Creative writing skills: Focus

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An integral skill in successful short story writing is the ability to truly capture the imagined scene in writing. Unfortunately (at first) when writers are told both to “describe more” and to “keep your story short”, it can seem oxymoronic! Writers can also be told to “try to imagine what your character is feeling”, to “add more detail for the reader” or just “Slow down!” Essentially, the reader and reviewer are describing a lack of focus.

What is focus for a short story? What is this skill really about? Consider that a story is made up of 5 C’s: Context, Characters, Complication, Climax, and Conclusion. The plot of a story is driven by action, which is presented through the complication, the climax and the conclusion. Such action is exciting! Writers without focus move from plot event to plot event quickly, and fail to describe the context or the characters effectively. Focus is lost because writers lack the skill or interest to describe the context or the characters of their imagination. Without proper focus in their written efforts, writers get too excited about their plot events, and don’t allow the reader the time or opportunity to enjoy the real benefits of imagination that reading good writing makes possible.

A lack of focus is obvious when a story is driven by action, such that the writer only describes events in detail. Good writers take the time (with just a few sentences) to clearly detail a scene, before moving to the next plot event. What then becomes exciting is not the events, but the way they are imagined.

Compared to the driving excitement and events of the plot, the context and characters of a story at first seem boring, but they are not boring. Readers like characters, and enjoy picturing scenes. Inasmuch as readers vicariously enjoy reading about the experiences of characters, their first interest is in the characters themselves. However, for either context or characters in a short story to engage the reader, the writer has to deliberately exercise certain skills of:

• illustrating the context, scene and atmosphere

• describing the body language of characters

• engaging the reader in real thoughts and feelings

• using figurative language

The “boring” parts then become exciting. Why? Because the reader is enabled to engage their imagination to understand the story.

Imagination is the key to really sharing experiences and ideas with readers.

    To say that imagination is the key is not to suggest that good writers have good imagination. What is meant instead is that good readers have good imagination, and good writers use the skills described above to make stories that readers can vividly imagine and “unlock”. Of course good writing can come from a strong and healthy imagination, but if a writer doesn’t have or use the skills to share their ideas clearly or well their stories won’t work. Focus is the skill that is needed from good writers to stop their own imagination, and to clearly provide enough detail for the reader to enjoy and imagine for themselves a plot event. This needs to be done and achieved before the writer’s imagination proceeds with the next exciting event.

    Of course, a good writer should exercise their own imagination in order to write well. However, a writer should not aim to create interesting and imaginative plot events for a short story. Instead, they should aim to create interesting and imaginative scenes, descriptions and characters for a climactic event. Even Matthew Riley, whose stories move from event to event with the pace and fury of a rhinoceros on a rampage, is skilful enough to create extraordinary cinematographic images for his most climactic scenes. Indeed, as writer he presents a skilful mix of novelist and script-writer, so even a reader of his books can easily imagine what it would be like to watch the subsequent films of his stories.

    The easiest way to achieve focus is to limit the events and narrative time of your story to a period of less than a minute. Instead of planning a story with a long lead-up, start your writing at the moment and instant of greatest tension – start at the moment of the climax. This means that for a short story, you should aim keep the events/action to an absolute minimum!!! You do not need to explain the events leading up to a crisis – your goal is to describe the context and characters in that moment of climax.

    Remember your goal is to produce focused writing by:

    • illustrating the context, scene and atmosphere

    • describing the body language of characters

    • engaging the reader in real thoughts and feelings

    • using figurative language

     Aim to achieve the climax and conclusion, quickly! But with great description!

     Keep events to a minimum, focus on describing the characters and context of the scene, and capture the idea and feeling!!!


    High in the sky the sun beamed pure joy, its rays sparkling like diamonds in the curling, crashing wash of the waves along the shore. The sand baked golden brown like a gorgeous golden pancake. Seagulls congregated in pious packs along the coastline preening and cleaning themselves with quiet solemnity. Great ocean-going vessels dotted the horizon, small and toy-like in the distance. It was a beautiful calm day on a beautiful beach.

    Munitions expert Captain Todd Blackcomb surveyed the long expanse of shore before him, and smiled grimly. He tried to imagine families setting up towels and blankets, but could not ignore the hidden menace he knew lay beneath the golden sands. He could not picture children playing in the shore-break, and saw instead the solid wooden crosses and barbed wire of the coastal defences, soon to be removed. Beside him on his left a sign named the location as “Safety Beach”, while to his right a second sign warned “Danger: Minefield!” and presented a frightening skull and crossbones. Although the Great War was finally over, today would be a day of danger and labour, not sunshine and play.

    Captain Blackcomb consulted the map he held in his hand, surveyed the beach again, and turned promptly to his men. “Mortar crew – ready!” he barked.

    “Crew ready sir!” came the reply from the platoon stationed around the weapon.

    “Mortar crew – fire!” he ordered.

    A soldier quickly and efficiently loaded a shell into the launcher, which immediately spat with a loud “PHUT!!!” The shell rose high into the air, then came whistling down. It struck a patch of beach fifty metres in front of the crew and exploded with a great burst of sand and fire. The flock of seagulls scattered madly screaming into the sky, utterly terrified, the peace broken and destroyed like shattered mirror.

    Smoke cleared from the man-sized patch on the beach, leaving an empty shallow hole the size of a small child’s grave where the mine had been. Nobody was hurt, not even a seagull. Captain Blackcomb nodded with approval, consulted his map, and marked a red circle over one of the dozens of skull and crossbones presented on his map of Safety Beach. It was not a beautiful calm day on a beautiful beach anymore, but now that the Great War was over, it might yet be so once again.

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