Putting pen to paper: short story writing tips

Do you fancy yourself a writer? Short stories are a great way to flex your creative muscles and hone your writing skills. Make no mistake, short stories aren’t easy; they present all sorts of challenges that that are absent when you write a novel. Most of these challenges have to do with brevity: you need to keep things short and to the point without sacrificing the elements of a good story.

Of course there are advantages to brevity. I have tried my hand at novels and short stories and have found that my writing style is better suited to the short form. My problem is one of concentration (which could probably be sorted out with concerted effort). It’s easier for me to write stories with a single focus that occurs in a short time frame rather than try to carry a plot over tens or even hundreds of thousands of words. You might find something similar, or you might use short stories as a spring board to that great novel, or to relieve creative tension between novels. Whatever your motivation there are some important points to remember.

  1. Be open to ideas: I get a lot of ideas from dreams. They don’t necessarily come fully formed but I might be inspired by a character or event or even the feel of a dream. Real life also presents a wealth of ideas – newspaper headlines, someone you pass on the street, a natural disaster half way across the world, a personal tragedy.
  2. Write down your ideas: I keep a notepad with me at all times so that when inspiration strikes I can write it down immediately. Some ideas are better than others, but the point is not to discard any as they might lead to something spectacular.
  3. Know the basics: This applies to writing rules as well as general rules for short stories.
  • With regards to the writing process you need to know how to structure and punctuate a sentence; string sentences into paragraphs and mould paragraphs into a logical and comprehensive whole.
  • With regards to the rules and structure of short stories we’ll carry on in more detail below.

Putting ideas into practice

Short stories tend to follow a general structure:

  • Introduction: Your introduction needs to provide an immediate hook. You can’t waffle your way into a short story. Launch into your characters and setting.
  • Initiate action: Set the stage for your plot.
  • Rising action: Build up to the climax.
  • Climax: This is where the story gets intense and where your characters reach a turning point.
  • Falling action: The fall out from the climax moving towards the conclusion.
  • Conclusion (resolution): Make sure you end your story properly. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything ends well or conclusively but it does mean that your story reaches its rightful end.

Getting to grips with your story

Because short stories are by definition short, you don’t have the time to create a lot of realistic characters. It’s recommended that you keep your cast to two or three characters at most.

When you create characters it’s important that you know them inside and out. You won’t share all this information with your readers but it will help you bring them to life. Figure out what they like and don’t like, for instance, are they dog or cat people, do they like their toast slightly burnt, are they only children or do they have middle child syndrome, do they like hard rock or Justin Bieber? Do they have interesting quirks like an obsession with rubber ducks, a tendency to count lamp posts, a love for Thai curries? Include flaws because if there is one thing that readers don’t like it’s a character that is perfect.

Don’t try to set your story across a broad time frame. Ideally your story should take place over a couple of days, or even in one day or an hour. You can split your times frame, for instance, you could write about an incident that occurred when a character was young and then leap forward several years to see the effect. But then you should keep one time frame short and focus most of your energy on the other.

Pick a point of view: First person, second person or third person. Bear in mind that second person narration is rare and very difficult to get right. I favour the third person because I prefer telling a story to conveying a first person perspective.

Pre-write or draw an outline. This will help you layout your story and give you a template to work with. You don’t have to follow it, often characters go off in their own direction and you have to follow them, but at least you’ll have a rough idea of where you want to go and how to get there.

If necessary, do some research. Winging it will only get you so far and then your story loses authenticity and you lose readers.

Don’t try to control the story. Like your characters your story might develop a life of its own. Follow it and guide it but don’t try to dominate it.

Keep writing. You could come up against some walls, you might feel that some days you’re useless, you might be tempted to give up, but don’t. I have several half-finished stories that I’m going to “get back to” and they nag at me incessantly. On the other hand, I know the tremendous satisfaction of finishing story; the nerves as I hand it to someone to read; and the begrudging feeling of accepting criticism.

Take criticism in the spirit in which it is intended and consider it while you revise your story.

If you love it let it go. Stories are made to be shared; even if you only share yours with your immediate family and closest friends.


(image from: http://www.wetink.com.au/ssp2011.htm)

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