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The Top 10 Tips For Writing Great Short Stories

The Top 10 Tips For Writing Great Short Stories

Guest post by Willie Handler, author of two satirical novels, The Road Ahead and Loved Mars Hated The Food.


Not every writer has the passion and time to write a novel. Or maybe you do write novels but want to try something different. If so, writing short stories might be for you. 

Short stories are in demand by magazines, newspapers, blogs, and anthologies, and many of these publications pay authors for short stories. 

In fact, you can earn more money per word writing short stories than you can publishing a novel. 

So how do you go about writing a short story that will be accepted by a publication or website? Here are my top ten tips for writing a great short story.

1. Understand that a short story is not the same as a novel

Novels and short stories share some common characteristics. They need to be coherent, grammatically correct, and have proper spelling. And, no matter the length, they need to tell a story. 

That means they both need to have these elements: inciting incident, rising action (progressive complications), climax, and falling action.

Still, the two formats differ. 

Whereas novelists decide the length of their books, short story writers have to work within the confines of the word limit they're given. To tell a complete story on a smaller scale, they have to cut their stories down to the bone, excluding all fatty detail. And they need to resolve problems quickly.

This is why short stories, unlike novels, usually focus on one aspect of a character’s life, or one aspect of a problem/relationship in a character’s life.

2. Start as close to the end as possible

Newspaper articles include the entirety of the story as close to the opening of the article as possible. Why? Because giving a reader the details upfront is one way to let them know whether they want to read on.

Good short story writers do this as well, sharpening their opening lines and paragraphs to ensure readers are pulled in off the bat, and keep reading.

So, get the reader right into your unfolding story. Bypass the “before” and the “also related” and the “vaguely interesting thing that is also true of my character’s life” snapshots. 

Make the plot obvious.

3. Keep up the pace

A fast pace is essential for short stories. Normally, the pace increases as the hero approaches the final conflict. Since a short story starts close to the final conflict, it needs to hit the ground running and catapult the reader headlong into the action from page one.

Example:

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Keith Cavernaugh got murdered last night.”

Fred almost dropped his rake. “I hadn’t heard,” he said.

4. Keep the number of characters small

It’s difficult to properly develop a larger number of characters in a short story, and it's hard for a reader to keep track of them.

A short story only needs three characters – a protagonist, antagonist, and what is referred to as a wrench or relationship character. The reader needs someone to cheer on, someone to hate, and, occasionally, someone who serves to advance the character arc for either the protagonist or antagonist.

A short story can even have as few as one character. In the Tom Hanks film Cast Away, the main character is alone for most of the movie. This is a great example of how you can build a story with just a single character.

5. Give the reader someone to root for

Again, every story needs a protagonist. The trick is to make the reader care about that character. There are a few techniques to strengthen the connection between your protagonist and the reader.

Give your main character a passion, hopefully one that will be shared by the reader. Give your character determination that brings them out of their comfort zone. Give your character a weakness, one that is only shared with the reader. 

A glimpse into your character’s psyche is another good approach. This will make your character feel real and go on to draw in the reader.

6. Create conflict!

Every short story needs to have a single point of conflict. As a rule, no more than one is required for a short story. 

The character should have either a dilemma, a revelation, or be faced with a decision of some kind. Surrounding that conflict should be a good dose of tension. Conflict and tension keep readers engaged and invested in your story. 

Kurt Vonnegut suggests that writers should be sadists. Make bad things happen to your main characters to show readers what they are made of. A short story can never have too much tension.

7. Suggest a backstory but don’t elaborate

You don’t have the space to flesh out a character’s backstory. So, if in doubt, leave it out. Every sentence must count. If even one word seems extraneous, it has to go. 

Even though you may not describe much of the backstory on paper, you need to have it worked out in your head. You need to understand a character’s motivation to write a compelling story.

Instead, draw in your readers with tight dialogue, tension, and by engaging their senses.

On that note...

8. Appeal to the five senses

Don't restrict your readers to only the visual experience of your story. Transport them into your world by letting them touch, smell, taste and hear it. This is what we mean when we say, "Show, don't tell." Invite your readers to explore the full breadth of what your world has to offer, as if they were really there.

The dense fog engulfs your character and she can no longer make out the path through the woods.

The smell of bacon cooking in the kitchen pulls him from his sleep.

The fan blades thwack the air and keep her from drifting to sleep.

9. Dialogue should bring your story to life

Don’t spend too much time setting scenes because a short story needs to come to a relatively quick conclusion. Good dialogue can make the characters, and therefore the story, come to life.  

When putting characters in a scene, give them something to do, like washing dishes. But then focus on the dialogue to advance the story and set up conflict. 

There’s no better way to build drama than through tight dialogue. I always try to read my dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t feel real, or if it seems out of character, I have a problem.

Example:

“Come quick! Jack is trapped in the mineshaft.”

“I can’t help rescue Jack. I’m claustrophobic.”

“That mineshaft floods in wet weather. If this storm breaks, Jack will drown.”

10. Edit until it hurts

No matter how good a writer thinks their story is, it can be made more concise and compelling. To be a good writer, one needs to be a ruthless editor. 

Some ways to do that...

  • Combine characters where possible.
  • Delete transitory scenes and get right to the meat of the story.
  • Show, remember, don’t tell.
  • Get rid of repetitive words.
  • Toss out unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.
  • Make every sentence count. 

This is the time to look at the backstory and decide how much of it is critical to the story. Remember, just because short stories are short, they aren't necessarily easier to write. 

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Check out short story anthologies including Raconteur Magazine for examples of how to apply these tips well. Reading is always a great way to learn how to write.

In sum, keep it spare. Limit plot lines, the number of characters, the amount of backstory provided, and whittle down your conflict to just one event.

And remember, as with all things, practice makes perfect. 

So, commit to your craft. Write a 500 to a 1,000-word story every month. Once you get the hang of that, try to churn one out every two weeks. And then every week. And then every day. 

Soon, you’ll be able to create short stories with ease, and you’ll have trained yourself to write consistently, too.

Just don’t forget to edit!

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