Needless to say, writing a good short story is not as simple as sitting down at your desk and slapping a few words down on the page. Just like long-form fiction, short fiction has structure, requires a plot, needs well-developed characters, it needs to have something to say, and, of course, it has a limited word count. Wikipedia defines a short story as being 7,500 words or less. A lot of writing competitions define a short story as 10,000 words or less.
When I started writing short stories, I struggled to find the best way to write them. I’d come up with a plot, I’d create some great characters, I’d start writing… And then I’d stop. And abandon the project. Or, sometimes I’d keep writing to the end but would be disappointed because I knew something was ‘off’. I soon realised that what was ‘off’ was my structure. I simply had no idea how to structure a short story
So how exactly do you write a great story in so few words? Well, there are no hard and fast rules to creating a short story. However, there are a few guidelines…
SHOW, DON’T TELL
The first of these guidelines is that age-old golden rule that applies to all forms of story-telling – SHOW, DON’T TELL. For example, if you have a character who is funny, don’t just tell me that he is funny. Show me he is funny. Show him doing something funny. Or saying something funny. Let’s see his ‘funny’ in his actions or in his dialogue. Show, don’t tell.
A lot of writers, mostly new writers, wrestle with the idea of what comes first – plot or character. Some will vehemently, and I mean vehemently, argue that no story worth reading has ever been, or ever will be, developed from plot, and that all good stories come from great character.
A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. ~Jane Burroway
The reality is, the best stories have both a great plot and great characters. It doesn’t really matter which comes first – plot or character – because the truth is, if your story has a weak plot, or if it has weak characters, it will fail to engage an audience.
So, plot. Literally, a plot is the sequence of events in play, novel, film, or other narrative structure. Often this is a sequence of things that go wrong. The things that go wrong create tension and drama. A novel can have a whole series of things that go wrong. However, in a short story only ONE thing should go wrong. And the thing that goes wrong (for the protagonist), is the catalyst for the story.
Whatever happens in your story, whatever obstacles your protagonist must overcome, whatever your protagonist must learn, their success or failure should be of their own making. They should not be saved, rescued, or led to their success or failure by other characters. Or by deux ex machina, which means ‘god from the machine’. This comes from ancient Greek theatre where a machine was used to convey actors playing gods onto the stage. These days the term has come to mean a plot device that is used when a seemingly unsolvable problem is solved by the unexpected intervention of a new event, character, ability, or object. Often it’s the type of thing that rattles your suspension of disbelief and makes you think nah, that just wouldn’t happen.
As with everything, there are people who love deux ex machina and who will vehemently defend a writer’s right to use it. If the genre of the story, or the story’s circumstances are amenable to the use of deux ex machina then sure, go ahead and use it. Just don’t use it a convenient escape from some ill-fated corner into which you have written your character.
Finally, whatever your protagonist learns (your protagonist should learn something and be changed in some way) by the end of the story, it should relate back to theme…
Ah, theme… I talk about it here. Go now. It’s worth the read.
Having a front row seat to the emotional interaction between characters is the single reason why we, as sentient beings, read fictional stories. (Or the interaction between a character and their environment if it’s a man versus nature story in which the environment is a character.)
When we read, we are taken on a journey of imagination facilitated by the author. We meet characters that seem to be just as real as any living person. We picture what they look like, how they dress, and how they speak. Reading puts you in someone else’s shoes. We experience what the characters’ experience, feel what they feel. They teach us by giving us alternative perspectives on thoughts, idea, and concepts. We also learn from their mistakes.
No story is the same story to its readers. Everyone experiences story in a different way. Fiction might be fantasy, but the effect it has on our minds is genuine. Even if the conclusion of the story is dystopian, the author reveals strength and the possibility for change through character. Essentially, the lives of fictional characters have what we are all searching for – meaning.
I talk about creating characters here.
It’s your job as the writer to convince us that we’re in the world you’ve created… …and you convince the reader through the sensory details you choose to convey a place. ~Robin Hemley, Turning Life into Fiction
Umberto Eco, author of the critically acclaimed novel The Name of the Rose, believes the historical fiction writer must become immersed in historical evidence: to tell a story, ‘you must first of all construct a world, furnished as much as possible, down to the slightest detail’.
