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Five Key Elements of Writing a Short Story

I've been using these writing tips for years with great success, and I hope they help you too!

This article will break down five key elements to short story writing and explain why those elements are so important.

This article will break down five key elements to short story writing and explain why those elements are so important.

Writing a short story can be broken down in many ways, but the following five elements constitute what I believe make up a pretty solid core:

  1. Character
  2. Desire
  3. Conflict
  4. Change
  5. Precise, sensually focused writing

To write a good short story, you must have all five of these things worked in. I realize that may make the process seem overly simplified, but it isn't. There's a lot of nuance to the craft. But for someone looking to analyze their stories or for someone looking for where to start, this is a great place to begin.

Let's get moving by breaking down the first element in some detail.

1. Character

An interesting character is what will make your reader care. Pretty obvious, I know. But creating one requires more than just coming up with some cool idea like "I'll make her like my Aunt Hilda used to be" or "He can be like the man in the wheelchair that talks to me at the bar." That's a good place to begin, but that's not quite good enough to count as a "character."

The thing about a short story is that, well, it's short. Which means, you don't have time for any wasted words. So, your character is going to have "pop" right out of the gate. To do that, you need to focus down on exactly what trait it is about your Aunt Hilda or the man in the wheelchair that makes them "pop" for you.

What is it exactly about them that stands out? What is the crucial detail that makes them so interesting to you? The thing that defines them. Perhaps Aunt Hilda chews Red Man tobacco, or maybe the wheelchair man always sings his orders when he buys a drink. Is it Aunt Hilda's size and football player pushiness that sets her apart? Does the wheelchair man always cry when he talks about his dog?

You'll notice I'm not talking about eye color or the fact that the wheelchair man lost his legs in a tractor accident. What you're looking for is the BEST details, the INTERESTING details about this person, the thing that makes them "characters" rather than just some other human being.

Finding this critical detail or element will require a lot of thought, but when you find the right detail, you will know. It will feel right. Once you find that detail (or two), BLOW IT UP! That's right; you're writing a story here, exaggeration is your friend. You can't just say that Aunt Hilda is pushy and chews Red Man. You have to have her knock three women over at the supermarket and spit a dark stain on the younger one's clean white skirt. Or maybe she punches a trucker in the eye. Now come on, that's a character people are going to want to read. So, find a trait, the right one, and blow it up.

2. Desire

Once you have a good character lined up, you need to decide what it is that person wants; what is their motivating desire. It doesn't have to be something huge either, there's some amazing short stories out there with characters who want no more than to drink a glass of milk, or who just want to have a piece of lemon cake.

But no matter what, you need to know what it is that matters most to your character. And, not only do you need to establish this, there has to be something at stake for them if they can't get whatever it is they want (in the example of the milk drinker, the little boy would be beaten if he spilled).

We can run with the Aunt Hilda idea since we kind of have her started now. What does a truck-driver punching, tobacco chewing woman really want? Maybe she wants respect? Maybe she wishes she were a man. Perhaps she really wants to be thought of as ladylike. Hey, there's a fun idea, what if that's what Hilda wants, just to be seen as a woman for once, seen as feminine?

So there you go, now you know what motivates your character. A desire. But what's at stake? If Hilda can't be seen as a woman, what's the cost to her?

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Well, maybe she'll never get the man she secretly loves. Aha, perhaps we've stumbled on the REAL desire of our dear old Aunt Hilda.

I think you see how this works.

3. Conflict

Ok, so now we have a cool character with a desire. So how do we get a story going? Well, the best way to do that is to put our cool character into a situation and just see how it turns out. The key here is to make your character make decisions and, well, let them go horribly wrong. It seems cruel, but remember, you're writing a story. Nobody wants to read about Aunt Hilda who made all the right choices and ended up with her beloved Charlie Cooper in the end. How boring is that? So, let them make mistakes and deal with the consequence. That's what stories are about.

Alright, since we're talking short story here (emphasis for now on the "short") we want to get that going right away. So, start right in. Don't mess around with long-winded back stories and a lot of set up, blah-blah going on. Just jump right in. Seriously, like, right into the middle of the story.

Here's an example for our Aunt Hilda story . . . a possible first few lines:

Walleyed Tom Porter with the scar from Vietnam had poor Charlie pinned against the wall, kind of crammed into the corner and wriggling so much he made the juke box skip. Aunt Hilda gasped when she seen it and stood up, fat fingers balling into a fist. "You put him down this instant, Tommy Porter, or I'll make meat pie out of you," she said. Then Aunt Hilda strode right up to Tommy and spat brown tobacco juice on his shoe. "Put him down," she said again. And you know what? Old Tommy Porter did.

Ok, I'm obviously not going to win any awards with that, but I think you can see the point. Right out of the gate we've got our story underway. We're working in some character details through the action (which we'll cover later in more detail), we've got the object of her desire (Charlie) and we've created the beginnings of "conflict." Not the bar fight mind you, that's not the conflict that I mean. The conflict is where Charlie is going to have a hard time seeing Hilda as feminine after she just saved his butt in that bar fight. Remember, that's what Hilda's desire really is and Hilda's choice of walking over there and confronting Tommy undermines her real desire. See how fun that is?

