the sky. The first rays color the darkness orange and red, purple and gold, and as the night is conquered, the sun emerges victorious….

I have ten minutes to drink my coffee, another ten minutes allotted for the stairs, and yet ten more for the walk to the corner bus stop. There I wait, amid blaring horns and choking exhaust fumes, early-morning drunks and street people curled like rags on the steam grate.

This is how it is.

Office Number One


They say if you wanted a thing bad enough, it could be yours. All you had to do was try with all your might, despite the limitations imposed by life, despite what others said, what others wanted.

“I must fly,” but when they heard him say that, the medicine was increased, the therapy time lengthened, the consultations with his family (but he never thought of them as family—they were just “those people”) became more frequent.

“I have to fly,” but they, rooted to the earth, couldn’t understand. He was drowning here on the ground. The earth was sucking him in, inch by painful, inescapable inch. Sometimes, it took all his energy just to move a single step—like trying to walk through lava or quicksand.

But up in the sky—no grasping pull there, no fingers clinging to him, dragging him back, dragging him down. The wind meant freedom—freedom from the clutching hold of the world and those within it.

Xtreme Magazine

Jerz > Writing > General Creative Writing Tips [ Poetry | Fiction ]

Writing short stories means beginning as close to the climax as possible — everything else is a distraction. A novel can take a more meandering path, but should still start with a scene that sets the tone for the whole book.

A short story conserves characters and scenes, typically by focusing on just one conflict, and drives towards a sudden, unexpected revelation. Go easy on the exposition and talky backstory — your reader doesn’t need to know everything that you know about your characters.

1. Get Started: Emergency Tips

Do you have a short story assignment due tomorrow morning? The rest of this document covers longer-term strategies, but if you are in a pinch, these emergency tips may help. Good luck!

  • What does your protagonist want?
    (The athlete who wants her team to win the big game and the car crash victim who wants to survive are not unique or interesting enough.)
  • When the story begins, what morally significant action has your protagonist taken towards that goal?
    (Your protagonist should already have made a conscious choice, good or bad, that drives the rest of the story.)
  • What unexpected consequences — directly related to the protagonist’s goal-oriented actions — ramp up the emotional energy of the story?
    (Will the unexpected consequences force your protagonist to make yet another choice, leading to still more consequences?)
  • What details from the setting, dialog, and tone help you tell the story? Things to cut:
    • Travel scenes. (Save words. “Later, at the office, I…”)
    • Character A telling character B about something we just saw happening to character A. (Cut the redundancy.)
    • Facial expressions of a first-person narrator. (We can’t see what our own faces look like, so don’t write “A smile lit my face from ear to ear.”) See Writing Dialogue.
  • What morally significant choice does your protagonist make at the climax of the story?
    (Your reader should care about the protagonist’s decision. Ideally, the reader shouldn’t see it coming.)

An effective short story (or poem) does not simply record or express the author’s feelings; rather, it generates feelings in the reader. (See “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell.”)

Drawing on your own real-life experiences, such as winning the big game, bouncing back after an illness or injury, or dealing with the death of a loved one, are attractive choices for students who are looking for a “personal essay” topic. But simply listing the emotions you experienced (“It was exciting” “I’ve never been so scared in all my life” “I miss her so much”) is not the same thing as generating emotions for your readers to experience.

For those of you who are looking for more long-term writing strategies, here are some additional ideas.

  • Keep a notebook. To R. V. Cassill, notebooks are “incubators,” a place to begin with overheard conversation, expressive phrases, images, ideas, and interpretations on the world around you.
  • Write on a regular, daily basis. Sit down and compose sentences for a couple of hours every day — even if you don’t feel like it.
  • Collect stories from everyone you meet. Keep the amazing, the unusual, the strange, the irrational stories you hear and use them for your own purposes. Study them for the underlying meaning and apply them to your understanding of the human condition.

Read, Read, Read

Read a LOT of Chekhov. Then re-read it. Read Raymond Carver, Earnest Hemingway, Alice Munro, and Tobias Wolff. If you don’t have time to read all of these authors, stick to Chekhov. He will teach you more than any writing teacher or workshop ever could.
-Allyson Goldin, UWEC Asst. Professor of Creative Writing

2. Write a Catchy First Paragraph

In today’s fast-moving world, the first sentence of your narrative should catch your reader’s attention with the unusual, the unexpected, an action, or a conflict. Begin with tension and immediacy. Remember that short stories need to start close to their end.

