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Elements of a Marketable Story - Short Stories 2

Posted by rmarsden on August 18, 2010 at 6:46 PM

I covered the topic of rejection. Today I'll cover, at length, elements of a marketable short story.


These rules are more like guidelines, so bear in mind they get broken frequently.

First, go buy Damian Knight's book on Short Stories. It's an easy read and covers many aspects of a short story.



Now, let's get cracking! The Basics! 1, 2, 3.

One: Problem. Your short story needs a single major problem. This problem needs to be introduced at the beginning of the story. Slow-burn character, or world, development is not productive in a short story.


Two: Characters. Your story needs characters the audience can identify with. This doesn't mean your audience needs to neccessarily like your characters, but they do have to have some emotional connection to them. Dialogue, the characters' mental state and their choices will help define your characters. The quicker this is done the better. Short stories are, well short! So, you don't have time to have the character go through heavy changes. If he starts off a violent drunk at the start of the tale, acts like one throughout, then it's unlikely he'll repent unless the problem (see one) was his behavior.


Three: Resolution. The story needs to have a satisfying end in which the problem is solved, or it isn't and the consequences are quite clear. Circiular stories, where the beginning and end, are the same are harder to market than those that have a concrete finish. Stories can not end on a cliff-hanger, or leave lots of loose ends. Editors see this as an author's attempt to weasle out further stories.


I used the word audience instead of reader. There is a reason for that. When writing a short story it may help to think of your short story as an episode of a television series.



Star Trek = Captain Picard and an alien who only speaks in metaphors are stuck on a planet together while being hunted by some strange creature. Picard overcomes the language barrier and because of it he and his alien pal are able to kill the creature. The episode ends with Picard back on his ship and future episodes are in no way affected. The story-line is complete.


Family Guy = Peter destroys Quagmire's car and has to give him a ride to work at the airport. Peter then drains fuel from Quagmire's airplane causing it to almost crash. Quagmire loses his job and Peter has to devise a way to get it back. Quagmire is able to help Peter and his friends land a plane they essentially hijacked and thus regain his job. Family Guy will also slip in sub-plots between Brian and Stewy that are almost independent of the main problem.


In both examples character is quickly developed, but doesn't alter. Picard is Picard throughout the episode and Peter is Peter, neither goes through a great metamorphisis. The story revolves around the problem. Let's look at both.


In Star Trek the problem can be seen as one of two things. One, Picard needs to get back to his ship, or two, the creature must be defeated. I'm going with Two on this because I see the getting home more of a resolution not a problem.


The problem has obstacles. It isn't a straight path to defeat the creature. Picard first has to overcome the difficulties with the alien he is stuck on the planet with, and he has to find a way to fight the creature given limited technology. Only when these obstacles are overcome does Picard beat the monster (problem) and get to go home (resolution).

In Family Guy, Peter costs Quagmire his job and has to get it back (problem). Peter's own ineptitude is the obstacle and though Peter TRIES to get Quagmire his job back, in the end it is Quagmire who does all the work, fixing Peter's faulty plan and getting his job as a pilot back (resolution).


Of the two, the Star Trek example is a better formula in that the main character is directly responsible for solving the problem, while in Family Guy, Quagmire acts as a Dues Ex Machina to solve Peter's problem for him.



Pacing is how you as an author set up Problem, Characters, and Resolution. In the short story format my wife says it's like a horse: Hop on, ride, get off. Journey over.

A short story will range between 1000-10,000 words however nearly every venue I've come across is more interested in stories under 5000 words. An editor would rather purchase two, excellent 2,500 words stories than one excellent 5000 word tale. Shorter is usually better and will also help with pacing.


In a 4000 word short story the first 500 words needs to get the attention of the audience. Typical Warhammer fare is to have a combat sequence, but this is overdone. Here are some generic 'hooks'.


An execution is prepared.

A car engine dies.

All the birds fall out of the sky dead.

An ambulance comes to a halt and the crew bail out in a hurry.

A woman walks away from the main character with a note left on the table.

A Space Marine is told his former Sergeant has turned to Chaos.

And so on. The first 500 words can be used to get the 'problem' on the table.



The following 500 words comes from my short story, Spirit of Nationalism which is 4000 words long, published by Liquid Imagination in print and turned into a dramatic audio reading by Pseudopod.


Spirit of Nationalism


The wind bit into his skin like daggers into flesh. The cold was like no other he had felt, and he knew it was only going to get worse, day by day. Never mind the night; even people such as himself had to find shelter by night or end up a victim of his own trade by dawn. Gregorie’s eyes panned out across the vast, empty, bleak Russian landscape. It reminded him of looking out to sea from the docks at Cherbourg, with its long piers and obstacle strewn harbor to keep His enemies at bay. The steppes of Russia, much like the waters outside the port city.


