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The short story is a powerful tool for writers, a way to capture and communicate a powerful idea in a limited amount of space. In a short story, you can create an entire world, and explore complex themes and characters without losing the reader in the weeds. Writing a short story is not easy, however, and as with any literary form, the best stories are honed from years of practice and work. If you find yourself wondering how to write a short story, keep these tips in mind.
- 1 Read. A lot. Fiction and nonfiction.
- 2 Choose an angle
- 3 Write what you love
- 4 Plan your story out inside and out before you write it
- 5 Pay attention to structure
- 6 Choose your word count
- 7 Use your character’s senses as much as possible
- 8 Learn how to write dialogue
- 9 Get to the point
- 10 Establish a routine for writing
- 11 Write your short story
- 12 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Read. A lot. Fiction and nonfiction.
A large part of writing a short story is getting yourself inside of the shape of one. For that reason, you would want to read as many as possible on both fiction and non-fiction. This will not only sharpen your understanding of the form, but also inspire ideas for what you could do with your own. In terms of which authors or texts speak to you the most, your tastes are as important as any piece of advice you’ll ever read. By seeking out the writers who resonate with you most, your own story will build on a story you love, and hopefully write something that others will come to love, too.
When you’re reading, pay attention to every possible element. Consider the shape, the plot, the point of view, and the voice. The structural aspects of the text should fascinate you the most, since those are the functions you must produce within a single, short text. You can do a first draft within just about any point of view or tense, but coming back to revise, make sure you’re asking what choices a particular point of view or structure will afford you in terms of your plot or character development.
Choose an angle
Decide what shape you want it to be. Are you going to write a humorous, light-hearted romp that will run in a news magazine, or something darker and more tragic that can be read at a higher literacy level? Are you going to write a detective story, a family drama, or the transcribed conversation of a post-apocalyptic insult battle? Once you’ve figured out what your short story is going to be about, you can start developing your characters, setting, and theme.
Supporting characters, settings, and themes all come together into what’s known around the literary world as the milieu. The milieu is often one of the most challenging parts of writing a short story, because you’re routinely working with limited space, and trying to build a world that is full, varied, and interesting. This is a skill that many genre writers give the short shrift, because you’re so used to world-building and exposition being a major component. But basic world-building doesn’t have to be laborious. Make your milieu as high-concept as possible — the idea that you could have had thoughts for a thousand pages and just used about five. Take Star Wars, for example. Tatooine is one of the most intricate, completely-there milieus in cinematic history, and it’s little more than a desert planet with a giant salt water sinkhole.
Write what you love
It’s important for first-time short story writers to pick a subject they care about, and a plot they’re interested in exploring. If your subject matter isn’t something important to you, or if you haven’t devised a substantial premise, you may face writer’s block when you’ve finished one section. You should avoid writing whatever you can think of—short stories aren’t the place for writing practice. If you’re able to know a little bit about your subject, protagonist, and protagonist’s goal, you will know exactly the kind of story you need to write in order to complete your piece.
Research your subject, and pay attention to what captures your interest. Look for relevant personal experiences you’ve had, and use them to support your protagonist’s motives and backstory. Maintain a list of prompts and resources for ideas, as well as any notes you make as you explore and discover.
When you’re ready to write, first commit to the takeaway message you’d like to communicate to your audience. Do you want to teach an important lesson, explore an ethical dilemma, surprise the audience with a sophisticated twist ending, or something else? Can you include such a goal in the first section of your story? Write it in several different ways, progressively refining each section as you work.
Plan your story out inside and out before you write it
Even if you are a creative genius, your short story will not be good unless you plan it out first. Go through the process of creating an outline for your story, one that includes the major plot points of your story and the important themes and character development. Make sure you have a clear plan in place before you dive into writing your short story.
Another problem that many people run into when writing short stories has to do with lack of structure. In novels, you can get away with a tonal or structural mess, because at over a hundred pages, the reader doesn’t have to commit to the story in the same way that they do when committing to a short story of fifteen pages. With short stories, structure is everything. Don’t be afraid to use other clearly-structured stories, whether by a conventional author or author you’re studying, to work as your starting point, story to steal, or story to deconstruct.
Pay attention to structure
Many short stories feel magical because they integrate extraordinary events into the mundane, but that illusion of effortlessness is often achieved by a careful choice of perspective. Whether you’re writing in first person or third person, you’re still shaping a lens through which the reader watches your story unfold. Writers in the first person — who is generally limited to a single narrator — can really cut to the heart of a story by creating a limited point of view. Think of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love — he uses a third-generation perspective on the story of married men drinking away at each other until there’s nothing left. Nothing is told directly to the reader, and it’s only through the narrator observing the action that the plot comes into focus. On the other hand, a single third-person narrator has a wider lens through which the story is told, providing more of an opportunity for enhanced dissection and objectivity in the telling.
