Short Story Essay Help

Jerz > Writing > General Creative Writing Tips [ Poetry | Fiction ]

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.

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 may 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 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?)
  • What details from the setting, dialog, and tone help you tell the story? Things to cut:
    • Travel scenes. (Save words. “Later, at the office, I…”)
    • 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.
  • What morally significant choice does your protagonist make at the climax of the story?
    (Your reader should care about the protagonist’s decision. Ideally, the reader shouldn’t see it coming.)

An effective short story (or poem) does not simply record or express the author’s feelings; rather, it generates feelings in the reader. (See “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell.”)

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

2. Write a Catchy First Paragraph

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.
The second sentence 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

3. Developing Characters

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.

  • Name
  • Age
  • Job
  • Ethnicity
  • Appearance
  • Residence
  • Pets
  • Religion
  • Hobbies
  • Single or married?
  • Children?
  • Temperament
  • Favorite color
  • Friends
  • Favorite foods
  • Drinking patterns
  • Phobias
  • Faults
  • Something hated?
  • Secrets?
  • 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.

4. Choose a Point of View

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.”

5. Write Meaningful Dialogue

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.

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.

7. Set Up the Plot

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?

  1. She becomes a workaholic.
  2. Their children are unhappy.
  3. Their children want to live with their dad.
  4. She moves to another city.
  5. She gets a new job.
  6. They sell the house.
  7. She meets a psychiatrist and falls in love.
  8. He comes back and she accepts him.
  9. He comes back and she doesn’t accept him.
  10. She commits suicide.
  11. He commits suicide.
  12. 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.

8. Create Conflict and Tension

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.

9. Build to a Crisis or Climax

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“).

10. Find a Resolution

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?

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Archived discussion of “Short Stories: 10 Tips for Creative Writers”

Writing a short story differs from writing a novel in several key ways: There is less space to develop characters, less room for lengthy dialogue, and often a greater emphasis on a twist or an ‘a-ha’ realization. How to write a short story in ten steps:

Step 1: Devise an intriguing scenario.

Step 2: Plan what publications you will submit your final story to.

Step 3: Find the story’s focus before you start.

Step 4: Outline character and setting details.

Step 5: Choose a point of view for the story.

Step 6: Write the story as a one-page synopsis.

Step 7: Write a strong first paragraph.

Step 8: Write a satisfying climax and conclusion.

Step 9: Rewrite for clarity, concision and structure.

Step 10: Pick an intriguing story title and submit to short fiction publishers.

1: Find the scenario for your story

Writing a novel gives you more elbow room to develop characters and story arcs and symbols at a leisurely pace. Writing a short story differs in that often there is a single image, symbol, idea or concept underlying the story. Some examples of original story scenarios:

  • In Roald Dahl’s famous short story ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and serves the cooked evidence to the investigating officers
  • In William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily‘, a notorious town recluse dies, leaving the town to discover her grisly secret
  • In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’, the way of life of an entire village is changed by the discovery of a mysterious, handsome drowned man who washes up on the beachfront

Find a scenario you can write down in a sentence or two. An interesting or novel scenario that sets the story in motion has multiple benefits:

  • It sets up a range of possible developments and symbols (for example, in the Garcia Marquez, the plans the village makes for the man’s burial and the processes and emotions that follow the discovery of a body)
  • It gives you something to pitch to publications when submitting your story

On the topic of publishers:

2: Plan structure and themes around the publications you’ll submit to

One of the benefits of writing short stories either as preparation for writing a novel or for their own sake is that there are many publishing opportunities for short fiction. You can get your story published in:

  • Literary journals and magazines
  • Writing contest anthologies
  • Anthologies curated around specific topics or themes
  • Online publications (digital journals, writing websites and e-zines)

Make a list of possible publications, once you have decided on your core story scenario. Note:

  • Minimum and maximum submission word counts
  • Any specified formatting requirements
  • The contact details for the person in charge of submissions
  • The themes and topics most frequently featured by the publication

It’s wise to have these guidelines for formatting, word count and areas of interest worked out before you start, because this will enable you to make your story meet requirements for acceptance. This will save time later when it comes to revising.

