Writing the Short Story (Part 1)

Currently, one of the fastest growing markets in all of Christian writing is fiction. However, if you are a beginning writer, I do not suggest you start with a novel. Instead, write a short story for a church school take-home paper. See The Christian Writers Market Guide for a list of take-home papers.

The tips I give will work for fictional techniques in nonfiction pieces, such as personal experience stories, as well as for short anecdotal stories written within nonfiction articles and books.

An excellent definition of fiction is given by author Lee Roddy. “Creating characters in conflict culminating in crisis and change with commentary.”  The four key words are character, conflict, crisis, and change, called the “4 C’s of Fiction.”

A story is comprised of three elements: theme, plot, and character. Normally you can think of theme as the foundation on which the story sits. Your focus sentence will be based on the theme or main point you are trying to achieve. The story is either character-driven or plot-driven, depending on whether the main character is the most important element or whether the storyline is more important. These three qualities are always integral parts of your story, regardless of your emphasis. Think of them as forming a triangle with the theme as the base.

As in other writing, whether books, articles, or stories, form a focus sentence before you begin. This is the glue that holds the entire story together. The structure will be different for fiction than for nonfiction. Also, write a rough outline. This may change as the story unfolds, but you need to have a plan in mind even though this may change.

Narrative and Exposition (Part 6)


Punctuation: Where to place the punctuation in dialogue can be confusing. The commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks. Example: He said, “Please wait for me before you serve dinner.” I’m coming home early tonight,” she said.

 Question marks and exclamation points go inside if they are part of the dialogue and outside if they are part of the entire sentence. Example: Why did I keep hearing over and over in my head the words, “I’ll never forget you”?  Before he said good-bye, he asked, “Will I ever forget you?”

This ends the six-part series on “The Use of Narrative and Exposition.” I hope this series helps you make your stories more exciting.


Narrative and Exposition (Part 5)

As has been mentioned, the best way to move a story along is through dialogue. Here is an example of a devotional that is almost entirely dialogue. It is taken from my book, Rest Stops for Single Mothers.

The Fire

“Mom, I had to abandon my car,” my son’s voice sounded breathless on the other end of the telephone line. “Flames were jumping across the highway. Burning branches fell into the back of my convertible.”

“Are you OK?”  I asked, concern filling my voice.

“Oh, Mom, I’m fine, but I’m worried about my car.”

“Tell me what happened. Maybe I can help,” I offered.

“I was on my way home from class, and I could see the fire burning out of control in the Santa Barbara hills, but it seemed far away. The freeway was blocked, so I took the old highway towards town. About half-way there, people on either side of the road had been told to evacuate their homes. Everyone was trying to leave. There was a huge traffic jam. Suddenly, flames  jumped across the highway, and that’s when it happened.”

Rich was talking so fast that I didn’t understand everything. “That’s when what happened?” I asked.

“My clutch cable snapped, and I couldn’t shift gears. I pulled over to the side as far as I could and had to abandon my car.”

“What did you do then?”

“I called my girlfriend to come and get me. Mom, I can’t afford to lose my car. I don’t have comprehensive insurance on it, and I’ll have to drop out for a semester if I can’t get to school.”

I knew Rich was right. Rich’s finances for his college education were extremely tight. Without his car, he’d have to leave school and obtain a full time job to earn money for a new one. I saw no alternative.

“Let’s pray about it, Rich. God knows the situation.”

I rarely pray for material possessions, and I’ve never prayed for a car before, but this time I did. “Lord, You know Rich needs that beat-up Volvo convertible to get to his college classes. Please spare it in this fire. We pray that the fire will soon be contained.”

Three days later, I received another call from Rich. “Mom, they finally let me check on my car. I caught a ride back to where I left it. The fire burned to within a hundred feet, and it’s full of ashes, but it runs. It’s in the shop now getting a new clutch cable.”

God has taught us to pray specifically. In this case, He knew how important that car was to Rich’s education. He spared the car, and I learned an important lesson. When things look bleak, when money is tight, God is there, showing His presence in the smallest details of our lives.

Narrative and Exposition (Part 4)

Conversational Speech: Dialogue should be kept simple, natural, and conversational. However, don’t use the exact words a person would actually speak because, in normal conversation, a person uses far more words than are needed. Actual speech needs to be whittled down, so it is crisp and clear. Never let your characters ramble.

Once you have a detailed character sketch of your main character, you will know how he will react in certain instances. You will be aware of his feelings, ideas, and beliefs. His personality will come through in his speech. He will help you write the dialogue, because, if you know him, you will know what he will say. As your reader gets to know your main character, he knows what the character will say, too. If your main person acts out of character, the reader will know and will feel something is wrong. Also, be careful not to contrive your character’s speech or have him preach. The reader doesn’t want to be talked down to—either by you or the main character. We teach the reader lessons by what the main character learns, not by lecturing.

