Fiction Writing: How to Craft the Perfect Short Story | Noah Milligan | Skillshare

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Fiction Writing: How to Craft the Perfect Short Story

teacher avatar Noah Milligan, Writer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

8 Lessons (28m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Project Overview

    • 3. Action

    • 4. Background

    • 5. Development

    • 6. Climax

    • 7. Ending

    • 8. Final Thoughts

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About This Class

Ever wonder how a writer hooks you into a story and compels you to keep turning the page? Join writer Noah Milligan as he dissects a short story and explains a step-by-step guide in creating enthralling narrative arcs. This 30-minute class breaks down various elements of short story structure, provides a writing prompt to start a new story, and offers insightful tips on crafting engrossing characters and plot.

Students are able to post a new short story, engage in constructive critique with other students, and polish their projects to get them ready for publication. This class is designed for emerging writers crafting their very first short stories, more experienced writers honing their craft, and anyone who has ever had a story to share.

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Noah Milligan



Shortlisted for the 2015 Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize, Noah Milligan's debut novel, An Elegant Theory, is forthcoming from Central Avenue Publishing in the fall of 2016. He is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Central Oklahoma, and his short fiction has recently appeared in Rathalla Review, MAKE Literary Magazine, Storyscape Literary Journal, Empty Sink Publishing, Santa Clara Review, Glint, and elsewhere. Connect with him at and @MilliganNoah

