Regardless whether you’re a Plantser (an Outliner) or a Pantser (one who writes by the seat of their pants)—I’m a combo, a PLAN-ANTSER…HA! Did I just coin a term?—Anyway, no matter how you approach your short (or long) story, I recommend a basic story structure, like the classic, 3-Act. Aristotle wrote that a tragedy, (a type of plot) should be divided into parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. He also believed that the events of the 3-part-plot must somehow relate to one another as being either necessary or credible. And so, we have the 3-Act-Structure.
The 3-Act Story Structure (Thank you Aristotle)
TIP: Before you design your structure consider first, what is the profound change you want your character to experience by the end? Why? Because the answer to that question should fuel your story through all 3-acts, delivering theme, character arc, and a satisfying resolution.
Act 1: BEGINNING – Set up. Introduce your characters; establish the story world, theme and tone. Here, your protagonist should be called to action, due to some sort of crisis point (inciting incident) that shakes up their ordinary world and launches them into a new one.
Act 2: MIDDLE – Conflict. Avoid saggy middles by plunging the protagonist and allies deeper into even more difficulties and obstacles. Often things get worse and they need to re-group and get back on their feet, before things can get better.
Act 3: END – Resolution. This is where your main character(s) figures things out, and actually develops the courage, or a plan to face their demons, slay their dragons, and solve their problems. As a writer, you should always write towards a satisfying ending. That’s why I started with the TIP of knowing what you want your character to experience, their ARC, by the story’s end.
This is a typical story structure is a good starting point if you want to write short stories. I also do this for novel length stories as well. Smart guy, that Aristotle, he sure knew what he was talking about.
And here’s a little you tube (6 minutes) with additional ideas on structuring short stories, starting with Anne Lamont’s acronym ABDCE
Writing first pages is hard work. PERIOD.
The expectations of you as a writer are huge, and the expectations of readers is even HUGER (is that a word? Maybe not, okay…) BIG, big reader expectations start on the first page.
Anyway, it takes a lot of work to get it right. One thing to remember, amongst the gazillion other things you need to remember about first pages, is to ground your reader in some details. Which details depend on your story, theme, and your super-powers as a creative genius?
Your first page should, in some way, set up the general question your novel is asking and answering. And hopefully by the last page you will convey an answer to that question.
Meanwhile, the reader should have some idea about the setting right away. For example, what season is it? Where are the characters? What is the time period/special world/era? What is the mood? The elements you convey quickly in the beginning set the stage for the story to follow. And that my writerly friend, is a lofty quest.
Last week in a writing class, I shared the opening to one of Lauren Groff’s stories, Delicate Edible Birds as an example of a great first page/paragraph. This is not only beautiful writing, but also tells us a great deal about; location (Paris) mood (dark), era and conflict (WWII) and weather (rain) all in an imagery filled (wings of dark water…street corners as elbows, etc.) poetic style that seduced me as a reader, to continue on. (Read the pretty words in the image to the right.)
A reader should not have to wonder about fundamental questions while trying to slide effortlessly into your story world. This means you’ll have to provide some answers pretty quickly, like on page one.
If you can capture your reader’s curiosity, tickle their emotions, and deliver a character that does the same, then you’ve created a winning first page — one that will engage and mesmerize your audience.
The perfect first page draws readers in from the beginning and tempts them to keep reading. This is your first impression, your chance to hook readers and get them enthusiastic about the story to come. So take the time, use all your creative senses and get it right on page one. It’s not impossible, I promise, and it’s a challenge that’s SO worth it.
Writer Unboxed has a section called “Flog a Pro” where they ask people to read first pages of works by famous authors and then comment on whether or not they were moved to continue. Many say they were not. Reasons include too much detail about the setting or not interested in the characters, but usually the reason was simple—no tension. Reading sites like this is a great way to get some ideas for your own work.
I’m a storyteller. Most of my friends are storytellers; playwrights, poets, novelist, singers, songwriters, and artists of all mediums. We all tell stories for different reasons, and yet for the same purpose, storytelling aids us in understanding the world around us.
