Tag Archives: inciting incident

The Iceberg Cometh, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts that explain short stories and their component parts.

“Hemingway said that only the tip of the iceberg showed in fiction—your reader will see only what is above the water—but the knowledge that you have about your character that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg. And that is what gives your story weight and gravitas.” Jenna Blum, The Author at Work

When I started writing seriously, I began with novels. I thought to myself, “Why should I write short stories? The novel is the real thing for real writers! I don’t want to waste my time with ‘practice writing’.” Apart from the absolute arrogance in that sentiment, there is nothing about writing short stories that is a waste of time. Not only do they make you a better writer, they are an art form unto themselves. So, in this post, I want to talk about the elements of a good short story and, in doing so, help you see how you can write using the iceberg theory as well.

Let’s begin by looking a what constitutes a short story.       

The key is in the name; a short story is short. Every publication has a desired word count for the stories they publish. I’m working on a story now for a journal that has a requirement of 6000-9000 words. A contest that I’ve entered a few times makes their limit 2000-3000 words. Generally, 10,000 words tend to be the top limit, but occasionally some publications will accept up to 20,000 words.

Let’s get the whole word count thing out of the way.

I’ve given you the general length of a short story, but what about the really short stories. I mean super short.

Flash fiction is a subgenre of short stories. These are stories that are 1000 words or less. They must still follow the conventions of a short story—a compelling story, strong plotline, and interesting and developing characters, often with a twist or surprise at the end.

Flash fiction, while a subgenre in itself, also has sub-subgenres.

Short shorts or sudden fiction are on the longer end of the flash fiction scale. They fall between 500 and 1000 words.

Microfiction is the shorter of the short stories, usually at 300-400 words. While 300-400 words may seem extremely short, there are even shorter sub-subgenres.

Postcard fiction is a story that could be written completely on a postcard—usually between 25-250 words. There is often an image to accompany the story.

Nano fiction, are stories that are 300 words or less.

A drabble has to be exactly 100 words—no more, no less. This count does not include the title. These stories, as short as they may be, still must have good short story construction.

A dribble or a mini-saga, similar to the drabble, must have an exact word count, but in this case, the count is only 50 words.

And then we get to the extreme of the short story form—the six-word stories. These are incredibly challenging. Not only is the writer restricted to 6 words, it still must have a complete story with all of its components. Some writers flip this into non-fiction by writing six-word memoirs. Could you pare part of your life story down into six words? I’m not sure I could.

Okay, if you are like me when I started writing short stories, I know how many words to write, but what words should those be?

There are five basic elements to a short story. There are other things that a short story can include, but let’s just start with the basics.

Plot: Think of the plot as the pathway your story takes to get from beginning to end. It is also a chain of events that are cause-and-effect and builds one on top of another as it moves from the inciting incident, through the rising action to the climax and down through the denouement to the resolution. Plot is closely tied to the story’s conflict. There are six stages to the plot:

  • Exposition: this is a short piece at the very beginning in which the following are introduced: Important background information such as the setting, the characters, the conflict
  • Inciting incident: this is the event that takes the protagonist to the place where they are introduced to the conflict and thus, starting the plot.
  • Rising action: the conflict becomes clearer, more intense, and often more complicated, and the protagonist struggles to deal with it.
  • Climax: the conflict here reaches its highest point, so much so that the protagonist is forced to deal with it. This leads to a redirection in the chain of events which often helps the reader understand the complexity of the conflict, the characters, and the situation.
  • Denouement: the conflict has been resolved and the action slopes down to the ending.
  • Resolution: the conflict is now done, the reader can put down the story and walk away feeling satisfied with what they have read.