A good editor will tell you this: "When I read a short story, the first thing I look for is specificity." For example, is it a glass of water on the counter? Or, is it an amber glass slitted by the moonlight?
If you're wondering how to get creative and write a short story, know this. Specificity is paramount. With this at the center of your vision, let's walk through the remaining steps that'll help you turn your imaginings into a well-crafted short story.
1. Read Short Stories
When you start to feel the itch to write a short story, listen to it. But, if you've never read any short stories, how will you know how to formulate one?
Every year, an anthology titled The Best American Short Stories is published. That's a good place to start. As you read, keep an eye out for each author's ability to live in the specifics, not the generalities.
Also, pay careful attention to the first line and closing of each story. The opening line is as important as a red velvet curtain on Broadway. Take note of what the award-winner went with. Then, see how they close out the story. Most short stories have a definitive ending. They tend to "wrap up" with a certain sense of finality.
2. Write Your Story
Okay, that doesn't seem very helpful. In an article titled, "How to Write a Short Story," we're telling you to write your story. In a moment, we're going to discuss how to draft a scene list (or outline of sorts) and edit for accuracy but, actually, this is one of the most important pieces of advice.
If you're reading this article now, you must have an idea for a short story in mind. So, set aside one hour at some point today, sit down, and write. Write your story as if you were telling it to a friend over coffee. Don't stop to edit. Don't stop to critique yourself. Don't stop to say, "That's ridiculous. That would never happen in real life." Just write. Get it all out.
Have you ever heard of the monkey mind? In truth, if you want to write a short story, you simply must read Natalie Goldberg's book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. One of her best bits of advice is to keep writing, even if you think it's total nonsense. Just write through it. Once it's all down, you can decide to trash it or edit it. But, you have to "get it all out" first.
Another great resource is Joe Bunting's Let's Write a Short Story. Beyond his resource-laden book, he also maintains a fairly robust blog. If you feel the urge to write but you actually don't have an idea in mind, his article "100 Top Short Story Ideas" might help you rev your engine.
3. Read Your Story
After you've gotten in all out, sit back (because you're probably hunching) and read your story. Don't you dare pick up that proverbial red pen yet. Just read your story from beginning to end, all in one go.
Does anything really jump out at you and tug at your heart? Wonderful! Does anything make you cringe? That's also wonderful! Now, you know where to start editing.
4. Outline a Scene List
This seems a bit backwards, doesn't it? A scene list is an outline of sorts, and aren't you supposed to write an outline before the first draft? Not in this scenario. In the case of a short story, the most important thing you can do is simple - write your story. But, it's going to need plenty of refinement after you've "gotten it all out" and that's what a scene list is going to do for you.
Author Joe Bunting is a proponent of a scene list. He cites an article by his friend, Monica Clark, in which she states a scene list will change your writing life. In truth, it organizes the story for you. Now, you have a structured map of your plot and a better idea of which sections need refinement.
Maybe you went off on a bit of a tangent in one scene and that can be removed. If it doesn't do anything to advance the story, that might be a good editing opportunity. Either way, a scene list gives you full control over your story, sort of like a table of contents, allowing you to get right to the parts that need refinement or more detail.
5. Check Your Facts
Let's say Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series has prompted an idea for a short story. That means you're looking at a story based in 18th-century Scotland before the English tried to wipe out the Highlander way of life. Chances are you're looking at a fair amount of research.
But, we're going to cite Joe Bunting's advice one more time here. Joe makes the valid point that research can skew our story, even to the point of dismantling it. Rather, take the story that's crept into your heart, get it down on the page, and then check your facts to make sure each element is believable. If you have to alter a certain component of a scene, that's far better than being riddled with self-doubt as you write.
Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series has been turned into a major television series on STARZ. She works as a consultant for the show, helping them maintain historical accuracy. In one scene, a character was remarking on his friend's wife's shouts as she gave birth. The character said it sounded like she was giving birth to a piano.
In her review of the script, Gabaldon points out that there were no pianos in the 1740s. As such, the script was changed to, "It sounds like she's giving birth to a harpsichord." These are the kinds of details you want to get right, but you don't want your brain focused on them as you write.
