Tips for Good Short Story Writing
Short stories may seem easy to write because of their length, but in reality, it is often harder to write a decent short story than it is to write a novel. While it may not take as long to write a short story, the length is actually the main drawback.
When you write a novel, you have anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 words in which to develop your characters and advance your plot. With a short story, you are much more limited. It's hard to develop your characters and even harder to make it so that your reader can feel an emotional connection to them when you've only got a few pages on which to do it.
I always say: "Your plot is like an ocean, and your characters are the ship which carry the reader across that ocean." With a short story, your ocean is more like a small river and your ship a dingy. Although you may not have such a long journey, your vessel is a lot less stable. Your plot might not be as long and complex, but it is much harder to make your characters realistic and give your readers an emotional connection with them.
These tips and tricks will hopefully help you navigate that small river with greater ease and skill.
Read Other Short Stories
Whether you have written hundreds of short stories or you are writing your first one, reading short stories by other writers is helpful. You should read different types of genres, don't just stick with the one you are writing. Reading lots of short stories will give you a better idea of how they are written and laid out. There are some things you can do to maximise the benefits of reading short stories.
- Make note of how the characters develop: Pay special attention to how the characters start out, what happens to them, and how they have changed at the end. Look carefully at how the author causes the character to develop and how they tie that into the plot.
- Look at how the author structures their story: Once you've read through the story, go back and look at how the story is structured. Make a note of how long each section is and how the author flows from one to another.
- Look for things that most short stories have: Read several different short stories of the same genre and make a note of the similarities. Of course, every story is different, but there are things that most stories have. Once you know the similarities, you will know what to include in your story.
Plan, Plan, Plan!
Just because you're writing a short story doesn't mean you don't have to plan it. You don't need to plan as much as if you were writing a novel. But if you want your story to be as good as it can be, then you have to plan it. Planning can seem daunting and boring, so it can be tempting to just start writing. That's fine if you do want to do that. But in my opinion, planning is the key to a great story. Here are some tips to help make your planning useful.
- Do a storyboard: Although this may seem like something you'd do in school, a storyboard can be incredibly helpful to look back on when you are writing. Planning out what will happen and what that will lead to can give you an idea of how your story will work.
- Do character profiles: Do profiles for your characters so you know what their personalities are like. Knowing how your characters behave will help you write dialogue.
- Make notes about your setting: While your setting may not be important to your story, it is important that you know about it. Just like with your character details, if you know details about your setting, then that will show itself in the quality of your story.
Keep Your Plot Simple
Keeping your plot simple will allow you to keep your short story short. Although it can be very tempting to have a complex plot with lots of details and subplots, you'll soon find that you have written too much for your story to be considered a short story. Structure your plot in the same way you would with any story.
- Opening: Keep your opening short and simple. Introduce your characters and set up the scene for your story.
- Rising action: This will probably be the biggest section of your story. Have things happen to your characters that will begin to develop them into who you want them to be at the end. Build up the tension as much as you can to keep your reader reading.
- Climax: This part of your story should be relatively short. Have all that tension you've been building up come to a head. You don't need thousands of words to write a good climax. You can write a great one in less than a page.
- Falling action: This part should be very short. This is basically what will happen directly after your climax. If you've had a big fight where the good guy defeats the bad guy, then write about what the good guy does right after. Sometimes you only need a short paragraph to wind down from your climax.
- Resolution: This is your ending. A good ending in any story leaves the reader satisfied but makes them think. Leave a question unanswered that makes your reader think about your story even after they've finished reading it. Don't leave them hanging, though, unless you intend to write a sequel.
Giving Your Characters Depth
Giving your characters depth is tremendously hard when you have so few words in which to do it, but it isn't impossible. There are a few different things that you can do to help give your characters depth in your short story.
- Know your characters well: Just like if you were writing a novel, make sure you know your characters inside and out. Of course, you don't need to put every little detail about your character into your story, but you need to know them. If you know those details about your characters, then that will show in your writing.
- Don't have too many characters: Try to only have a maximum of two to three main characters. If you have too many major characters, then your story will seem crowded and your character development will be weak.
- Write a timeline for your characters: Write out a timeline for each of your characters which shows how they start out in the story and how you want them to be at the end. Then add in what will happen to your character in order for them to get to where you want them to be. For example, if you want a character to end up as a confident leader, maybe have them be timid in the beginning, then leadership is thrust upon them—so they have no choice but to become confident or they will fail.
Many short story writers fall into the trap of being too descriptive. Since you're trying to keep your story short, you can't write pages and pages about specific things. Try to condense everything you can. Think about your plot and what you need to do to advance it. Try not to put too many things in that don't advance your plot. In a longer story, you often have many smaller subplots. But short stories don't really have subplots. You may have a love interest on the side of your main plot, but the vast majority of your story should be dedicated to developing your character and moving forward your plot.
People often enjoy reading short stories not just because of their length but because they can leave a lot more to the reader's imagination. Although you should be descriptive, you do have a little more leeway in how much you have to describe. Things like what your character looks like and your setting don't have to be described as much as you normally would in a novel, unless of course those things are crucial to your plot. Try not to get too worried about writing details. Only detail the things that are necessary.
Editing is the thing that writers dread. Whether you write novels, essays, or short stories, editing is a hard job. Don't think that just because your story is short that it doesn't need editing. If you plan to show anyone your story, you don't want it filled with a bunch of spelling and grammar errors. Once you've finished your story, you should read it aloud or give it to someone else to read. That way, you are more likely to spot any errors. You can also put your story into programs like Grammarly, which will detect any errors for you.
Aside from grammar and spelling errors, editing also gives you the chance to change anything that you weren't sure about the first time around. Once you've written your story from start to finish, you will know exactly how you want it to go. When you've got an ending, you might realize that your beginning doesn't work that well or that the middle doesn't fit. You're sure to find something in your story that you're not happy with. Although editing may seem like a boring task, think of it as polishing up your story. Editing gives you the opportunity to write with complete freedom the first time around, since you know that you can always go back and change it when you're done.
The Finished Product!
Hopefully you now have a short story that you can be proud of. It may not be perfect, but writing is hard. It takes a lot of practice to write a good short story. If anyone says that writing short stories is easy, then they are lying. Even if you've written loads of short stories, it can still be hard to get the balance right.
Once you have finished, don't be embarrassed to show it off. Give it to your friends and family to read. You can even put it on free writing sites so you can get some feedback. Getting constructive criticism is crucial to improving as a writer. You will never get better if you don't find out what you are doing wrong. So go and share your writing with the world. Happy writing!
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on April 14, 2016:
That is all very good advice. An important first step in planning a story—after getting the original general notion—is writing the 'logline'. Google on: "Loglines and Taglines Are Different" by Siracusa for a good description. A logline will tell an author if a vague story idea might actually make a good story and is worth writing—and later will tell an editor if the finished story might be worth reading and considering for publication.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on April 13, 2016:
This is a very helpful article. Your tips are highly appreciated and will be used:)