Short Stories: Developing Ideas for Short Fiction

I just supervised a teaching demonstration in the Writing Popular Fiction program here at Seton HIll, and the experience inspired me to touch up an old handout on developing ideas for short stories.

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.

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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 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 he hears her singing a romantic duet with someone else. He might first check to see that he’s got the receipt, or he might set his jaw and open up the display box, or he might first stick the bracelet in his wife’s gas tank.  [We don’t actually need to see his wife’s reaction — his decision to knock on 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.