For several years, I taught English in high school. I’m not a short story writer, though I did write one for a contest last year. I like a larger canvas that I can sink inside. But, what follows is one of the lessons I used to share with my students on how to write a short story. Much of it came from my own amazing high school English teacher, Regan Devine. Is that a great name for a character or what? He’s real and here he is.
How to Write a Short Story
Writing is a craft. Like most crafts it looks easy, but in reality it requires hard work and practice. Manifestos are written on the subject. This is just a wee primer to get you started.
The Bones: A particular character in a particular place at a particular time is beset with a problem or conflict that he or she must resolve. Keep it simple: essential characters (no more than three) in a single setting over a short span of time. Here’s some sage advice:
o Put a man up a tree
o Give him a problem or maybe several, each one worse than the last
o Help him find a way down
Structure: Beginning, Middle, End
Start with a situation: a man is in a tree. Do not give backstory unless it is necessary. Use a narrative hook. Make your reader ask question(s). How did he get up there? Will he get down? How?
Start as close to the inciting incident (first crisis) as you can. This incident or problem shakes him out of his ordinary world. Problems/conflict can result from nature/environment, humans, or something in his own mind.
II. Middle/Main Conflict
The man struggles as you build tension and suspense by “raising the stakes”. If he succeeds in solving one problem, give him a worse one. Someone is throwing stones, threatening him, or shooting at him, a wild animal waits at the foot of the tree, a tsunami is on the horizon, a hurricane is blowing all around him, he is injured, he is starving to death, he must get down by a certain time or his friend or lover or kids will die. Allow the character a moment to rest and reflect in between crises. Build to a climax.
He gets down, saves himself or whoever was in danger (resolves his problem) and has somehow changed. Or maybe he doesn’t get down and dies trying. Some stories have unhappy endings.
Central Theme or Guiding Light: You must have a reason or point for telling this story, a message or thread of meaning that runs through from beginning to end. Stick to it.
Characterization: Make your reader care about what happens to your character. Reveal one key characteristic in your main character and challenge or change it via conflict. Subtly show this characteristic, rather than tell it. Character is revealed through action (how he acts and reacts), tone and attitude (how he thinks about things), language and imagery (how he speaks).
Point-of-View: You can either write in first person (I came, I saw, I conquered) or in third person limited omniscient (she came, she saw, she turned around and left). The trick with viewpoints is to remember that your character only knows certain things, and we see only through his eyes. You, the writer, know much more. Let your character discover and show things through his actions. Don’t give information your character would not know. Also, only write in one viewpoint, don’t shift.
Pacing: short sentences and paragraphs create speed for fast paced stories. Longer wordy sentences slow things down for a breath of reflection.
Vivid Imagery: Paint a vivid picture by appealing to the five senses. What does the character see, smell, hear, taste, and touch? You want to bring your reader into the non-ordinary world of the character.
Words: Use precise, concrete, accurate detail. Do not use passive boring verbs like: is, was, has, get, take, watch, went. Use particular verbs to convey action and attitude. Avoid using adverbs (anything ending in ly). Instead of “she walked slowly” say “she ambled” or “she strolled” or “she staggered”. This is the time to use your thesaurus sparingly.
Dialogue: There are rules.
o Every time you have a new speaker begin a new paragraph.
o Enclose everything the speaker says in quotation marks.
o Use dialect and grammar to reveal character.
o Break up dialect with bits of action.
o Where the quotation is interrupted by some action or to identify a speaker, do it at a natural pause and enclose each part. “I won’t go,” Jesse said, “unless you go with me.”
o If a quotation extends for more than one paragraph do not close it at the end of the first paragraph, but open the next with quotation marks.
o Put the comma, period, question mark, or em dashes INSIDE quotation marks.
o Use an em dash (two dashes—) when the speaker is interrupted or cut off
o Put colons, semi-colons OUTSIDE quotation marks.
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“Mitch? Why are you whispering? Are you okay? What’s that noise?”
“Look, I need help. I’m stuck up a tree and—”
“Will you just listen?” I hissed. I knew I should have called John, even if Sorcha was my new girlfriend. “Look. I climbed up a tree at the Hellerman place to rescue my mother’s stupid kitten but I can’t get down.”
“Sorry? What did you say? I’m just doing my nails and I dropped my phone.”
I began again. “I climbed up—”
The growling escalated as the dogs clawed hunks of bark from the tree trunk below me.
“Mitch? What’s happening? What’s that noise? Where are you?”
“Dobermans … mean Dobermans.” I heard nothing—no reaction. “Sorcha? Are you there?” I stared at the black screen on my cell phone. “Damn,” I growled, and hurled it at the dogs.
“I don’t know what to write about. My life is boring. I’ve got nothing to say.” This is a common block for writers. The truth is, you have scads of stuff to write about. Our lives are composed of interwoven stories. Some people say write what you know. (That’s a cliche, by the way.) Sometimes this works, but you can also write what you don’t know—what you can only imagine. This is the beauty of Fiction and what Imagination is for. We read and write to leave our ordinary world along with the character, to go to exotic locales and experience through story things we never could in reality. I say: write what intrigues you.
Write about places you’re curious about. Create quirky characters and drop them into unusual situations. Ultimately, we humans have similar wants and needs—love, friendship, comfort, safety, joy, adventure, and to go home in the end.
Finally, write in a genre you love to read. If you’re into science fiction, fantasy, romance, drama, mystery, history, write a story of that type. If you’re hooked on your story, chances are other people will be too.
Revision: To Look Again
o Type your story.
o Run a spelling and grammar check.
o Do a general edit for rhythm, pacing, and errors. When you do this read your story out loud. Have someone else read your story out loud.
o Then complete a line-by-line edit where you weed out: adverbs, clichés, errors, repeating images or actions, too much dialogue or description.