So you have the story idea worked out and a list of publications and their requirements to guide your creative decisions? Now it’s time to find your short story’s focus:

3: Find the focus of your story

The scenario of your short story is the idea or image that sets the story in motion and opens narrative possibilities. The focus is the communicative aspect: What do you want to say? Why write a short story on this subject in particular? The first step of Now Novel’s step-by-step story building process, ‘Central Idea’, will help you find your idea and express it as a single paragraph you can grow into a full-fledged novel. Try it now.

Finding the focus of your short story before you start is explained by Writer’s Relief via the Huffington Post thus:

‘Explore your motivations, determine what you want your story to do, then stick to your core message. Considering that the most marketable short stories tend to be 3,500 words or less, you’ll need to make every sentence count’.

If you were Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, and you had decided on the scenario for your short story, ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ (‘Dead man washes up on beach and his appearance causes momentous changes in a nearby village’s way of life’), then you might describe the focus of your story thus:

‘The story’s focus: Rural life and the way the introduction of new, unfamiliar things changes it. Also: Death and how people respond to and make sense of it.’

Once you have an idea of the topic, themes and focus of your short story, it’ll be easier to outline characters who are consistent with these elements:

4: Outline your characters and setting(s)

Writing a book makes outlining essential, given the complexity of long-form fiction. When writing short fiction, you might think ‘Why should I bother with outlining?’ The truth is that it is useful for similar reasons: It gives you creative direction and helps to make your writing structured and internally consistent.

Once you have the scenario, topics and themes for your story, make a list for each character you want to cast. Make notes on character elements such as:

  • Physical appearance (face, posture and mannerisms)
  • Personality
  • Occupation
  • Backstory
  • Preoccupations and interests
  • Role in the story

[Get our guide ‘How to Write Real Characters’ for extra help crafting unique, believable characters.]

Similarly, for setting, write down:

  • Where the story will take place
  • What is significant about the setting for the story (does it underscore specific themes or foreshadow a particular climax?)

Have an idea before you start writing a short story as to who will star in it and where it will take place. This will give direction and a sense of purpose to your writing.

5: Choose a point of view for the story

Point of view (or POV) can create subtle shifts in characterisation. For example, a character who narrates the story  in the first-person may seem strong and self-possessed. You could make the same character seem much less powerful by using the second person instead.

An example of this is James Joyce’s use of the second person in his story ‘Clay’ from the collection Dubliners. The focal character is a cook named Maria. Joyce uses second-person throughout to describe Maria and her daily life, even though she is the focal character of the story. Maria’s own story not being told through the first person conveys a sense of her social position – she is a ‘she’ who is likely marshalled around by wealthy employers. The story simply wouldn’t achieve the same sense of Maria’s marginal status  were it written in first person.

Dennis Jerz and Kathy Kennedy share useful tips on choosing point of view:

‘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.’

They go on to describe the pros and cons of each point of view:

  • First person: The story is narrated by a character using the pronoun ‘I’. Pros: One of the easiest POVs for beginners; it allows readers to enter a single character’s mind and experience their perceptions. Cons: The reader doesn’t connect as strongly to other characters in the story.

 

  • Second person: Much less common, this addresses the reader as a character in the story, using the pronoun ‘You’. Pros: Novel and uncommon; the reader becomes an active story participant. Cons: The environment of the story can feel intangible as the reader has to imagine the story setting as her immediate surroundings.

 

  • Third person omniscient: The story is told using he/she/it. In omniscient POV, the narrative is told from multiple characters’ perspectives, though indirectly. Pros: Allows you to explore multiple characters’ thoughts and motivations. Cons: transitioning between different characters’ perspectives must be handled with care or the reader could lose track of  who is the viewpoint character.

 

  • Third person limited:The story is told using he/she but from one character’s perspective. Pros: The reader enjoys the intimacy of a single character’s perspective. Cons: Other characters’ views and actions are only understood through the perceptions of the viewpoint character.

