Take a sensitive or finicky character and send him or her on a grimy journey, to an interesting place where that person is threatened or imagined they are threatened by a passenger in a train, bus, plane or taxi. Or take three characters who have as little in common as you can think and place them in the same cab or the same row of seats. As you raise the sense of danger, intersperse the action with details of the travel—waterfalls, coyotes, smell of burning garbage, whatever.


Motivation and More Exercises

Motivation—like characterization and plot—must emerge gradually in your story. You must back up the protagonist’s discoveries with believable characterization. The character not only must be capable of doing the necessary acts, but also must be capable of having the necessary motivations. so you must set up your characters and their traits from the beginning of the story and build them throughout the plot in such a way as to support their personalities, the required motivation and the plot.

A. Write a dialogue of a couple of pages in which one person tries to seduce another. Make the seducer a fairly unlikely candidate for the job. Give strong motivation to your characters and this will intensify their speech. A dialogue that is motive driven is easier to write than a dialogue that has no apparent mission behind it. The stronger the reason for someone’s talking, the more likely it is that you can drive the dialogue meaningfully.


B. Write a dialogue in which two people argue intensely about something, and in the middle of the quarrel let them discover that they are both wrong. There had been some misunderstanding that in the quarrel gets exposed and settled. Then write the dialogue of reconciliation.


C. Write a discovery dialogue. Two people are celebrating their good relationship, and in the middle of the memory session, a piece of information surfaces and totally upsets one partner so that a furious quarrel ensues.


Its words may be simple in the extreme, as in the stories of Hemingway. His story vocabulary has been estimated at about 800 words—that of an average high school sophomore.—Paul Darcy Boles



Thought or emotion crosses the line into plot when it becomes action and causes reactions. Until then, attitudes, however interesting in themselves, are just potential, just cloudy possibilities. They’re static. They’re not going anywhere. No action, however dramatic, is plot if the story would have been about the same if it hadn’t happened at all. Any action, however seemingly trivial, can be vital and memorable if it has significant consequences and changes the story’s outcome. Plotting is a way of looking at things. It’s a way of deciding what’s important and then showing it to be important through the way you construct and connect the major events of your story. For the reader to care about your story, there has to be something at stake—someth8ing of value to gain, something of value to be lost. “Wrestling” in short story writing means something specific happening: two strong forces are meeting, one of them triumphing over he other—for better or for worse. These may be “external” or “internal” forces or both.

 External conflict—hero versus villain, man versus the sea, etc.—if it ever aspires to more than routine melodrama soon becomes internal conflict. Internal conflict, conflict within an individual always devolves into a matter of choice. How will the protagonist choose or decide? The outcome must be made to depend on the character’s will: the outcome of plot must have some relation to character. The sort of suspense created by conflict is what Jessamine West called “willy wonty,” the reader’s uncertainty about whether a character “will” or “won’t” commit an act, decide a matter, do a deed, marry the girl or let her go. It is the suspenseful reaction at its simplest. But to be effective the situation of the conflict must be developed so that the forces or values on each side are more or less balanced. Tension in a story consists in something unresolved. Setting up something to be resolved and then prolonging or postponing the resolution of it is one way of putting tension in a story.

 A scene is one connected and sequential action, together with its embedded description and background material. It seems to happen just as if a reader were watching and listening to it happen. It’s built on talk and action. It’s dramatized, shown, rather than being summarized or talked about.


At the Edge by John Lehman 


In that moment, as he stood in the kitchen

garbed in a Black Watch plaid bathrobe

with his two spindly legs sticking out of it,

I thought, I could have done much better

than this. He was attempting to crack an egg

into a flimsy poacher. Then, he put his hand

on a loaf of bread, and there was something

exquisite about that hand. I saw the hand that

made love to me, the hand that had planted

tulips with me. This man is not a god, but

a person who can fight things through. And

on this anniversary as I asked myself do I stay

or do I go, finally I knew.


One thought on “SHORT STORY MAGIC – Part 4

  1. Dear Friend,

    Please help us spread the word by posting the following on your blog, website, bulletin board, webpage, etc. Contestant participation help makes the Split This Rock Poetry Festival happen!

    Extended Deadline!

    Split This Rock is pleased to announce the deadline extension of the Third Annual Split This Rock Poetry Contest. Submissions by January 22nd 2010 will have the opportunity of receiving $1000 for poems of provocation and witness. Judged by Chris Abani. First prize $500; 2nd and 3rd place will receive $250 each. Entries should share the spirit of Split This Rock. The $25 entry fee will help put on this year’s March 10th to the 13th Split This Rock Poetry Festival!

    For further details or other information on Split This Rock Poetry Contest and festival please visit

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