Now you have a nice story underway, and poor Aunt Hilda has a lot of work to do. Charlie's ego, her brutishness, there's lots of stuff in her way, lots of conflict. She's got a lot of work to do if she's ever going to get Charlie to see her girlish side.

Anyway, starting out in the midst of the story gets the readers involved immediately and saves them having to slog through a bunch of backstory which, frankly, they just don't care about. You should know that back stuff yourself, in fact you should write out whole back histories for your characters so that YOU get to know them well. But your reader just doesn't give a crap. Leave it out.

4. Change

Change is the metamorphosis, the realization or the epiphany. Change comes gradually as the story carefully unfolds, but it has to happen by the end. Nobody wants to read a story about Aunt Hilda who is a big brute and who lives through another day and goes to bed a big brute again. Something has to change.

Now, I'm not telling you what has to change. It's your story. It might be in your story, Aunt Hilda ultimately fails to win Charlie over in the end. Maybe she tried several things and all of them fail. But there is still change for her if the story is written well. Maybe she realizes after all her trials that she just isn't feminine. Your story could end with her finally recognizing she has no hope at all. She started out with hope, remember? But now she has given up. That's change. (Maybe not the best way to go, but it's change.) Maybe she just realizes she doesn't need to be justified by a man. Who knows? It's your story, you figure it out (write enough versions of your stories and eventually you will).

The change doesn't even have to be with her, it can be with the reader or the narrator. You'll notice our little example from back up there has a rather "folksy" feel (with all the "kind of" and "seen it" stuff going on). Change doesn't have to be the character's; it can be in the way others see Aunt Hilda instead. We start out seeing her as tough and big and kind of gross, but perhaps by the end we see how she acted out of love, how through the course of several scenes you might write her in more motherly ways, and this can be reflected by the way the folksy sounding narrator is treating her moving toward the end, gradually transforming the descriptions from the brutish things about her to the feminine details (discussed in more detail below). That narrator, and we, the reader, see her differently by the end. Always tough and maybe a little crude, but so willing to sacrifice herself, willing to give anything for someone else. That could be the irony of her plight, so big and strong and confident that at first people never realized just how sweet and vulnerable she is. Not until you showed them with your carefully written tale.

The bottom line is, by the end of the story, the reader needs to have seen or undergone some sort of transformation: Hilda changes, the narrator changes, or the reader's opinion changes. If not, then you didn't write a story, you just wrote a little "slice of life," sort of "a few hours in the day of so-and-so." If you have really amazing style, you might be able to pull that off, but if not, well, slice of life stuff is just... yawn ... not that fun to read.

5. Precise, Sensually Focused Style

Alright, by "precise" I don't mean as if there is a "right" answer or a "wrong." And by "sensual" I don't mean that you are going to write erotic porn. When I say "precise" I mean, you're going to focus on the important details surrounding the events, like a camera shooting only the things that matter in the scene. Again, it's a SHORT story, almost like a poem, so you don't have room to waste. While a lot of this particular aspect will be improved when you revise, I want to be sure to point it out. Trim away the fat and keep the story pointed at the things that matter and that move the story along.

And, that said, when I use the word "sensually" I invoke the idea of "senses" not of sex. All of them. Not just eyes. Make the world alive, which includes sight and sound and smell and touch and taste. Remember them all. I'm not saying cram random details in willy-nilly, but, remember there is more to life than what we see. "The smell of Red Man tobacco assaulted him as she leaned into his face." Or maybe "Old Hank Williams seemed to stutter when Charlie bounced off that juke box like he did."

The important thing is that you write to the senses. Don't spend all your time in some damn character's head. I'm not saying never go there, but a lot of times writers will start out a good visceral scene and then go into the thoughts to reflect and put the story suddenly to sleep. Frequently it gets stuck there. For example:

As soon as Tommy set Charlie down, Aunt Hilda began to panic. What if I've turned him off, she thought. Oh, he's never going to think I'm ladylike now. I'm so hopeless, what ever should I do? Maybe I should run. He's never going to love me now. I just know I've ruined everything. Me and my big old, stupid body. I deserve to be alone.

Now, whether you think that is ok or not, I promise you, it's terrible. Nobody wants to read that. It's crap, so don't write it. You can't tell people what she thinks, and you can't tell them how she feels. Doing that is cheap and easy and it's bad writing. Hit yourself in the head with a rolled-up newspaper if you catch yourself doing that. Say, "Bad writer, Bad!" and mash your face into the screen. Then start that part over again.

You have to show them. Have Hilda's eyes pop open wide, have her and Charlie stare at one another. Charlie's face goes red, his eyes dart around seeking an escape. He can be heard sobbing through the blinking gap in the spring-loaded bathroom door. Something... have Hilda throw up. Have Charlie throw up. Something. Just, SHOW it, don't tell it from inside that woman's head!

Now, I'm not saying you can never go into someone's head. The thing is, most writers use it as a crutch. Perfectly good stories have been told without ever going into someone's head. If you don't believe me, read Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." So just don't do it until you are as good as Hemingway. If you must do it, limit yourself to no more than a single line.