Here and there he could spy a single tree, or what looked to be a hill or solitary steeple. White land, white skies, and cold wind made Gregorie curse Him again. Why had they marched so far? What was the point of Borodino and the thousands dead they had to leave unburied, and only a week ago had to trample upon as they retreated? There was no point, beyond the vainglory visions of a man. Of Him!


A groan redirected Gregorie’s thoughts. He looked at the makeshift path the Grand Army had carved through the snow. While Russia might be near-featureless, His army was leaving behind plenty of markers. The snow had been trampled flat by thousands of cloth-wrapped boots. Unnecessary items littered the roadside and were lightly dusted by falling snow. As each frigid day passed, Gregorie noted that what counted as ‘unnecessary’ changed. At first, men tossed aside their hefty Charleville muskets and ammo. Next came their empty packs. After weeks of enduring cold, Cossacks and the recent desertion by Him, Gregorie found gold and riches left along the winding boot-trod path. Men were only keeping what was truly valuable in the wastes of Russia: food, clothing and tinder.


The groan came to his ears once more. Peering through the frosty haze, Gregorie saw a few toppled bodies, but they had already been well picked over. Some were naked, their forms having turned a particularly pale color, giving them the appearance of marble statues, complete with open, sightless eyes. A bundled up figure on the road moaned and tried to rise. Snow fell from him in torrents.


He licked his lips, and instantly regretted it. The saliva froze soon as it experienced winter’s chill and burnt his tender skin. Picking his way through the debris-laden path, Gregorie approached the figure. His greatcoat was shabby, and he had lost his shako. His boots were in fine shape and Gregorie eyed his wool gloves with covetous intent. As he neared the rising figure Gregorie reached a hand out and braced it under the man’s arm.


“Let me help you, friend,” he croaked, unused to using his voice.


The man stiffened and turned. His face was weather-beaten, his moustache was laced with frost and from his nostrils miniature icicles dangled. His eyes widened and he shrugged off Gregorie. “Vulture!” the Frenchman gasped.



So What?


Let's see what the first 500 words of my short story revealed.

It revealed that the main character Gregorie was a scavenger.

It revealed that it was cold (problem), and deathly so and that we are in Russia in a historical setting.


It revealed another character buried in the snow who does not like Gergorie.

The first 500 words not only needs to get the attention of the audience, it needs the attention of the editor and most of them don't like slow-burn stories. Warhammer-style fiction (pulp) especially needs to get into the action (not literally) soon as possible.

After the first 500 words, the majoirty of your story should focus on the problem and overcoming it and the obstacles in the way.


Your character has a flat tire and as he tries to fix it, giant scorpions attack, then a bus full of nuns needs saving and... you get the idea. Fixing the tire is the goal and as an author you provide 'bumps' along the path to fix it. The longer the story, probably the more bumps.


The pacing of the resolution needs to be fast and worked in around the last 500-1000 words of your story. Once the problem is solved, the audience wants resolution and be done with it. The quicker you do this without sounding rushed,

"And they all exploded. The end" The better.



Setting is where your story takes place, but today I want to talk about this abstractly. A setting is the arena your character has to solve his problem in. Too large, and the story will drift and the audience cannot predict. Time and again I've had editors ask for minor changes to my story to give 'more' clues as to how the character will solve the problem.

Too small and your audience is given the answer to the solution too easily.



Your character is bound in chains and in a well, and that well has a metal cap on it. While claustrophobia is a fun theme, it is quite obvious that there are only two resolutions. He gets out of the well, or he doesn't. Unless you pull a creative twist, (and no, someone getting him out isn't a twist) then this setting is too small.

Your character has to hunt for a criminal who has leapt through a time machine and could be anywhere and anyplace. Unless you narrow this oversized field with some clues the venue is just too large and the character has too many options. Audiences like hints.


Developing your setting can be difficult, in that you don't have much time in terms of a short-story. While world-building is fun, you may be better off just focusing on key bits of it, or paint the picture of your world in the background text.

As your character walks down the street a zepplin buzzes overhead flashing various advertisements at him.


Your character sees the Priest of Khul and fumbles through the ritual greeting.

What you don't do is expound in depth on advertisement zepplins or the the dynamics of the Priesthood of Khul. It isn't neccessary to your story!


In the end setting is decoration and should not overide the core components of character, problem and resolution.


Putting it Together

To recap

Short Stories trend around the 3000-5000 mark.

The first 500 words should be used wisely.

The story needs Character(s) a Problem and a Resolution.

The resolution needs to be complete.

The setting is to help decorate the story, it isn't the story.

The setting needs to be appropriate in scope so readers have clues as to direciton.

All the rules above can and will be broken!

However, for pulp-action writers, stick with the basic formula you know and love before moving on to odd-ball stuff.

Hope this helps!

Categories: Short Story Advice

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