This is an exercise in story writing based on a simple short story with commentary along the way. The objective is to help you think about how a short story is put together but also to help you think about how to improve a story you are writing, particularly its ending. There are three “sections” to the story, each of which ends at a point where a story might end. Hopefully, if you are working at improving your fiction writing, this commented story will help you understand the process of short story writing.
By Stan Dryer
He paused at the trailhead, shifted his pack, and stepped into the coolness of the canopy. He was short of food and the next road crossing where he could find a store was some twenty miles north. But if he stopped to hike down to the town and back he would stand no chance to catch up with Karen. She didn’t stop to resupply, living as she did on that stupid rabbit food, seeds and nuts and grain that she ate raw. No need to waste time cooking.
Why had he taken on her challenge? What was she trying to prove? “I’ll move in with you when I know we’re compatible.” And compatible was to be measured by being able to keep up with her on the trail. He had taken on this challenge because he thought it would be the reverse. Look at him. Marathon runner. Worked out in the gym a couple of times a week. He had hiked the length of the Long Trail in Vermont in less than three weeks.
And look at her. Thin as a rail. No history of any kind of physical activity. He had figured that all he had to do is keep up his regular pace and Karen would be gasping behind, begging for him to slow down.
It had not worked out that way. First of all, she didn’t seem to need half the stuff he always had carried in his pack. Just a bunch of seeds for food. No stove. Just one thin blanket instead of a sleeping bag. No camera. Just a little pack that probably weighed no more than fifteen pounds as opposed to his that weighed in at thirty-four when full of food.
And those shoes she wore. More like slippers, but half the time she was going barefoot. They had done twenty five miles the day before. As always, she had whipped ahead of him and had been asleep in the shelter when he had arrived just at sunset. She was gone when he awakened the next morning. Well, carry on. Keep pushing, he told himself. He wasn’t going to wimp out.
A half mile from the trailhead, he came upon the girl. She was sitting on a log by the trail and from her tear-stained face, had obviously been crying. He stopped. “What’s the matter?” he said.
“That bastard,” said the girl. “That freaking bastard. Has to prove what a man he is by dragging my ass on this endless stupid trail.”
He swung off his pack and propped it against a tree.
“What’s your name?” he said.
“That’s a lovely name,” he said. “Not the name of someone who should be busting their ass to prove something.”
“Was that your girlfriend who passed me a couple of hours ago?” said Penelope.
“She said that if I saw you, I should tell you to get moving. Are you busting your ass to keep up with her?”
He didn’t answer her right away. He was thinking of what life would be like always being told to get moving. “Not anymore,” he said. “Not anymore.”
There you have it. A 525 word story which I wrote in a “quick writing” session. Every couple of months our writing group has a session where we pick first lines from a list donated by the group members. Then each of us writes something starting with the selected line in just 20 minutes. The first sentence of the above is the line I picked. I finished the above just as the timing buzzer went off. I’ve polished it up a but but it’s still the original story.
Did I write a complete story? Sure. What I wrote shows the protagonist with a problem and his solution. But it leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. While we know quite a bit about the hero’s now former girlfriend, Karen, we know little about our hero or his new acquaintance, Penelope. What’s the future for Penelope and our hero? Do they quit hiking the trail? Do they decide to try hiking together? Where do they come from? Is there a future romance in the wind?
We also have a couple of other characters that are basically portrayed as heartless meanies. Does anyone want to know more about them? Do we need to hear their points of view?
Now the nice thing about this story is that it is easily extendible. We can add on just a bit, and have a new story with another tidy ending. We can go on from there. Let’s try a slightly expanded version carrying on from where we ended above.
“So?” she said.
“My name is Phillip,” he said, “and we have to decide what to do next.”
“We have to decide?” she said.
“What I guess I mean is that each of us has to make a decision. Not a joint decision. Each of us on our own has to decide whether or not to go on hiking or quit.”
“What do you plan to do?” she said.
“I plan to hike back to the trailhead, hitch a ride into Blakesville and eat a quart of ice cream. Then I’ll worry about the decision making part.”
“If you don’t mind, I think I shall adopt a similar plan.”
They put on their packs and started back down the trail. In the half mile to the road they discovered they went to school at colleges roughly twenty miles apart and that she was in Nursing School and he was in Engineering.
“Let me do the hitching,” Penelope said when they reached the highway. “More likely someone will stop.” She stood out by the pavement with her pack beside her and stuck out her thumb at the passing cars. Even in her practical hiking shorts and her slightly dirt stained T shirt, he had to admit that she made better bait than he would have. He stood well back by the trees where drivers would not notice him until they had slowed down.
The fifth car stopped. It was an elderly couple who frowned when he came forward from the trees. “We only have room for one,” the woman said through the open passenger side window.
Her statement was true. A large dog and a suitcase occupied half of the back seat. “You go ahead,” he said to Penelope. “I’ll catch up with you in town.”
“No,” Penelope said to the woman in the car. “We’re together.” She said it instantly with no hesitation. Definitely without hesitation.
She thanked the couple for stopping and wished them a good trip. They drove away.
Penelope looked over at Phillip. “Well,” he said.
“Well yourself,” she said.
Now I’ve taken the story one step further. Each of them is thinking about some kind of a relationship with the other. But remember, each of them has just been burned in a relationship and thus is wary about a future one. So Penelope’s saying “We’re together” doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s decided that she’s interested in a long term relationship with him. It could be that she just wants him to lead her to the ice cream.
Again, we could leave the story here. Something more has happened. Again it is up to the reader to fill in the blanks. So what would you do with the story? Think about it. Maybe even write something down. Or let me know with a comment which I’ll be happy to publish.
So let me know what you think by adding a comment below.
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