(I wrote this piece for the Ray Bradbury course thrown to me mid-semester by circumstances outside my control. They seem to be an excellent bunch of students but have some trouble in discussing the short stories on the reading list – and in writing first drafts of stories allegedly “inspired” by Bradbury’s works. It occurred to me that most of the students hadn’t a clue to what short stories are, and maybe someone had better tell them before they get any further in this life. Besides, this isn’t a lit class but a “Craft and Process Seminar,” whatever that is. What’s more “Craft and Process” than learning what a short story is? Therefore… )
“The purpose of trial and error, imitations and experiments, constant slaving through uncertainty and despair is twofold: to acquire merciless self-discipline; to acquire conscious story patterns and reduce them to unconscious practice. I’ve often said that you become a writer when you think story, not about a story.”
– Alfred Bester, introduction to “Time is the Traitor” in Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)
Even in his book about writing, Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury never answered a certain simple, basic question that may have been asked of him a million times: What is a story?
If anyone knew the answer, it was Bradbury. Novels, poems, plays, screenplays, essays notwithstanding, Bradbury is best known as an author of short stories.
I don’t think it was a deliberate dodge. Bradbury knew so well what stories were, he may have taken for granted that everyone else knows what a story is.
And the reason for that, I suspect, is this: Bradbury read so many stories, and read so extensively, that he thought in stories, i.e. his thoughts naturally took story-shaped ideas. It wasn’t necessarily some sort of gift or talent. You have to work at it.
Many people starting out as writers are not as familiar with short stories. They may have read a few in school, but much of what takes up their self-motivated reading are novels. Novels, of course, are stories too, but they can take a number of twists and turns and explore sidelines; or they can be stacks of stories, one atop the other; or interwoven stories of many characters in many places at many times.
I’ve spent a good part of my life teaching folks about short stories. I’ve written a lot about it, too. And I’ve directed aspiring writers to a lot of what has been written about short stories by others. It’s what I do.
There’s no need to bore you with a lot of that at this time, or maybe at any time, granted you have an intrinsic sense of what makes one batch of pages a story and another batch of X-number of pages of prose fiction – a fragment, a scene, a chapter, but not a story.
Within the traditions of storytelling, it’s simple enough to distinguish five basics elements (I don't call them parts, though many others do) you will find in every story. Or, if you don’t find them in a story, it’s because the author has made their presence felt by their absence, or through some other clever redistribution of their weight upon the story as a whole. You’ve got to have these elements or you don’t have a story. And it doesn't matter how these elements appear, in what structure they may be used. Some teachers talk about “three-act structure,” but you don’t need three acts to tell a story, as long as the story has all the elements. The story doesn’t even have to look like a story: it can disguise itself in an imitation of another form, like a text message, or a journal entry, or a piece of journalism. It can look like a postcard, but if it has all the elements, it’s a story.
What are those elements? The answers will seem obvious, but think about them for a moment. Very often, beginning writers mistake elements or discard them, or consider one or the other of them unnecessary, or covered elsewhere.
First, one needs a character/protagonist. The person (even if the person is an object, or sometimes a collective) is who the story is about. The focus upon this character helps shape what the story is about.
Second, the character has to have a sort of defining motivation. Characters can have all sorts of motivations about many things, but there's usually one interest, one desire, one need, that defines the character most specifically, at least for the purposes of this story.
Third, the story has to happen somewhere. The “somewhere” can be described in great detail or it can be sketched out with a minimum of particulars. But even when sketched out, it has to have the feel of a real place, even when the place is completely unreal (Oz, Narnia, Pluto, Hyperborea).
Fourth, the character has to be confronted with . . . stuff!
An opposing force. A nemesis. Something that prevents or obstructs the character’s defining motivation. This can come from outside the character, or from within the character. Ideally, the external force working against the character is a reflection of an inner force that prevents the character from doing what needs to get done.
Fifth, the collision between the character’s defining motivations and the stuff – the forces opposing them – must result in a significant outcome. It can and is often called the resolution. It can be a victory or a defeat. It can be a standoff. It can be subtle or it can come in accompanied by a brass band and twelve sticks of dynamite. No matter how the outcome is reached, it needs to result in a change. The change may be in the character’s self, or it may be in our perception of the character. If we can’t answer the question “What changes?” by the end of the story, either something’s missing in the story or in our reading of the story.
That’s pretty much it. Sounds easy, but often the most difficult things to do are also the simplest.
And it works. Try it. Think over any of the Bradbury stories you’ve read so far in this class. You'll find all these elements there. Try it with the stories we’ll be reading next. After you’ve read the story, ask yourself: “Who’s story is this?” “What do they want?” “Where is this happening?” “What gets in the way?” “How does it all work out?”
I trust you’ll find the answers in any story (even in bad stories sometimes), by Bradbury or by any other author you choose to read. And you’ll also discover that the elements are most interesting when they also are most cleverly hidden and difficult to discern.
And once you have seen how these elements work in the stories you read, it’s possible that you can more readily apply them to the stories you write as well.