January 01, 2004

Article at Pearson Longman Publishers

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Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction (Book)

Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction
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Shaping the Story teaches beginning fiction writers to hone their craft with a unique, step-by-step approach to writing a short story.

Stepping students through an interlocking set of twelve easy-to-follow exercises Shaping the Story helps the beginning fiction writer understand the ways a short story changes and grows as it moves from its often-vague beginnings through a satisfying ending. As students step through the process, they learn about development of theme, point of view, voice, setting, character, dialogue, scene, plot, the treatment of time, and the crafting of satisfying endings.

The text also offers an additional 48 skill-building exercises—four per chapter—plus an anthology of thirteen carefully chosen stories, which, through reading and analysis, will bring the book's lessons vividly to life.


  • Linked lessons that help students conceive, develop and revise a complete short story—a plan unique among fiction writing books currently on the market.
  • Four dozen additional skill-building exercises that help students to explore story writing craft more deeply.
  • An eclectic anthology of thirteen prize-winning short stories with study questions.

Table of Contents


Getting the Idea.

Where do stories come from?

Beginnings (Part I).

What makes a story a story?

The reader's questions.

Shooting an arrow.

Writing Assignment #1: The story cloud diagram.

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #1: Flannery O'Connor's “Revelation.”

Beginnings (Part II).

Evoking the world of your story.

Beginning in the middle.

Writing Assignment #2: Writing your opening scene.

Questions for revision.

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #2: Judith Claire Mitchell's “A Man of Few Words.”

Point of View.

One story, three beginnings.

Types of point of view.

The “surface” of the story.

Writing Assignment #3: Choosing your point of view.

Questions for revision.

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #3: Tobias Wolff's “Bullet in the Brain.”

Tone of Voice.

Who's telling the story?

What's your narrator's relationship to the story or its characters?

Try writing the way you talk.

Making sound match sense.

Your way with words is not the subject of the story.

Imitation-its uses and abuses.

A few thoughts on precision.

Overdependence on Adjectives and Adverbs.

Writing Assignment #4: Finding the right tone of voice..

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #4: Jorge Luis Borges' “The Aleph.”

Building the Scene.

How action becomes praxis.

Exposition and summary.

The parts that make up the parts that make up the whole.

Making the action plausible.

Show, don't tell-right or wrong?


What's going to happen here?

What's your setting's “emotional temperature”?

Where and how do you want your reader to enter the setting you're creating?

How would you shoot this setting if you were making a movie?

Are you appealing to the full range of senses?

How much detail is necessary?

Does your description of setting support the scene's action?

How do your characters' emotional state and the setting affect each other?

Writing Assignment #5 Writing where things happen.

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #5: Wallace Stegner's “The Traveler.”


Characteres are what they do.

Avoiding types.

Treating characters respectfully.

Round and flat characters.

Allowing characters to declare themselves.

Building a foundation for characterization early on.

Adding characterizing detail like layers of lacquer.

Writing Assignment #6: Building your characters.

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #6: Kevin Brockmeier's “These Hands.”


Dialogue's dual nature.

Making your dialogue fit your characters.

Making speech sound natural, even though it's artificial.

Dialect-to use it or not?

Making characters sound different from ach other-and from the narrator.

Weaving what characters say together with what they do.

Using Dialogue to convey information.

Finding the right mix of speech, description and action.

Writing Assignment #7: Putting Words in Your Characters' Mouths.

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #7: Kazuo Ishiguro's “A Family Supper.”


The scene as a mini story.

Balancing the scene's elements.

The necessity of conflict.

Internal and external conflict.

Avoiding miracles.

Dramatizing important action.

Writing Assignment #8: Making Everything Happen at Once.

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #8: Sandra Cisneros' “Mericans.”



Remember what the reader wants.

Plot is more than a sequence of events.

Don't put ideas ahead of story.


Your story's landscape.

Don't jump the “tracks.”

Avoid repeating yourself.

Writing Assignment #9: Linking Scene to Scene.

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #9: Louise Erdrich's “The Red Convertible.”


Remembrances of things past. and present. and future.

Prolepsis, or flashback.

Analepsis, or flash-forward.

Jump cuts and metalepsis.

Time flies when you're having fun. and it dies when you're not.

Time is context.

Writing at the speed of thought and experience.

What tense should you use?

Writing Assignment #10: Pacing, and the uses of time.

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #10: James A. McPherson's “Why I Love Country Music.”



The end is the beginning is the end.

Ending after rather than at the climax.

Tricks and traps to avoid.

The end is not the end.

Writing Assignment #11: Writing your ending.

Alternative exercises.

Reading Assignment #11: Tillie Olsen's “I Stand Here Ironing.”

Revising your first draft.

Does the story begin well?

Does your point of view help you or hurt you?

Is the story's language working?

Are you using the physical details of your story effectively?

Do the story's characters feel real?

Is the story's structure holding it back?

How is the story paced?

Does the story end where and as it ought to? Is that ending “earned”?

When you reach your story's end, can you say what the story was “about”?

Is this the final draft?

Writing Assignment #12: Rewriting is Writing.

Alternative exercises.

Short stories.

Even Angels Aren't Immortal, by Jeremy Blodgett.

Pretty Little Things, by Sarah Cornwell.

Revelation, by Flannery O'Connor.

A Man of Few Words by, Judith Claire Mitchell.

Bullet in the Brain, by Tobias Wolff.

The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges.

The Traveler, by Wallace Stegner.

These Hands, by Kevin Brockmeier.

A Family Supper, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Mericans, by Sandra Cisneros.

The Red Convertible, by Louise Erdrich.

Why I like Country Music, by James A. McPherson.

I Stand Here Ironing, by Tillie Olsen.