Writing short stories means beginning as close to the climax as possible — everything else is a distraction. A novel can take a more meandering path, but should still start with a scene that sets the tone for the whole book.
A short story conserves characters and scenes, typically by focusing on just one conflict, and drives towards a sudden, unexpected revelation. Go easy on the exposition and talky backstory — your reader doesn’t need to know everything that you know about your characters.
- Get Started: Emergency Tips
- Write a Catchy First Paragraph
- Develop Your Characters
- Choose a Point of View
- Write Meaningful Dialogue
- Use Setting and Context
- Set up the Plot
- Create Conflict and Tension
- Build to a Crisis or a Climax
- Deliver a Resolution
1. Get Started: Emergency Tips
Do you have a short story assignment due tomorrow morning? The rest of this document covers longer-term strategies, but if you are in a pinch, these emergency tips should help. Good luck!
- What does your protagonist want?
(The athlete who wants her team to win the big game and the car crash victim who wants to survive are not unique or interesting enough.)
- When the story begins, what morally significant action has your protagonist taken towards that goal?
(Your protagonist should already have made a conscious choice, good or bad, that drives the rest of the story.)
- What obstacles must the protagonist overcome in order to reach the goal?
(Simply having a rival is not that interesting. Yes, Harry Potter defeats Voldemort, but first he has to mature into a leader with the moral clarity and teamwork skills necessary to defeat Voldemort. A short story can’t possibly tackle that kind of character development, but it a character who faces internal obstacles and must negotiate messy moral trade-offs is more dramatically interesting than the hero in the white hat who has to use the right weapon to defeat the villain in the black hat.)
- What unexpected consequences — directly related to the protagonist’s goal-oriented actions — ramp up the emotional energy of the story?
(Will the unexpected consequences force your protagonist to make yet another choice, leading to still more consequences? How does Huck change, first when he teams up with Jim, and later when he realizes how much Jim depends upon him?)
- What details from the setting, dialog, and tone help you tell the story? You can usually cut these:
- Travel scenes. (Save words. “Later, at the office…”)
- Character A telling character B about something we just saw happening to character A. (Cut the redundancy.)
- Facial expressions of a first-person narrator. (We can’t see what our own faces look like, so don’t write “A smile lit my face from ear to ear.”) See Writing Dialogue.
- At the climax, what morally significant choice does your protagonist make?
(Your reader should care about the protagonist’s decision, and ideally shouldn’t see it coming.)
Drawing on your own 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 listing the emotions you experienced (“It was exciting” “I’ve never been so scared in all my life” “I miss her so much”) is not the same thing as generating emotions for your readers to experience.
For those of you who are looking for more long-term writing strategies, here are some additional ideas.
- Keep a notebook. To R. V. Cassill, notebooks are “incubators,” a place to begin with overheard conversation, expressive phrases, images, ideas, and interpretations on the world around you.
- Write on a regular, daily basis. Sit down and compose sentences for a couple of hours every day — even if you don’t feel like it.
- Collect stories from everyone you meet. Keep the amazing, the unusual, the strange, the irrational stories you hear and use them for your own purposes. Study them for the underlying meaning and apply them to your understanding of the human condition.
Read, Read, Read
Read a LOT of Chekhov. Then re-read it. Read Raymond Carver, Earnest Hemingway, Alice Munro, and Tobias Wolff. If you don’t have time to read all of these authors, stick to Chekhov. He will teach you more than any writing teacher or workshop ever could.
-Allyson Goldin, UWEC Asst. Professor of Creative Writing
In today’s fast-moving world, the first sentence of your narrative should catch your reader’s attention with the unusual, the unexpected, an action, or a conflict. Begin with tension and immediacy. Remember that short stories need to start close to their end.
