One of my writing classes this quarter focuses on structure in story. For assignments, we come up with a story and write it in the style of another piece of literature. Our options for this assignment included the Bible, Greek myth (Theseus and the Minotaur), fables (The Lion and the Mouse, The Dog and His Bone), and fairy tales (Cinderella, The Little Match Girl). It’s a 300-level Writing elective and the pieces we write are for practice, not eventual publication.
Overlooking the comma splices, incorrectly punctuated dialogue, confused homophones and a widespread lack of how to properly use “alas” (the editor in me never sleeps), my classmates have come up with an interesting collection of stories.
Some of the more entertaining ones are written in the style of the Bible — one about a bride planning her wedding, another about a student reading scary stories online instead of sleeping. But looking past the narrative, these stories all share a similar structure.
Each story begins with something to ground us in the story’s reality: setting or character. In these short stories, the exposition can last a whole page or simply be one paragraph. No matter how long, there’s usually some small detail that sets us up for actions later in the story.
Sounds like foreshadowing, right? But on a much smaller scale (especially since we’re working with short stories here, not novels). A single adjective with the introduction of a character sets up for a crucial action they make later on. If you tell readers “there once was a naughty boy named Jim,” that makes the promise that Jim will do something bad. But if you tell your readers Jim is a sweet little boy and he drowns a sick kitten later on, we’re not going to believe it.
Act I is all about establishing your authority as the writer. If we don’t trust that you own the story from the very beginning, we’re not going to stick around for the rest.
Here is where the tension lies. For books, most of the story takes place in Act II with its minor conflicts rising and falling, building up to the climax. In short stories, we’re probably still going to spend most of our time here.
Let’s say you start Act I describing the setting and introducing us to a character. Act II begins with the action or decision that starts this particular story. After working late one night with his father, the boy wakes up and discovers his dad has disappeared. Bam! Now we’re in the story of the boy’s search for his father. And all the little things that pile up to build tension — dad’s truck is missing, the house is a mess, the mailbox has been knocked over — make up the most of the story.
Tension builds in Act II. You can have your character development going on at the same time, but tension defines this part of the story. By the end of Act II, readers should feel like the tension can’t get any higher.
The final act begins with the inexorable surprise — the thing that surprises us, but we realize it couldn’t have happened any other way. Remember those tiny promises you made back in Act I? Time to make good on those.
Naughty Jim — who drowned a sick kitten because his father called him soft — finds his father has driven into a ditch and is badly injured. Rather than get help, Jim gets the truck out of the ditch, drives to a lake, and drowns his dad. Maybe a bit morbid and extreme, but it works if you set it up correctly. We wouldn’t believe it if “sweet little Jim” suddenly drowned his father. But we expect bad things of “naughty Jim.” And since his father taught him to kill things to end their pain, of course he’d kill his suffering dad!
The tension jacks up a bit higher in Act III, and then it drops down for the resolution. And that’s it.
I pulled these examples from one of my classmates’ stories. Though I simplified it to help explain the three acts, it’s one of the more successful and memorable stories.