Working Story

One of the first handouts I was given at University was a list of seven points that defined the short story.  It had been compiled by Dilys Gater, in her book, Short Story Writing*.   At last, I thought, learnable theory I could apply in my writing.  Better still, someone else had worked it out for me.

Yet, for several weeks after that I was unable to finish a story outside of class-work. I never lacked ideas, my writers diary was crowded with characters, scenes and fragments of conversation, but they remained notes. I told myself not to worry, I was completing our set exercises on the mechanics of the simple linear plot, and that was what counted.

Until I took my results to the tutorial.

‘It’s got no life,’ my tutor said, handing back my assignment.  ‘Start again.’

‘All this work?’

She waved aside my folder of notes and handouts. ‘Count it as background,’ she said. ‘Forget the rules, just write.’

There was less than a week to my deadline.  Simmering with resentment I returned to my desk.  I had no idea what to write.  All I had was my main character.  I began a fresh description of him.  After all, I had to hand something in.  As soon as I started to write him, things began to happen.  They were not the situations I had planned, these were exciting.

Ideas flowed off the end of my pen. I had no time to worry about theories, but I was aware, for the first time, that I could see the story shaping as it evolved.  I knew how the events were building, even thought I was not sure where they would go.  Something wonderful was taking place, I was creating a linear plot as I went along.  I was flying.

I understood then that my best writing could not be created using a formula, but knowledge would help me to get the best from my ideas.  I recognised parallels to essay writing.  Without training I could not have collated my notes into an academic argument.  Yet, when I wrote essays I was not consciously following structure, I was following a line of related thoughts, and with practice, that same process would work for fiction.  All I need do was concentrate in the right places.

*Short Story Writing (The “Writers News” Library of Writing) published March 1993

15 thoughts on “Working Story

  1. Reblogged this on Cath Humphris and commented:

    I originally posted this way, way back in August 2012. Yes, I’ve been putting up posts since then! Did miss a year in the middle, though.

    This week though, as the first of my writing groups starts again, and I’m thinking about structure, I revisited this post, and decided that I liked it enough to share it all over again. Sometimes, when I think the story has worked, I don’t want to retell it in any other way.


  2. This is interesting. How the subconscious can work for us if we let it! I read loads of ‘how to’ books and start off following the advice but at some point I find that the story takes over. I think its possibly only when I write non fiction that I,m more structured in the approach. Here’s to the panthers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Did you mean ‘panthers’? That exclamation marks suggest it wasn’t a typo. Love it. It sounds so much more exciting than the rather earthy ‘pantsers’. I think I’ll have to start thinking of writers as either feline or not. 🙂


      • I got interrupted before finishing the comment and pressed send without rereading and before I explained!
        When I had a proper job many moons ago, there was a small group of us, all females, who were known as the panthers by our male colleagues . This was because we were very focused on our careers and used a blend of outright competence and…well perhaps intuition to forward our ambitions. I was reminded of this when reading your post. Competence in using structure (ie knowing our way around the business) but always letting intuition and imagination have a long rein.Hope this makes sense to you!!!


        • Ah, ‘panthers’ makes perfect sense, and sounds like great story material.
          Incidentally, you would not believe how often I’ve sent a comment to someone’s blog then realised I’ve either made a typo, or even, not written a sensible sentence 🙂


  3. For the past few years I’ve listened and read all kinds of advise and in the process lost the spark that makes my writing what I am. It is executed well but flat. Following a course a few months ago, I realised I had straitjacketed myself and vowed to write without thinking about the use or not of adverbs, redundancies, cliches, semi-colons etc. When it comes to editing, I can address them and choose whether to leave them or change.
    As you say, the importance is to let my writing flow and free myself from self-imposed restrictions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you’ve got back into a flow of writing, Lynda.
      It’s interesting that your experience has been similar. The ‘nuts and bolts’ information is important, but can be restrictive. It’s at the editing stage I consciously draw from it. Before that, I think I employ some theory, but it’s something that happens instinctively, rather than consciously.


  4. I call this “Writing from the inside out,” Cath. I’ve never been able to conform to formulas or rules or what’s supposed to happen 1/8th of the way into a book. It feels so stifling! Even as an outliner, the story has to have an element of discovery, follow its natural course, and be allowed to grow. Great post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Diana. I love getting involved in the how-writing-happens debate. It reveals so many different approaches.

      For me, that moment when character shift from my control is when I feel confident that my story might work. Until then, I can’t help but worry I’m dangerously close to applying a formula.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH I hate this whole “all that writing doesn’t count.” Now granted, I’ve had to completely rewrite some of my short stories because the angle was all wrong. I’m bummed those original versions didn’t work, but *I* wasn’t happy with them, either. So I get that those pages were garbage. But I hate when a teacher just knocks it all aside like it’s nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean. It was hard, but my tutor was right in that instance, and even though I didn’t like hearing it, somewhere deep inside I knew what she was saying was true. She didn’t say, ‘this is rubbish’, but she did say it was too reverential – I’d based it on a friend who had just died.

      So I’m grateful to Jenny for her honesty. Without it i might never have had that moment of ‘flight’ when the story went right, and that ‘win’ came at just the right moment for me. My character-study stopped being a eulogy and became fiction – which was what I’d been trying to achieve in the first place.

      Plus, it was university, which I think should be a place that challenges us to reach for the highest levels we can. It didn’t take me long to realise that I hadn’t done that.

      Nowadays, I hope I’m better able to see for myself why something is not working – given some time, but then I needed someone to be blunt. I guess the skill for a tutor or teacher is to be able to criticise without deflating. I was lucky to have a tutor who could and did do that.

      In the past I’ve occasionally met some of the other kind, and seen their effect on other people. You’re so right, that’s not nice, or beneficial.

      Liked by 1 person

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