Short stories. Even though we spend most of our time in high school and college writing short stories or essays in one form or another, a lot of us balk at the idea as adults. For such a small project—Pif, for instance, prefers pieces under 1,500 words in length—the genre causes an awful lot of anxiety for so many writers. How, after all, can you tell a meaningful story that impacts readers in under 2,000 words? Hell, most of my emails run over that word count.
Here are a handful of tips, collected in anecdotal form over years of working closely with some exceptionally talented writers, to help the green short story writer jump in feet first.
The trick to beginning a compelling short story often means starting your story as close to the climax as possible. If at all possible, try to open with a scene that sets the tone for your entire narrative. This can be difficult to do. As a writer, the sound of my own voice is my biggest vice; rambling, going into too much detail and meandering are easy to do. My most helpful suggestion? Write it all down to begin with. All the bits and pieces that seem relevant, get them in. And then be prepared to savagely hack them into bits. Cutting details can be hard: it means presupposing your audience understands what you’re trying to say without extra backstory, extra exposition. But trust your reader.
Focus on just one conflict, and push your plot towards a sudden revelation. An unexpected revelation, if at all possible. While the phrase “show don’t tell” is high on the list of writer’s credos, try your utmost to avoid additional (read: unnecessary) exposition. Go lean when it comes to descriptions of characters too. Choose your description of place artfully and sparingly. There is something to be said, in a short story, for leaving something to the imagination.
Creating a character that audiences relate to in a short space of time can feel like a real challenge. Sometimes writers struggle to connect with the characters they create to tell the story they want to tell, and this comes across. So, too, do stories that revolve far more around the desire to share a character than to tell an actual story.
Use your protagonist as a conduit to evoke an emotional response from your reader and drive your story forward. This might mean omitting some details you’d like to include, or deviating the character’s role in your narrative slightly from the plotline or motivations it was originally conceived with. Don’t be overly sentimental about your protag’s personality, dialogue or the minutiae of their person. Do not use your main character to pay homage to or vilify someone, forsaking the narrative arc in deference to “capturing” a real person on the page.
A few handy tips for creating the character of your tale’s dreams:
- Figure out, perhaps before you even begin writing, what your protagonist has done at the start of the story to drive the action that follows. Is this what he or she wanted to happen?
- What details from your setting, secondary characters and overall narrative do you plan to use to help you tell that story? You can use dialogue, for instance, to cut real estate from your exposition. Discussing travel from one location to another? Don’t. Not unless some major plot point takes place on the way. Background? How much of it is necessary to explain what’s going on now? If your character needs two paragraphs of backstory to explain why the choice they need to make or action they’ve chosen is particularly significant, maybe you need to start your story further back. Or consider cutting those two paragraphs into two sentences, or splicing it into dialogue.
- Characters, when written well, will create feelings in readers. A common mistake that writers make is to explain emotions to their readers: writing down the depth of a character’s sadness rather than showing that tragedy in the making. Show, and show with brevity. Practice this whenever you’re able. I sometimes find inspiration in the brevity of feature news stories. In fact, there is an incredible amount that can be learned from dissecting most news stories line by line to see what order sentences were written in, how they deliver the news and what details are included when.
- I know we mentioned trusting your reader, but that can take time to work up to. How can you know if they know what you mean? If you don’t quite trust yourself just yet, trust your beta reader. Beta readers—folks who you trust to deliver honest and actionable feedback about your writing—are an invaluable tool. These may be the closest thing to oracles or spirit guides that the modern writer may ever know. Find yours, and ply them with whatever compensation they crave—donuts, love, books, coffee, your sincere appreciation—to get the candid feedback your story deserves.
- Read. Nothing any more complicated than that. Taking the time to soak in the language and devices that other writers use will help you hone your voice and tone. Plus, you know, it kills time.
- Write down stories, true or not, that you hear from others.Everything is a story idea.
- Carry a notebook with you and jot down anything that you think is of interest. Even if you don’t find this tool useful right away, literally nothing bad can come from giving it a try. I once met a man on Seattle’s 99 bus route that always carried a small notebook from the dollar store with him. It was crammed full of napkins containing notes and pages containing text that was written sideways, rightways, upside down and every which way. Notes about things a waitress said to him on Tuesday. Notes about how much he spent on coffee uptown versus downtown. Was there a point to it? No clue. But he always had a lot to talk about on his commute home, so I’m sure there’s a correlation.
