News and Offers

Writing Short Stories

I was asked to write some notes recently on short story writing.  Having thought long and hard about what are generally considered to be successful short stories, I thought I’d share my thoughts with you. I’ve written the notes under different headings. There are some stories of mine on other pages.

 Length.  Short story competitions usually ask for work under 2,500 words, but individual contests vary. Flash fiction is very short fiction, under 250 words or half a page. A novella will be between 15-20 thousand words, and a novel betwen 80-100 thousand.

However, filmmakers and screenwriters like short fiction because it’s condensed, to the point and it’s easier to extend a good short story than to cut down Gone With The Wind or War and Peace, without leaving out important details.

So if you have a story in mind and you think it might take 2,500 words, every word has to count. This brings me to our second point:

Characters.    Keep to a small and memorable cast of characters. I think five is about the limit. Too many and it becomes a saga. Herman Melville’s excellent short story The Scrivener has two main and one ancillory character. Meeting in Samorra by Somerset Maughn and copied by others,  has three – Death, the Master and the Servant.  Choose your characters carefully! Make them stand out from one another and give them individual voices.  First person narratives are immediate and grab the reader’s attention at once. If we identify with the main character, we’re more likely to read on, so   your main character should be believable.

Plot   The traditional wisdom is that there should be a beginning, middle and end to your story. However, clever writers often subvert this. The funeral is sometimes the start of the story, which then goes backwards in time to  events at the start of the story (if you see what I mean), or the ending comes as a surprise.  Usually the plot will follow a course like this:  Characters have some conflict, challenge or dificulty to to resolve, embark on a course of action and await the results. The bit of the story where they wrestle with the task (kill the dragon, confront the murderer, find the treasure) is the climax of the story,  and this can come anywhere, though most often in the middle of the story.  Boy meets girl/boy loses girl/couple reunited after many trials, is still a bestseller.

Setting  For some authors, the setting is as important as the characters or plot. I’m thinking of the Congo, described by Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible, or Newfoundland described by Annie Proux in The Shipping News. For other authors, it’s simply sketched in and the reader fills in the details. Generally it’s good to stay with what you know, so if you do travel about, take a notebook with you, then you’ll have the details of that hotel you stayed at on the wasteland near Athens Airport, you’ll remember the fact that snakes lurked in the long grass and the owner planted zinnias along the boundary and hawkmoths visited them every night…  See?    I got quite carried away just re reading my old notebooks! The details are important.

Point of view   Sometimes known as P.O.V., this answers the question: Through whose eyes are we seeing the action?  Who is the narrator?  Does the P.O.V move around?  Who is telling this story? The Poisonwood Bible, for example, is narrated by each character in turn. In a short story the omnipotent  narrator, like a puppet-master, often oversees all the action, or it may be a first person narrative, or one where the reader inhabits the head of the main character. If you read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the reader is asked to identify with a man who has inexplicably turned into a cockroach overnight. We feel pity for his predicament.

Beginnings and endings:    The first few sentence are important. They should hook the reader into the story and make them want to know what happens next. Choose some short stories to read  and make a note of the opening sentences. What intrigued you or put you off reading more? An ending should add a sense of completeness to the story, I think, but rules are made to be broken and a sudden, unexpected,  incomplete or tragic ending can also work well.

Starting points for stories:  If, as I do, you collect books with odd facts, anecdotes and overheard snatches of conversation, you’ll never be short of material. Go to places you don’t normally visit. Make notes. Talk to people. I’m thinking of greyhound tracks, bikers’ cafes, fairgrounds, antique auctions, stations – anywhere where people are doing something a little different and you’ll hear stories.  Ask if you can write about what they tell you – people rarely refuse. Or you can change all identifying details and keep the bones of the story, though it’s good manners to acknowledge the source. Most stories are a mixture of the writer’s real experience and stuff s/he’s invented.

Asking the question  What if…..? can be fruitful as well. What if Aladdin had rubbed the magic lamp and the Genie appeared but was really lazy and couldn’t be arsed?  What if Red Ridng Hood’s Granny kept a shotgun by the bed?  What if the Three Little Pigs told the Wolf to come in – no, let’s not go there!

More to come: where to submit short stories.

See you later!

You may also like


18 Responses

  1. maria

    Having a short story competition or contest on a site will help users be moe active on the site. it will promote compeitive spirit as well

  2. Oyeyipo Oladele

    The short story writing doesn’t mean short is meaning. The fact that it is a short story contests doesn’t make it meaningless. Read through the short fiction books and testify to what I mean. Thanks for this post.

  3. Meldred Judith

    Short story writing is quite hard for me. Coming up with a certain topic is a bit challenging.

  4. Wilson Jake

    I love short story contests, they are direct and simplcit. I started writing to but got carried in the middle

  5. Prince

    Because I dont like reading alot, I prefer short story writing, straight forward and direct. No waste of time for irrelevant scenes.

  6. Danielle M

    I love short story contests, people can get very creative when writing them in order to win first place.

  7. Danielle M

    I love short story contests, people get very creative and it’s a great opportunity to let fly the imagination. I’m sure that they could improve their writing by following your advice.

  8. Roy

    This is the perfect guide to short story writing. You basically covered every aspect of it.

  9. Meg W

    With this knowledge I think I am ready to try some short story contests. Wish me the best!

  10. Patricia

    Short fiction books have always been my favorite. This is mostly due to my short attention span haha

  11. Oliver

    I look forward to the article on where to short stories submit. I have quite a few of them.

  12. Daphne

    Everyone trying to enter a short story competition should be armed with this knowledge. I will be sharing the article widely 🙂

  13. Teddy

    I really wish I had bumped into your write-up much earlier. It could have helped a great deal with my short story writing

  14. Louis

    Who would have thought short story writing entailed so much? I am actually surprised.

  15. Shantel

    Where are short story contests hosted online? They can provide good training grounds for up and coming writers.

  16. Anderson

    Nothing sparks my interest like short fiction books. I have such a huge collection of them on my ipad.

  17. Storm

    Before doing a short stories submit, one should always have a friend do some proof reading for them. It can help catch those small mistakes.

  18. Sylvia

    Organizing a short story competition is a great way to foster people’s interest in the genre. I thank everyone out there that promote these types of competitions.

Leave a Reply