Storytelling predates writing. The most primitive forms of storytelling were usually oral expressions. Storytellers come in many forms, with many voices and tools, from poetry and literature to graffiti and fine art. We need storytellers, artist and writers, to elicit passion and emotions, especially in dark times when we can so easily avert our eyes from troubling events like a cultural revolution, rebellion, social injustice, corrupt politicians, police brutality, the imprisonment or genocide of an entire people.
Though the ancient origins of storytelling have vanished into the mist of time, the importance of storytelling and those who tell stories has not. From cave dwellings to the recontours of Native Indian lore, families and cultures with strong narratives and passionate tellers, thrive in their collective story.
Think about times spent sitting around the kitchen table with your family – your witnesses on this journey – as they tell and retell all the often cringe-worthy memories of you as a child, or their experiences during the Great Depression, or whatever the family stories are. Think how bonding that is/was, how it informed your sense of who you are and where you come from. At my grandma’s house, all of us crowded into the yellow-vinyl kitchen booth, drank weak Folgers coffee, my aunts’ chain-smoked Salem cigarettes, and talked like ‘mag-pies’ grandma always said. And at that jam-packed table every story started with “I remember that time you….”
Capturing and retelling the stories of our collective history is vital to understanding our existence on this planet – trust me, when grandma is gone, you’re gonna wish you took notes, and you’re gonna remember with heartache and joy, every story she ever told you. Our stories are important.
Storytelling is vital to the human experience. It allows us to digest information with greater ease by more effectively linking that information to our feelings and then our thoughts. Generally, once we’ve felt something, we don’t forget it. I recall years ago, seeing the movie, Dead Man Walking, and how when my friends and I left the theater we talked about the death penalty, I recall feeling very differently about that controversial topic after seeing one man’s poignant story.
One of the reasons I wrote my novel, Return to Sender was to reiterate the history (lest we are doomed to repeat it), and the stories I grew up with as the child of a Korean War veteran, about the atrocities of the brutal North Koreans against their own people, and most especially against their own orphans. A topic as timely today (sadly) as it was in the 1950s. In my novel I paid tribute to the most haunting aspect of the Korean War for both my father and my father-in-law; the slaughter of innocent children by their own people. Having these precious photographs of many of these children made their stories personal to me.
There are certain aspects of history that resonate deeply with all of us. For example, my talented neighbors, Jan and Chris Hopkins, who make a great mead (home-made wine), but who are also internationally recognized, multi-award-winning artists, illustrators and storytellers. Their most recent creative endeavor of depicting the WWII internment of the Japanese in America, was motivated by Jan’s desire to learn more about her cultural identity. As a child of detained Japanese Americans, there was a lack of information about her family legacy and the ordeal of internment that they endured. Jan needed to know her story, so she and Chris have set out on a mission to share their stories through visual arts. Their joint exhibit at Everett’s Shack Center for the Arts starts June 21st thru September 2018.
Chris is a historian through his art. His paintings tell very specific aspects of the American story that resonate with
him on a soulful level. He captures moments that harken back to moments like this young Japanese-American woman who is pregnant, alone and just ‘relocated’ to an internment camp – what does the future hold for her and her unborn child now that her country (America) has turned on her? It is important to humankind to keep those stories alive so they never happen again.
Chris also painted an entire series of over 60 paintings of the Tuskegee Airmen which travels the country in art shows, like locally at the Shack Center in Everett. The Tuskegee Airmen series portrays the adventures of the first African American fighter pilots, their crews, families and legacy.
As an illustrative historian Chris has captured this pivotal moment in time; At the onset of World War II, the segregated US armed forces declined to train African Americans as pilots until a lawsuit opened the door. The Army Air Corps acquiesced to an experiment training pilots at Tuskegee University, Alabama. In March 1942 the first class of African-American aviation cadets earned their silver wings and became the nation’s
first black military pilots. Between 1941 and 1945, Tuskegee trained over 1,000 black aviators for the war effort. Chris started his Tuskegee Airmen series as part of his work for the Northwest chapter of the Air Force Art program. Over the years, the series evolved beyond the Air Force Art program to become a personal mission and passion for him. Every one of these paintings tells us a vital part of our history; who we were, who we are now, how far we’ve come, and sadly how far we have to go.