A Few Final Thoughts

So there you have five key elements to help you write a short story, or at least to get one underway. There's lots of other things we might have looked at, and that you should in time, but you have enough to start writing now. I don't promise every story that you write will turn out the way you want. In fact, most of them usually don't. Writing is its own teacher, though, and the more you write the better chance you have of getting a story right. I read somewhere once that a "writer's best friend is his garbage can." Truer words have never been uttered. The rest is in revision (which I'm saving for another hub).

Getting good at these five things takes time, lots and lots of time. I certainly haven't perfected them yet. I probably never will. But, I do know that through practice and practice and a bit of practice you will get better with every story that you write. Besides, writing is the joy all by itself. It's just nice to know you can keep getting better at it along the way.

Have fun, and I wish you and your short stories the best of luck.


Chicke.Nuggz on June 27, 2020:

"But your reader just doesn't give a crap. Leave it out." LOL

Azia from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on November 25, 2014:

Thank you so much for this piece. yes! we cannot afford to lose any words on short stories that we have to give bam! bam! bam! on the stories. i will surely check put your other stories.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on March 01, 2012:

Hah! You are correct. 3 years and nobody pointed that out. Been jamming two M's in there since high school too. You'd think at some point I'd figure it out. Thanks for pointing it out.

DylanOnTheRun on March 01, 2012:

You could at least spell Hemingway right

Shadesbreath (author) from California on February 04, 2012:

Yes, sometimes it is hard to skip stuff. It's easy to feel compelled to follow everything, but some parts aren't good reading. (Think how many times you see epic heroes using the bathroom lol). I've found great utility in allowing myself the use of phrases like:

Two days after the incident, he ...

Four months would pass before she saw him again.

Waiting six weeks for the results was agony, but finally...


Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. :)

Sara Sweeney on February 04, 2012:

I liked the description about using your scenes like a camera; only shooting the important points that move the story along. It's a good, quick analogy to keep in mind, especially if you have a hard time skipping time in your stories - like me ;)

Shadesbreath (author) from California on February 04, 2012:

Hi M. I'm thinking your asking about plot. If so, I would say that the plot is shaped by the desire as complicated by the choice. In the example of Aunt Hilda above, the plot line would read something like this: woman sees man she desires and must overcome obstacles of her own making to win his heart.

If "plot" is the progression of events toward a conclusion, then you can see how one sort of creates itself by the shaping of character and setting in motion the other elements. Obviously more can be done to direct how that shapes up, and certainly will be in revisions of a story, but hopefully this addresses your question. :)

m on February 04, 2012:

thx but what a bout the polt

Shadesbreath (author) from California on January 28, 2012:

Very nicely put, Sam Freestone. It is rather like that. Good luck with your writing, and have FUN!

sam freestone from UK on January 28, 2012:

As someone who feels the ache to write but isn't quite sure where to begin I found your advice about writing from inside a character's head valuable. It would equate to watching a film with a constant commentary instead of the actors actions, words and expression telling the story. Got it!

Shadesbreath (author) from California on December 31, 2011:

Yes, I think it's a fantastic exorcise to challenge oneself as a writer, especially writers who have been at it for a while and need to look at their work through various lenses. For many, though, particularly people getting started, I think there's something to be said for trying to develop some mastery of the basic elements before trying to work around them. If one hasn't figured out how to create character, it might be difficult to avoid creating a character, or at least avoid it in a way that isn't forced or awkward (if that is possible; I've never tried). They say we only know something through its opposite. I wonder how that all plays out in that idea, eh? Thanks for the comment. :)

Alexander Brenner from Laguna Hills, California on December 31, 2011:

Awesome post. I'd like to comment by saying that short stories can be so diverse and almost abstract, that it may put off the audience. If you're writing for a contest or perhaps an assignment it is probably best to include most if not all of these theses.

However, when writing for yourself it can be fun to experiment with absences, imply themes by their direct absence. Ever try writing a story with no character? Sounds impossible, and whether you succeed or not you are challenging yourself as a writer and identifying what a character is and what it truly does for a story also it helps you recognize if you are too dependent on characters or if you do no involve them enough.

On the other side of the coin from this hub, my first hub discusses reading literature comprehensively but the same concepts can be applied to short stories. Another great hub is Simone Smith's in which she clreary identifies all these themes in a piece of great literature, Dante's Paradise, part of his Divine Comedy. I'll link here if anyone wants to check it out.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on December 30, 2011:

Hi Kelleyward, thank you for reading and commenting, and I happened to have some time this morning, so reading a story is just what I'm in the mood for. Off I go.

kelleyward on December 29, 2011:

Thank you so much. I just wrote my first hub story. If you get a chance could you check it out and give me feedback. Thanks again for the great info

Shadesbreath (author) from California on December 27, 2011:

Thanks, ITcoach. These five elements are certainly a good starting place (and returning place for the old hats who can get out into the weeds sometimes and need to get back to the basics), so I'm glad you found this useful. :)

Shadesbreath (author) from California on December 11, 2011:

Well, Alina, your title is well chosen, but I'm thinking your characters are hard to decipher, and the plot is a bit too abstruse for the typical reader. Good luck with it.

