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The Basic “How to Write a Short Story” Post

September 2, 2009

With the overload of information and advice still ringing in my ears from a recently attended writers festival and seminar, I thought it might be useful to share a basic “How To…” from my notes.

Short stories are … short – so ensure that a reader feels that their time was not wasted by: Short Fiction

  • Starting the story as close to the end as you can. This will assist you in the timing of the story.. and hopefully keeping the word count down by cutting out unnecessary back story.
  • Ensuring your story has a point and not a collection of actions. Most readers are looking to be entertained, informed or enriched by a short story. Gift them a message or an experience rather than waste their time with ‘boring bits.’
  • Including at last one character they can strongly identify with – either negatively or positively.
  • Ensuring each sentence either advances the action or reveal character motivation or traits essential to the story.
  • Ensuring that each character included needs something – even if it was to deliver the paper.
  • Vary the lengths of sentences and paragraphs, but generally, keep them short or at least in line with the tempo you wish the story to travel along.
  • Metaphors are a great tool – but keep the related to everyday life – or you will lose your readers on an esoteric trip. Analogies and Metaphors are a better tool used in longer stories, novellas and novels where your word count doesn’t need to be cut to the bone.
  • Write to express not impress. If your average reader needs to keep a dictionary beside them to look up a word in every sentence, you will quickly lose them.
  • Avoid needlessly complex terms or explanations. These are better utilized in longer pieces ( if at all) One of the charms of short stories is the mystery of back stories.
  • Know your basic audience and avoid lengthy jargon and acronyms which may alienate them. In saying this – a sprinkling of these are useful to  flesh out a character quickly (i.e military or corporate terms within a conversation can immediately “dress” a character)

I know I have a tendency to complicate things and pile unwanted or unneeded things around me in projects and in life – and have identified that this is also true for the times I approach writing a short story. With many skills, its often best to do a clearing and just start again… from the basics. I have found that this often produces a clearer and more pure creation, unmuddied or sullied by baggage.
Although this is just a very short list of things to be mindful of when writing your basic short story, are there any other basic pointers you believe are important to include here?

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Annie Evett thinks its time to strip back on a whole bunch of things in her life – and just get back to basics. *Looking about the piles of papers, filing, taxes not done and other household stuff.. not sure just where to start. *Catch her growing amount of websites and blogs here
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  1. September 2, 2009 5:01 am

    Annie this is an absolutely brilliant list of tips – not only for writers but for people who are reviewing and editing short stories. It would make an effective check list as you read through a piece.

    I heard a wonderful trick to find a story beginning earlier this week … turn to page three and this is where your story starts … especially with longer pieces. Perhaps with shorter stories you could say – flick through three paragraphs and find your start there.

    Simple metaphors can work really well – if they are kept simple! As well as repeated imagery to convey a feeling or a sense of things without having to explicitedly state it.

    Thanks so much for sharing. Have to say my notes peter out substantially from half way through day two!

  2. September 2, 2009 2:01 pm

    I just read the greatest story in the Atlantic’s Fiction edition- I think it was called Ultimo. Anyway, when I read your post, I was reading with that in mind, and you got it right on! 🙂

  3. September 2, 2009 9:29 pm

    Thanks for the helpful tips. I am an ESL teacher and have included a link to your post in my blog. I hope my blog readers can reach you, and I am sure they’ll find it as useful as I did.

  4. September 2, 2009 9:35 pm

    Hi there Lillizen and Allena – thanks for your comments and your thoughts. – glad that my notes can also reach more writers on their journey.

  5. fareed akhtar permalink
    September 2, 2009 11:09 pm

    writing is creative job.

    though written words our ancestors remain with us.

    telling is basic urge.

    this may be a gift but skill development is must

  6. September 3, 2009 1:39 am

    This is a pretty comprehensive lists of tips. I agree that there needs to be an emphasis on tight writing and getting rid of unneeded description.

    The process I go through is usually a first draft of everything that comes to my head then a rewrite when I know where the story is going.

  7. September 3, 2009 5:49 am

    good piece

  8. September 4, 2009 11:09 pm

    “Including at last one character they can strongly identify with – either negatively or positively.”

    This one is often overlooked and instead people just say make the characters “likable”. Really it’s about characters being “compelling” which can be positive or negative… we want to read about characters we love AND the ones we hate.

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