I heard my neighbor through the wall.
Dry. Nothing sparks the reader’s imagination.
 The neighbor behind us practiced scream therapy in his shower almost every day.
The second sentence catches the reader’s attention. Who is this guy who goes in his shower every day and screams? Why does he do that? What, exactly, is“scream therapy”? Let’s keep reading…
The first time I heard him, I stood in the bathroom listening at our shared wall for ten minutes, debating the wisdom of calling the police. It was very different from living in the duplex over middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. Brown and their two young sons in Duluth.
The rest of the paragraph introduces I and an internal conflict as the protagonist debates a course of action and introduces an intriguing contrast of past and present setting.

“It is important to understand the basic elements of fiction writing before you consider how to put everything together. This process is comparable to producing something delectable in the kitchen–any ingredient that you put into your bowl of dough impacts your finished loaf of bread. To create a perfect loaf, you must balance ingredients baked for the correct amount of time and enhanced with the right polishing glaze.” -Laurel Yourke

3. Developing Characters

Your job, as a writer of short fiction–whatever your beliefs–is to put complex personalities on stage and let them strut and fret their brief hour. Perhaps the sound and fury they make will signify something that has more than passing value–that will, in Chekhov’s words, “make [man] see what he is like.” –Rick Demarnus

In order to develop a living, breathing, multi-faceted character, it is important to know way more about the character than you will ever use in the story. Here is a partial list of character details to help you get started.

  • Name
  • Age
  • Job
  • Ethnicity
  • Appearance
  • Residence
  • Pets
  • Religion
  • Hobbies
  • Single or married?
  • Children?
  • Temperament
  • Favorite color
  • Friends
  • Favorite foods
  • Drinking patterns
  • Phobias
  • Faults
  • Something hated?
  • Secrets?
  • Strong memories?
  • Any illnesses?
  • Nervous gestures?
  • Sleep patterns

Imagining all these details will help you get to know your character, but your reader probably won’t need to know much more than the most important things in four areas:

  • Appearance. Gives your reader a visual understanding of the character.
  • Action. Show the reader what kind of person your character is, by describing actions rather than simply listing adjectives.
  • Speech. Develop the character as a person — don’t merely have your character announce important plot details.
  • Thought. Bring the reader into your character’s mind, to show them your character’s unexpressed memories, fears, and hopes.

For example, let’s say I want to develop a college student persona for a short story that I am writing. What do I know about her?

Her name is Jen, short for Jennifer Mary Johnson. She is 21 years old. She is a fair-skinned Norwegian with blue eyes, long, curly red hair, and is 5 feet 6 inches tall. Contrary to the stereotype about redheads, she is actually easygoing and rather shy. She loves cats and has two of them named Bailey and Allie. She is a technical writing major with a minor in biology. Jen plays the piano and is an amateur photographer. She lives in the dorms at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She eats pizza every day for lunch and loves Red Rose tea. She cracks her knuckles when she is nervous. Her mother just committed suicide.

4. Choose a Point of View

Point of view is the narration of the story from the perspective of first, second, or third person. As a writer, you need to determine who is going to tell the story and how much information is available for the narrator to reveal in the short story. The narrator can be directly involved in the action subjectively, or the narrator might only report the action objectively.

  • First Person. The story is told from the view of “I.” The narrator is either the protagonist (main character) and directly affected by unfolding events, or the narrator is a secondary character telling the story revolving around the protagonist.
    I saw a tear roll down his cheek. I had never seen my father cry before. I looked away while he brushed the offending cheek with his hand.
    This is a good choice for beginning writers because it is the easiest to write. (But if your viewpoint character is too much like you, a first-person story might end up being a too-transparent exercise in wish-fulfillment, or score-settling.)
  • Second Person. The story is told directly to “you”, with the reader as a participant in the action.
    You laughed loudly at the antics of the clown. You clapped your hands with joy.
    (See also Jerz on interactive fiction.)
  • Third Person. The story tells what “he”, “she,” or “it” does. The third-person narrator’s perspective can be limited (telling the story from one character’s viewpoint) or omniscient (where the narrator knows everything about all of the characters).
    He ran to the big yellow loader sitting on the other side of the gravel pit shack.
    Your narrator might take sides in the conflict you present, might be as transparent as possible, or might advocate a position that you want your reader to challenge (this is the “unreliable narrator” strategy).

Yourke on point of view:

  • First Person. “Unites narrator and reader through a series of secrets” when they enter one character’s perceptions. However, it can “lead to telling” and limits readers connections to other characters in the short story.
  • Second Person. “Puts readers within the actual scene so that readers confront possibilities directly.” However, it is important to place your characters “in a tangible environment” so you don’t “omit the details readers need for clarity.”
  • Third Person Omniscient. Allows you to explore all of the characters’ thoughts and motivations. Transitions are extremely important as you move from character to character.
  • Third Person Limited. “Offers the intimacy of one character’s perceptions.” However, the writer must “deal with character absence from particular scenes.”