alina gandapur on December 11, 2011:

story misfortune:

hellow guys main aap sub logow kko 1 kahani sonana chahti hoon 1 thi larki wo bohat achi thi uss ki aadatain bhi bohat achi thin 1 din aasa hua ke uss ne ye socha ke main kahin jaoon gi aur appna maa baap ke liye paisay laoon gi ye soch ker ussne ye bhi socha ke mere maa baap gharib bhi hain aur un ke pass koi kamane wala bhi nahin hai to main kaam karoon gi to phir ussne ye sab kerne ke liye ejazat li to phir inkar ker diya to phir ussne jane ka bohat kaha ke main jati hoon lekin wo nakaam rahi iss liye ke uss ke maa baap ne ye soch rakha tha ke hamari 1 hi to baiti hai wo iss ke sath koi ullta sidha kaam na ker lain iss liye wo parayshan ho gai thay un ki baiti jo thi wo bhi wahi jane ka soch rahi thi jab maa baap ne mana kai tha to usse ganda laga likin uss ne ye nai socha ke mere maa baap kia soch rahay hain to uss baat ko bohat din gozar gai thay ke to uss kay kisi dost ka phone aaya jab uss ne pick kia to uss ke dost ne usse party per bolaya ussne inkar ker diya to usse uss larkay ne bohat force kiya akhkar wo tayar ho gai wo larki jab wahan gai to afsoos kerne lagi akhr kar wo pohanch gai to uss ka aanjam bohat bora hua wo bohat pachtai akhar kar wo merne ka soch bathi maa baap ne usse bohat loka lakin wo mer gai aur mer ker maa baap ko bohat barah sadma day gai un maa baap ko jo wo usse bohat pyar kerte thay iss liye unhonne wahan bhi nai jane diya jhan wo jane ka soch rahi thi iss liye ke wo halak ho jai gi aur larki ki kismat ne bhi uss ka sath nai diya aur uss ke dostoon ne wahi kia jo na uss ke na kablay bardash tha unhay ye bhi nai pata tha ke uss ke sath ye hone wala hai aur us larki ne bhi unn se ejazat nai li thi story is finished.......

Louise Elcross from Preston on October 26, 2011:

Thanks. You made me laugh here and its not often I laugh. I will certainly give writing a go and see if I can find my own brilliance. Keep the writings coming because I really enjoy reading what you have to say.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on October 25, 2011:

Louiseelcross, you might have noticed the quote I dropped in here that went "A writer's best friend is his garbage can." Take some courage from that. For one, it proves that you don't have to write anything that's any good. I write so much stuff that's just awful, it's hard to comprehend sometimes. I start in, write furiously, spurred on by the muses and my own fabulous brilliance... only to find out that it was neither muse nor brilliance at work but rather my brain getting motion sickness and throwing up. Meh, so it goes.

The other thing about that garbage can quote is that it also allows you the security of knowing nobody has to read anything you write. It's just you. Which is not to say that can't be terrifying, because it can, especially if you really care to plumb the depths of your own experiences. But, you don't have to leap straight into the deep waters, you can examine lots of things, and doing so allows you to develop craft and technique, which, eventually will endow you with the skills to push further. Just write. Don't think. Just write.

Louise Elcross from Preston on October 25, 2011:

Thank you for this hub. I have always dreamed of being a writer but have, to date, written nothing other than my life story and I was compelled to do that. I seemed to get terrified at the thought of writing but yet there is nothing else I want to do. I have always wanted to write and feel that I was meant to write but up to now never had the courage. I will find the courage one day. Thanks again. Keep the hubs coming.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on October 20, 2011:

Hey, W.C. Long time no see. Was thinking about you the other day when someone brought up Adam Smith and I found myself feeling painfully ignorant. lol.

I'm not going to teach formally that I foresee, but I am thinking that I might do some videos and cover stuff, using examples of great writing and being able to point out things the great authors do etc. I think it would be a valuable addition to my books website, you know, give something back and not just beg people to buy copies all the time, you know?

Really looking forward to the time to do that. School will finally be done in December and I can have my life back.

William Thomas from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! on October 20, 2011:

Great hub, Shadesbreath!

I thought I had visited it before. You've laid everything out, clearly and systematically with the patience of a teacher. Are you going to do any teaching? You'd be great at it!

Take it easy. I gave you your 30th 'useful' up vote.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on October 20, 2011:

You're welcome. Good luck and have fun writing!

Jakob on October 20, 2011:

Awesome advice. Thank you very much!

Shadesbreath (author) from California on October 12, 2011:

Hi Bbudoyono, thanks for reading and commenting. I do have a hub on novel writing. It covers plotting through outline and has a section about how to actually get to the end of the first draft using some tools for setting expectations that help get a handle on the discipline and emotional obstacles many people face. Here's the link:

Hope that is useful. What's your novel about? How far along are you?

Bbudoyono on October 12, 2011:

Excellent hub. Thanks for writing it. I write a novel now. Do you have any hubs on writing novel?

Shadesbreath (author) from California on October 12, 2011:

Hi Vianasya, nice to meet you too. I'm glad this article might prove useful to you, and good luck with your writing!!

vianasya from Indonesia on October 12, 2011:

Hello Shadesbreath, nice to meet you. This is a good hub indeed. I need this information before I start to write my own story in future. It's very helpful. Thank's a lot!

