You write for many purposes. When you fill out a form to order a poster of your favorite movie star, your purpose is practical. When you write a letter to the school newspaper asking for better school lunches, your purpose is to influence the behavior of others. If you write in a diary, your purpose may be to express your feelings. When you write compositions or research reports in school, your purpose is to explain or give information.
In this chapter you will write for still other purposes: to enjoy language for its own sake and to explore the worlds of imagination. This kind of writing, called imaginative writing, is found in stories, poems, and plays.
Building a Short Story
A short story is a type of narrative, but unlike the narratives, "Writing Compositions," a short story does not need to make a point. Instead, the base upon which a short story is built is made up of four basic elements: characters, setting, plot, and conflict.
Characters: The people (or sometimes animals or robots) in the story
Setting: The place and time where the story happens
Plot: The events that happen in the story and the reasons they happen
Conflict: A problem that the characters experience
A series of events is not a short story. For example, the following nursery rhyme relates a series of events. It has characters and setting but no plot or conflict.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses and all the King's men,
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
In this narrative there are characters, but you know nothing about them. The setting is a wall, but you do not know anything about it or what part it plays in the series of events, and you do not know why Humpty Dumpty was on the wall or why he fell down.
Characters, setting, plot, conflict - these are the basic elements of a short story. However, a good short story is built from more. The writer of a good short story cements these four elements together with two essential materials, vivid description and suspenseful action. The result for the reader is a sense of involvement in what seems to be a real situation.
Suspense is what a writer uses to keep readers involved in a story. For example, if you already know who committed the crime in your favorite television mystery, you are kept guessing about how the police will solve it. Everything that happens to make the job of the police more difficult helps to build suspense.
Every good short story, whether it is a mystery or not, is suspenseful. In almost all stories, characters face problems, and when it seems difficult for them to solve the problems, suspense builds.
Suspense in a Short Story
In his story "To Build a Fire," Jack London provides a good example of a character's difficult situation and the resultant mounting suspense. This story takes place in the Yukon , an extremely cold territory in Northwest Canada . The main character, alone in an isolated place, knows he will freeze to death if he cannot build a fire. In the passage below, the main character is trying to pick up a bunch of matches he dropped in the snow. As you read, notice how the suspense builds:
After some manipulation he managed to get the bunch between the heels of his mittened hands. In this fashion he carried it to his mouth. The ice crackled and snapped when by a violent effort he opened his mouth. He drew the lower jaw in, curled the upper lip out of the way, and scraped the bunch with his upper teeth in order to separate a match. He succeeded in getting one, which he dropped on his lap. He was no better off. He could not pick it up. Then he devised a way. He picked it up in his teeth and scratched it on his legs. Twenty times he scratched before he succeeded in lighting it. As it flamed he held it with his teeth to the birch bark. But the burning brimstone went up his nostrils and into his lungs, causing him to cough spasmodically. The match fell into the snow and went out.
The character's efforts to light a match at first meet with failure. When he finally is able to light it, the fumes make him cough and drop the match, which is extinguished in the snow. Each time this character's efforts fail the suspense grows, and readers wonder whether he will be able to survive. This kind of suspense makes readers want to continue reading the story to find out what happens.