For those who have never tried it, many think that writing a short story is easier than writing a novel. After all, it’s short, right? Only a few thousand words, not sixty or seventy thousand words like in novels. However, the low word count is what makes writing short stories difficult, especially in fiction where you need to introduce the setting, the plot, and the characters quickly, without the luxury of having the time to lay out complicated backstories.
Fortunately, many authors have struggled trying to write short stories. Over time and through experience, they have developed some guidance on how to do it. Here are 10 easy-to-follow tips for writing short stories:
1. The Right Title
As with any writer trying to get published, it’s not enough to be a good writer. You also have to get the attention of a publisher or agent who will be interested. That’s why an eye-catching, intriguing title is so important. Avoid one or two-word titles, which may seem like you’re taking the easy way out.
2. Keep a Short Story Short
This sounds obvious, but writers tend to go on and on, striving for better scene descriptions or character development. Most short story contests have word limits, but many publications don’t. Experience shows that less than about 3,500 words is best.
3. Think Ahead
Given the limited word count, make sure and have some basic information worked out before writing. This allows you to write your fiction tightly and focused. Damon Knight, in his book Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction, recommends that at least four of these five questions be fleshed out before writing: (a) who’s the story about; (b) why are the characters doing what they’re doing; (c) what’s the story about; (d) where’s the story set; and (e) when does it take place?
Settings should be lightly developed. No windy paragraphs and pages without end developing the setting, like James Michener does in his fantastic historical fiction. Michener has over a hundred thousand words to work with, and you don’t.
5. Get to It
Readers and publisher like stories begin en media res (starting in the middle of the action, rather than from the beginning). This technique words particularly well with short stories, allowing you to parse in the other needed setting information and background as the story continues.
6. Point of View
Try to stick to one character’s point of view. If you need more, try not to use more than one in a given scene. Shifting points of view slow down the reader and distract the reader from the story; in short fiction all the reader’s attention is needed due to the sparse scene setting and fast pace.
7. Deep Character Development
Short stories simply don’t allow time for thorough character development. There’s no time for peeking into a character’s complex thoughts and complicated motives.
Since there’s little time for character development, characters are defined by action. Actions can replace words to provide more information about characters. Similarly, dialogue is also a great tool to show more about characters.
9. Active Language
Action is important, so use active language to describe it. Avoid the wordy passive phrase, and there’s no time for adverbs ending in “ly”. For example, a character should “stalk” someone rather than “follow slowly”; or “shout” rather than “yell angrily”.
10. Finish Strong
In short stories, there’s little room for contemplating what has happened or why it has happened. End your short story with a bang. Save the best for last with a dramatic ending that lingers in the reader’s mind.