Shadesbreath (author) from California on September 08, 2011:

Thanks, Camdjohnston12, glad you enjoyed it.

Hi Anusha15, I'm glad you found some useful info in this too. The Hilda character is fun, isn't she. I actually wrote the story about her after writing this (many months after), and I keep telling myself I ought to link it. I will eventually. Thanks for your kind words.

Anusha Jain from Delhi, India on September 07, 2011:

Hi Shadesbreath, I'm gonna bookmark this hub for future reference :) It has real useful information and off course it was an absolutely interesting read. I couldn't read through lines, had to go from top to bottom.

I really like the way you've explained almost everything with an example. Aunt HilDa was both HIlarious and DAring. Intriguing yet simple character for illustration.

camdjohnston12 on September 07, 2011:

Writing stories sounds fun. Thanks for sharing. Interesting hub.

fashion on July 20, 2011:

Good page.You nailed a lot of key points.I will use this as a checklist for my stories.Really you are very talented.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on July 11, 2011:

Thanks for reading, Sofs, and I'm glad you found something in this article you might be able to use. That's very gratifying to hear.

Sophie on July 11, 2011:

Writing stories hasn't been something that I have thought about in a long while. I got started on one recently and now I am hooked.. I am glad to have found the bricks to build on .. thank you for sharing :)

Shadesbreath (author) from California on July 07, 2011:

Hi ForgedWarrior. That's very kind of you. I've always wondered what it would take to kick this thing up the last notch or two, but it just never makes it to triple digits. I'm glad you enjoyed it though. That means more to me than the extra digit anyway.

ForgedWarrior from Earth on July 07, 2011:

I LOVE this Hub. I'm following and voting up this post. Maybe I'll be the vote to get it to 100! I can see why it has such a high rating!

Shadesbreath (author) from California on June 28, 2011:

Hah, there's always time. A friend and I were just talking about the theory that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery at something. That's 4.8 years at 40 hours a week. 20 hours a week get's you half way to mastery... in under five years. So what if you spent 10 hours a week for the next decade, you'd be half as good as the masters. How is that a bad thing? lol

And thanks for reading, voting up and for hopping over to check out the rest. That's very cool.

victoria from Hamilton On. on June 27, 2011:

I suspect I've not got time for all that practice (old) but loved it and will bookmark and follow you on facebook and your blog because you have so many good ideas and stuff to build upon.

Thanks for sharing. Voted up and useful.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on June 27, 2011:

Hi Carolyn, thanks for reading. And you know, in a way, writers have to "show, not tell" too. It's tough, and sometimes the distinction is hard to identify, but I think of how I focus a narrator's "eye" as a camera moving in and out all the time. The main difference is that I can pan all the way into the character's head, which for a camera operator in film is harder. I mean, they could I guess, but they'd have to move the camera very fast to break the skull, and, well, that would likely bring lawsuits and lots of bad press. :)

Carolyn Moe on June 26, 2011:

Just joined two weeks ago... settling into shorties... took a screenwriting course at Pasadena City College and really so much of what I've picked up in those types of books is quite similar to what you're saying... except of course that in film you show don't tell... or so they say... thanks for your advice and I like your little brain man teaching a class... :)...

Shadesbreath (author) from California on June 21, 2011:

Glad to be of some service, Mhizx. :) Good luck on your project.

mhizx crazy hurtzx on June 21, 2011:

thanks to you because you is the best because you give the answers in my assignment thak u very much

Shadesbreath (author) from California on May 16, 2011:

Thanks, Alladream74. I'm glad you liked it and hope you find it helpful from time to time.

Victor Mavedzenge from Oakland, California on May 16, 2011:

Will refer to this from time to time.Thanks.Great hub

Shadesbreath (author) from California on May 15, 2011:

AmandaH, you're welcome, and thank you for your interest.

celBritys4AfricA, thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

celeBritys4africA from Las Vegas, NV on May 15, 2011:

An awesome hub!

AmandaH on May 15, 2011:

Thank you

Shadesbreath (author) from California on May 15, 2011:

Hello, AmandaH. Nice to hear from you again. Thanks for visiting my blog. I need all the traffic I can get :)

The Precise step is about the words you choose when making your story. Remember that we are talking about WRITING, which means literally that we are scribbling/drawing/typing symbols onto a white background be it paper or computer screen. No matter what word, what set of scribbles, we choose, every word we WRITE is our choice, and that choice has to symbolize accurately and deeply what we are trying to say. So as writers, we want to make sure we choose the BEST possible words to convey what we mean, to convey the things that we are seeing and experiencing as we imagine our story. Some of that is emotion, yes, absolutely. Some of that is place. Some of it is dialogue and personality and a host of things. The point of the Precise step is to get people to remember that as they are creating characters, they need to slow down (for me this is usually during revisions) and render their scenes, their characters, in language that does as much work as possible. In that Diction article, remember how Gertie in the wheelchair "rattled" her way down to the lakeshore? By simply choosing "rattled" as the verb as opposed to wheeled down to the lake, we convey lots of things. A sense of texture on the beach itself, and there is a subtle sense of what emotion Gertie is feeling. She must be in a different mood if she rattled to the lakeshore than if she "cruised" to the lakeshore in her wheelchair, right?

