In my last post, we discussed Ten Reasons (+1) to Write Short Stories. This week, we’ll dive into some tips on how to craft a solid short story. Short stories are a different animal. You don’t have 70,000 words to paint a picture, build back-story, or play out the action. However, you must still incorporate all the components of good fiction. Theme, plot, protagonists, antagonists, concept must intertwine to bring impact to your story.
Most short stories tend to be 3,500 words or less. That’s not a lot of words if you’re used to writing lengthy prose. You have to make every word count. While there are no “rules” to writing short stories, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your short fiction pieces.
- Have an End in Sight. Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, you must be a planner for short stories. A few thousand words is not enough time to “explore” your way to an ending. Take time to analyze your motivations for the story. What do you want to accomplish? Once you determine this, outline the basic story. Once you start writing, stick to the message.
- Theme. More so than in novels, every word must relate back to your theme. We have to resist temptation to take off on tangents in characters, superfluous descriptive writing, and back-story. Every excess word dilutes the impact of the story.
- Plot. Don’t forget to include the basics — a beginning, middle, and end. With short stories, go from A to Z and don’t spend a lot of time on the middle letters. Keep your climax in mind throughout the story and save room for it at the end.
- Characters. Too many characters can also dilute your short story. One to three main characters is ideal. When deciding what traits to describe in your characters, think about what is important to your plot and theme. With reduced word counts, it’s important to identify the characteristics that add to the impact of the climax.
- Timeline. Start as close to the climax as possible. Short stories don’t have the luxury of showing day to day life in your character. You have to get good at building the important pieces, quickly.
- First Paragraph. No different from any novel, your first paragraph is key. However, keeping in mind number five above, you need to start close to the end. Build in your conflict and tension immediately.
- Leverage Conflict and Tension. A great short story will leave you with some type of feeling. It’s important to reach deep to make it as impactful as possible. Conflict produces tension. Tension is the result of the opposition created by your characters’ internal or external conditions. Without this, your story lacks emotion. Without emotion, you have nothing.
- Climax. Of course you need a climax, but, be sure that your climax isn’t a gimmick. Ending a story with a “crisis” isn’t necessarily a climax. Your ending must relate to the conflict or theme of the story. Too many short stories end with shock and awe just for the purpose of shock and awe. A great story will end with the bang that ties in the underlying theme or concept.
- Twists. Take it to the max. You don’t have many words to work with, but you still want to create the “I didn’t see that coming” moment. Intensify the conflicts. Pull your protagonists in unexpected directions.
- Paragraphs. In order to keep your short story powerful, go back and examine the last sentence of every paragraph. Are you summarizing? End every paragraph and scene with action that moves the story forward. This tip alone can give you a more powerful story. Take the extra time to examine your words and sentences.
Short story writing is a true art form. It’s a great way to hone your writing skills and challenge yourself to examine all things writing — plot, theme, conflict, concept, characters, and more. Be selective when writing short fiction. Insist that every element and every word contributes to the whole. Cut the fat. Write strong.