This past week I stepped out of my long-term relationship with my novel to have a fling with a short story.
For the past year I’ve been head down, nose to the grind stone, with my novel. Although I have miles to go before I can type THE END and begin sending it out, I decided as I await word on my first three chapters, to grant myself permission and indulge in my first love—writing short stories.
I love novel-writing. I love the open expanses a novel provides and the thrill of digging deep into character, plot and sub-plots, but I’ll admit the energy of a short story really gets my motor running.
I feel guilty about giving into the itch, but know once I’ve put my new story to bed, I’ll be back messing up the lives of my novel’s misfit band of characters.
So what is it about short stories?
The focus of a short story is almost always a single event and about its immediate surroundings. Short stories don’t allow great gobs of space to establish character, mood, and atmosphere. But that’s what makes them so much fun. Limited space means that stuff happens fast.
As with poetry, the short story writer must know what they want to say and do so with economic precision. When writing a short story, the author is obliged to remember; every word has to count, every sentence has to count, and their inclusion must move the story forward.
A short story is a compressed view into the life of a character at a moment in time when he faces a crisis. We show what led to the crisis and how he resolves his problem. End of story. In the showing of it, we reveal our main character, his strengths and weaknesses, his thought processes, providing insights to the reader who may gain an understanding of this particular element of human nature.
Bess Kaplan: Writing the Short Story
So, how do you write a good short story?
Here are 8 pointers to consider.
Is your narrative voice/ style interesting?
Don’t write a TV drama, i.e. a police interrogation room scene that’s been seen a hundred times. If you are writing a cancer story, or my-man-done-we-wrong story, come at it from an interesting and unique angle. The same old, same old isn’t going to make a publisher stand up and take notice.
Have you used vague phrases like a few years ago – how many years ago, are you sure? OR she had golden hair and a pretty face. Golden hair tells the reader you’re sure of the colour of her hair, but pretty doesn’t tell us anything. What’s pretty to you may be butt ugly to the next person. Words like very, really, somewhat, likely, just or quite are vague and not only suck the life out of your sentences, they make you, the writer, seem uncertain of yourself.
Keep your POV consistent
Although it’s perfectly acceptable to write from multiple POVs, you can’t shift the POV for no reason, and certainly not mid-sentence. She watched as the man unloaded his car trunk and the boxes were heavy. How does she know the boxes are heavy? Your character can assume by the way the man braces his back and strains his face that the boxes are heavy, but she can’t know for sure they are heavy because we’re in her POV and she’s not lifting the boxes. She watched as the man unloaded his car trunk and thought the boxes looked heavy.
The tone must be consistent
When you write in a specific POV your prose will have a sound, a rhyme. Unless you are switching POVs, you have to keep to that rhyme. You can’t write a passage in high diction that inexplicably switches to slang and colloquial phrasing.
You have to ask yourself:
- What does your character(s) want?
- Will my character(s) resonate with a reader?
- Are they relatable?
- Is the dialogue believable?
- Can the reader visualize the scene?
- Have you paid close attention to the staging of each scene? If your character is holding a spatula in one hand and a pot in the other, without a third hand, she won’t be able to brush a strand of hair off her child’s forehead. I often draw a floor plan, exits, furniture etc. so when I move my characters around the room, they aren’t walking into windows or through walls.
- Have you included metaphors, similes, symbols?
- Does the language fit the theme? Don’t write a story about two hillbillies going fishing using high diction.
- Does the story flow smoothly or will the reader have to backtrack to pick up a thread you dropped earlier and are now picking up 1000 words later. I often write a collection of scenes, print the manuscript and physically cut each scene off the paper. Then I shuffle the scenes around to make sure they flow together logically. Post-it notes work as well.
- Each scene is there for a reason: will the reader know why you’ve included them?
Have you written a strong ending? It’s as important to leave the reader with a powerful ending as it is to start off your story with a strong opening sentence/paragraph. There’s nothing more frustrating for a reader than to invest time into a story only to be left unsatisfied at the conclusion.
Here is a short video to give you the bullet points of what every good short story needs.