I realize it's a much larger conversation than one blog post and even twenty comments can cover, but it's important. I highly recommend you read writers like Cormac McCarthy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and, of course, Shakespeare and see how they use language. Read for the story, sure, but really just look at what they are doing with their word choices. See how a simple walk somewhere is filled with sense of weather, space, personality, emotion, desinty, history, etc. They pick the RIGHT words and blow depth and breadth into every sentence. I hope this helps.

AmandaH on May 14, 2011:

The diction article gave me a better appreciation for Shakespeare to understand his work. Is the precise step about the emotions of the characters after going through the change?

Shadesbreath (author) from California on May 14, 2011:

Hi AmandaH, I'm glad you found this article useful. And I enjoy interacting with readers. We all write in a real world, you know? :)

The Precise style section could really become it's own article or several, so I can see how you would be curious about that. The essence of what I'm getting at there is two-fold. First, we really must choose our language carefully. I have a blog post that goes into that pretty well if you want to have a look:

The second element, which is a function of the first, is to make sure you remember all of the senses. I know I touched on that above, but it's really crucial that you not forget the places your characters occupy, the worlds with weather and smells and textures. It gets pretty easy to just go with sight and sound, which is cool, but remember to toss in the tiny details of place (I hit that in the blog post too if you watch for things like "rattle" and "slog" etc.)

Anyway, hope that helps, and thanks again for reading.

AmandaH on May 13, 2011:

I would like to understand more about the precise section more.

AmandaH on May 13, 2011:

I have been thinking about writing a children's book and was interested by your great example for learning how to do story writing and thought it was funny. I appreciated you taking time to comment for everyone.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on March 24, 2011:

Well, I'm glad to know this was of use to you, GuestUser, and good luck with that allegory. :)

GuestUser on March 23, 2011:

This is great! I needed help because I have to write an allegory for my English class, and this helped me out a lot. Thank you!

Shadesbreath (author) from California on March 15, 2011:

Hi S-Dog. I'm very happy to hear this is useful to your LA project at school. Very cool, and thanks for letting me know. And, glad you got a chuckle out of the erotic porn thing. I think it's important to keep this kind of stuff real. There's enough dry, stuffy, painfully horrendous to read stuff out there about writing. I hope to keep it real, human to human, if it at all possible.

Sestenes, thanks for your kind words. And that is a great book, all of his books on writing are awesome. I've actually taken writing classes from one of his ex-students.

Sestenes from Iowa on March 15, 2011:

Loved the hub; great insight into what makes for good fiction. One of my favorite books is still The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner >_>

S-Dog on March 07, 2011:

We are using this to help us with a LA project for our school, it is really helpful. I think it's cool how you actually take the time to reply to everyone that comments. :) I also think the thing about erotic porn was funny. :P

Shadesbreath (author) from California on February 24, 2011:

Motown2Chitown, that's very kind of you to say. And, lol, if you make it Magic cards, I'll take it lol. (well except moving).

Alitafabs, I'm glad this was helpful, and I agree it is hard to find credible content online these days. Search engines are flawed and tend to favor garbage that pays. Sometimes, when I get comments like yours, I regret the nom de plume I have here, because I know you can't use the resource (or at least must use it carefully) in academic papers, but, well, it is what it is. Thanks for commenting though, that means a lot. It's nice to know when something you have done is useful to someone. :)

alitafabs on February 24, 2011:

I'm doing an english assigment on short stories and this has helped me very much, it's hard to find good websites these days! Thanks!

Motown2Chitown on February 22, 2011:

God, you really are talented. And you really should be teaching. Move to Chicago. I'll pay you to teach me, honest. It might be in something like, Pokémon cards or something, but I'll do it. ;-)

Shadesbreath (author) from California on February 20, 2011:

I hope so too. Good luck!

J.S.A on February 20, 2011:

Ok, ur the best this site is so cool. Thanks for the tips and when i get my book published i hope u read it. :-) thanks again!

Shadesbreath (author) from California on February 05, 2011:

Thanks for reading and commenting. :)

Mrs. J. B. from Southern California on February 04, 2011:

Thank You so much for sharing the basic guidelines.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on January 27, 2011:

Hi Keith. I agree that coming across something that is poorly written can be motivation. But I stand by that statement about being as good as what you read. When I say that, I mean, what you read all the time as a regular approach to books in your life, not what you occasionally come across. If you read 100 books, I am absolutely certain that if 95 of them are by great writers, and 5 of them are awful, in the end, your writing will be improved for the exercise. However, if you read 95 horrible books, and 5 good ones, it is my opinion that while all 95 miserable experiences may truly drive you to want to improve the state of literature in the world, you will also have been exposed to something close to 20,000 pages of bad habits, sloppy sentences, flat dialogue, clichés and all that rot. We are what we eat, and we are what we read (speaking of clichés lol). There is no reasonable argument I can possibly foresee that could convince me that a writer is not better off with the first scenario rather than the second. Perhaps I am wrong, but if so, it absolutely defies logic in any measure I am capable of mustering.

Keith Worth on January 27, 2011:

"Your writing will only be as good as what you read."

Have to say I disagree with you there, but I do agree that you can't write without first reading. I just don't think you're limited to only be as good as the authors you read. Sometimes bad books can inspire you to write and produce even better as a challenge.

