The genres of short prose writing can be very confusing. For example, some writers will call their personal essay a story, and others will call their essay a memoir. To make matters even more complicated, a number of literary magazines are beginning to accept what is commonly called mixed genre writing. It’s important to understand the difference between the types of short prose, whether you’re writing an essay, short story, memoir, commentary, or mixed genre piece.
What is a short story?
A short story is a work of fictional prose. Its characters may be loosely based on real-life people, and its plot may be inspired by a real-life event; but overall more of the story is “made-up” than real. Sometimes, the story can be completely made-up. Short stories may be literary, or they may conform to genre standards (i.e., a romance short story, a science-fiction short story, a horror story, etc.). A short story is a work that the writer holds to be fiction (i.e., historical fiction based on real events, or a story that is entirely fiction).
Short Story Example: A writer is inspired by a car explosion in his town. He writes a story based on the real explosion and set in a similar town, but showing the made-up experiences of his characters (who may be partly based on real-life).
Short Story Example two: A writer writes a story based on a made-up explosion, set in a made-up town, and showing the made-up experiences of his characters.
What is a personal or narrative essay? What is an academic essay? What’s the difference?
Though factual, the personal essay, sometimes called a narrative essay, can feel like a short story, with “characters” and a plot arc. A personal essay is a short work of nonfiction that is not academic (that is, not a dissertation or scholarly exploration of criticism, etc.).
In a personal essay, the writer recounts his or her personal experiences or opinions. In an academic essay, the writer’s personal journey does not typically play a large part in the narrative (or plot line).
Sometimes the purpose of a personal essay is simply to entertain. Some personal essays may have a meditative or even dogmatic feel; a personal essay may illustrate a writer’s experiences in order to make an argument for the writer’s opinion. Some personal essays may cite other texts (like books, stories, or poems), but the focus of the citation is not to make an academic point. Rather, emphasis is on the writer’s emotional journey and insight.
Personal Essay Example: A writer pens the story of his experience at the scene of a car explosion in his town. The work is short enough for publication in a literary journal and focuses on the author’s perspective and insight.
What is a commentary?
The personal essay form and commentary may sometimes overlap, but it may be helpful to make some distinctions. A commentary is often very short (a few hundred words) and more journalistic in tone than a personal essay. It fits nicely as a column in a newspaper or on a personal blog. The writing can be more newsy than literary.
Some very short nonfiction pieces may be better suited to newspapers than to literary journals; however, literary magazines have been known to publish commentary-esque pieces that have a literary bent.
Commentary Example: A writer tells the story of a car explosion in his town to illustrate the point that the police are not vigilant enough about people throwing flaming marshmallows out their windows.
What is a memoir?
Memoir generally refers to longer works of nonfiction, written from the perspective of the author. Memoir does not generally refer to short personal essays. If you’re writing a short piece based on your real-life experiences, editors of literary journals will identify this as a personal essay. If you’re writing a book about an experience, it’s a memoir. A collection of interrelated personal essays may constitute a memoir.
Memoir Example: A writer composes a full-length book about his experiences after a car explosion in his town.
Learn more: Creative Nonfiction: How To Stay Out Of Trouble
What is a nonfiction short story?
There’s no such thing as a nonfiction short story. Short stories are inherently fiction (with or without real-life inspiration). Personal essays are not fictional.
So what is mixed genre writing?
Mixed genre writing is creative work that does not sit comfortably in any of the above genres. Mixed genre writing blends some elements of fiction with elements of nonfiction in a very deliberate way. Some examples:
Mixed Genre Example One: A professional accountant named John Jones is writing a story about a man named John Jones, who is John Jones and lives John Jones’ life—except that the fictional John Jones one day decides to leave his real-life accounting job, and live his dream of being a rock star (since the real-life John Jones is thinking of doing the same thing).
Is this a short story? An essay? If ninety percent of the story is true and ten percent is fiction, then what should the writer call this?
Mixed Genre Example Two: A writer decides to compose a family history, using pictures and documents from her family albums. But sometimes her story veers into fiction. She finds herself embellishing elements or omitting characters; and, the result is a story that’s better than the one she might tell if she were to stick to the facts.
Again, is this an essay? A short story? If half of the story is made-up, but half is very obviously true, it might be best called mixed genre.
NOTE: Sometimes the term mixed genre is defined in terms of the novel or book. A mixed genre novel might be a novel that mixes science fiction elements with characteristics of a legal thriller. Or a mixed genre novel might also be a work that plays fast and loose with fact and fiction. If you’re going to refer to your book as mixed genre, be clear about what you mean.
Learn more: Genre Fiction Rules: Find Out If Your Novel Meets Publishers’ And Literary Agents’ Criteria For Publication
Tips on Writing Mixed Genre
If you’re going to write mixed genre prose, do so with care. Mixed genre writing often has a kind of self-aware, almost tongue-in-cheek, element to it—a wink to the reader who is not fooled by the mixing of fiction and nonfiction, even if the lines are blurry. Mixed genre can be considered experimental, and as such, it’s important that the writing be exceptionally smart in order to live up to the demands of the (mixed) genre.
Why is mixed genre writing so often self-referential? Writing mixed genre and passing it off as an essay or a short story could make editors think that you are trying to dupe them, so it helps to include something in the work that makes reference to itself as being a mixture of fact and fiction. These “meta” elements can help put the reader at ease.