|I heard my neighbor through the wall.|
|Dry. Nothing sparks the reader’s imagination.|
|The neighbor behind us practiced scream therapy in his shower almost every day.|
|Catches the reader’s attention. Who is this guy who goes in his shower every day and screams? Why does he do that? What, exactly, is“scream therapy”? Let’s keep reading…|
|The first time I heard him, I stood in the bathroom listening at our shared wall for ten minutes, debating the wisdom of calling the police. It was very different from living in the duplex over middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. Brown and their two young sons in Duluth.|
|The rest of the paragraph introduces I and an internal conflict as the protagonist debates a course of action and introduces an intriguing contrast of past and present setting.|
“It is important to understand the basic elements of fiction writing before you consider how to put everything together. This process is comparable to producing something delectable in the kitchen–any ingredient that you put into your bowl of dough impacts your finished loaf of bread. To create a perfect loaf, you must balance ingredients baked for the correct amount of time and enhanced with the right polishing glaze.” -Laurel Yourke
Your job, as a writer of short fiction–whatever your beliefs–is to put complex personalities on stage and let them strut and fret their brief hour. Perhaps the sound and fury they make will signify something that has more than passing value–that will, in Chekhov’s words, “make [man] see what he is like.” –Rick Demarnus
In order to develop a living, breathing, multi-faceted character, it is important to know way more about the character than you will ever use in the story. Here is a partial list of character details to help you get started.
- Single or married?
- Favorite color
- Favorite foods
- Drinking patterns
- Something hated?
- Strong memories?
- Any illnesses?
- Nervous gestures?
- Sleep patterns
Imagining all these details will help you get to know your character, but your reader probably won’t need to know much more than the most important things in four areas:
- Appearance. Gives your reader a visual understanding of the character.
- Action. Show the reader what kind of person your character is, by describing actions rather than simply listing adjectives.
- Speech. Develop the character as a person — don’t merely have your character announce important plot details.
- Thought. Bring the reader into your character’s mind, to show them your character’s unexpressed memories, fears, and hopes.
For example, let’s say I want to develop a college student persona for a short story that I am writing. What do I know about her?
Her name is Jen, short for Jennifer Mary Johnson. She is 21 years old. She is a fair-skinned Norwegian with blue eyes, long, curly red hair, and is 5 feet 6 inches tall. Contrary to the stereotype about redheads, she is actually easygoing and rather shy. She loves cats and has two of them named Bailey and Allie. She is a technical writing major with a minor in biology. Jen plays the piano and is an amateur photographer. She lives in the dorms at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She eats pizza every day for lunch and loves Red Rose tea. She cracks her knuckles when she is nervous. Her mother just committed suicide.
Point of view is the narration of the story from the perspective of first, second, or third person. As a writer, you need to determine who is going to tell the story and how much information is available for the narrator to reveal in the short story. The narrator can be directly involved in the action subjectively, or the narrator might only report the action objectively.
- First Person. The story is told from the view of “I.” The narrator is either the protagonist (main character) and directly affected by unfolding events, or the narrator is a secondary character telling the story revolving around the protagonist.
I saw a tear roll down his cheek. I had never seen my father cry before. I looked away while he brushed the offending cheek with his hand. This is a good choice for beginning writers because it is the easiest to write. (But if your viewpoint character is too much like you, a first-person story might end up being a too-transparent exercise in wish-fulfillment, or score-settling.)
- Second Person. The story is told directly to “you”, with the reader as a participant in the action.
You laughed loudly at the antics of the clown. You clapped your hands with joy. (See also Jerz on interactive fiction.)
- Third Person. The story tells what “he”, “she,” or “it” does. The third-person narrator’s perspective can be limited (telling the story from one character’s viewpoint) or omniscient (where the narrator knows everything about all of the characters).
He ran to the big yellow loader sitting on the other side of the gravel pit shack. Your narrator might take sides in the conflict you present, might be as transparent as possible, or might advocate a position that you want your reader to challenge (this is the “unreliable narrator” strategy).
Yourke on point of view:
- First Person. “Unites narrator and reader through a series of secrets” when they enter one character’s perceptions. However, it can “lead to telling” and limits readers connections to other characters in the short story.
- Second Person. “Puts readers within the actual scene so that readers confront possibilities directly.” However, it is important to place your characters “in a tangible environment” so you don’t “omit the details readers need for clarity.”
- Third Person Omniscient. Allows you to explore all of the characters’ thoughts and motivations. Transitions are extremely important as you move from character to character.
- Third Person Limited. “Offers the intimacy of one character’s perceptions.” However, the writer must “deal with character absence from particular scenes.”
Make your readers hear the pauses between the sentences. Let them see characters lean forward, fidget with their cuticles, avert their eyes, uncross their legs. –Jerome Stern
Dialogue is what your characters say to each other (or to themselves).