David Marks on January 24, 2011:

these five elements are very important in making a short story, if one of these elements disappear the story will be a failure.

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on January 22, 2011:

Thanks for the pointers!

Well Starr

Shadesbreath (author) from California on January 18, 2011:

You are welcome. Thanks for reading and leaving that nice compliment.

Kazicon on January 17, 2011:

Great article!!! Thanks so much!

Shadesbreath (author) from California on December 26, 2010:

Sueroy333, I'm glad you are getting some use out of this hub, and if your kid is in need of help with writing, don't be too shy to shoot me an email. I love writing, and if I can help promote the art, I will.

Susan Mills from Indiana on December 25, 2010:

I've read this twice now, which has to be a record, since I don't have the attention span of a goat.

Due to my attention issues, and immense lack of talent in this area, I don't write stories, short or otherwise.

I bookmarked this hub, however, for my 13 year old who does write short stories, but quite frankly, I learned a lot too. I was all like, "Yeah, Aunt Hilda blew it, that was a good write."

Then you told me it sucked... and why. I was all like, "Dangit. He's right! I'm having my kid read HIS stuff!"

Consider yourself adopted as one of the many teachers for my child on hubpages. You will be her writing teacher. I will pay you in compliments, or Monopoly money, whichever you prefer....

Shadesbreath (author) from California on December 21, 2010:

That's great to hear, CathyandDaveAdopt! Get cracking while the muse is still streaming you energy. :)

CathyandDaveAdopt from The Med City on December 21, 2010:

by Dave,

Great tips! Ypu've got me motivated to get crackin' on a short-story!

Shadesbreath (author) from California on December 11, 2010:

You know what's fun to do with a crappy short story... pick a different character in it, and rewrite the story from their perspective. You now know the plot of the story you drafted, and you are saying it's flat. Ok, cool, mabye that wasn't the most important story in the group of people who gathered on your page. So, pick a minor character, the victim, or the acomplis, or the guy they blew off early on, and figure out what he or she wants, and what crappy decision did he/she make that made him/her end up being where they were when all that happened. And where to they go from there?

Just a thought. Can be really fun. I've saved more than one dud with that strat, and at the very worst, it's a good exercise.

B.C. Hollywood from Co. Meath, Ireland on December 11, 2010:

Thanks Shadesbreath, I have some short stories in first draft stage and they all seem quite flat. Now I know why...

Shadesbreath (author) from California on November 25, 2010:

Hi Writer, thanks for reading and commenting. I think you are correct that the character must be like a human being. It is important that they be recognizably human, share actual and universal humanity, or readers (humans) won't connect with them. But I don't think that the exaggeration of a character trait puts that at risk at all (and remember, we're talking about short stories here).

Look at "Bartleby the Scrivener." The characters in that story are clearly not "real" in the way I think you are suggesting. We have a man in Bartleby that is nonsensical in his stubborness, and the narrator is not "realistic" in his tolerance. Yet that story does not crash down like a bullet.

Look at Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" and the character of Hulga. She's very exaggerated. YOu could argue she's not realistic very easily, and yet she embodies a part humanity more clearly because of it. The same goes for many charactes, think of Connie from Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" story: clearly a "typical teenager" and yet not even remotely "real."

My point is, in a short story, I believe you have to emphasize the character trait that defines the character. It doesn't have to be in your FACE emphasis (think of Richard in Shakespeare's Richard II play... his weakness is not stuffed in your face, and yet it is absolutely unending and non-stop, the proportion of it absurd given what we see of him.)

Anyway, that's my view of it. Not sure if I've cleared up the intent of what I wrote up there, but I appreciate your point and your taking the time to make it.

Writer101 on November 24, 2010:

Personally, the 'character' part is a little off, you want you're 'character' to be like a human bieng. Unless of course that 'character' is from another universe. People despise fakes, if you do't make you're 'character' another human bieng you book or short story will go crashing down like a bullet that didn't strike it's target.

I loved yo're other advice but the 'character' thing was a little off.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on November 22, 2010:

Shadesbreath (author) from California on November 19, 2010:

Hi Karen. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. And I agree in a way that it might be difficult to not have something happen, whether it's meaningful is the trick. Sometimes that's subjective, because even if you do pull it off (pull nothing off? lol), will the reader think you did? (Reminds me of Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49).

Carlmikael: I'm very happy to think you may have gotten some useful ideas from this. Keep writing, that's the real secret. Everything you write makes you better. :)

carlmikael from Sweden on November 19, 2010:

This is great, thanks for structure this down and sharing, i learn a bunch to improve my writing and story skills.


Karen Wodke from Midwest on November 18, 2010:

I read your article with interest. You nailed a lot of key points. I have long wondered about writing a story that contains none of the expected elements and in which nothing really major happens. So, I gave it a try. It's harder than you think! The urge is there around every corner to make something happen! Anyway, thanks for the well-written article. You make wonderful points that will prove helpful to any writer from novice to professional.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on November 02, 2010:

I'm glad this was useful for you Doug Turner Jr. The best advice for a young writer I can give is READ and WRITE in equal measure. Read great writing, not just popular writing. Read the masters who are still being read despite being dead for decades and, more importantly, centuries. It doesn't even matter what they wrote about, they had "the thing" that mattered. READ, and then write. Write every day. Those two things more than any amount of study or college or advice will make you better. Period. I promise.