Choose your word count
That said, short stories demand a level of technical mastery that any author would be wise to acquire. Because there is less room to pace and plot your work, every word counts, and every sentence is deliberate in its construction. Sheer word length is not what makes a short story a story — it’s how you fill those words with story. You can tell a complete, dramatic, and unexpected story arc in 2,500 words, or even less. You can also make readers weep over a character’s internal conflict if you remove even more words. Use this limitation to your advantage — within these succinct walls you must accomplish all three of the major story goals without dragging. That’s why it’s essential to figure out how to distill a very general idea into a specific, character-focused driving force that will propel your short story forward. Make sure characters are driving the story. Believable characters, that is. One of the central driving forces of most short stories is a well-intentioned but flawed character trying to overcome some personal obstacle.
Use your character’s senses as much as possible
Characters are the lifeblood of your short stories. Give your protagonists something to do, something unique and interesting, and your stories will fly. In the process, you’ll bring your characters’ personalities to life, provide an outlet for some of the loves readers have for protagonists, and keep the reader riveted as they explore your characters’ doings and predicaments. Keep your character’s strengths in mind as you write. Physical characters should rely on their physical prowess. Mental characters should be able to do the same — note the unique talents and power sets of your favorite intelligence agents, and think of ways to enable your flawed, human protagonists to have their moments of glory. Creating a compelling character is the key to a successful short story — especially if that character is mortal and will be met with a three-act structure so common in storytelling. After all, how can people be expected to care about a story if they don’t care about the people in the story?
Learn how to write dialogue
One of the biggest challenges for short story writers is remembering that characters don’t need to be in every scene. The average short story is far less dense with dialogue, action, and exposition than a novel, but that doesn’t make it an excuse for sloppy storytelling. It’s tempting for a short story writer to include as much action as possible, rather than giving the reader space to think about the plot and characters. A short story can survive a rush of action, but it’s always better when it’s supported by dialogue. The way people talk — accurate, slightly colloquial, slightly literary — helps define their personalities, their roles in events, and most importantly for a short story, the kinds of action they can take. Dialogue can be used to show a character’s cunning insights into a plot, or to inflict the unnecessary cruelty habitual to a villain, and so much more. Just be careful not to rely on dialogue as a crutch — without speaking, everyone in the story is isolated from one another. Sometimes it’s good for the reader to see how individuals react to isolation. Sometimes it is the point.
Talk as if you were sitting on the subway next to a character, and you need to summarize his part in the story. Or corral your dialogue into short, interjecting bursts that make the action flow faster — think of it as verbal all-caps, like the text messages of yesteryear. Next, develop your characters in increments of action, dialogue, and thought.
Don’t overdo it — just enough for the reader to identify who belongs in what category. Make sure that you let them know what your character is thinking in a one-on-one dialogue scene, or else the reader is missing some valuable insight, context, and reason. For instance, if two people who are supposedly close are having an emotionally charged conversation, then the reader should know what everyone else in the scene is thinking to have the total experience. You can use primary dialogue to temporarily distract or confuse the reader in order to lead to the conclusion being spoken.
Get to the point
Keep your sentences clear and concise. It might be tempting to jam your sentences full of all sorts of adjectives and adverbs, especially if you’re a writer who tends to be more experimental. But a short story should read like it was meant to be there, so always make sure you make an impact with every word.
No matter how long or short your story, you should consider trimming down your adjectives, because sometimes less can be way more — and it can really spice your writing up, leaving your reader reeling by the end, to find out how it all ends. If you find yourself wondering how to write a short story, search for patterns in your writing and see if there might be some unnecessary repetition — it could be a sign you need to prune.
Be resolute. The magic and discipline of the short story is learning how to present your precise, one-concept idea to the reader, without ever losing their attention or focus. With a short story, you’re allowed to take more narrative risks for the sake of simplicity, as well. A character can show up suddenly, if you justify their presence — in fact, any phenomenon can be at your disposal as a writer and as long as you can put a naturalistic and internally consistent spin on it. It may be difficult to follow the advice of making every word count to its utmost, but throwing out the bit you don’t need can also be enlightening.
Establish a routine for writing
Like many things, it’s easier to write every day with a routine than to convince yourself to do it. Some writers like to write in the evening time or when the house is quiet and everyone else is in bed. Some writers get up early in the morning to write while everyone else is still sleeping. Some writers create a week free of all obligations so they can focus on getting words down on the page. However you manage it, setting aside the time each day to write might be the deciding factor between short stories and long-term novel writing.
Now that you’ve worked out your daily writing schedule, it’s time to start thinking about the fine details of the structure of the daily writing routine. Your daily writing time might look completely different from other sources. Some writers use an hour workout as the perfect time to put words on the page. Some find the best time to write is after a lovely meal that engages all five senses. All that matters is what works best for you. Think about how you feel after you have eaten this particular meal, or visualized this scene, or listened to the piece of music. Don’t overthink it. Choose a route that you know will engage you and get going with it.
Write your short story
Writing a short story can be very rewarding — and profitable, too. It takes as much energy to see an idea through as to have the idea in the first place. Never underestimate yourself — making your writing the best it can be is just as important a task as deciding to write in the first place. So, find the faults, edit, and revise, and, above all, let your short story be the best it can be.
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