Who is publishing mixed genre short prose?
The primary markets for short prose are literary magazines and journals. Writer’s Relief frequently helps writers target their work to literary journals. For more information on how to find markets for your short prose, please read Researching Literary Markets for Your Work if you plan to research on your own. Or learn about Writer’s Relief submission services if you’d like help targeting your submissions.
Photo by greeblie via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/greeblie/
QUESTION: Have you ever tackled a mixed genre piece?
Ronnie L. Smith, President of Writer’s Relief, Inc., an author’s submission service that helps creative writers get published by targeting their poems, essays, short stories, and books to the best-suited literary agents or editors of literary journals. www.WritersRelief.com
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No matter if you are just getting started or want to break into fiction writing, setting is a crucial element to any story. In order to create an imaginary world for your story, you’ll need to know the fundamental elements of setting first. Discover the basic elements of setting in a story from Between the Lines.
Fiction has three main elements: plotting, character, and place or setting. While writers spend countless hours plotting and creating characters and then imagining their character’s arcs and dilemmas, often too little attention is paid to place. This is a fatal mistake, since the place fiction is staged provides the backdrop against which your dramas ultimately play out.
But setting is more than a mere backdrop for action; it is an interactive aspect of your fictional world that saturates the story with mood, meaning, and thematic connotations. Broadly defined, setting is the location of the plot, including the region, geography, climate, neighborhood, buildings, and interiors. Setting, along with pacing, also suggests passage of time. Place is layered into every scene and flashback, built of elements such as weather, lighting, the season, and the hour.
The Fundamental Elements of Setting
Here is a list of the specific elements that setting encompasses:
- Locale. This relates to broad categories such as a country, state, region, city, and town, as well as to more specific locales, such as a neighborhood, street, house or school. Other locales can include shorelines, islands, farms, rural areas, etc.
- Time of year. The time of year is richly evocative and influential in fiction. Time of year includes the seasons, but also encompasses holidays, such as Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Halloween. Significant dates can also be used, such as the anniversary of a death of a character or real person, or the anniversary of a battle, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor.
- Time of day. Scenes need to play out during various times or periods during a day or night, such as dawn or dusk. Readers have clear associations with different periods of the day, making an easy way to create a visual orientation in a scene.
- Elapsed time. The minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months a story encompasses must be somehow accounted for or the reader will feel confused and the story will suffer from a lack of authenticity. While scenes unfold moment by moment, there is also time to account for between scenes, when a flashback is inserted, and when a character travels a long distance.
- Mood and atmosphere. Characters and events are influenced by weather, temperature, lighting, and other tangible factors, which in turn influence the emotional timbre, mood, and atmosphere of a scene.
- Climate. Climate is linked to the geography and topography of a place, and, as in our real world, can influence events and people. Ocean currents, prevailing winds and air masses, latitude, altitude, mountains, land masses, and large bodies of water all influence climate. It’s especially important when you write about a real setting to understand climatic influences. Harsh climates can make for grim lives, while tropical climates can create more carefree lifestyles.
- Geography. This refers to specific aspects of water, landforms, ecosystems, and topography in your setting. Geography also includes climate, soil, plants, trees, rocks and minerals, and soils. Geography can create obvious influences in a story like a mountain a character must climb, a swift-running river he must cross, or a boreal forest he must traverse to reach safety. No matter where a story is set, whether it’s a mountain village in the Swiss Alps or an opulent resort on the Florida coast, the natural world with all its geographic variations and influences must permeate the story.
- Man-made geography. There are few corners of the planet that have not been influenced by the hand of humankind. It is in our man-made influences that our creativity and the destructiveness of civilization can be seen. Readers want visual evidence in a story world, and man-made geography is easily included to provide it. With this in mind, make certain that your stories contain proof of the many footprints that people have left in its setting. Use the influences of humankind on geography to lend authenticity to stories set in a real or famous locale. These landmarks include dams, bridges, ports, towns and cities, monuments, burial grounds, cemeteries, and famous buildings. Consider too the influences of mankind using the land, and the effects of mines, deforestation, agriculture, irrigation, vineyards, cattle grazing, and coffee plantations.
- Eras of historical importance. Important events, wars, or historical periods linked to the plot and theme might include the Civil war, World War II, medieval times, the Bubonic Plague, the gold rush in the 1800s, or the era of slavery in the South.
- Social/political/cultural environment. Cultural, political, and social influences can range widely and affect characters in many ways. The social era of a story often influences characters’ values, social and family roles, and sensibilities.
- Population. Some places are densely populated, such as Hong Kong, while others are lonely places with only a few hardy souls. Your stories need a specific, yet varied population that accurately reflects the place.
- Ancestral influences. In many regions of the United States, the ancestral influences of European countries such as Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland are prominent. The cities and bayous of Louisiana are populated with distinctive groups influenced by their Native American, French-Canadian, and African American forebears. Ancestral influences can be depicted in cuisine, dialogue, values, attitudes, and general outlook.
Plus, read more daily writing tips.
This excerpt comes from Between the Lines by Jessica Morrell, from which you can learn more about the craft of writing. Be sure to read this related post about writing sensory details in setting. Plus, peruse these books on writing:
Buy Between the Lines now!
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