Or below, this modern-day image, social commentary, where a homeless mother and her child sit starving on the steps of the land of plenty, a posh bakery, where inside, too busy to notice, are two girls on their phones. Just as I tell stories with words, Chris uses images, and is a perceptive storyteller of our times, the good and the bad.
Regardless of medium or craft, storytelling is significant because it can illuminate moral, ethical, spiritual lessons in non-preachy ways that people can easily contemplate. Great stories engender empathy by helping people relate to someone they may never have connected with before.
Just as important as our intimate family stories are in reminding us where our faith and courage comes from – be it strong Scottish, Jewish, Irish, or French roots – and what our ancestors overcame, it’s also vital to keep historic stories alive so we never forget what our fears and prejudices can become.
What stories matter to you? Tell them.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
And, big kudos to my neighbor; Art Work by Chris Hopkins Selected for Inclusion in Major Traveling Exhibition Organized by Norman Rockwell Museum – Reimagining the Four Freedoms
In 2017, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, sent out a call to artists to create works that would reimagine President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear— or explore the meaning of freedom today, for possible inclusion in the major touring exhibition: Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. From 1000 submissions, 36 artists were accepted—including two works by local artist, Chris Hopkins—for the contemporary section of the exhibition, titled “Reimagining the Four Freedoms.”
In our time of troubling HOMELESSNESS in a country of plenty, this painting is particularly poignant.
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Reprint of an article I wrote on Pubslush about my writing influences. I chose to write about what influenced a very popular character in Return To Sender, Solomon.
My writing influences started early in life. When I was ten years old I met a man outside the cannery in Wheeler Oregon. I was waiting for my dad to drop off his fresh caught salmon and have a beer with the cannery owner. I stayed outside because inside was the nostril scorching stench of dead fish! The one bench was half occupied by that man, so I sat down, broke my Popsicle in two and handed him half. He said “Thank you!” and that he would trade me a good story for my gift.
Several times that summer we sat on that dog-eared bench, shared a Popsicle, a story, and watched pigeons’ pick at fish scraps by the boat ramp. He recanted legends and explained that he was one of the last Nehalem Indians, and that he was healer, a shaman. He had a cryptic dialect and a guttural but soothing voice.
Flash-forward many years; him long forgotten, until one night he came to me in a dream. I knew my wise healer was there for a reason. I tingle now, writing this. I had cancer, however didn’t know it yet –I learned two weeks later. During the two weeks that followed his visit I zealously created a favorite character in my novel; Solomon, the last Nehalem Indian. His visit that night was to let me know he was with me.
In Return to Sender Solomon is the mentor archetype and a shaman who heals the protagonist, Theo, so he can transcend his current state and move on to his destiny. Looking back I realize I unconsciously created what I needed for my journey through cancer. I researched Nehalem myths to make Solomon resonate with that man I met five decades ago who graciously traded Popsicles for enduring mythologies.
About the Book:
Father Theo Riley never wanted to be a priest, nor a killer. The former boxing champion and Korean War veteran gave up more than a career when he went into the Army. He lost the only thing he ever wanted: his love, Andréa Bouvre. Friends thought Theo entered the priesthood to mend his broken heart or atone for the massacred orphans he couldn’t save in Korea. However, the truth is much darker and more damning, tied to a blood debt and family secret that has haunted Theo since he was a boy. He drinks to forget he ever had a life of his own—waits for death, prays for mercy, and hopes for a miracle. He gets all three when a child goes missing, another shows up on his doorstep, and the love of his life drives back into his world; the seaside hamlet of Manzanita Oregon. Theo’s dream reunion with Andréa becomes a nightmare when a serial killer who considers himself a holy man targets the town and everyone Theo loves. Drinking days decidedly behind him, Theo and some old warriors set out to send evil back to hell and a few good souls to heaven in Mindy Halleck’s debut novel.
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Neahkahnie’s Black Demon
Portland Oregon was home. Most of the year was spent working at dad’s shoe repair shop, but for a few years –the good years, we call them–summers were spent in Manzanita Oregon. My novel RTS takes place in that Manzanita of the 1950’s.