5. Write Meaningful Dialogue

Make your readers hear the pauses between the sentences. Let them see characters lean forward, fidget with their cuticles, avert their eyes, uncross their legs.Jerome Stern

Dialogue is what your characters say to each other (or to themselves).

Each speaker gets his/her own paragraph, and the paragraph includes whatever you wish to say about what the character is doing when speaking. (See: “Quotation Marks: Using Them in Dialogue“.)

Where are you going?” John cracked his knuckles while he looked at the floor. “To the racetrack.” Mary edged toward the door, keeping her eyes on John’s bent head. “Not again,” John stood up, flexing his fingers. “We are already maxed out on our credit cards.”
The above paragraph is confusing, because it is not clear when one speech stops and the other starts.
     “Where are you going?” John asked nervously.
“To the racetrack,” Mary said, trying to figure out whether John was too upset to let her get away with it this time.
“Not again,” said John, wondering how they would make that month’s rent. “We are already maxed out on our credit cards.”
The second example is mechanically correct, since it uses a separate paragraph to present each speaker’s turn advancing the conversation. But the narrative material between the direct quotes is mostly useless.

Write Meaningful Dialogue Labels

“John asked nervously” is an example of “telling.” The author could write “John asked very nervously” or “John asked so nervously that his voice was shaking,” and it still wouldn’t make the story any more effective.

How can the author convey John’s state of mind, without coming right out and telling the reader about it? By inference. That is, mention a detail that conjures up in the reader’s mind the image of a nervous person.

6. Use Setting and Context

Setting moves readers most when it contributes to an organic whole. So close your eyes and picture your characters within desert, jungle, or suburb–whichever setting shaped them. Imagining this helps balance location and characterization. Right from the start, view your characters inhabiting a distinct place. –– Laurel Yourke

Setting includes the time, location, context, and atmosphere where the plot takes place.

  • Remember to combine setting with characterization and plot.
  • Include enough detail to let your readers picture the scene but only details that actually add something to the story. (For example, do not describe Mary locking the front door, walking across the yard, opening the garage door, putting air in her bicycle tires, getting on her bicycle–none of these details matter except that she rode out of the driveway without looking down the street.)
  • Use two or more senses in your descriptions of setting.
  • Rather than feed your readers information about the weather, population statistics, or how far it is to the grocery store, substitute descriptive details so your reader can experience the location the way your characters do.
    Our sojourn in the desert was an educational contrast with its parched heat, dust storms, and cloudless blue sky filled with the blinding hot sun. The rare thunderstorm was a cause for celebration as the dry cement tunnels of the aqueducts filled rapidly with rushing water. Great rivers of sand flowed around and through the metropolitan inroads of man’s progress in the greater Phoenix area, forcefully moved aside for concrete and steel structures. Palm trees hovered over our heads and saguaro cactuses saluted us with their thorny arms.

7. Set Up the Plot

Plot is what happens, the storyline, the action. Jerome Stern says it is how you set up the situation, where the turning points of the story are, and what the characters do at the end of the story.

A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. –Janet Burroway

Understanding these story elements for developing actions and their end results will help you plot your next short story.

  • Explosion or “Hook.” A thrilling, gripping, stirring event or problem that grabs the reader’s attention right away.
  • Conflict. A character versus the internal self or an external something or someone.
  • Exposition. Background information required for seeing the characters in context.
  • Complication. One or more problems that keep a character from their intended goal.
  • Transition. Image, symbol, dialogue, that joins paragraphs and scenes together.
  • Flashback. Remembering something that happened before the short story takes place.
  • Climax.When the rising action of the story reaches the peak.
  • Falling Action. Releasing the action of the story after the climax.
  • Resolution. When the internal or external conflict is resolve.

Brainstorming. If you are having trouble deciding on a plot, try brainstorming. Suppose you have a protagonist whose husband comes home one day and says he doesn’t love her any more and he is leaving. What are actions that can result from this situation?

  1. She becomes a workaholic.
  2. Their children are unhappy.
  3. Their children want to live with their dad.
  4. She moves to another city.
  5. She gets a new job.
  6. They sell the house.
  7. She meets a psychiatrist and falls in love.
  8. He comes back and she accepts him.
  9. He comes back and she doesn’t accept him.
  10. She commits suicide.
  11. He commits suicide.
  12. She moves in with her parents.

