You’ve probably heard this before, but creative writing is just one of those skills that you’re either born with or not.
Like all skills, writing beautiful prose (or even poetry!) is definitely a skill that can be learned, and even perfected, through practice. Of course, there’s no one ‘correct’ way to go about writing, but there are certain things you can do to ensure that your writing is able to express the ideas that you have in your head.
Today, we focus on short stories, an often-overlooked form of prose that delivers fantastic storytelling in a limited amount of words. For new writers, the allure of writing your first novel is understandable; we all want to write the next great story, after all! But consider this: some of the world’s best novelists, from Stephen King and Mark Twain to H.P. Lovecraft and John Green, all started writing short stories.
One of the best ways to up your writing game is to practice writing short stories. With short stories, you’re able to focus on the important parts of the story: character development, plot, etc.
Here are some short story writing tips that may prove useful to budding writers:
Get to Know Your Characters
It might seem like short stories have too limited a space to develop your characters, but it’s actually one of the best places to start. With limited space, writers are forced to focus on only the important aspects of a character’s journey.
Character development is one of the most important tools a writer can use to create a story that really resonates with readers; after all, we all love to identify with a character in a story. Most writers will use their characters to drive a plot, so it’s essential that your characters are fully formed human beings with their own drives and motivations.
The best way to do this is to decide on your individual character’s history, personality, family background, how they treat their friends, their quirks and nuances. You can show all of that through snippets of dialogue, subtle non-verbal cues, and many more. That’s the beauty of short stories: it forces you to get creative!
Of course, you don’t have to put all of those details; pick and choose the most important ones! You’ll know how important a character detail is if it helps drive the story forward and makes for a richer reading experience.
Make an Outline
Outlines are usually used in plotting out novels and longer forms of fiction. However, you can definitely use these with short stories too! It’s not the most necessary tool, of course, but I’ve personally found it to be extremely helpful in creating prose that is tight, well-paced, and poignant.
Making an outline for short stories is not really a short story writing tip that you encounter often, but trust me, when done properly, it can be an enormous help to beginning writers! Here’s how I structure my plot outlines, whether for long or short fiction:
- Choose a Point-of-View
- Introduce your characters and the main issue of the story
- How do my characters get from the prologue to the main action?
- What is the climax of the story?
- How does the main issue of the story resolve?
Again, bear in mind that this is all dependent on the author: some writers like to start in media res (that is, in the middle of the action) and end abruptly, while some writers like to flesh out their stories from the beginning and go into as much detail as possible. Ultimately, the choice is yours, but if you want to be more efficient with your time, not to mention your plot building, an outline will help a lot.
Start with the Extraordinary
Because it’s a short story and you have very limited space to tell a story, you’ll need to start strong. One of the best short story writing tips I ever received was to have an extraordinary event as your intro. This serves a couple of purposes:
- It gets your reader hooked. Anything out of the ordinary and the mundane, be it a setting, situation, monologue (internal or otherwise), dialogue, or object will grab your reader’s attention quickly, making it more likely that they’ll stick around for the middle and end.
- It introduces your characters more efficiently. By starting with something extraordinary, readers get a glimpse of your character’s personality by seeing how they react to an extraordinary event.
- It helps with the world-building. If your extraordinary something is a setting or a situation, you’re building a world that your readers can quickly get interested in and understand.
Again, this is still the author’s discretion, but many successful short fiction writers do follow this mindset when writing their pieces. Again, this isn’t going to ensure that readers will see your story through to its ending, but it does up your chances of making your short story that much more interesting.
And End with Something Satisfying
Cliffhangers might work for movie franchises, serial comic books, or book series, but for short stories? It’s not the most common way to end. Yes, there are successful authors out there who end their stories with major cliffhangers (I’m looking at you, The Mist by Stephen King…), but in general, it would be more advisable to end your short story with a satisfying ending.
But let’s be clear: an unresolved ending doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a cliffhanger. An unresolved ending can be due to the story’s length, or as an authorial choice. A good, unresolved ending allows your readers to imagine an ending based on context clues you’ve left with a strong plot and likable characters.
Cliffhangers, on the other hand, are not only unresolved endings, but it also prevents readers from coming up with their own conclusions because the story ended right when it shouldn’t have.
Stop Dillydallying; Finish Your Draft!
As writers, we are compelled to keep working on something until it’s perfect. This is understandable, but I’m here to tell you:
There’s no such thing as perfect.
I know that might be hard to hear, and trust me, it was painful for me too; but instead of thinking it that way, reframe that phrase into something more positive:
A finished product will always be better than a perfect work-in-progress.
Thinking of your draft in those terms will make it so much easier to finish your outline, flesh out your characters, and complete your story. Once you do that, set the pen down and call it finished. It might not be perfect, but it’s done, it’s here, and something imperfectly real is better than something that’s perfect but imaginary. Finish your draft, and if you have an editor, get it to them ASAP. If you don’t have one…
Edit Your Draft!
One of the most dreaded parts of a writer’s job is editing; however, it’s actually where the real magic of writing comes into play. New writers think that they can just pick up a pen and write the next War and Peace, but that’s never the case. Good stories are made from hard work in the form of editing.
Almost always, first drafts will be far from perfect; most likely, it will be a very crude representation of what you really wanted to write. Your idea, however, will shine through proofreading, developmental editing, line editing, and many more. Think of it as polishing a diamond; it takes a while to get the muck and gunk out of the way, but with every swipe, more of the luster comes out.
While there are no hard and fast rules for editing, here are some things that new writers should look out for when editing their short stories:
- Consistency of POV’s. If you start with a 3rd person omniscient POV, make sure the rest of your story follows.
- Consistency of tenses. Keep your in-story timeline constant; if you start in the past tense, then everything else should be in the past tense.
- Consistency of World Building. Keep your story following the rules of your story’s universe; if magic never existed, don’t just have a character cast a magic spell to get out of a bind.
- Show, don’t tell. You’ve probably heard this multiple times throughout the years, and it’s still true. Writers need to show readers rather than telling them. Showing a scene involves using strong imagery, emotional connections, and seamless descriptions. Telling, on the other hand, is just bland recitation of facts.
- Check your grammar. Nothing jars a reader out of your story than awkward phrasing or bad grammar.
Remember, you’re writing a short story, so lean your editing towards making your story more visual and expository. Save the lengthy character developments and plot points for your longer novels.
One Final Note
As with all things, practice makes perfect. With these short story writing tips in mind, challenge yourself to write a 500 to a 1,000-word story every month. Once you get the hang of it, try to churn one out every 2 weeks, and then every week, and then every day. Soon, you’ll be able to create short stories with ease, and you’ll be training yourself to write consistently. Just don’t forget to edit!