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1. Introduction: Hi. My name is No ML again, and I'm a fiction writer. I write both short stories and novels. Recently, my work has been featured in Wrathall, a review Make Literary magazine Story, Escape, Literary Journal and Empty Sink Publishing. And my debut novel and elegant theory is forthcoming from Central Avenue Publishing in the fall of 2016. Today we're gonna be talking about a basic short story structure, A B, D, C e action, background, development, climax and ending. And it will talk about how to create a hook to draw your reader in how to create a context in a wider world. How to create rising tension, a climax as well as a resolution for your story. Help illustrate. Our point will be referencing my short story Disobedience, which was published in the 14th issue of Story Escape Literary Journal, And I've also posted in the class Resource is Section two short stories constant Squires Wounding radius and you were going to be a good man by Georgia forming hopefully by the end of the class, you'll be able to pinpoint how these writers used a B. D. C. E in their own workers. Will is how they deviated from them into what effect? Before we get started, please take a few moments to read disobedience. I won't take terribly long as they'll be referencing it throughout the remainder of the course. 2. Project Overview: for a class project. We're gonna be writing a short story that begins with our most embarrassing moment now. This is designed to be fun and easy. We've all had a moment where we've been embarrassed. But remember, this is fiction. So take liberty with fact to create an engaging, entertaining and imaginative short story and don't make yourself the main character or even a character at all. Imagine this moment happening to somebody else and just use it is theatrics in that springboards. Your short story will be posting our projects and five installments that each correspond with the five parts of the basic short story structure, action, background, development climax and ending with each section. Put that in the same document is the former so that when you're done, you'll have a complete draft of a short story. Please feel free to read other students projects and provide feedback, but please remain civil. Of course, there's no greater resource in a discerning reader that can provide feedback to our pieces and also ill provide personal feedback to 10 pieces that show exceptional promises. Well, remember, have fun, get writing, and I can't wait to read your work 3. Action: before we get started. Please take a moment to read disobedience. It's not terribly long about 5000 words or so and then once you do that, we'll get started on the first section of a short story or action in the action section. I try to accomplish three things. I want to hook my reader into this story. I want to introduce my man characters, and I also want to introduce the central conflict. This story. Now when I try to create a hook, the first sentence for me is paramount and disobedience strangely. Ah, if you take a look at the first sentence, it can seem kind of boring at first glance, basically, Allen is returning a shopping cart to have been any stop by an acquaintance toe. Have a friendly chat. However, I tried to instill a sense of urgency with the aside right in the middle. It was just a few seconds that was all. Basically, our narrator is telling our reader that he is regretting these few seconds at the moment. The reader, of course, doesn't know why our narrator regrets thes few seconds. You don't learn that until much later. Whenever Allen is interviewed by the sheriff, and you know that he has been spotted at the scene of the crime. So my point in adding that aside, right in the middle of the first sentence was to peek a sense of mystery and the reader. So they feel compelled to move forward and turn pages to find out exactly why our narrator regrets that moment. Though the opening sentence is vital and creating a hook for the reader, the hook should be created throughout the entire action section. Now there are several means to be able to accomplish this, and I'll touch base on character and conflict in just a second. Another way to do this is be able to ground your reader and time in place, and you can do this by creating a very vivid setting, using concrete imagery and engaging the five senses of your reader in disobedience. I try to do this by bringing details that embody small town Oklahoma harsh spring breezes, brown paper bags, old men congregating on a park bench in front of the I G, a long line of rusted and broken shopping cars, and the more detail and imagery that you can put in this, the more that your reader is gonna feel immersed in the fictional world that you're creating now. The second thing that I try to do in the Actions section is I want to introduce my main characters. Kurt Vonnegut once famously said, Make your characters want something right away, even if it's a glass of water. Now this sounds like simple advice, but it's a lot easier said than done in fiction writing, because you're trying to create well rounded characters. I tried to accomplish this and disobedience through the relationship between Allen and Amber. Now it's sort of obvious what Alain wants. There have been rumors going around town of an inappropriate relationship between the two. He's a school principal, and he wants to dispel these rumors Now. What Amber wants is a little bit more complicated, just for the simple fact that this story is told from a close third person perspective from Allen's point of view. So we can Onley surmise what Amber wants through details that Allen provides for us. And what he does provide is telling. When Amber approaches him, she clasps her arms and for never as if to protect herself. She is afraid of Allen and Allen has hurt by this. He becomes defensive, he becomes desperate, and he does something that he's going to regret. And so doing. I've created the central conflict to the short story. The conflict should rise organically from the characters. Characters one X, and there needs to be obstacles placed in his way in order to achieve X in disobedience. Allen really wants to things. He wants to accept iTV's crime, but he also wants to circumvent justice. Now, on the surface, this seems to be at odds with one another. Uh, if you're going to accept a crime that you've done, that typically means that you're going to accept the punishment and the consequences of those actions. But life is not that simple. It's messy, it's complicated, and the impulse of self preservation is great. Eso that's really where the central conflict arises, and disobedience is the clashing of these two impulses in Allen, the one where he wants to find absolution through penance and the other one a base survival instinct. Now, I once had a great professor in college that said, Conflict is the life blood of fiction, and a pride took me way too long to realize this, but he's right. You need to put your characters in uncomfortable situations, and you need to make them act rather than be acted upon. The opening section to any short story is important, and even though it's called a short story, it is a time commitment. So you're going to want to create a sense that your reader wants to continue reading on or what John Gardner called in the art efficient pro fluent from Page one. They need to be casting suspicions, raising questions and expectations. They should be looking forward to future pages, wondering exactly what's going toe happen and how. And if you do that successfully, then you've got a good start to a short story. 