As you can see, choosing POV requires thinking about both who you want to tell your story and what this decision will exclude. Think about the scenario of your story and what would fit best. Virginia Woolf, writing a dinner party scene, alternates between diners’ perspectives using third person omniscient. This creates a strong sense of a group of very different people coming together and bringing contrasting desires, opinions and impressions to the table.

6: Write your story as a one page synopsis

This might seem like a dubious idea. After all, how will you know where the story will take you once you start writing? The truth is that even just attempting this as an exercise will give you an idea of the strong and weak points of your story idea: Will there be sufficient climax? Is there an intriguing story that the initial premise makes possible?

You should at least try to write your short story in condensed form first for other reasons, too:

  • You’ll begin with the bare essentials – having the most important elements at the centre of your process will stop you from writing boring filler
  • You’ll be better able to work out the number and sequence of scenes you’ll need to do your topic and themes justice

Joe Bunting advocates breaking your story into a scene list so that you have a clear overview of the structure of your story and the parts that require additional work. If you don’t have a clear outline of your story to begin with and prefer to start writing immediately, you can do this at a later stage too.

7: Write a strong first paragraph

You don’t necessarily need to begin writing your story from the first paragraph. The chances are that you will need to go back and revise it substantially so that it matches with the rest of the story when you are finished. Bunting actually advises against starting a short story with the first paragraph because the pressure to create a great hook can inhibit you from making headway. Says Bunting:

‘Instead, just write. Just put pen to paper. Don’t worry about what comes out. It’s not important. You just need to get your short story started.’

Whether you are intent on starting with the beginning or prefer to follow Bunting’s advice, here are important things to remember about your opening paragraph:

  • It should foreshadow the events of the story by introducing core subjects and themes (Garcia Marquez’s story begins with the discovery of the drowned man’s body).
  • It should pique the reader’s interest and elicit questions (in the unsettling discovery of Marquez’s drowned man two immediate questions arise: ‘Who is he? What does the discovery portend?’)
  • It should not waste time – the limited word count of a short story requires you to get to the meat of the story faster

Discussing writing catchy first paragraphs, Jerz and Kennedy suggest:

‘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.’

8: Create a strong climax and resolution for a satisfying story arc

The climax of a story is crucial in long as well as short fiction. In short stories in particular, the climax helps to give the story a purpose and shape – a novel can meander more. Many short story writers have favoured a ‘twist in the tale’ ending (the American short story author O. Henry is famous for these).

The climax could be dramatically compelling. It could be the reader’s sudden realisation that a character was lying, for example, or an explosive conflict that seemed inevitable from the first page.

Writing a good short story ending can be achieved many ways. Besides using an element of surprise you can have an ending that:

  • Is open: The reader must piece together the final pages’ implications
  • Is resolved: The meaning of the outcome is clear and fits the preceding events’ pattern of cause and effect
  • Returns to the beginning: An opening image or action returns and the story is given a circular structure

These are just three possible types of short story resolution. After the final full stop the crucial revision process begins:

9: How to write a short story that gets published: Rewrite for clarity and structure

Revising is just as important when writing short stories as it is when writing novels. A polished story greatly increases your chance of publication. While revising your short story, see to it that:

  • The expectations set up on the first page are dealt with subsequently (see ‘Chekhov’s Gun’)
  • All information, characters and scenes that don’t contribute to the main story focus are cut
  • Each line adds something significant to the overarching effect of the story

See further pointers on editing your own writing.

10: Pick a great story title and submit your revised story to contests and publishers

Choosing a title for your short story should come last because you will have the entire narrative to draw on. A great title achieves at least two things:

    1. It creates intrigue (Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ makes the reader ask ‘Who is Emily and what occasions this gift of a single rose?’)
    2. It establishes the key characters, subjects, symbols or objects of the short story (such as ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’)

Once you have created an alluring title, you can set about submitting your story to publications. If you are not yet an established author, it may be easier to get published on a digital platform such as an online creative writing journal. Spread the net wide, however, and submit wherever your short story meets guidelines and topical preferences. This will maximize the chance your short story will be published.

Ready to write a winning short story? The short story writers’ group on Now Novel is the place to get helpful feedback on story ideas and drafts.

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