There is no single best way to approach writing a short story. What follows simply raises a number of issues which we need to be aware of. The first and last thing to remember is that a short story is not simply a string of events: first this happened and then that happened and then that, and then that…the end! This is fine for the oral anecdotes we tell in informal conversation but a short story has to be more than just a string of events.
The skilled story-writer will take events, characters, etc. and by selection, ordering and careful crafting make something the audience will want to read. It’s a bit like cooking: a good meal is not just a pile of raw ingredients ~ they need to be skilfully selected, prepared and processed into a tasty meal. The short story-writer needs to exercise economy too. A short story is, by definition, short! There is not enough space to develop very complex plots, or to depict numerous characters in great detail, or to describe scenes in full. Instead, the writer needs a lightness of touch ~ to suggest with a few words rather than to develop in full; to ‘show’ not ‘tell’. The difference between a full-length novel and a short story is a bit like the difference between a full-sized oil painting, and a Chinese brush painting. The reader has to supply what is missing by active imaginative engagement. So what are the key elements in the composition of a short story? Here I will discuss seven elements:
Plot (what happens)
Setting (where and when it happens: the background against which it unfolds)
Characterisation (who are the protagonists in the story)
Dialogue (what characters say and how they say it.)
Point of View (through whose eyes / words do we see/hear the story?)
Time (the period of time over which the story unfolds, and the sequence of episodes)
Titles, Beginnings, Endings.
1. Plot. The events in the story need careful selection. We cannot tell everything, so we must concentrate on what is essential to the story. Sometimes people call these ‘critical moments’. Although there are some successful stories where nothing much happens, it is usually important to keep the story moving forward. And it is the plot which creates this forward momentum. The plot usually sets up some kind of problem or crisis to be resolved. The plot may take the form of : setting, development, crisis, resolution. But it may also present things in a different order, starting with resolution, for instance. If you have an idea for a story (see below), it sometimes helps to write a short outline of the plot. Here is an example: Heads I Lose.
Barry is a lecturer at a small college in a coastal town in West Africa. During a summer course for teachers, he meets a young woman, Amivi. They like each other. After the final course party and dance, he persuades her to go down to the beach for a walk. She is somewhat reluctant because of the fisher-village nearby. She talks vaguely about ‘ceremonies’, ‘fetish priestesses’, ‘human sacrifice’, etc. They drive to the beach and park the car. While they are walking on the beach, they both experience a feeling of the presence of something so evil they run back to the car in panic. Barry tries to reverse the car but backs it into a ditch. They leave the car and flee back to the college on foot. Amivi spends the night with Barry. In the morning, she has vanished. Then he notices his car parked neatly outside his bungalow…on the front seat there is a severed head. It once belonged to Amivi! (A.M)
Exercise. Think of a plot for a story you’d like to write. Then make a plot outline like the one above. If you cannot think of a way to start, take a look at the ‘How to get started’ list below. 2. Setting. Setting can mean the physical environment in which the story takes place. Again, in a short story, the writer needs to be sparing in descriptions of ‘place’. There needs to be just enough for the reader to form a visual impression of where the events happen. Here is an example from Alan Maley’s story, ‘Borrowed Time’: San Juan de los Reyes. Dusk was falling. Luis, the barman at the Hotel Mimosa was polishing the glasses. In the village, lights were going on. Down by the harbour, the boats were getting ready to set out for the night’s fishing. The hotel was quiet. Hardly anyone came to stay there anyway; only the occasional American tourist group.
Here there are just a few pointers to the time of day, the location and the kind of hotel this is: just enough to form a picture of it in our minds. Setting can also mean giving the background of characters or previous events leading up to the story. Here is the continuation of the above story, which provides us with such a background. And, of course, Mr. Skorzeny. He had arrived out of nowhere five years before and stayed on. He kept to himself. He had his own routine. Every morning he swam before breakfast. Then he disappeared into his room, only emerging at lunch. In the evenings he would sit on the verandah and drink. Sometimes he would be found still asleep in his chair in the morning. No one knew where he came from - but he paid his bills, so no one asked.
Now we know something about the main character, so the background is set. Now we can expect the plot to begin unfolding. Something must happen. Exercise.
Take the plot outline you wrote (or another one, if you prefer), and write the setting of the story. Just one short paragraph will do. It can either be a description of the physical setting, or give background needed to get the story started.
3. Character. Many books on writing claim that character is the key element in stories. Once you have defined your characters, you set them in motion, and they ‘take over’, start behaving autonomously, so that the plot takes care of itself, and so does dialogue and everything else. Whether you agree with this or not, it is certain that characterization is always very important. Readers actively respond to the characters in stories. They visualize them, empathise with them, even interrogate them critically. There are basically three ways of conveying character:
through physical description: what they look like.
through dialogue: what they say and how they say it.
through actions: what they do and how they do it.
~ Physical description.
This is often achieved by selecting just one physical feature which reveals or suggests a lot more. For example, Roald Dahl describes one of his characters in this economical way: Mrs Bixby was a big vigorous woman with a wet mouth.
Selecting a ‘significant detail’ like this can save a lot of more detailed description, which the reader may overlook anyway. Here is another example of a significant detail: the way a man coughs to draw attention to his own importance. It is taken from Alan Maley’s story, ‘He Knows Too Much’: Lennox had not changed much. His sandy hair had thinned a little. He still wore a small toothbrush moustache, which he pulled at nervously from time to time. His eyes were still the same watery blue colour. But he had developed the unpleasant habit of clearing his throat each time he spoke, as if to emphasise the importance of what he was saying.
We reveal a lot about our personality through what we say and the way we say it. Here is an extract from Ernest Hemingway’s story, ‘Hills like White Elephants’:
‘Come on back in the shade,’ he said. ‘You mustn’t feel that way.’
‘I don’t feel any way,’ the girl said. ‘I just know things.’
‘I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do --’
‘Nor that isn’t good for me,’ she said. ‘I know. Could we have another beer?’
‘ All right. But you’ve got to realize --’
‘I realize,’ the girl said. ‘Can’t we maybe stop talking?’
They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.
‘You’ve got to realize,’ he said, ‘that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.’
‘Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.’
‘Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else. And I know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘It’s all right for you to say that, but I do know it.’
‘Would you do something for me now?’
‘I’d do anything for you.’
‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’
Notice that we get no physical description of either character. But we do get a very powerful sense of them as individuals and of their personalities, their moods and their motivations. Hemingway does not even have to tell us who is speaking. We know it from what they say and how they say it. ~ Actions. What the characters do reveals a lot about them. Here is an example of the way actions can define personality, in this case, twin brothers who are completely different. It is from Alan Maley’s story, ‘The Man Who talked to Trees.’:
Torbash spent his spare time hunting in the forests. He had been given a shotgun for his fifteenth birthday. He would proudly return after a day’s hunting with wild pigeons, with rabbits, their eyes glazed in death, and sometimes with a deer. His greatest ambition was to bring back a wild boar. His other main occupation was to visit Jalseen, where there were girls with ‘modern’ ways. It was there that he got to know the ‘contacts’ who were to help him later.
Milmaq was a solitary person. He would spend hours in the forests, not hunting, simply sitting still, watching, waiting for something to happen. A spider would swing its thread across the canyon between two branches. A woodpecker would drum at the trunk of a chestnut tree, its neck a blur of speed. Above all, the trees themselves would speak to him. He would be aware of them creaking and swaying in the wind. He could sense the sap rising in them in the springtime; feel their sorrow at the approach of winter. If he put his ear to the trunk of a tree, he could hear it growing, very slowly; feel it moving towards its final magnificent shape.
Exercise: Write a short fragment of a story to show character in three ways: by character description, by dialogue and by actions. 4. Dialogue. What the characters say and how they say it not only helps to define character but can also help drive the plot forward. If the dialogue sounds ‘authentic’ and is skillfully manipulated, if the readers can ‘hear’ the language in their ‘inward ear’, it can save the writer (and the reader) from swathes of descriptive prose. In almost any short story, dialogue will be of prime importance. It is generally a good idea to break up longer passages of description or comment with some lively dialogue. Here is an example of this kind of mixed dialogue/commentary from the Ray Bradbury story ‘I See You Never…’
‘I’m sure sorry, Mr. Ramirez,’ she said.
‘I don’t want to go back, Mrs O’Brian,’ he said weakly. ‘I like it here, I want to stay here. I’ve worked, I’ve got money. I look all right, don’t I? and I don’t want to go back’
‘I’m sorry, Mr. Ramirez,’ she said. ‘I wish there was something I could do.’
‘Mrs O’Brian!’ he cried suddenly, tears rolling out from under his eyelids. He reached out his hands and took her hand fervently, shaking it, wringing it, holding to it. ‘Mrs O’Brian, I see you never, I see you never!’
The policemen smiled at this, but Mr. Ramirez did not notice it, and they stopped smiling very soon.
‘Goodbye, Mrs O’Brian. You have been good to me. Oh, goodbye Mrs O’Brian. I see you never!’
The policemen waited for Mr Ramirez to turn, pick up his suitcase, and walk away. Then they followed him, tipping their caps to Mrs O’Brian. She watched them go down the porch steps. Then she shut the door quietly and went slowly back to her chair at the table. She pulled the chair out and sat down. She picked up the shining knife and fork and started once more upon her steak.
‘Hurry up, Mom,’ said one of the sons. ‘It’ll be cold.’
Mrs O’Brian took one bite and chewed on it for a long, slow time; then she stared at the closed door. She laid down her knife and fork.
‘What’s wrong, Ma?’ asked her son.
‘I just realized,’ said Mrs O’Brian—she put her hand to her face—‘I’ll never see Mr. Ramirez again.’
Notice how the dialogue complements the action; indeed IS the action. It would have been far more long-winded if the writer had tried to describe all this without dialogue. And it would have been a lot less interesting to read. Exercise: Think up a scene between two of characters you want to use in your story. This might be an argument, an embarrassing confession, an attempt by one character to persuade the other, a profession of love, a moment when one character has to give some bad news to the other…you decide. Then write out this fragment of dialogue with a little commentary too. Note: Besides direct speech dialogue, writers also make use of indirect or reported speech. This can take many forms, some of them quite complex, so it is perhaps better, to start with, to confine yourself to direct dialogue. 5. Point of View. Every story is told by someone. Point of view concerns who is telling the story. The most usual POVs are: 1st person POV and 3rd person POV. ~ First person: here the narrator usually relates what happened to him/herself (I did this. I did that, etc.) or tells the story of something they observed happening to others, (I saw this, I heard that, I noticed, I found…etc.) Telling a story in the 1st person can make it seem more intimate and more convincing…but, of course, not all 1st person narrators are reliable! Here is an example of 1st person narration, from a story by Paul Jennings entitled ‘The Copy’:
I was rapt. It was the best day of my life. I had asked Fiona to go with me and she said yes. I couldn’t believe it. I mean it wasn’t as if I was a great catch. I was skinny, weak, and not too smart at school. Mostly I got C’s and D’s for marks. And I couldn’t play sport at all. I hated football, always went out on the first ball at cricket and didn’t know which end to hold a tennis racquet. And Fiona had still said she’d be my girlfriend.
3rd person: here the narrator reports as if they were observing the action from the outside. There are several ways of doing this but the two main ones are the ‘I am a camera’ method, and the omniscient observer method. The ’I am a camera’ approach simply involves reporting what can be seen. It does not usually presume to know what the protagonists are feeling or thinking. This is the predominant feature in Liam O’Flaherty’s story ‘The Sniper’ where the events unfold almost like a film in the cinema. Placing a cigarette between his lips, he struck a match. There was a flash and a bullet whizzed over his head. He dropped immediately. He had seen the flash. It came from the opposite side of the street.
He rolled over the roof to a chimney stack in the rear, and slowly drew himself up behind it, until his eyes were level with the top of the parapet. There was nothing to be seen - just the dim outline of the opposite housetop against the blue sky. His enemy was under cover.
In the ‘omniscient observer’ approach, the narrator appears to know just about everything: what the characters look like, what they say, what they are thinking and feeling, what happened to them in the past…the narrator is like an all-knowing god! Here is an example of this approach from Mary Robison‘s story, ‘Yours’.
That night, in their bedroom, a few weeks earlier in her life than had been predicted, Allison began to die. “Don’t look at me if my wig comes off,” she told Clark. “Please.”
Her pulse cords were fluttering under his fingers. She raised her knees and kicked away the comforter. She said something to Clark about the garage being locked.
At the telephone, Clark had a clear view out back and down to the porch. He wanted to get drunk with his wife once more. He wanted to tell her, from the greater perspective he had, that to own only a little talent, like his, was an awful, plaguing thing; that being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time, and liked yourself too little. He wanted to tell her that she had missed nothing.
He was speaking into the phone now. He watched the jack-o’-lanterns. The jack-o’-lanterns watched him.
Exercise: Take a short part of a story you are writing and write it out using 1st person narration. Then re-write it in the ‘I am a camera’ method of 3rd person POV. Finally, write it again using the ‘omniscient observer’ style of 3rd person narration. Note: There are other kinds of POV, some of them involving more than one person’s view, or several POVs from one narrator mixed together but it is not useful to discuss them here. One alternative way of dealing with point of view is to write the story as an exchange of letters (or e-mails or telephone calls). Samuel Richardson was one of the first English novelists to use this device in his 18th century novels ‘Pamela’ and ‘Clarissa.’ It is very demanding on the writer however. 6. Treatment of Time. The main options open to the writer are to use either Present or Past tenses in which to tell the story. If the writer uses the Present tenses (especially the Simple Present) it has the effect of making everything seem more immediate and vivid. It is as if we are present as the action unfolds. Here is an example from Alan Maley’s story, ‘A Tangled Web’: It is a late afternoon in September. The scene is a valley in south-western France. The river flows slowly between the steep, wooded hills. The sun is shining on the water. It is quiet. A man is sitting on a flat rock, which sticks out into the river. He is alone. He sits absolutely still. Like a stone statue. After a while he bends to look at something in the water – a fish perhaps. As he does so, something hits the water and there is a sudden splash. He puts his hand to his ear. It is covered with blood. He falls forward into the river and disappears into its muddy water.
If the writer uses past tenses, we are slightly distanced from the action. We know that it has already happened and cannot be changed. But the use of 1st person POV with Past tenses can still make the story vivid. Continuing the story from above:
The pain exploded in my ear sending shockwaves through my body. When I saw the blood on my hand, I knew it was a bullet. Someone had shot at me from the hillside. I immediately fell forward, and swam underwater further up the river.
If the writer uses Past tenses, there is a choice between presenting the actions as linear ( one thing happens after the other in the precise order they happened), or using flashback (we start at a time in the past, then move forward to the fictional ‘present’ , then back again to the more distant past).
Many writing ‘experts’ advise against too much use of flashback as it can be confusing, especially for novice readers. Resist the temptation if you can! Exercise: Choose a short section of your story. Write it out using Present tenses. Then re-write it using past tenses. Which seems more effective to you? 7. Titles, Beginnings, Endings. Titles: These can be extremely important, so it is well worth thinking carefully about the title you will give to your story. The title helps your reader know how to read your story. Sometimes this is because it signals the content in advance of reading it. (For example,‘The Sniper’). Sometimes this is because we realize what the title means only after reading the story; the meaning ‘dawns on’ us afterwards. In my story, ‘Beyond the Shadow of a Doubt’, the title refers partly to the doubts of a girl about her boyfriend, partly to the shadow of a woman she sees against the curtains of his room, partly to the well-known expression ‘beyond the shadow of a doubt’ (meaning something certain). These references hidden in the title can only be unpicked after reading the story.
So the title works together cooperatively with your text: the title tells us how to read the story, and the story tells us how to understand the title.
Exercise: Go back to your story summary in 1. Plot, above. Try to write five or more different titles. Which one seems to work best in cooperation with the topic and treatment of your story? Beginnings: Getting started on a story is always an agonizing moment. The main reason for this is that the beginning is such a key moment in the story. If you get it wrong, the story may not grab the readers’ attention so they may not want to read on. So it is worth thinking carefully about your first sentence. There are no rules, except that you want to engage the interest of the readers. Your first sentence must also get you quickly into the meat of the story. Exercise: ~ go to an anthology of short stories and write out the first sentences of all the stories. Do they give you any ideas for starting your next story? ~ go back to your story summary in 1.Plot (or use another outline if you prefer.) Write out at least five possible first sentences for your story. Which one seems to work best? Endings. A good short story should leave us with questions, reflections, emotions when we finish it. It should make us think or feel something about the way we view the world. Writers often work to give the story a ‘twist in the tail/tale.’ In other words, they often upset our expectations with an ending which surprises us. In ‘The Sniper’, for example, the main character discovers at the end that the man he has just shot is his own brother. In ‘The Demon Lover’, Elizabeth Bowen reveals that the taxi driver is the woman’s lover come back from many years earlier to punish her. But there is no need for a twist: it is sufficient for the story to leave an aftertaste of reflection to make it memorable. The final sentence is also very important therefore.
~ go back to that anthology of stories and write out the final sentence from each story. Does this give you any ideas for endings for your own story? ~ go back to your story summary in 1. Plot. Write out at least two different ways of bringing the story to a close.
Some Practical Considerations. 1. Getting Started. ‘How do I find an idea for a story?’ I am often asked. Here is a list of possible starting points. Short Stories: Getting Started.
Start with a place or natural object. (eg. a rock, a market, a tree…)
Start with a smell, a flavour, a sound, a sensation…
Start with the weather.
Start with time of day.
Start with an evocative object (eg, an old wallet, a banknote, a coin, a letter..)
Start with a character (plus one significant detail (eg. a wet mouth, a nasal voice, a tick)
Start with a line of dialogue (or one exchange) perhaps something you have overheard.
Start with an incident. (It was the day when we lost…)
Start with an historical incident or disaster.
Start with a randomly-generated list of words – to be linked in the story.
Start with a random set of pictures – to be linked in the story.
Start with a strong childhood memory.
Start with the first line of an existing story and develop a new story.
Start with an item of local news from the newspaper.
Then write a paragraph, without too much head-scratching. Just get something down on paper.Please remember that our own personal experiences and memories are a powerful source of inspiration for stories…but remember that stories and autobiography are not the same thing!
2. Writer’s Block. Sometimes we feel as if we cannot make progress on a story. We feel completely paralysed. The ideas simply will not come. There is no easy solution to this but here are a few suggestions: ~ take a break and forget about it for a day or two.
~ put your story aside and start to write it again from zero.
~ go out for a long walk. A change of scene helps clear the mind.
~ talk to someone about your story. Explaining your story to someone else often helps you to clarify your own ideas.
~ write about your problem in your writer’s journal. This too often helps clarify where the knot is.
~ just write. Write about anything…but write without stopping for at least 10 minutes. Sometimes the free-writing you produce contains the germ of something useful for your story.
~ tear up the story and start over afresh. Never forget that having a ‘good idea’ for a story is not the same as actually writing the story. You can tell your friends about your wonderful ideas for stories but unless you actually sit down and craft the story, it remains no more than that ~ an idea. 3. Revision and Language. We tend to think that when we have completed the first draft of a story, it is ‘finished’. Wrong: it’s only just started. You will need to carefully revise what you have written. I suggest dividing the process into two: revising the overall shape and treatment of the story; and revising the language used to write it. Revising the story itself: Questions to ask are:
How well does the plot work? Is it effective?
Can I cut anything without materially affecting the story?
How strong is my beginning, my ending, my title? Can I improve any of them?
Should I re-order events to make it more effective?
Are my characters convincing?
Should I change the ‘genre’ of my story (eg. from tragedy to comedy, from schooldays’ story to romance, from romance to crime, etc.) The same events can be quite differently developed. It helps if you can find a sympathetic but critical reader. Such a person will often immediately spot the weaknesses in your story, and may even suggest ways of improving it. Revising language: One key factor is to match the language level to the intended readers. (This is especially important for L2 readers of course.) Some people like to work from word-frequency lists. Others prefer to get the story written and then to edit the language to the right level intuitively. Whichever you choose to do, it is important that the language is accurate, appropriate, economical and elegant (in the sense of ‘fit for purpose’). Many great short story writers do not use highly complex or unusual language but there is a close fit between the language and the storyline.
Again, it is useful to do peer-editing of your work, testing the words against fitness for the job they are performing. We usually have a better critical eye for others’ work than for our own!! Apologies for the length of what was to have been ‘brief’ notes!
Creative Writing: a brief booklist.
There are any number of books on creative writing. This list includes references both for fiction and for poetry. For our purposes, I would especially recommend the two titles by Jane Spiro. Reading about creative writing can be a help but don’t forget that no amount of reading substitutes for the act of writing itself!
Angwin, Roselle. (2002) Creative Novel Writing. London: Robert hale.
Angwin, Roselle et al. (2005) Writing the Bright Moment. Devon: Fire in the Head.
Bell, Julia and Paul Magers (eds) (2001) The Creative writing Coursebook. London: Macmillan.
Block, Lawrence (1979) Writing the Novel. Cincinnati Ohio: Writers’ Digest Books.
Booker, Christopher. (2004) The Seven Basic Plots. London/New York: Continuum
Brande, Dorothea. (1983) Becoming a Writer. London: Macmillan.
Clarke, Tom et al (eds) (1992) The Handbook of Novel Writing. Cincinnati Ohio: Writers’ Digest Books.
Goldberg, Nathalie (1986) writing Down the Bones. London: Shambhala
Koch, Kenneth. (1970) Wishes, Lies and Dreams. New York: Harper Collins.
Lodge, David. (1992) The Art of Fiction. London: Penguin
Lamott, Anne (1994) Bird by Bird. New York: Pantheon.
Matthews, Paul. (1994) Sing Me the Creation. Stroud: Hawthorne Press.
Novakovich, Josip. (1995) Fiction Writers’ Workshop. Cincinnati Ohio: Story Press.
Propp, Vladimir. (1968) The Morphology of the Folk Tale. University of Texas Press.
Roberts, Philip Price. (1986) How Poetry Works. London : Penguin.
Spiro, Jane. (2004) Creative Poetry Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Spiro, Jane. (2006) Creative Storybuilding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stillman, Frances (1975) The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary. London: Readers’ Union Books.
Tobias, Ronald. (1993) 20 Master Plots and how to build them. Cincinnati Ohio: Writers’ Digest Books.