It’s a cliché understatement to say that things on the Oregon Coast have changed dramatically –but wow have they. Manzanita is now a swanky and expensive beach town with high end homes and mortgages I can’t afford. Long gone are the days when we stayed in shanty shacks, trailers and tents. Gone are the sun-splashed days when my cousins and I stood on the windy beach studying Neahkahnie Mountain, pondering the many myths of ghosts’ hauntings, and the pirate’s gold that had eluded an army of treasure hunters, most of whom traveled to Neahkahnie with a hunch, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. There were a few law-breakers who came with bulldozers and backhoes. They got arrested. My dad and his buddies included.
The thing we feared the most was what the Indians called the ‘black demon’ who guarded that treasure.
“That black demon must be pissed.” My cousin Nene would always say.
“Yeah,’ I’d say, “But he’s just a ghost, what can he do?”
“He could toss us like tooth-picks.”
“I don’t think so. . .” I’d say, “but you go first.”
We’d hide in the bushes at the foot of the mountain and look up through the binoculars we had ‘borrowed’ from
her dad, my uncle Ed, who would also be pissed, if he knew. We were eleven years old. My brothers who followed, younger, and the gang of summer-kids (Manzanita vacationers) that also followed ranged in age from five to ten. If you ever saw the movie Gooneys (also filmed on the Oregon Coast) then, that was us, but with two scared-ie-cat girls as leaders.
Anyway, that black demon as legend told was left behind one summer afternoon, many years ago. Indians near Neahkahnie Mountain were astounded when two sailing ships approaching their coast –the first ships they had ever seen on the Oregon coast and that they said looked like “great birds” –began to ”thunder” and puffs of smoke blustered from their sides. After considerable noise and smoke, one of the ships began to list, and was cast up on the beach near the foot of Neahkahnie. The other set sail over the horizon and was not seen again.
As the ship pitched onto the sand, men toppled over its sides and staggered ashore. All of them were white, except one, who was much larger than the others–a giant, legend says. And he was black.
To the Indians, who, until then never thought there was another race, these men of diverse colors were an alarming sight, and they observed them much as we might regard aliens from another planet coming into our backyard.
At low tide the colorful strangers brought their belongings ashore. Among their items was a huge chest, so heavy and awkward that it took eight men to carry it. With considerable determination, they carried the chest a short way up the mountain, where they then dug a deep hole. They then lowered the chest into the hole. The black giant, whom the Indians supposed was an evil demon, was ordered by a knife wielding white man, to step forward. When he did, he was struck down, and his body flung into the hole with the chest. The men then filled the hole with sand and returned to the beach. The Indians watched all night. The men lifted small boats off the listing shipwreck and rowed away in the moonlight, never to be seen again. The Indians did not disturb the demons resting place, but legend holds that the sand at the end of the mountain turns black in winter. That the black demon pirate is often heard bellowing his anger across the sea, and that when treasure hunters have gotten close, that black pirate has manifested great tragedy in their lives. It was him we wanted to get a glimpse of –from far away, but a glimpse just the same.
So, we’d climb, pulling ourselves up by tugging on the slopped junipers or jagged rocks of the path. Every time someone fell or got hurt we claimed they were pushed by the black demon pirate. Eyes would bulge. Paranoia would set in. Every natural sound had an unnatural effect. We never made it to the top but instead would make it about halfway up the path on the side of the mountain and run yelling and screaming back down.
Summers in manzanita were filled with ghost stories, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows at the campfires along the shore, and watching for that black pirate who we believed sat on a rock at the crest and watched us as we imagined we were watching him.
Of course we never got a glimpse of him. Nobody I know ever found the elusive gold treasure, but a couple people I know spent a small fortune trying to and several days in the Tillamook County jail to prove their devotion.
While I don’t know about that black pirate who haunts Neahkahnie Mountain, what I do know is that I and my brothers have all had mystical, often frightening, often spiritual sightings and happenings when hiking there. So did our dad, that’s why he stopped looking for the black pirate’s gold, saying, “Let him have it.” One of my brothers looked for a bit, but the rest of us never did. To just, “Let him have it.” made more sense. The story of that black pirate plays a role in Return To Sender, which in many ways is ultimately how dad felt about that rumored treasure. 🙂
You can find a lot of info on the history of Neahkahnie, Manzanita, Tillamook or Nehalem at the Tillamook museum.