A short story is tight — there is no room for long exposition, there are no subplots to explore, and by the end of the story there should be no loose ends to tie up. End right at the climax, so that the reader has to imagine how a life-changing event will affect the protagonist.
All fiction is about conflict. Rather than clear-cut battles between good and evil, modern fiction presents flawed protagonists who must face the consequences of their moral choices. (See “Conflict vs. Crisis” and “Short Stories: Top 10 Tips.”)
While readers of genre fiction (such as horror, fantasy, or mystery) have certain specific expectations, in general the reader’s enjoyment comes from identifying the crucial revelation — what James Joyce described as an epiphany — that defines the moral significance of the protagonist’s actions.
- Your goody-two-shoes protagonist happens upon an envelope from a cancer testing lab. It’s addressed to her arch enemy. The story flashes back to show the conflict with the enemy. The story ends with the protagonist tearing the envelope open. [What's inside the envelope is not as important as your character's decision to snoop.]
- A husband comes home from work early, carrying flowers and a diamond bracelet. He hears his wife singing a romantic duet with someone else. He might check to see that he’s got the receipt, or he might set his jaw and open up the display box, or he might stick the bracelet in his wife’s gas tank. Then, he opens the door. [We don't actually need to see his wife's reaction -- his decision to open the door means he's chosen a confrontation rather than walking away.]
- The protagonist is in the upstairs hallway of someone else’s house. She hears snoring in the next room, pulls out a rope, and reaches for the switch in order to turn off the light. [Obviously the story would need to give us a little more detail about who this person is and what she wants, but once she makes her decision, the story is over.]
Drawing on real-life experiences, such as winning the big game, bouncing back after an illness or injury, or dealing with the death of a loved one, are attractive choices for students who are looking for a “personal essay” topic. But simply describing powerful emotional experiences (“She would never forget the wonderful feeling…” “He was more furious than he had ever been…”) is not the same thing as generating emotional responses in the reader. (See “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell.”)
What does your protagonist want?
She might want to pick up her purse, and she might want a cup of coffee, but there’s nothing dramatic about those desires.
- Your protagonist is looking for her purse because she has decided to go to a particular coffee shop where she’s likely to run into the cute foreign-exchange student who always makes her boyfriend insecure and clingy. She hopes her boyfriend will act up today, so that she can use the excuse to dump him for being too possessive.
- When she opens her purse, she finds a note, written on a napkin from that coffee shop. It’s from her boyfriend, and it reads, “We’re through.” [We don't need to know what happens next.]
Whether you like making lists, sketching out clusters of annotated bubbles, or free-associating in text-messaging shorthand, find some productive way to rough out your ideas (characters, plot, emotional tone) without slowing down to craft them into sentences and paragraphs.
Brainstorm Conflicts in Specific (Contrasting?) Circumstances
- A healthy-living enthusiast inherits a tobacco fortune. [Okay, but that's a little thin. There's a promising contrast, but no specific moral conflict. We'll save this one to come back to it.]
- An immigrant-hating isolationist builds a bomb shelter for his new bride; years later, his widow lets migrant farm workers live there.
- A bored parking lot attendant who longs for adventure discovers a shallow grave while on the job one night. He’s just about to report it when he stumbles over a child’s backpack full of cash. [Did I mention that he works at Disneyland?]
Once you’ve got the basic situation, work on embellishing it.
- A cop in love. [Not much there.]
- A cop realizes he has fallen in love with the vagrant he arrests every night on the steps of city hall. [A little more unusual, but it's still kind of blah.]
- A cop, who ten years ago used to be a circus juggler, realizes he has fallen in love with the panhandling mime he arrests every night on the steps of city hall. [Aha... now we're getting somewhere.]
- A washed-up circus performer, who give up his act and became a cop after fatally conking is partner on the head during a performance for the pope, falls in love with the panhandling mime who sleeps on the steps of the local church. [Woah!]
While there’s no rule that says a short story has to take place over a short span of time, you’d probably be better off choosing to focus on a single night (the one night that the cop realizes he’s fallen in love… give the backstory by describing memories or thoughts that flit through the protagonist’s head).
- Reflect. Draw on experiences from your own life. Maybe you don’t know any cops who’ve fallen in love with street entertainers, or been in a bomb shelter, or known any tobacco heirs, but you probably can observe a police officer in your town, or spend some time in a damp basement, or hang out with smokers outside the local gym.
- Be mysterious. Don’t start the story with “This is a story about a woman who hid migrant workers in her racist husband’s bomb shelter,” unless you’ve got something else up your sleeve. (Why does Old Lady Cutter bring a tray of food out to the back yard every night, and does it have anything to do with Old Man Cutter drinking himself to death worrying about a communist invasion back in ’56?)
- Be original. We’ve already seen the noble hero win (or lose) the tournament / make (or get kicked off of) the team / overcome (or succumb to) adversity. Is it enough to keep us reading if the whole story is about whether the protagonist can overcome the scary car crash / death of a loved one / traumatic breakup?
Where’s the twist?
Intensify the Conflicts. Think up intriguing, surprising combinations that pull your protagonist (and your reader) in unexpexted directions.
- The healthy-living enthusiast inheriting the tobacco fortune is a good start… but let’s make him an alcoholic drifter who inherits a health club.
- No, that’s not good enough… let’s take the contrast even further, and imagine a man waking up after a wild drunken night to find he’s been elected pastor of a little country church that can’t pay its mortgage.
- That’s getting better… especially because when the pipe organ gets too hot, from somewhere beneath the church, horrible demonic shrieks fill the air.
- Our protagonist swears off liquor, and follows the source of the music, leading to a secret room beneath the old pastor’s study.. in that room we discover a gleaming gold-plated whiskey still that’s fired up and steaming away!
Wow, what a setup!
So where’s the main conflict?
- Is the widow of the previous pastor still around as a love interest? Is the whiskey still named after her, and does she think of the still as a rival — or maybe a part of her?
- Is the whisky cursed? Better yet, does it have miraculous healing properties?
- Maybe we can go back into the outline and insert a minor character — the banker who owns the mortgage on the church. For years he’s been trying to squeeze even more money out of the townspeople by tricking them into buying more insurance than they need; but once the holy whiskey starts killing off the town drunks, the sober survivors who collect the benefits become wealthy. (Then — the twist comes — the banker announces he’s got to foreclose on the church in order to pay the remaining insurance policies.)
- Maybe the protagonist gets the banker drunk, and skips town before the banker wakes up to find he’s just been elected the new pastor. [It's an endless cycle! And it suddenly becomes the banker's story.]
But hold on… is any of this stuff better than the discovery of the dead pastor’s gold-plated still? I don’t think so… this story should probably stop with the discovery of the still, and leave it to the reader to imagine how the town is affected.
I haven’t actually started writing a line of dialogue… I don’t know the names of the characters, or what they look like, but I’ve got a plenty to work with now.
24 May 2008 — first posted
26 Jun 2009 — minor edits
04 Oct 2009 — minor edits
19 May 2011 — minor edits
27 May 2011 — minor edits
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