When we talk about setting, we’re talking about the time, location, context, and general atmosphere of your story. Remember to invoke all five senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. These are the details that will give your story a sense of reality.
Give readers the details they need to picture the scene. However, be wary of giving them too much detail or the scene will be over-written. It’s a fine balance and one that takes time to master.
POINT OF VIEW
All stories are told from a point of view – in short, point of view, or POV, is the narrator’s description of events. When you get this right, your story will be magic. Get it wrong, and your story will be nowhere near as good as it could be. Essentially, there are four types of POV:
~ First person singular – told in the ‘I’ voice, readers can only experience the story though the main character’s eyes.
~ First person plural – told in the ‘we’ voice. The ‘we’ voice implies that a group of people are telling the story. This POV is rarely used in narrative fiction.
~ First person peripheral – still uses the ‘I’ voice but the narrator is not the main character. Events will happen to the protagonist that this narrator cannot see.
~ Second person – told in the ‘you’ voice. Rarely used in narrative fiction other than song lyrics, first-person video games, or instructional writing. (Jay McInery’s novel Bright Lights, Big City is an exception.)
~ Third person limited – told about ‘he/she/it’ but POV is limited to one character – which means the narrator on knows what that character knows.
~ Third person multiple – told about ‘he/she/it’ but POV can be about multiple characters. The challenging is in making the switch between characters obvious.
~ Third person omniscient - told about ‘he/she/it’ but now the narrator has a ‘god-like’ view of everything. They know every characters’ thoughts and feelings.
~ The most common voice in narrative fiction is third person as it offers the author the greatest writing flexibility. Next comes first person. Writing in first person is certainly more challenging especially as the point of view is biased and the narrator can be unreliable.
Experiment with your story’s POV. You first choice isn’t always the best choice. And be mindful not to give narrating duties to a non-essential character, a common mistake made by new writers. Doing so never results in a neat and tidy story.
Shifts in POV are difficult to sustain over the course of a short story. It’s probably best to choose one POV and stick with it.
Just like novels, short stories have structure, but the common structure used for novels or screenplays is far too big for a short story of 7,500 words. While short stories can and should include an antagonist or antagonistic force, there simply isn’t the word count to create reams of detail or to create complex subplots.
So, is there a structure for short stories? Why, yes. Yes, there is. At its most basic, a short story simply:
~ Requires the protagonist to make a choice
~ Shows that choice in action, not words
~ Shows that choice has consequences
This is great and should be applied to every single story you write. However, if you’re like me and need a little more information this might help:
~ The protagonist
~ The landscape
~ The cast of subsidiary characters
~ The conflict or problem
~ The main action (the playing out of the conflict)
~ Digression from the main story
~ Go behind the scenes to explain ‘why’ this story is happening
~ Roman a clef, a decipherment of the story
~ A pause, breathing space in the story
~ The resumption – get on with the story
~ The conclusion
Then there’s Tim Winton’s structure. Many of Winton’s stories are based on two established characters – A and B – and the involvement of C who causes a shift in A and B’s relationship. This rift can be ultimately unrepairable, or C can bring A and B closer together. Keep in mind that C doesn’t have to be a character. C can be a situation.
Watch your tenses. Don’t start off in past tense and then suddenly and inexplicably switch to present tense. Be consistent.
And don’t write situations into your story that are unrealistic. Don’t write dialogue into your story that is unrealistic. When you’ve completed your first draft, read your dialogue out loud. Ask yourself if your characters would really say that, and if it’s true to who they are. Look at the actions each character takes. Are they true to that character? What about your drama? Are the events too small? Are they too big? Have you created real drama or false drama?
While you’re giving thought to your story, give some thought to the word count. If you hope to, or plan to, submit your short story to competitions or to magazines, just keep in mind that most marketable short stories are around 3,500 words or less.
Hope this helps and happy writing!