- Write often. You don’t have to write well. Just do it often.
- A catchy first paragraph is essential to the short story. Without being too dramatic, overly precious or cliche, the first few lines should illuminate something unusual or unexpected to capture your reader’s attention. Some authors turn instead to action to begin their story, or an intro to the conflict that will follow. Tension and a sense of urgency are important when your story begins so near to its own end.
- A character sheet is never a bad idea. As a writer, you would do well to know your character in intimate detail. What’s his favorite color? Are his parents still married? What was his first pet? What are his pet peeves? You feel free to write this info and anything else that comes to mind down.
Imagining all these details will help you get to know your character, but your reader probably won’t need to know much more than the most important things in four areas:
- Action. Show the reader what kind of person your character is, by describing actions rather than simply listing adjectives.
- Speech. Develop the character as a person — don’t merely have your character announce important plot details.
Thought. Bring the reader into your character’s mind, to show them your character’s unexpressed memories, fears, and hopes.
- For readers to connect with your protagonist, they do not need to know everything there is to know. A general understanding of the character and their appearance is important, but much of this is implied as the story progresses. Human. Male or female. Details like upbringing and personality are implied through action, dialogue and interaction with other characters. A reader does not need to know the hair and eye color, exact age or facial features of your protag in order to understand his or her story.
- Describing actions is far more effective in creating a vivid character than using adjectives or sketching the character. Mark Twain once said, on this very subject: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together.” Practice this skill whenever possible. Take a sentence–Caroline is impatient–and find 10 different ways to say it without using the adjective. “It only took three minutes in the checkout line for Caroline to decide the wait wasn’t worth the hassle of eating for the week.” Don’t imply judgement. Don’t inform the reader that Caroline’s impatience is founded or unfounded. Simply find a way to say it that is neutral.
- Use speech and dialogue, also, to imply your character’s personality traits. While it’s a terrible habit to judge a book by its cover, the truth is that some of the best characters were built up around the framework of stereotypes. Build around these bones using tools like accents, slang or colloquialisms, and character-to-character storytelling.
- Dialogue can be an important tool as you whittle and shape your characters and their specific dilemma. While most people do not struggle so much with what their characters say, I would like to offer a word of advice on how they say it. The rule about adjectives applies to dialogue as well as expository character development: if you can show it, do. Don’t explain it. Cut characters off. Use punctuation to suggest what a sentence can explain. Help them raise their voices. Use details like body language, speech ticks or expository labels to conjure up the image of a scene.
- Characters contribute by expressing themselves and also by not expressing themselves. Where appropriate, demonstrate to your reader what your protag did not do as well as what they chose to do in order to showcase their worries, hopes and memories. You can use inner monologue, exposition or narration to share the character’s thoughts with your reader.
Most of us remember the study of POV from secondary school. While you, the author, know best how you’d like to reveal the story to your reader, consider the benefits of each narrator before committing.
Should your main character or a secondary character be reporting events using first-person narrative? Will they take sides or become involved in the action themselves? Will your narrator address the reader directly using second-person perspective, or report events as the third-person?
The insightful Laurel Yourke in her book Take Your Characters to Dinner offers some helpful tips for selecting your story’s point of view.
- First person “unites narrator and reader through a series of secrets” when they enter one character’s perceptions. Watch out for over “telling” (as opposed to “showing) when you use this perspective, and be aware that this POV can restrict your reader’s connections to other characters in the story.
- Second person “puts readers within the actual scene so that readers confront possibilities directly.”
- Third person omniscient makes it easy to examine your character’s thoughts, motivations and often intangible personality attributes.
- Third person limited, Yourke says, “offers the intimacy of one character’s perceptions.”
For most writers, setting and character development seem to develop simultaneously. The time, location, context, and atmosphere where the plot takes place is something that many writers don’t have trouble imagining. A tip that some writers overlook, however, in creating a vivid sense of place is to use sensory details to describe where the action of their story takes place. A common error for new writers is to include too much detail where setting is concerned. Conversely, it’s a mark of finesse to combine the setting with your protagonist’s characterization and the plot in general.
Understanding the elements of a story, while it sounds reminiscent of primary school, is essential when it comes to telling yours. Create and use an outline to chart your tale’s developing actions and their end results.
It can be easy to spin your wheels when it comes to plot development. A helpful practice is to first identify the main conflict and then explore a few ways that conflict could pan out. Think of this as a sort of butterfly effect exercise: your character is hit by a car, and the following could happen from here. Come up with as many solutions as you can think of, and examine them. This could lead to further inspiration, and hopefully a deeper understanding of your character and his motivations.