Doug Turner Jr. on November 02, 2010:

Thank you for putting these basic truths into such a digestible format. As an aspiring writer, I find an abundance of advice out there but rarely a clear format to make the advice easy to grasp. You do so here.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on September 20, 2010:

Oh good, another story writer. HP needs more of us to balance out all the commercial folks. Even salespeople need to be entertained from time to time.

Welcome to HP, Eiddwen. :)

Eiddwen from Wales on September 20, 2010:

Hi , being fairly new to HP hubs such as this are priceless. Thank you for sharing. I will be bookmarking this one for future reference. Take care.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on September 19, 2010:

Hi VictorS. Good points. I think that anyone who does as you have done and reads writers like you have listed is going to start understanding what is possible. You're totally right that creating a list is hard, because, the thing about writing is that, really, there are no rules--only precedents set by this writer or literary boundaries defined by such-and-such "movement" or "school." At least half of literature is writers writing against the confines or seeming confines of what came before. Lists, really, are preposterous. However, for folks getting going in short stories, I suppose a list is a place to start. Thanks for your great comments, and I'm with you; I totally think anyone who wants to learn how to write a story should read Chekhov.

VictorS. from Mobile, AL on September 19, 2010:

And I also wanted to say thanks, Shadesbreath, for this list. It's hard to create such a list, especially thanks to writers who would work against any list of rules (like Barthelme).

VictorS. from Mobile, AL on September 19, 2010:

Someone said something about adding climax to this list. I saw shadesbreath’s response but also wanted to add that having a climax isn’t necessary for short story writing, especially modern short story writing. Writers like Sherwood Anderson and Chekhov were often more concerned with mood than they were with a highly structured plot with a climax. In his stories, Chekhov manipulates this “mood” through his characters. Take Chekhov’s well known story “Misery” as an example.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on September 17, 2010:

Thanks, Escapade. This hub has turned out pretty satisfying, I'm glad it came out as it did. Thanks for coming by and commenting.

Escapade from Somewhere over the rainbow Connecticut .. on September 17, 2010:

A smart,simple way to breakdown writing for those that are starting out,or need extra oomph in their writing i love it =)

Shadesbreath (author) from California on September 07, 2010:

I'm glad you enjoyed this, Poetvix. I'm a fan of cutting to the chase, as they say. I hope some of this can be useful to you.

poetvix from Gone from Texas but still in the south. Surrounded by God's country. on September 07, 2010:

Thank you for sharing this. It's really too kewl when I think on it. I could have spent hundreds of dollars and a lot of time to take a class to learn a fraction of what you have here. I really like the way you broke it down to the needed elements w/out the candy coating and teacher speak that typically is associated w/ trying to learn something.

Shadesbreath (author) from California on August 24, 2010:

Sammy, you are totally correct about novels needing the same thing. And, as you say, it's really an element of story. Short or long, some things are just necessary for a good story to be, well, good.

Sammy from Australia on August 23, 2010:

Really useful hub, I never really thought about breaking it down like that. Most of the points you brought up also, can be applied to longer novels, as all the points are really essential to the story.

It was a good read!


Shadesbreath (author) from California on August 23, 2010:

You're right, dialogue is important for sure. If it doesn't sound natural, if it doesn't sound like real people talking, it can be disastrous. Same goes for meaningless conversations.

As far as natural goes, often writers will try to use dialogue as a "cheat" for more exposition or back story. If a story has dialogue, which they don't have to have, but usually do, it's important that it's real conversations, not "stuff the reader needs to know" jammed between quotation marks.

And it needs to be serving the greater story too. Just conversations like, "Hi Joe, how's it going?" followed by, "Great, Dave. Thanks for asking," add NOTHING to the story. Often times, the really good dialogue has people speaking about things in a way that is really speaking about something else. I mentioned "Hills Like White Elephants" in the hub already, but this is another area of that story's genius. Anyone who hasn't read that story should read it two or three times at least and really see what is at work there.

Excellent point, Lynn, I'm glad you brought it up!

Lynn Nodima from United States on August 22, 2010:

Good advice, Shadesbreath! I would add one more: Dialog! Dialog must should natural when your readers skim the words. Stilted dialog destroys a short story.

I enjoyed reading your hub!

Shadesbreath (author) from California on August 10, 2010:

See, When you wake up, you just never know what you're going to get in any given day.

Winsome from Southern California by way of Texas on August 10, 2010:

The Winsome Rebel--hmmm it has an alternative contradiction to it. Might make an anti-hero at that. Who would have thought? =:)

Shadesbreath (author) from California on August 10, 2010:

Or, it could be that you have the ever-unwieldy novella on your hands. I have three of those and, well, talk about red-headed step children. (sigh). Keep hammering at them, whatever they are.

As for your characterless character... hmmm.Your character has an odd character, a disjointed one that might count as character but would sure make defining drive/motivation hard. Actually reminds me of some alternative fiction I've read. Maybe you are one of those convention rebel writers and don't even realize it!

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