These suggestions also apply to the minor characters to a lesser degree. When you write a novel, the minor characters are more developed, and these points become more relevant to them. In a short story, however, you don’t have much room to develop more than one or two characters with any depth. Usually the reader will identify with the main character, so he becomes your vehicle for getting your message across. The most powerful way to accomplish that is through his actual spoken words.


Narrative and Exposition (Part 3)

 Good Dialogue is essential to your story. Dialogue moves the action along better than any other medium. Dialogue can be used effectively in fictional stories, personal experience stories, devotionals, and anecdotes within articles and nonfiction books. Here are some tips for using authentic dialogue in your manuscripts.

Multiple Characters: When possible, have two people in your story, so they can talk to each other. If this is not possible and only one person is involved in a happening, perhaps you could relay that incident after it occurred through a telephone conversation or a chat over coffee. Staying in someone’s mind and listening to their thoughts is a boring place for the reader to be.

 Tags: Be careful of the tags you use for dialogue. “He said” is better than “he articulated” or “he uttered.” After all, what is important is the information between the quotation marks, not the word used for “said.” An exception would be if you needed to show strong emotion or a certain voice tone that the words by themselves didn’t express. Examples: He shouted, he whispered.


A word of warning: you can’t smile, sigh, or laugh words. Instead of writing, “You’re cute,” he smiled, use:  “You’re cute,” he said with a boyish grin.


Narrative and Exposition (Part 2)

Good writers weave exposition subtly into the action so that it doesn’t interrupt the narrative flow. Proper exposition appears to derive directly from the viewpoint character’s thoughts or memories.

In the proper blending of narrative and exposition, the author communicates information to the reader through:

  1. What the characters say,
  2. What the characters do,
  3. What the main character thinks, and
  4. What the main character remembers.

This blending is achieved by using detail, dialogue, and description—the components of the Three-D Technique.

Detail: Use the specific rather than the general.

Dialogue: Direct conversations between the characters, especially characters in conflict, reveal their personalities. Dialogue moves the story along and turns narrative into interesting conversation. Develop a different style for each character.

Description: Draw from all five senses to describe the setting and the characters. Use sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch to create a mood.

Narrative and Exposition (Part 1)

The proper use of narrative and exposition in short stories and novels is one of the keys to writing successful fiction and using fictional techniques.

Narrative: is the objective reporting of your story, that which can be pictured visually in concrete images in the readers’ imaginations. It is what the characters do in the action of the story.

Exposition: is information, often interpretive and/or subjective funneled through the viewpoint character, to shed light on the action. It includes comments, opinions, reactions, explanations, and feelings (Definitions by Carole Gift Page, used with permission).

Faulty exposition interrupts the narrative flow, shatters the illusion of reality, and embarrassingly reveals the mechanics of fiction writing just like a playwright jumping on stage and interrupting a play during a performance.

Writing from the Heart (Part 9)

“Show, Don’t Tell!” is stated over and over again in writing books and articles at writers’ conferences. But what do those words really mean?

Often on first rough drafts, writers tell the story in a narrative form either from an observer’s viewpoint or from the main character’s mind. Both of these locations are boring. Readers want to participate in the action. They want to experience the events that occur as they are happening. They want to crawl inside the skin of the main character and feel what he or she is feeling. They want to hear what the person is saying and what is being said to that character. Thus, whether you are writing fiction or a true personal experience story, action and dialogue become the vehicles to move your story along and to keep your readers interested in reading your story as you write from the heart.

This concludes the nine-part series on “Writing from the Heart.”

Writing from the Heart (Part 8)

You want to meet the felt needs as well as the real needs of your audience. You want them to say, “That’s what I needed today,” or “I didn’t know anyone else felt that way.” You want to leave them with a “take-away” message—something they can take into their own lives and use for their own personal growth. You want to offer them hope and help them grow closer to the Lord.

Some years ago a woman at a writers’ conference purchased my book, Rest Stops for Single Moms. The next morning, she came to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I didn’t know anyone knew how I felt, but you do.”

The real need of people is to receive Christ, but their felt need is to be entertained. If they lay down our books and magazine articles with a bookmark stuck inside and never pick them up again, we have let down our readers—and we have let down God. It’s a sin to bore the reader with the Gospel. God deserves our very best.

Writing from the Heart (Part 7)

“Written words change lives” because reading gives each individual reader a chance to digest what the author is saying. The author’s words become part of each reader as they formulate their own opinion on the topic.

In a personal experience article, the story line becomes the vehicle to relate the message you want to convey to your readers. This is true in nonfiction books and novels also. It may be a moral lesson, an ethical issue, or a religious truth. You want to provide insight and instruction for your readers. They must own their own belief system and values to live by. Relating to a story results from having the humanness come through with which the readers can identify.

Today’s writing is moving from the didactic to the anecdotal. If you are writing current social issues articles, make sure you include personal experience stories in these articles as vignettes. Personal experience stories also add a new dimension to nonfiction books, helping readers to better identify with your message.