By THOMAS HUKAHU
MY tips on helping you to write your own articles and stories resumed two weeks ago.
Then, I discussed the feature style of writing, an important style used by writers for newspapers and magazines.
The same writing style can be used for blogs and websites that inform people about a place, a person or history about an event.
The feature writing is the main style that is employed by writers who pen articles for Weekender, this supplement that you are reading.
Now, let’s turn to fiction
Have you read fiction lately, like a novel or short story or even a script?
Why don’t you start writing your own fiction too?
The novel may be a difficult project to start with because it is longer and may take a long time to complete.
So, I suggest you start with a short story, or a script.
Both are ways of telling a story and have been used by many people groups over the ages.
Our traditional people also had their own way of telling or capturing a story using both forms mentioned, as well as other forms, like a song, dance or painting.
I will now discuss the basic elements of the short story and script.
Essential elements of the short story
As with the novel, the longer storytelling format, a typical short story has a protagonist, a setting, characters, a conflict, a crisis and resolution.
The protagonist is the main character in the story – he could be the hero or villain. The setting is where and the time the story takes place, the characters are people in the story, the protagonist as well as others. If the protagonist has an enemy in the story, that person is the antagonist. (The police detective in a story could be the protagonist while the elusive killer he is tracking and finally catches is the antagonist.)
In the short story, there should be a conflict, struggle, or challenge facing the protagonist, as in a male protagonist’s girlfriend who does not answer his calls, or him floating in the sea after a storm.
The crisis is the protagonist’s action to solve the conflict – as in him approaching the female friend and apologising for not telling her that he had gone out of town for a few days, or him as a person at sea finding a floating log with an old fishing line and the hook intact on it and making use of those.
The resolution is the point where the conflict is resolved – where the protagonist meets with his girlfriend over a cup of coffee and they clear up the misunderstanding and make a promise to work on their relationship, or the man catching fish with the hook and line and surviving on those until he is picked up by a Thai fishing vessel two days later.
Another source tells us that the five important elements of a short story are character (as in the protagonist and others), setting, plot, conflict and theme. It states that the plot is a series of events and character actions.
The theme is the central idea or belief in a short story. Because the short story is much briefer than a novel (or novella), the individual characteristics (or elements), as listed above, may not be developed well.
If you read some of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, you will notice that they may not have had all the typical elements well-developed, and that may be the case with many budding writers. That is something to bear in mind when creating your own.
Short stories can be anything between 1,000 and 20,000 words. Anything shorter than that can be called a short short story or flash fiction. F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a short story over 9,000 words and can take up to more than 25 pages of A4 paper.
Fitzgerald’s short story has been adapted for a 2008 feature film of the same name. So, good short stories have that potential too, they can be adapted into a screenplay for a movie.
Point of view
This is one of two other important elements to consider when writing a short story.
You have to choose a point of view (or viewpoint). From which character’s eyes do you see the events in the story – the protagonist who is you, or you as a third person observing him and others?
A couple of viewpoints can be taken:
- First person. This may seem the simplest viewpoint to take where you are a character in the story (which may be the protagonist). That means pronouns like “I”, “me”, “my” and “we” will be used. Many of Hemingway’s short stories and novels are written in first person.
If you take this view, that means you can only see what that character sees or senses in the environment he is in. You can also mention what he feels and thinks. If there is another character named Jewel in the story, you cannot tell what she is thinking or feeling – if she does not tell you. You can guess what she is feeling by observing her face or body language, but you cannot know for sure. American writer and editor William Zinsser says: “I almost always urge people to write in the first person … Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it.”
- Third person. This point of view is common. This viewpoint uses pronouns like “he”, “she” and “they”. Here, the author is not “in the story”. S/he is someone from the outside looking in, so to speak.
This viewpoint allows for the writer to mention the thoughts and feelings of the main characters (three or four), but not everyone in the story. All others will only be observed and heard, their thoughts and feelings would not be known.