4. Background: in this section will be talking about background. Ah, the goal of the background section released a grant the world context. And for me personally, this is the hardest Section two, right? And the reason is because of the old adage of showing versus telling or writing a scene versus lengthy exposition. And the reason is because of the idea that we touch briefly on and last video called Pro Fluency. It's just always mawr entertaining and engaging to write a scene versus exposition. That's not to say Exposition doesn't have its place in storytelling. It most certainly does. You just need to keep mindful of why you're using it and if it would be better employed than a scene now, with that being said, I actually used both in disobedience of I wrote a scene and use exposition in the background section. So for the part of text that will be taking a look at for this video, it's when Miss Red Tree asked Allen for funds to reenact the Oklahoman Land run and the section immediately thereafter where the narrator describes for Alan lives. Now, as mentioned previously, there must be obstacles put in place to keep your characters from achieving what they want . And the best way to do this is to be able to create ah, world that has a greater context. It must live outside of your characters in your central conflict. It must have external factors and cultural factors. It must have a past present future, and it must influence the characters that are acting within your story now. Disobedience. I tried to accomplish this in two different ways. The first is the subplot of the school being consolidated and shut down, and second is Allen's role within that as thes school principal and administrator. So he has a legislature that is making decisions that he cannot control. And he has to appease these overzealous teachers, and he has to try to educate thes disinterested students. Basically, the world is. Alan knows it is crumbling around him, and for a lack of a better word, he has lost. Take, for instance, this passage. The school had no money. That was just a plain reality of the matter, and that wouldn't change. The sooner the staff understood that fact, the quicker they could move on plan for the inevitable, them all losing their jobs, their students being absorbed into a larger school district's Bartlesville. Mostly they're dying town, mercifully relieved of its last wheezing gasp. Evidence of the situation surrounded all of them. He didn't even have a door on his office anymore, just a curtain. An unruly student had shattered the glass, and instead of replacing it, he just took it off its hinges and now resided in the basement, stored away in the corner of the school's tornado shelter. Part of background is fax, and there are several listed in this section. There's no money. There's a loss of jobs. Their students transferring. The town is dying, however. Most importantly, is the effect that these facts have on your characters. How did they react to these things? Miss Red Tree, of course, is, ah, still acting and doing her job almost in spite of what's going on around her. The students are are unruly. They are vandalised, thinking that there's gonna be no consequences for their action, and Alan, he takes the path of least resistance. He just takes his door off its hinges and stores it in the basement. I've reinforced character and the central conflict in this story, part of Alan struggle is he wants to preserve the world around him and it is crumbling. And at this particular point in the story anyway, he is unable to cope with that. The next section, where Allen describes where he lives was very difficult for me to write. In earlier drafts, there were several more sections like this interspersed throughout the rest of this story, and this particular section was actually much longer. I decided to cut the rest of those sections and edit this one down to about three paragraphs or so, mainly because of the idea of pro fluent that we've talked about before. But I wanted to keep this exposition in here for the reason that the way I learned about Oklahoma history wasn't through textbooks. It was through oral histories told to me, my my parents by my grandparent's, my aunts and uncles. And it was this really weird mixture of truth and untruth, myth and legend and folklore, and I really wanted to convey a sense of that in this story. I wanted to delve into Oklahoma history. It's a place that has been fraught with violence and tension between the Plains Indians relocated Indians, the white settlers after the land run. And so I really wanted this to influence Alan. Basically, as he traverse is his central conflict. He's also going through the five stages of grief and this section. He is in denial. He's blaming others. He's blaming the Legislature, other people, this place. He is not to blame. Basically, he is in denial. Try to keep this in mind. As you write your own background section, you're gonna have to make tough choices of writing seen versus exposition of what to cut and want to leave in. But in the grand scheme of things, you want to create a world that your characters air acting in and one that your readers can truly believe in. 5. Development: development is really where we start getting into the heart of this story. At this point, the narrative. We have created a hook. We've introduced our characters, we've introduced our conflict, and we started granting the wider world context. Now it's time for your characters to start acting and try to get what they want. And so doing. Complicating the story and creating rising tension the section of text will be looking at for this video is where Allen interacts with book blinky and the sheriff. Now complicating your story can be done in almost in an infinite number of ways is you can create a new subplot. You can have the outside world act upon your character. There's an infinite