The next step is to select one action from the list and brainstorm another list from that particular action.

8. Create Conflict and Tension

Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story: birth, love, sex, work, and death. –Janet Burroway

Conflict produces tension that makes the story begin. Tension is created by opposition between the character or characters and internal or external forces or conditions. By balancing the opposing forces of the conflict, you keep readers glued to the pages wondering how the story will end.

Possible Conflicts Include:

  • The protagonist against another individual
  • The protagonist against nature (or technology)
  • The protagonist against society
  • The protagonist against God
  • The protagonist against himself or herself.

Yourke’s Conflict Checklist

  • Mystery. Explain just enough to tease readers. Never give everything away.
  • Empowerment. Give both sides options.
  • Progression. Keep intensifying the number and type of obstacles the protagonist faces.
  • Causality. Hold fictional characters more accountable than real people. Characters who make mistakes frequently pay, and, at least in fiction, commendable folks often reap rewards.
  • Surprise. Provide sufficient complexity to prevent readers predicting events too far in advance.
  • Empathy. Encourage reader identification with characters and scenarios that pleasantly or (unpleasantly) resonate with their own sweet dreams (or night sweats).
  • Insight. Reveal something about human nature.
  • Universality. Present a struggle that most readers find meaningful, even if the details of that struggle reflect a unique place and time.
  • High Stakes. Convince readers that the outcome matters because someone they care about could lose something precious. Trivial clashes often produce trivial fiction.

9. Build to a Crisis or Climax

This is the turning point of the story–the most exciting or dramatic moment.

The crisis may be a recognition, a decision, or a resolution. The character understands what hasn’t been seen before, or realizes what must be done, or finally decides to do it. It’s when the worm turns. Timing is crucial. If the crisis occurs too early, readers will expect still another turning point. If it occurs too late, readers will get impatient–the character will seem rather thick.-Jerome Stern

Jane Burroway says that the crisis “must always be presented as a scene. It is “the moment” the reader has been waiting for. In Cinderella’s case, “the payoff is when the slipper fits.”

While a good story needs a crisis, a random event such as a car crash or a sudden illness is simply an emergency –unless it somehow involves a conflict that makes the reader care about the characters (see: “Crisis vs. Conflict“).

10. Find a Resolution

The solution to the conflict. In short fiction, it is difficult to provide a complete resolution and you often need to just show that characters are beginning to change in some way or starting to see things differently.

Yourke examines some of the options for ending a story.

  • Open. Readers determine the meaning.
    Brendan’s eyes looked away from the priest and up to the mountains.
  • Resolved. Clear-cut outcome.
    While John watched in despair, Helen loaded up the car with her belongings and drove away.
  • Parallel to Beginning. Similar to beginning situation or image.
    • They were driving their 1964 Chevrolet Impala down the highway while the wind blew through their hair.
    • Her father drove up in a new 1964 Chevrolet Impala, a replacement for the one that burned up.
  • Monologue. Character comments.
    I wish Tom could have known Sister Dalbec’s prickly guidance before the dust devils of Sin City battered his soul.
  • Dialogue. Characters converse.
  • Literal Image. Setting or aspect of setting resolves the plot.
    The aqueducts were empty now and the sun was shining once more.
  • Symbolic Image. Details represent a meaning beyond the literal one.
    Looking up at the sky, I saw a cloud cross the shimmering blue sky above us as we stood in the morning heat of Sin City.

Got Writer’s Block?

The Writer’s Block
Comprehensive Web site that offers solutions to beating writer’s block such as various exercises (not necessarily physical), advice from prolific writers, and how to know if you really have writer’s block.

Overcoming Writer’s Block
Precise, short list of ways to start writing again.

Learn through Schooling
Some online colleges and universities offer creative writing courses. Look for ones that offer creative writing courses that cover the plot and structure of short stories.

  • Regular access to an instructor who is a published author, and a peer group that is motivated to read your drafts, might just be the extra motivation you need to develop your own skills.
  • If you are counting on the credits transferring to help you complete an academic program, check with your university registrar.

Dec. 2002 — submitted by Kathy Kennedy, UWEC Senior
(for Jerz’s Advanced Technical Writing class)
Jan 2003 — edited by Jamie Dalbesio, UWEC Senior
(for an independent study project with Jerz)
May 2003 — edited by Jerz and posted at Seton Hill University
Jan 2007 — ongoing edits by Jerz
May 2008 — reformatted
Sep 2010 — tweaked Writer’s Block section
Mar 2011 — reformatted and further tweaked
Jun 2017 — minor editing. Are “Keds” still a recognizable brand of kids shoes?

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