Everything? True, we have to flesh out characters, engage the reader in a compelling theme, get our language right and do a dozen other things. But without form, a story’s dead.
People read - and tell - stories to discover the form that their lives, afflicted by random events, might otherwise lack. Why else has storytelling been a feature of human life since records began? Bards have always found an audience among unhappy folk, hungering to invest their lives with meaning.
Simply to perceive form is to create meaning.
We have only to look at the patterns of stars in a night sky to speculate upon their meaning. A cluster of random dots becomes a horse, a plough, a shield ... humans are a pattern-forming species.
Is that why a great story lasts forever? The enduring myths of Cinderella, the Sleeping Beauty, the Ugly Duckling, to name but a few, can be found in every culture. Each has a strong, simple form. The form implies that our own life might be meaningful and magic too, if only we knew its hidden truth.
Although our lives may be formless, the stories we escape into cannot be. Each must have a pattern defined by a clear boundary - a satisfying close. Without a firm sense of closure, a tale might be a sketch, an essay, or a character portrait. But it’s not a story.
Of course, a fine story might not appear to close.
The classic ghost story of Henry James The Turn of the Screw leaves the reader hanging. We don’t know who dunnit or even what (really) the story had been all about. Yet the last lines have a satisfying sense of finality. Why? James uses a subtle tactic that goes under many names but the ‘Story Sandwich’ sums it up.
Here’s how to do it:
Simply put a memorable incident - even a theme, or phrase - into the opening passage. In a long story or a novel we might repeat variations of that motif several times. In a short story of, say, 8,000 words we need do it only once, then echo it at the end.
In Peter Robinson’s crime thriller The Summer That Never Was, detective Banks is called home from an idyllic holiday to solve a murder case. The title defines a theme - paradise lost - which is repeated throughout the story and the novel closes upon the same phrase. It gives a poignant sense of closure.
Robinson might have achieved the same effect with a Significant Incident. The story could have opened with detective Banks happily sipping an ouzo in his Greek villa. In the last paragraph, he’s back at the villa again. He starts to pour himself an ouzo. Then he reflects on the tragic incidents of the previous months, and he tips the drink away in disgust. The story has come full circle.
An emblem might also do the trick.
The ouzo could have closed the tale by itself, if presented as an emblem. At the start, it would have signified happiness and frivolity. At the end, it could imply sadness and remorse.
True, the ‘Story Sandwich’ is a formula but it’s a foolproof way to get a story started - and finished. And to beat Writers’ Block.
At the outset, we just write two sections of our story - the opener and the close. And we drop the same incident, emblem, phrase or theme into both sections, with creative variations. At our leisure, we can go back to fill in the bits in the middle. Our tale will then present a strong sense of hidden structure. If all else in the story is working well, the sense of closure will be very satisfying.
This simple tactic can be used in any story, even one that’s already drafted. Turn the story into a sandwich!
Dr John Yeoman, who holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing, is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. He now runs the Writers’ Village short story contest which draws 1,500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. His free book How to Win Story Contests for Profit and 14-part course in story writing for the commercial market can be found at: