Short Story Writing Guide
Although short stories are limited in terms of length, they provide the author with great freedom to take one moment and expand it into an amusing piece of literature. You can go in an unexpected direction, describe the scene or expose the characters' feelings, but you have to avoid sloppiness.
Short stories are a great challenge because they allow the writer to express creativity in its purest form, but also restrain him into a short word count. If you just started experimenting with this genre, it might be difficult for you to find the right balance between too short and too long.
When you read the famous short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, O. Henry and Kate Chopin, you may get the impression that the writing process would go easy with the right dose of inspiration. However, a single short story may take few weeks of planning and conceptualizing. The most important thing to remember is that you cannot force the story out of your mind. Be ready to note your ideas at any time! When you are ready to get to work, you can follow this process that will result with a great short piece of literature.
- Getting started
This is a common advice given to writers who want to make an attempt in this genre: read Chekhov! Then proceed with Tobias Wolff and Ernest Hemingway. Don't be intimidated by the talent of these authors; you'll never reach your full potential without knowing what great writing looks like.
When you are ready to produce your own work, you should plan the following aspects:
- What does the character want? Stay away from clichés such as finding love, discovering the meaning of life, and similar abstract things. You need something practical, like a kid who wants a specific toy, or a doctor who wants to be a dancer. These simple wishes will reveal a deeper meaning.
- What actions has the character taken to achieve that goal? You need to develop a background that will uncover the really important parts of the story.
- The setting is important! Think of surrounding details that would set the tone and help you convey the message.
- You need something unexpected. Add emotions, a shocking ending, or an action that would lead to serious consequences.
- What's the important choice that the character makes? You want to awaken the reader's empathy about the development of the situation, but he should not predict the outcome.
Every short story needs a specific theme that conveys a meaningful message. This will be the main motif of the piece, so you should have it covered before proceeding with the framework and plot development. Every sentence, every word you write should be related to it.
Choose the setting very carefully. Don't be predictable; abandoned houses and cemeteries are not the only scenes you can use for a horror story. Think of a place where your readers can imagine themselves. That will add a realistic appeal to your writing.
As far as the time span is concerned, remember that it has to be short. The story may be based on a single moment, event, hour, or day in the protagonist's life.
Don't be too ambitious; you cannot fit more than three main characters in a short story. You don't have to offer detailed background on each protagonist, but make sure to give some hints that will bring the theme closer to the reader. Your job as a writer is to present complex personalities through a short, simple piece of literature. Here are some of the hints you can use to add depth to the story:
- something the protagonist hates;
- something he loves;
- family circumstances;
- habitual gestures;
- an illness;
- appearance, and more.
You don't have any time for circumventions; you have to get straight to the point. Thinking of a captivating introduction is usually the hardest part of the writing process. You have everything planned and the story is already ready to come out, but you cannot think of an introductory sentence. You need immediacy, tension, conflict, an unexpected situation, or anything else that would grab the attention of the reader.
“The police superintendent Otchmyelov is walking across the market square wearing a new overcoat and carrying a parcel under his arm.” Notice how Chekhov managed to introduce the reader to the protagonist, setting, and theme in a single sentence. What does the new overcoat mean? What kind of parcel is he carrying? We can immediately assume some things, but we don't know where the author will lead us to.
Don't try to infuse a highly-intellectual dialogue into a short story. You need something brief, realistic, and meaningful. If you make the reader find meaning behind the succinct, casual dialogue, you goal as a writer will be achieved. Remember: the dialog must contribute to the theme of your story. If there are any unnecessary words and phrases, be ruthless and edit them out.
You need a clear plot. The way you set up the entire situation and come up with breaking points will determine the success of this piece. You need to think of a hooking event that will guide the reader towards the rest of the story. Does the protagonist commit suicide? Does he move in with his parents after a bad breakup? Does he get arrested? Think of something that can result from the opening sentence, but don't go for the most obvious alternative.
There must be a clear beginning, development, and end of the plot. The worst mistake you could make is to signal the twist right from the start. Maintain some suspense and allow the reader to guess until the last moment.
If you explore some of the best short stories ever written, you will notice a mutual aspect: tension and conflict. The main character can get into conflict with himself, a friend, God, a policeman, society, or anything else you can think of.
Clearly, the conflict needs a resolution. Where does the situation lead to?
If you just started writing short stories, you'll be surprised with the amount of editing they require. Revising, editing and proofreading are essential steps of the process. If you skip this stage, you should be prepared for harsh criticism.