number of ways that you can develop a plot. But the main point is that the where real world is complicated, it's messy, it's opaque, and your fictional world needs to accomplish this. It's never as easy as character, a once X, and he must do why, in order to get X. It's a lot more difficult to that, and you really need to mere this in your own short story. To recap. The central conflict of disobedience is this dual impulse and Alan, where he both wants to accept the consequences of his actions. But he also wants to circumvent justice. Now, this is a complicated conflict, or at least I hope so. Eso the development of it needs to be complicated as well. I tried to do this with the subplot of the school shuttering. Um, I introduced this subplot in the background section, but in this particular section I try to take it a step further. None of the students are showing up really anymore. None of the teachers, with the exception of Miss Red Tree, is showing up anymore. And the substitutes that air, they're really more glorified baby sitters rather than certified teachers. And what I really wanted to convey was for the reader to hope that Alan starts to do something here. He wants to inspire his students. He wants to help his teachers find employment in other district, but he doesn't do that. Instead, he slowly slips into alcoholism instead. Secondly, I had the outside world starring to close in on Alan. This comes in the form of both blinky and the sheriff who question Allen's involvement in the disappearance of Amber now, Blinky takes a softer approach, uh, confessing that he, too, sometimes has inappropriate thoughts when it comes to underage girls. The sheriff, of course, is much more direct, basically implying that Allen is the prime suspect in Amber's disappearance. But Allen, he just denies, denies, denies. If taken together, these two elements show that Alan is actually moving further away from his goal to find any semblance of peace. He really needs to accept what he's done and face the consequences, as well as try to help his community as it slowly dies around him. But Alan chooses to do neither. Hey continues to deny his involvement in Amber's disappearance, and he remains passive about his community, deciding to slip into alcoholism. Instead, however, there is one element of this section that provides a little bit of hope. He is finally able to admit that he raped Amber. It isn't out loud. It isn't to another character. It's to himself. Its to the reader. Like we talked about before. I wanted to create a sense of pro fluency is, and I was in a bit of a conundrum here. Allen continues to keep moving further and further away from his goal. But this gives the reader hope that he might, in the end, actually find acceptance he might actually find peace. Let's take a look at this section lies the lies they should tell the importance of keeping their mouth shut. Anything but the truth. That it had happened after school, when Amber came by the office to talk about her trouble with her mother, how she'd been drinking too much and how she was dating some guy who worked for Philips, 66 over em Bartels villain who Amber thought might be a pervert. He just learned that the school was going to be shut down. And although Alan students had always been a sexual creatures to him, he was mired in a four day drunk. And she had great legs, legs like a track star, legs that could wrap around his body twice to taste and color warm honey. Not that that was an excuse. But on that day, his blood pressure rose and his head swim, and he felt a warm tingled down, and it is growing that he hadn't felt in years. She peered up at him, and though she didn't fight his touch, didn't welcome it either. She slipped her arms, who were shirt and covered her breasts with her hands and as he went to touch them and you , we should stop that. What he was doing was wrong, but he couldn't. It just felt so right. The thing I was trying to accomplish in this section is showing Alan moving through the five stages of grief, transitioning from denial to bargaining. He's making excuses. He was drunk. He's under a lot of stress. He's never done anything like this before, but he's getting closer to final acceptance. When you write your own development section, take your time. This is one of the most important parts of your story. You want your character act. You want them to make uncomfortable decisions. You want to increase the stakes. What are they willing to lose? What are they trying to gain and what are they willing to do to do that 6. Climax: the climax of the short story serves many roles. It's the moment that the character reaches catharsis. It's the emotional and dramatic apex of the story. It's really the entire reason the short story exists. Eso it's so important that every facet of the climax must be working. Now all of us have an idea of the purpose that Climax serves. So I really won't go into too much detail here on that and said, I want to touch on two things that I try to accomplish in every climax that I write basically an intersection between rhythm, tone, plot and character, as well as building in an organic surprise to the story now rhythm and tone our best conveyed to me in diction and syntax choices. How does the narrator describe the setting, the action, taking place, the internal monologue of your character? And how does the musicality of that language reinforced the action that's taking place to give you an idea of what I mean? Let's take a look at this section. After a few miles, they came up on a dirt road cut out from the tree line. It looked like it had hardly been used. A fallen tree blocked the entrance and a rusted gate had been pulled back. It was now warped and oxidized to the point of disrepair. The dog stopped in front of it, sniffing the air, and then barreled down the trail about 200 yards down the dirt road. The dog stopped again. They barked, and they howled, and they pointed west towards the woods. It was dark in there, the underbrush thick and dense. They all stared for a few moments, the dogs barking the woods, however silent. Only a stiff breeze could be heard blowing above the canopy. Amber, her dad yelled, Amber, are you out there? Not even an echo answered back. The deputies let loose the dogs and followed behind, sprinting through the underbrush. Soon they came upon the smell. It was putrid, debilitating, even something that Alan would never be able to forget. It was like it crawled up his nose like he got right up inside him and twisted its insides . One man stopped and began to vomit. Another started to gag, but kept running. Amber's father just wailed. They found her in a little clearing. She was naked, and she was tied to a post, her wrist shackled with a rope. She had been there a