Rather, you can circle back and make these kinds of corrections after the story has been freed from your mind. The master herself offers writing tips in the resources section of her website. They're worth a read-through, too.
6. Proofread and Edit
At this point, your story is down on the page. You've re-read it and drafted a scene list. Now's the time to proofread and edit.
Did you know there's a difference between proofreaders and editors? Proofreaders look for things like proper spelling and grammar. As you proofread, make sure you've punctuated around dialogue correctly. Check to see you've punctuated around clauses correctly. These 11 Rules of Grammar are helpful points to keep in mind as you proofread.
Editors do what proofreaders do and more. They also make sure you haven't gone off on any unnecessary tangents. They make sure the story follows a natural flow and there aren't any holes. Immediately, they can tell if you have a story or not, based on how specific you got. So, as you edit, keep that crucial point in your mind. "Am I being specific?" Was it a sunset on the beach? Or was it a moon-driven crash of waves upon the shoreline? Be. Specific.
As a writer, it's your job to create unique, striking experiences in the minds of your readers, not generic forgettable scenes. Choose verbs and words that are going to evoke emotion and make strong associations - or create strong connotations - that will give the readers a sense of what it would be like to be in the story themselves.
Key Elements of a Short Story
So, that's the step-by-step guide to getting the tale out of your head and onto the page. With your roadmap in hand, let's discuss a few key elements every short story should have.
- Word Length - Traditional short stories are 5,000 words; that's about 20 pages, double-spaced. Depending on assignment requirements, contest requirements, and submission guidelines, that figure can vary anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 words. There's also a subgenre of short stories known as flash fiction; these stories can be as short as 200 words.
- Opening - Your first line is one of the most important lines of the story. You want to invite readers into the world you've created. Don't sit there and try to craft the perfect open line. Remember, just write. But, as you edit, see if there's a particularly spectacular line that can be used in your opening.
- Point of View - How will you tell your story? Will you narrate it in the first person, kind of like a retelling to a friend in a coffee shop? Or, will you speak in the third person, illustrating the minds of several different characters? To help you decide, here's a great resource on first, second, and third person point of view.
- Theme - What is the central idea of your story? What's the underlying message you'd like to get across? The theme is a pivotal element because it lingers throughout the entire story. You must decide early on whether you want to convey a message of hope or a message of courage through despair, because you'll want readers to catch a whiff of that theme from beginning to end.
- Setting - In your short story, the setting is more than landscapes, cityscapes, scenery, buildings, or seasons. In fact, it can tell us a lot about the characters. For example, if someone lives in a darkly lit studio apartment with five locks on their door, we're going to understand the character has a bit of a dire living situation on his hands. But, if he lives in a incense-laden apartment boasting colorful tapestries and billowing curtains, we're going to jump to an entirely new set of conclusions. Remember that time is also an aspect of setting. Set the stage for your reader.
- Conflict - No story, short or otherwise, can exist without conflict. You can color a conflict as simplistic as a character's inability to choose between the adoption of a dalmatian or an Irish wolfhound. Or, you can tackle something huge like prejudice or destitution.
The enormity of the conflict isn't as important as what it reveals about the main character. How does he or she grow through the adversity? What type of morality or character do they exhibit? What type of plot twist can you insert as you reach the climax of your story and conclude with a solid resolution?
- Conclusion - Most short stories come to a well-defined ending. There's a sense of finality or a "wrapping up." It's different for novels and screenplays. They might end on a cliffhanger because they have a series in mind. Short stories, however, should come to some sort of a conclusion.
Short Story Examples
What do you say? Enough talking about it. Let's roll up our sleeves and get into it. Below, you'll find three short story examples. Two have a modern edge and the last is a classic from James Joyce.
The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere
BookBub published a list of 23 Short Stories You Can Read for Free Right now. "The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere" by John Chu is a fine example of a well-constructed short story. In fact, it was the winner of the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
In this story, water falls whenever someone tells a lie. Sometimes, it's a mere mist. Other times, it's a torrential downpour. It all depends on the severity of the lie. The main character is faced with a difficult dilemma and we watch him navigate the floodwaters. As you read it, notice the writer's specificity. He paints a vivid picture. Also, note his opening and conclusion. They're powerful enough to stick with you.