- Third person from a single viewpoint. In this, you can only report what is observed by only one person – possibly from the viewpoint of the protagonist.
This is another common viewpoint.
Importance of dialogue
The dialogue in the story is what people are saying. This is another important element in storytelling.
Confident use of punctuation, as in correctly using quotation marks and commas, is important in this aspect.
Good use of the dialogue in an event can often tell much more than your description without it.
Have you read a book and followed the conversation of two people who are standing in the same spot and discussing an issue, or having an argument, and you continue reading with interest three pages down to see where their conversation will lead to?
If you have had such an experience that means the author has done a good job with his or her use of dialogue to move the story along.
The script as a storytelling format
A script is another way of telling a story, just like you would in a short story, novel or even poem. However, how this type of story is written in a different format.
In a short story or novel, the reader/audience reads the story that has been penned by the author.
In a script, the story will be told by the actors and actresses (as the different characters in the story) acting on stage, as well as the setting of the stage.
Actually, in a written version of the script, you can also follow what would be done on stage.
Plot, theme and basic elements in a script
The script for a stage play (or when it is acted) is a way of telling a story and therefore has a plot, in the same way that short stories and novels have. The playwright (the person who writes the script) decides how the plot of the story develops as s/he composes the different scenes.
The playwright will also determine the theme of the script, as in the case of the short story writer or novelist.
Do note that since the script is another way of telling a story as a short story and novel do, the basic elements of creative fiction (characters, plot, theme, setting and dialogue) are present in it.
The theme of a script (when it is acted out, or when read) can be of a tragedy, of love or even funny (comedy).
The scriptwriter is often compelled to write a script based on something that triggers a feeling in him or her – one of shock, love, appreciation or sadness. It is the same reason why authors are moved to write a good short story or novel.
Essential parts in a script
A script for the stage is generally the set of instructions set out in a certain format to tell a story. The instructions will direct the kind of action that will be staged (what actors/actresses will do on stage, and off-stage) in a given setting as well as what they will say.
We all read novels and short stories and are used to the format that they are written in. The script is written a bit differently. So, for illustration purposes, let me share with you a part from The Crucible, a script written by American playwright Arthur Miller in 1953. (It was also adapted for the 1996 feature film of the same name.) Here is a part of the script:
Abigail (pulling her away from the window): I told him everything. He knows now, he knows everything we –
Betty: You drank blood, Abby! You didn’t tell him that!
Abigail: Betty, you never say that again! You will never –
Betty: You did, you did! You drank a charm to kill John Proctor’s wife! You drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor!
Abigail (smashes her across the face): Shut it! Now shut it!
Betty (collapsing on the bed): Mama, Mama! (She dissolves into sobs)
Notice some things in the script
Do you notice how a script is written?
The dialogues are written after the colon place beside each character’s name.
The stage directions, or what the actors and actresses will do, are in brackets. At times, the stage directions may be written above or below the dialogues and in italics and within brackets (as above).
Getting to read a script (without the play being performed) could be as enjoyable as reading a short story or novel.
As someone who has written a number of scripts, I enjoy reading good scripts as well.
Do you also notice that the excerpt that I have chosen from Miller’s play looks interesting in itself?
Can you already see the scene in your mind, even if you have never seen the movie or the play?
That is what good scripts do to a reader also. They help you visualise the story.
A few scripts that I have read
To write good scripts, we must read good scripts.
(That applies to writing short stories and novels also. If we want to write well, we must read stories that have been enjoyed by many others over the decades or even centuries, as in the case of the classics.)
If you look around online, you can find copies of these popular scripts that I have read in the past few years.
- The Crucible by Arthur Miller (1953)
- Fences by August Wilson (1985)
- The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (1987)
- Proof by David Auburn (2000)
The last three scripts have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a coveted prize for any playwright.
Next article: My experience of writing a prize-winning script.
- Thomas Hukahu is an Australia Awards student in Adelaide.