while and was hardly recognizable anymore. What remained were just dried tissue and muscle and blood, the color and texture of beef jerky. Maggots crawled over her and fly shrouded or school. The coyote or a wild dog had eaten her eyes and face. Arounder was a collection of bones, leg bones, it looked like from cows and deer tied to the post. Above her head was a bison skull. On her stomach was a picture of a small person drawn in her own blood. In terms of rhythm. I tried to slow things down here, Uh, the senses. A short and even the longer, more complex senses are broken up by commas, making them a little bit choppy. And I did this in order to create a certain tone. We're about to find a body out here, and Allen knows it. So you would expect him to be a little bit panicked about this so you'd see run on sentences more fast pace. But that's not the case. It's ah, measured and short and choppy, And the reason is because he's glad the fact that she's been out there. He knows that nobody else has Has eating him up inside him. He has finally relieved that there is going to be some sort of closure now. What this does is in turn informed both character and plot. We've been talking all along how important it is for Alan to traverse the five stages of grief. Now, throughout this story, we've seen him angry. We've seen him bargaining. We've team him in denial. We've seen him depressed. Now he's finally starting to show acceptance. He volunteered for the search party and he wanted Amber to be found. So it should give the reader hope that he will finally accept the consequences of his actions. Lastly, I tried to build in an organic surprise for my reader. They shouldn't have been able to see this coming. However, it should feel inevitable, almost like they could not believe that they didn't guess that this has I was going to happen in the first place. And the way I did that with disobedience was in the way that Amber's body is found. Up until this moment, I'm thinking that the reader had a guest, that what occurred was Amber was going to go public about what he had done to her and an M panicked moment. Impulsive reaction. He committed this terrible, terrible crime. However, when we find Amber, this destroys that assumption because she is shown tied up. She's naked. There's bones laying around her body. Uh, he has painted a portrait of a small person in her blood on her stomach. This was something that was premeditated. This was something planned. This was ritualistic for Allen. He's even a greater monster than we initially thought. Now the reason I did this is because I wanted to be able to create a sense of being tourney for the reader. Ah, first, we as a culture have an instinctive forgiveness. It's built into both religious and secular doctrines, the nobility of forgiveness. But what are the limits to that forgiveness? We're disgusted by Allen. He is a terrible, terrible human being. How much evil are we supposed to forgive? 7. Ending: Aristotle once said, to keep beginning short and endings even shorter. And I think I would have to agree with that, as you can probably see with my ending and disobedience only being about three paragraphs long. So in an effort to not repudiate Aristotle, I'll try to keep this video short as well. Ah, the two concepts that I really want to bring home for this video is the idea of resolution and finality since the beginning of narrative. I think we've had this impulses, a culture to tie off everything in a neat little bow, you know, in a love story. Lovebirds get married and they live happily ever after. And in tragedy, everybody dies at the end being think of pretty much every place Shakespeare ever wrote. However, in real life, I don't think it actually is like that. I don't believe in the idea of finality. Even if the lovebirds get married, their fights. There's fights about school, district jobs, money. When somebody dies, there's consequences. There's a grief. There's morning, there's guilt. So I guess my point is, is that don't feel compelled to tie everything, often in the little bow in your own endings. What I try to do is place clues in the text so that the readers control their own conclusions. Let's take a look at the final scene where Alan is witnessing the reenactment of the Oklahoma land run to give an example of what I'm talking about. The land run had started on high noon that day. An estimated 50,000 settlers lined up to take part. People who had decided to start a new someplace else who had, for whatever reason, decided to abandon their birthplaces for the promises of the West. A fitting tribute to the end of the school year. Allen thought the underclassmen would start a new school come next fall. The teachers and administrators, like Miss Red Tree and himself, would be forced to find employment in other districts. Her new professions hold together. Most of them would be unqualified for anything else and be forced to take jobs. They hadn't worked since college, delivering pizzas there, assisting a plumber, honest work work that they shouldn't, but would none the last be ashamed of. It took a lot of courage to do a thing like that, and it wasn't a normal kind of courage, not the kind where people acted on impulse running into a burning building to save a child or to shield a friend from a grenade. This took aforethought, a premeditated and detailed plan execution. It was a type of courage. Allen was afraid he didn't have. Allen here is talking about lacking courage despite coming close to acceptance. He can't quite bring himself to do it and said he's trapped himself in this self imposed Stasis. Despite him not wanting to act, though, he will be forced to, even if he doesn't want to admit it, this is far from over. 8. Final Thoughts: thank you so much for joining me and learning about basic short stories structure before you start on your class projects. I just wanted to touch on a couple final points first. Like I mentioned earlier, I try to stray away from absolutes. When it comes to fiction, writing and structure is no different. There's no right or wrong way to write a short story. Uh, the A, B D C E structure or action background development, climax and ending is just a basic structure that you can employ once you understand it and can do it, feel free to start experimenting and creating something wholly new. Secondly, before you get started, I'd like you to read too short stories that are in the class Resource is the first is Wounding Radius by constant Squires. And the second is you are going to Be a Good Man by George McCormick and see if you can pinpoint how these writers use the elements of a B, D. C. E in their own writing and also how they deviate from them. But most importantly, have fun. Get working, and I can't wait to read your work