by Jodie Renner, editor & author
Writing short stories is a great way to
experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and “voices.” And due
to the rise in e-books and e-magazines, length is no longer an issue, so there’s
a growing market for short stories. You can also publish a collection of 3 or 4
of your short stories yourself in a short anthology, relatively easily on
Amazon, and they don’t even need to be on a common theme. Here are some
guidelines for writing a compelling story, worthy of publishing or submitting to contests, magazines, and anthologies.
Of course, these are only tips and guidelines –
like any good cook with a recipe, you’ll tweak them to suit your own vision and
Pay attention to word count. Short stories are generally between 500 and
7,500 words long. If you want to submit your short story to a magazine or
contest, be sure to read their guidelines as to length. Also, read the fine
print to avoid giving away all rights to your story.
Keep the story tight. A short story is about just a small slice of life,
with one story thread and one theme. Don’t get too ambitious. It’s best to
limit it to one main character plus a few supporting characters, one
geographical location, and a short time frame, like a few weeks maximum—better
yet, a few days, or even hours or minutes.
a complex, charismatic character. Your main character should be multi-dimensional
and at least somewhat sympathetic, so readers can relate to him and start
bonding with him right away. And give him a human side, with some inner
conflict and vulnerability, so readers care about him and start worrying about
him immediately. A worried reader is an engaged reader. Remember that readers
need to care about your character before they’ll start caring what happens to
your character in motion right away, and disrupt her world. Having her
interacting with someone else is usually best – much more dynamic than starting
with a character alone, musing. Also, best not to start with your character
just waking up or in an everyday situation or on a routine trip to somewhere.
That’s too much slow lead-up for a short story – or any compelling story, for
of a main story question/problem and a tight plot or storyline. Give your
character an important goal that is thwarted. Create a main conflict, and other
lesser conflicts/problems, with tension throughout. No conflict = no story. Get
your protagonist into some hot water! The conflict can be internal or external,
or both, and can be against man, circumstances, or nature. Something has to
happen in your story, to achieve reader satisfaction. Your main character,
someone the reader cares about, has to run into a difficult challenge they need
to confront, and you need some kind of resolution at the end.
a unique “voice” for this story by first getting to know your character
really well, then journaling in their voice. Just let the ideas flow, in their
point of view, expressing their hopes and frustrations with their words and
expressions. Then carry that voice throughout the whole story, even to the
narration and description, which is really the character’s thoughts,
perceptions, observations and reactions.
interesting supporting characters. Give each of your characters a distinct
personality, with hopes, accomplishments, fears, insecurities and secrets, and
add some individual quirks to bring each of them to life. Supporting and minor
characters should be different from your protagonist, for contrast.
enter and win contests, make your character and story unique and memorable. Try
to jolt or awe the readers somehow, with a unique, charismatic, even quirky or
weird character, and/or a surprising topic or plot twist.
– take a chance. Short stories can be edgier, darker, or more intense
because they’re short, and readers can tolerate something a little more extreme
for a limited time.
10. Jump right in, with a disruption and tension in the first paragraph. There’s no room in a short story for a
long, meandering lead-up to the main problem, or an extended introduction of the
setting or the characters and their background. Jump right in with the main
character’s life being disrupted in some way.
11. Start right out in the head of your main character. It’s best to
use their name right in the first sentence to establish them as the POV
character, the one readers are supposed to identify with and root for. Then let
readers know really soon their gender, rough age, and role in the story world.
12. Situate the reader early on. Don’t forget the 4 W’s: who, what,
where, when. Establish your setting (time and place) within the first few
paragraphs as well, to situate your reader and avoid confusion. But avoid starting
with a great long descriptive passage.
13. Use close point of view. Get up close and personal with your main
character and tell the story from his or her point of view. You don’t have time
or space to get into anyone else’s viewpoint in a short story. Even your
narration is your POV character’s thoughts and observations. Don’t intrude as
the author to describe or explain anything to the readers in neutral language.
Show, Don’t Tell! Don’t use narration to tell your readers what happened—put them right in the middle of the
scene, with lots of dialogue and action and reactions, in real time. And skip
past transitional times and unimportant moments. Just use a few words to go
from one time/place to another, unless something important happens during the
Show your character’s reactions, both inner and outer. And to bring the
character and scene to life on the page, evoke all five senses, not just sight
16. Every page needs tension of some sort. It might be overt, like an
argument, or subtle, like inner resentments, disagreements, worry, etc. No tension
17. Dialogue is war! Skip
the yadda-yadda, blah-blah and add spark and tension to all your dialogue. And
make your dialogue sound as natural and authentic as you can. Each character
should speak differently, and not like the author. Use contractions, partial
sentences, slang words, interruptions, one-word answers, silences, evasive
replies, and lots of tension and attitude! When it comes to dialogue, ignore
the computer lines that indicate incorrect English. Read your dialogue out loud
or role-play with a friend to make sure it sounds natural.
18. Go out with a bang. Don’t stretch out the conclusion – tie it up
pretty quickly. Like your first paragraph, your final paragraph needs to be
memorable, and also satisfying to the readers. A surprise twist would be great,
but it needs to make sense, given all the other details of the story. It’s not
necessary to tie everything up in a neat bow – in fact, short story endings can
be more ambiguous than for novels – but do give your reader some sense of
resolution. And be sure the protagonist solves his or her problem or triumphs
through their own courage, determination, and resourcefulness, not through
coincidence, luck or a rescue by someone else.
19. Hook them in with an opening that zings. Write and rewrite your
first line, opening paragraph and first page. They need to be as gripping and
as intriguing as you can make them, in order to grab the readers and make them
want to read the rest of the story. Your first sentence and paragraph should
arouse curiosity, and raise questions that demand to be answered.
20. Cut to the chase! The short story requires discipline and editing. Trim
down any long, convoluted sentences to reveal the essentials. Less is more, so
make every word count. If a sentence or line of dialogue doesn’t advance the
plot or further develop a character, take it out. Use strong, evocative,
specific nouns and verbs and cut back on supporting adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of saying “He walked
heavily” say “He trudged.” Or instead of “She walked quietly into the room,”
say “She tiptoed…”
Make every element and every image count. Every element you insert in the
story should have some significance or some relevance later. If it doesn’t,
take it out. You have no room for filler in a compelling short story.