You know how we keep mentioning specificity? John Chu nailed it in his description of one of the characters. It's almost as though we're sitting across from this character, wondering deeply about his actions:
Gus is up to a minute now and I wish he'd blurt something unequivocal… His shirt, soaked with sweat, clings to a body that has spent twenty-seven too many hours a week at the gym. His knees lock stiff, his jeans stretched across his tensed thighs. His face shrinks as if he were watching someone smash kittens with a hammer.
St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
Also in BookBub's list, you'll find "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" by Karen Russell. If you like the fanciful, this details the story of a group of girls (who just so happen to be werewolves) who are sent to a halfway house run by strict nuns. The intent is to civilize the girls, but you watch their struggle unfold as they keep reverting back to their primal nature.
There's no denying the importance of the opening lines to a story. Take a look at Karen Russell's undeniably detailed and unique description:
At first, our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy. We forgot the barked cautions of our mothers and fathers, all the promises we'd made to be civilized and ladylike, couth and kempt. We tore through the austere rooms, overturning dresser drawers, pawing through the neat piles of the Stage 3 girls' starched underwear, smashing light bulbs with our bare fists.
If you'd like to savor a classic, BookBub also includes a healthy list of timeless short stories. Perhaps one of the most famous is James Joyce's "The Dead."
In it, two main characters are at a New Year's Eve party in Dublin. The wife takes this opportunity to tell her husband a shocking secret that leaves him - and the readers - reeling. We won't ruin the surprise for you. But, it's certainly worth 15 minutes of your time. Here's a brief excerpt from the juicy moments of stark revelation:
A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he has hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he took himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself. Her hand was warm and moist; it did not respond to his touch, but he continued to caress it just as he had caressed her first letter to him that spring morning.
Short Story Topics
In Diana Gabaldon's resource page, she shares a bit about her process. She encourages fledgling writers to write one page a day. You can write anything, but you must fill one page a day. By the end of the year, you'll have 365 pages written and that's a decent-sized novel! But, what if you can't think of anything to write about?
That's where E.M. Welsh comes in. She's written novels, TV pilots, feature films, short stories, plays, and more. On her website, she details 365 story ideas. Here are a few really fun ones:
- A mailman begins to throw away letters a woman has been receiving from her husband.
- A dog decides to answer to a different name after meeting another dog by the same name.
- A mutant ghoul looks for a beauty cure-all.
Be sure to read through E.M.'s list if you're ever stuck. You'll meet sailors, mermaids, English billionaires, students, hypochondriacs, and more. From there, there's only one thing left to do - write.
Creative Writing Now is another great resource. They're famed for their online writing courses but they also post a wealth of free resources to their site. They do a nice job of listing writing prompts to help you get started. Here are three provocative prompts:
- At a Chinese restaurant, your character opens his fortune cookie and reads the following message: "Your life is in danger. Say nothing to anyone. You must leave the city immediately and never return. Repeat: say nothing."
- Your character is caught shoplifting. The shop owner says that she won't call the police in exchange for a personal favor.
- Your character picks up a hitchhiker on her way home from work. The hitchhiker tries to persuade your character to leave everything and drive her across the country.
It's definitely worth a look through the entire list. Even if one prompt isn't precisely right, it's a safe bet it'll trigger a similar idea and you'll be able to run with it. These are more than ideas. They're springboards to magic.
What Story Will You Tell?
Short stories can spring from anywhere. They can detail something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store. Or, you can tackle werewolves and fairies. Whatever's in your mind, free it with one simple step: write it down.
Then, you can take out your toolkit to proofread and edit. At the start, however, all that's required is your butt in the seat. Writing isn't meant to be a chore, although it can take a lot of energy. Always remember that. Storytelling is, by its very nature, entertainment. So, don't forget to have some fun and enjoy the process.
If you ever want to advance to the world of novel writing, take a look at these tips on writing a bestseller. We hope to see your story published in the Best American Short Stories anthology someday!