Each speaker gets his/her own paragraph, and the paragraph includes whatever you wish to say about what the character is doing when speaking. (See: “Quotation Marks: Using Them in Dialogue“.)
|Where are you going?” John cracked his knuckles while he looked at the floor. “To the racetrack.” Mary edged toward the door, keeping her eyes on John’s bent head. “Not again,” John stood up, flexing his fingers. “We are already maxed out on our credit cards.”|
|The above paragraph is confusing, because it is not clear when one speech stops and the other starts.|
| “Where are you going?” John asked nervously.|
“To the racetrack,” Mary said, trying to figure out whether John was too upset to let her get away with it this time.
“Not again,” said John, wondering how they would make that month’s rent. “We are already maxed out on our credit cards.”
|The second example is mechanically correct, since it uses a separate paragraph to present each speaker’s turn advancing the conversation. But the narrative material between the direct quotes is mostly useless.|
Write Meaningful Dialogue Labels
“John asked nervously” is an example of “telling.” The author could write “John asked very nervously” or “John asked so nervously that his voice was shaking,” and it still wouldn’t make the story any more effective.
How can the author convey John’s state of mind, without coming right out and telling the reader about it? By inference. That is, mention a detail that conjures up in the reader’s mind the image of a nervous person.
|Any of the above would work.|
|John sat up and took a deep breath, knowing that his confrontation with Mary had to come now, or it would never come at all. “Wh– where are you going?” he stammered haltingly, staring vulnerably at the tattered Thomas the Tank Engine slippers Mary had given him so many years ago, in happier times.|
|Beware — a little detail goes a long way. Why would your reader bother to engage with the story, if the author carefully explains what each and every line means?|
6. Use Setting and Context
Setting moves readers most when it contributes to an organic whole. So close your eyes and picture your characters within desert, jungle, or suburb–whichever setting shaped them. Imagining this helps balance location and characterization. Right from the start, view your characters inhabiting a distinct place. –– Laurel Yourke
Setting includes the time, location, context, and atmosphere where the plot takes place.
- Remember to combine setting with characterization and plot.
- Include enough detail to let your readers picture the scene but only details that actually add something to the story. (For example, do not describe Mary locking the front door, walking across the yard, opening the garage door, putting air in her bicycle tires, getting on her bicycle–none of these details matter except that she rode out of the driveway without looking down the street.)
- Use two or more senses in your descriptions of setting.
- Rather than feed your readers information about the weather, population statistics, or how far it is to the grocery store, substitute descriptive details so your reader can experience the location the way your characters do.
Our sojourn in the desert was an educational contrast with its parched heat, dust storms, and cloudless blue sky filled with the blinding hot sun. The rare thunderstorm was a cause for celebration as the dry cement tunnels of the aqueducts filled rapidly with rushing water. Great rivers of sand flowed around and through the metropolitan inroads of man’s progress in the greater Phoenix area, forcefully moved aside for concrete and steel structures. Palm trees hovered over our heads and saguaro cactuses saluted us with their thorny arms.
Plot is what happens, the storyline, the action. Jerome Stern says it is how you set up the situation, where the turning points of the story are, and what the characters do at the end of the story.
A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. –Janet Burroway
Understanding these story elements for developing actions and their end results will help you plot your next short story.
- Explosion or “Hook.” A thrilling, gripping, stirring event or problem that grabs the reader’s attention right away.
- Conflict. A character versus the internal self or an external something or someone.
- Exposition. Background information required for seeing the characters in context.
- Complication. One or more problems that keep a character from their intended goal.
- Transition. Image, symbol, dialogue, that joins paragraphs and scenes together.
- Flashback. Remembering something that happened before the short story takes place.
- Climax. When the rising action of the story reaches the peak.
- Falling Action. Releasing the action of the story after the climax.
- Resolution. When the internal or external conflict is resolve.
Brainstorming. If you are having trouble deciding on a plot, try brainstorming. Suppose you have a protagonist whose husband comes home one day and says he doesn’t love her any more and he is leaving. What are actions that can result from this situation?
- She becomes a workaholic.
- Their children are unhappy.
- Their children want to live with their dad.
- She moves to another city.
- She gets a new job.
- They sell the house.
- She meets a psychiatrist and falls in love.
- He comes back and she accepts him.
- He comes back and she doesn’t accept him.
- She commits suicide.
- He commits suicide.
- She moves in with her parents.
The next step is to select one action from the list and brainstorm another list from that particular action.
Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story: birth, love, sex, work, and death. –Janet Burroway
Conflict produces tension that makes the story begin. Tension is created by opposition between the character or characters and internal or external forces or conditions. By balancing the opposing forces of the conflict, you keep readers glued to the pages wondering how the story will end.
Possible Conflicts Include:
- The protagonist against another individual
- The protagonist against nature (or technology)
- The protagonist against society
- The protagonist against God
- The protagonist against himself or herself.
Yourke’s Conflict Checklist
- Mystery. Explain just enough to tease readers. Never give everything away.
- Empowerment. Give both sides options.
- Progression. Keep intensifying the number and type of obstacles the protagonist faces.
- Causality. Hold fictional characters more accountable than real people. Characters who make mistakes frequently pay, and, at least in fiction, commendable folks often reap rewards.
- Surprise. Provide sufficient complexity to prevent readers predicting events too far in advance.
- Empathy. Encourage reader identification with characters and scenarios that pleasantly or (unpleasantly) resonate with their own sweet dreams (or night sweats).
- Insight. Reveal something about human nature.
- Universality. Present a struggle that most readers find meaningful, even if the details of that struggle reflect a unique place and time.
- High Stakes. Convince readers that the outcome matters because someone they care about could lose something precious. Trivial clashes often produce trivial fiction.
This is the turning point of the story–the most exciting or dramatic moment.
The crisis may be a recognition, a decision, or a resolution. The character understands what hasn’t been seen before, or realizes what must be done, or finally decides to do it. It’s when the worm turns. Timing is crucial. If the crisis occurs too early, readers will expect still another turning point. If it occurs too late, readers will get impatient–the character will seem rather thick.-Jerome Stern
Jane Burroway says that the crisis “must always be presented as a scene. It is “the moment” the reader has been waiting for. In Cinderella’s case, “the payoff is when the slipper fits.”
While a good story needs a crisis, a random event such as a car crash or a sudden illness is simply an emergency –unless it somehow involves a conflict that makes the reader care about the characters (see: “Crisis vs. Conflict“).
The solution to the conflict. In short fiction, it is difficult to provide a complete resolution and you often need to just show that characters are beginning to change in some way or starting to see things differently.
Yourke examines some of the options for ending a story.
- Open. Readers determine the meaning.
Brendan’s eyes looked away from the priest and up to the mountains.
- Resolved. Clear-cut outcome.
While John watched in despair, Helen loaded up the car with her belongings and drove away.
- Parallel to Beginning. Similar to beginning situation or image.
- They were driving their 1964 Chevrolet Impala down the highway while the wind blew through their hair.
- Her father drove up in a new 1964 Chevrolet Impala, a replacement for the one that burned up.
- Monologue. Character comments.
I wish Tom could have known Sister Dalbec’s prickly guidance before the dust devils of Sin City battered his soul.
- Dialogue. Characters converse.
- Literal Image. Setting or aspect of setting resolves the plot.
The aqueducts were empty now and the sun was shining once more.
- Symbolic Image. Details represent a meaning beyond the literal one.
Looking up at the sky, I saw a cloud cross the shimmering blue sky above us as we stood in the morning heat of Sin City.
Got Writer’s Block?
The Writer’s Block
Comprehensive Web site that offers solutions to beating writer’s block such as various exercises (not necessarily physical), advice from prolific writers, and how to know if you really have writer’s block.
Overcoming Writer’s Block
Precise, short list of ways to start writing again.
Learn through Schooling
Some online colleges and universities offer creative writing courses. Look for ones that offer creative writing courses that cover the plot and structure of short stories.
- Regular access to an instructor who is a published author, and a peer group that is motivated to read your drafts, might just be the extra motivation you need to develop your own skills.
- If you are counting on the credits transferring to help you complete an academic program, check with your university registrar.
Dec. 2002 — submitted by Kathy Kennedy, UWEC Senior
(for Jerz’s Advanced Technical Writing class)
Jan 2003 — edited by Jamie Dalbesio, UWEC Senior
(for an independent study project with Jerz)
May 2003 — edited by Jerz and posted at Seton Hill University
Jan 2007 — ongoing edits by Jerz
May 2008 — reformatted
Sep 2010 — tweaked Writer’s Block section
Mar 2011 — reformatted and further tweaked
Jun 2017 — minor editing. Are “Keds” still a recognizable brand of kids shoes?
Feb 2019 — Removed “Keds” reference, beefed up the “bad” shoes example; tweaked formatting.
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