History of the Short Story [Week 3 – Part 2]

Ok, so I admit that I am fascinated by history but I don’t spend much time studying it, usually. However, whenever I come across a slice of historical information I find myself immersed in the exotic customs, cultures, and trends of the past. The history of the short story is fascinating and spans a great many centuries. The form really hasn’t changed all that much in all those years either. Then again, it has changed a great deal. Hopefully you’ll better understand what I mean by the end of this post.

Stories probably began with the earliest humans. I like to imagine prehistoric man communicating in charades and grunts telling of the latest mammoth they took down and how it fed a whole family for a year. It’s a fancy, I know. Actually, it would make a really cool story!

Originally, all stories were delivered orally. Perhaps with charades and grunts, but in later years, as language developed they were told with words. Some of these stories were passed down for generations in an oral tradition for many cultures.

From 9th century BC stories that form The Book of One Thousand and One Nights were collected. These include tales that have been told and retold such as Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad. These entertaining romps, into the lives of exciting people, captivated audiences. In the 14th century the compilation of the stories built around itself another story, that of Scheherazade, the Persian queen who enthralled her husband for one thousand and one nights by telling stories. In this way she staved off her death, for the man she had married had been betrayed by his unfaithful first wife and, in their turn, he married virgins who he beheaded the day after the consummation of their marriage to be certain of their fidelity. Perhaps Scheherazade was the first feminist but she must have been a wonderful story teller.

Later, around 6th century BC stories such as The Tortoise and the Hare and The Boy who Cried Wolf and others of Aesop’s Fables (The Kindle Edition is free!) became traditional oral stories. They are sweet in their simplicity and deliver a moral lesson to readers. Perhaps their adherence to the “to entertain and to teach” rule is a large part of why the stories are still told and retold thousands of years later. They share a message that still speaks to modern man in a meaningful way.

However, it was centuries later before German inventor, Johannes Gutenberg, invented the printing press in 1440 allowing for economic replication of popular stories. One of the earliest books to be published was that of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in 1478.

In the 19th Century AD, writers tended to deliver stories (particularly plays) that followed Aristotle’s The Three Unities (350BC) principle. That is, that each story should have:

  • a main action or plot that drove the story forward with no tangents or subplots;
  • a single location or setting or comprise of similarly limited position in space; and
  • a limitation of time that declares the happenings in the story take no more than the course of 24 hours.

These rules do create an interesting groundwork for the limited word count available to the short story.

The strictness and inflexibility of The Three Unities, however, experienced a dramatic shift following the First World War (1914-1918). People began to acknowledge the chaos and disorder of the world, and this lead to a tendency, particularly in the arts, to portray the fragmented, discontinuity of the world. Writers began to experiment with new techniques and styles and writing became less structured.

Today, we have the opportunity of drawing from the styles of storytelling across all our known history. Two structures of short story are prominent: that of the traditional, linear, and consequential story; and that of experimental, discontinuous, and fragmented story.

Which stories or writers of the past have been your favourite? Did they follow traditional or experimental structures? Which style of writing do you prefer to do yourself? Have you experimented with trying other writing styles and techniques? What did you learn about yourself and your writing?

The Casting Couch for Character Development

Jessica Alba as Max in Dark Angel

Who Do You Want To Act The Role Of Your Protagonist?

An effective way to increase the connection you have to your characters is to sit on the casting couch. There are thousands of talented actors who could be cast into the role of your protagonist. Who would be their ideal counter and play the role of your antagonist? You could even select your supporting cast and run the credits through your mind.

Jessica Alba is going to play the lead role when they turn my current work-in-progress into a movie. Well, in a perfect world she would. Of course I’m sure she’ll love the script. It’s not finished yet but it’s going to be fantastic and it’ll be exactly what she’d want to do next. I picture it; I visualize and see her eagerness and anticipation. She knows the role is right for her and she’s looking forward to spending months in this characters skin.

Who will star in the book-to-movie adaptation of your novel?

As our characters develop during the writing process they grow in our mind. They start off as simple sketches. Insubstantial figments that act on strange whimsy. As we flesh out these strange creatures we discover personality, history, motivation, and depth. In time they take on a life of their own. We hear their voices in our heads and they begin to push the story rather than being resistant followers to our commands.

Visualizing these stars acting out your book can help you delve into character and story. With an actor in mind scenes become almost movie-like in the mind’s eye. As I write a scene I see Jessica Alba as my protagonist. She becomes my character. She mirrors her spunk and fire. Her dark hair and eyes reflect the sense of disturbed darkness within my character. I see the scene unfold as if I were watching in high-definition and surround sound.

Could Paul Walker be my next book's leading man?I haven’t cast my leading man yet. I’m considering Paul Walker but keeping my options open until someone feels “just right”. I find my hero much more difficult not only to picture in my mind’s eye but to feel and know. He’s still fragmented. I can’t “get” him. Perhaps that is why I haven’t been able to cast him. If I could find the perfect actor to play his part would I find myself more connected and attached. Who is this man and if any actor could play his part who would I choose?

Who would you cast in the movie of your novel? Does having your star in mind influence your writing and your sense of connection to your characters?

An Australian Writer’s Australia Day

The Australian FlagIt’s Australia Day today. Australia Day is similar to the American Independance Day. Of course, instead of celebrating the end of a civil war we celebrate the founding of a new land, a new country, under the mantle of England.