One of the most prominent issues I see people struggle with when it comes to creating short stories comes in the form of developing and resolving conflict. This, too, hearkens back to grade school, but it’s important to start your short story off with this in mind: without strife or some sort of challenge, your story isn’t a story. Tension between the main character and the forces he or she must reckon with, this is what readers came for.
Whether your character is going up against androids, God, the big bad world at large or just himself, there has to be someone or something to bump up against.
Build to the climax. Or, in some cases, start with it and work your way backward. Or break it into chunks and bounce around. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you want to take a cue from reality and common sense and build to something. In the map of your plot, this is the center of the map and should be a moment or a scene you pay more attention to than any other. This is, after all, what you promised your reader.
Conflict, by the way, is not easy to create on paper. I am often stumped myself on ways to demonstrate conflict. High stakes is the most common sort of conflict I remember learning about in grade school; a character stands to lose something or someone very important. I seem to remember the rising action somehow supporting the creation of conflict in these same writing lessons as a kid. Increase the tension by adding obstacles or intensifying existing ones.
Yourke has some wonderful suggestions, too, for writers like me that struggle with this element of their short story. Giving both the antagonist and the protagonist options is a way to establish conflict. The element of mystery or surprise, too, seems to be a great way to hold a reader’s attention. This keeps your story from being too predictable and sets you up for a big reveal at the end if your story does not turn out the way a person might have guessed.
She also posits that an important tool for creating conflict is by demonstrating values. Holding characters accountable is much simpler on paper than it is in the real world, and readers like to see that. If there’s a repeat offender in your story, making sure they get their just desserts is a good way to give readers a satisfaction they might be missing out on in their own lives. Empathy is a common way to connect your characters with your audience; these emotions serve as a natural lubricant for the rising tension and help make your story relatable. The beauty of relying on empathy and shared human experience to build tension in your tale is that it often leads naturally to the climax coinciding with insight, which many readers find especially satisfying. A story that reveals or proposes something about human nature is always a win in my book.
The resolution in a short story is where seasoned macrofiction writers shine. They know that there doesn’t need to be a “the end” moment. Often a reader can rest easy seeing signs that the character is beginning the process of change or that things, in some hint of a small way, or about to change. This is always fun for me, personally, to read, because it leaves the actual conclusion of the story up to me as a reader and it demonstrates how seasoned the author is. A practiced short story writer knows about the importance of cutting the cord.
Monologue and dialogue are another way you can conclude a story, and I feel as if this is the second most common ending I come across. Very occasionally writers will forgo the blunt beauty of a sudden closing and thoroughly explain the resolution. If this seems to fit your story, by all means, give it a go. But don’t be adverse to trying out a few different endings, if for no other reason than to challenge yourself. And don’t feel as if you need to use more words than necessary to get the reader to that final scene.
Imagery is a device that some authors use in their conclusion, and it always impresses the hell out of me when I come across it. This imagery can come in the form of, say, a parallel scene to the one the story started with. It can also come in the form of symbolic imagery, not unlike all the yellow in Gatsby. And actual imagery without any assistance from the characters or narrator is an option, too. Your protagonist can just walk out of the room and leave the reader in the darkness of his shuttered apartment, his footsteps growing fainter and the noise of the wall clock beginning to fill the room. The important thing, no matter what kind of ending you ultimately decide is right for your story, is to trust your reader. Over-explaining and forced exposition are enormous turn-offs for editors and for readers. Don’t insult my intelligence by explaining everything to me in great detail; I’ve read a book before. I’ve seen other people out in the world.
Obviously, this looks like a jumble of suggestions that you may or may not have read before. My final piece of advice when it comes to writing a short story is thus: heed these jumbles of common sense knowledge. They’re not wrong. Hard to get the hang of? Surely. Sound too simple to be true? Maybe. But they actually work. That crap they taught us in school? The stuff we studied in college? Turns out Virginia Wolf and Thomas Pynchon and Charles Bukowski, as individual and one-off as they were, all followed the formula to some degree. Don’t be naive enough to imagine that you’ll become a more amazing writer by trusting your creativity blindly. Accept that writing is like baseball or karate or dance: it takes practice and performance and failure and injury (to your ego, mostly…statistically I don’t think many people were hospitalized for writing-related bodily harm in the past year) to get good.