The day is a joy-filled one. Here in Perth, people are pretty nice. Families gather around the state, enjoy the summer sunshine at the beach along the coast or get together for a barbeque before driving out to see the fireworks.

We sing the national Anthem, loudly, proudly, all knowing the words, some even remember what they mean. We sing a few other Australian classics as the night sky, sun just set and stars twinkling, bursts into technicolor explosions.

Days like this are a writer’s fantasy. I sit on the dry scrub hill overlooking the lake in the center of my town where our local fireworks display is in full bloom. My childrens’ faces are alight with excitement, amazement, their hands clasped over their ears because of the noise.

Hundreds of people gather every year for the local fireworks and thousands, tens of thousands, come from all over the state to see the city fireworks. We used to have a yearly tradition to drive into Perth to see the skyshow. It was always spectacular but not a trip a woman and two young kids should make alone, especially the drive home afterwards when 80% of the people on the road have probably had too much to drink.

As I watch the fireworks I listen to extended family around me. They talk of their day, of the display this year, and of the summer heat. It got to around 40C (103F) today. Bushfires leave a haze that made the sunset a dull brown.

Do you write about days like this? Do you hear the dialogue, absorb the atmosphere? There is a story here. A story of the birth of a land, of a people who stand tall, proud, and rejoice to see another year of burning sun and a relaxed peaceful atmosphere.

We’re a youthful country. Secluded for the most part. Sheltered, distinctly alone in the world. We’re unique, set apart from other countries by our size and distance.

I look at Australia on a day like today and see the face of a child, living a celebration in every moment. We’ve had our tragedies, our cyclones, droughts, fires, floods. We’re a hardy people who pull through, rebuild, start over, persevere. How long before the land falls to fallowed lines of age?

There is a story here.

SG1 Series Part Two: Character Development

Characters are an elemental part of every story. An intriguing plot with a good story-arc is important but without approachable characters your story will never connect with an audience. Readers need characters. Characters are the socket for your stories power supply. It is through your characters that readers can plug into the plot and experience the life of your story.

The Stargate series introduces a multitude of characters in various stages and of differing quality and consideration. Some play bit parts as extras or body count but others grow into the story, we come to love them or hate them, we come to care for the part they play in the story, their injuries and deaths bring anguish and grief or heartfelt cheers.

SG1 – Jack, Daniel, Sam and Teal’c

The original SG1 is a team of four diverse characters. Their differences create an initial challenge; they struggle as a unit until they learn to use each others strengths to counter their own weaknesses. It shows the importance of bringing opposites together. These characters are unique in their own fields. It is their united purposes, each individual to their character, which brings them together. A bond is formed that gives this eclectic community a solid friendship. We see the bond develop and grow with the characters as the series progresses.

It is important to blend characters but avoid carbon copies. Each character should be unique and individual. Distinguish them with separate goals, established histories, areas of interest and technique.

The SGC and General Hammond

The Stargate Command is an entity in its own right. It is actually a collection of individuals that work in regulated ways to create a standardized base of operations. There are many faceless characters lead by the General. Most of the time we don’t connect with these individuals but General Hammond represents the unity. His personality molds the actions of the SGC.

Larger forces need a strong head character to represent their interests. Armies can seem like a long column of faceless men but a charismatic leader will show a distinguishing command of his forces. Each of his men is ultimately the voice of this man and a solid leader is one whose men will lay down their own lives to support the orders he puts forth. This is true of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys.

The Goa’uld

While the Goa’uld are a nasty bunch in their own right they are an ideal antagonist. They aren’t evil. They have solid reasoning and a collection of emotional reactions that allow readers to associate with them. The Goa’uld act entirely out of an arrogant sense of self preservation and domination. As a people (um… symbiotic race) they act with rational, intelligent thought. They are challenging but not insurmountable.

Antagonists should be normal people. You can create more impact with a sympathetic antagonist then with a diabolical freak. If a reader can see themselves in a protagonist you have a good story but if readers can see themselves to some small degree in the antagonist then you have a charged situation that will keep a reader tied to the outcome.

There are many more characters involved in the Stargate series. Each new person (or group of people) is shown in snippets. Base motivations appear and personality traits are revealed but characters always have an element that remains unseen. It is impossible to know everything and it is important that characters can still do something unexpected or unpredictable.

Over time, we get to know the main characters. Their own personal stories are revealed and delved into. The primary characters are challenged with personal situations forcing them to make choices that distinguish them. Whole episodes play a vital role in adding depth to these characters and introduce situations that push their qualities forward.

  • Use time in your story to slowly reveal your characters.
  • Allow their actions and reactions to portray the depth of their beliefs and desires.
  • Each scene should use your characters strengths and weaknesses.
  • 3D characters have sides we cannot see.
  • A characters relationships reveal vital clues to their personality.
  • Characters always continue to grow and change based on the situations that occur in each moment of their lives.

Finally, just because your story has reached ‘The End’ does not mean your characters have. Characters should still be imperfect in the final scene. Their growth remains incomplete. Some of your characters may have died but most will live on beyond your closing paragraph and while they began at one point and progressed to another in this story there should always be another world to save, another enemy to fight, another day to live and another dream to follow.

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