The Short Story Writing the Short Story Read short stories

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The Short Story

Writing the Short Story

  1. Read short stories. Artists study the great names of the past in order to understand their craft: Michaelangelo, Picasso, DaVinci. Writers, as artists, must be willing to examine and study the work of others in order to grow in their craft. Short stories can be found everywhere: in anthologies, in magazines, journals, newspapers, online. Read authors that you enjoy and pay attention to things like: character development, setting, dialogue, point of view and so forth.

  1. Get some ideas. Ideas can appear at any time, so be prepared. Some writers carry a journal or notepad with them so they can keep track of their ideas. Others use a small tape recorder. Some will create a writing file in which they collect articles from magazines or newspaper clippings that inspire them. What you write or collect can be small pieces of information like a sentence, a phrase, a snippit of dialogue.

  1. Narrative Elements of the Short Story. When you have chosen your idea, consider the narrative elements that are present within a short story:

  • Exposition (what happens before/leading up to the climax.)

  • Rising Action (the events leading up to the climax.)

  • Climax (a “turning point” within a story / caused by conflict.)

  • Falling Action (the point where your story begins to conclude.)

  • Resolution (The ending where the central conflict is resolved or addressed.)

Sometimes a writer will take a beginning scene or incident and build from there. “ What happens now?” Or, a writer will move backwards, asking the question: “What happened before this?”

  1. Who are Your Characters? In good short stories, characters are believable and behave in a way appropriate for their personalities. A writer should know their characters inside and out. What is a character’s main motivation in the story? What is a character’s favorite color, favorite food? What does this character look like? For ideas on how to develop characters, consider the “character sketch” exercise at the end of this section. You won’t include every single detail about a character in the story itself, but the better you know your own characters, the more realistic the story will be.

  1. Length of the Story. Novels can take place over years, over decades. A short story, however, should occur in much shorter period of time (minutes, hours, days.) A good short story will often occur in one setting with minimal characters (2-3 main/supporting characters.) If your story is more complex, it might be better suited toward a novella (a piece of fiction longer than a short story and smaller than the average-sized novel.)

  1. Who is telling the story? Decide who you want your main character to be. There are three main points of view (POV) in which writers tell a story: The 1st person POV, 2nd person and 3rd person. Second person is rarely used in the short story narrative, but it’s included here for reference. Here are some examples below of each one.

1st Person POV - I was walking down the street one day and I saw an old woman standing at the bus stop. She was overweight, a little on the chubby side and she wore a shabby overcoat with missing buttons. When I came near her, I began to walk more quickly. I don’t know what I was afraid of. Maybe I thought she would stop to talk to me, or ask me for something. I don’t know. She didn’t even look at me as I passed.

2nd person POV – You’re walking down the street and you see this old woman standing at the bus stop. She’s overweight, a little on the chubby side and she’s wearing a shappy overcoat. You come near her and start to talk faster. You’re not sure what you’re afraid of. Maybe you think she would stop to talk to you, or ask you for something. You aren’t sure. She doesn’t even look at you as you pass.
rd Person POV – Jennifer was walking down the street. She noticed an old woman standing at the bus stop. The old woman was overweight and she wore an overcoat with a few buttons missing on the front. As Jennifer neared, she began to walk more quickly. She wasn’t sure what she was afraid of, maybe that the woman would want to talk to her or ask her for something. The old woman didn’t look at her as she passed.

  1. Let the Writing Begin. Start from the beginning, from the middle, or even write the ending first. Write pieces or individual scenes/conversations. Write bits and pieces of setting. Thread them all together like a patchwork quilt, or start from the top and let it flow. Set aside a certain amount of time each day to write (for example: a page a day.)

  1. Editing and Revising. When you’ve finished with the first draft, it’s time to revise and make corrections. Start with basic mechanical issues like spelling and grammar. Look to see how well the story progresses. How well are your characters developed? Do you have a conflict in the story? Is it resolved by the end?

Basic Tips for Writing a Short Story

Let it Breathe. After you write the story, put it away for a while: a few days, a few weeks. When you return to it, with a fresh pair of eyes, you will often catch mistakes that you missed during the initial proofreading. You might also be able to spot problem areas. If you were struggling with a particular section of the story, putting it aside and returning to it might help you discover what can be done to fix those problem areas. Along this same vein, if a story isn’t working or coming together, set it aside. Put it in a file or save it on the computer and go back to it in the distant future. More often than not, a writer will re-read a failed piece of writing and know how to fix it or in what direction to take it.

Get a Second Opinion. Share your work with others. Have a set of questions for them ahead of time. Some examples of questions are:

  1. Is this character believable?

  2. Does the story make sense?

  3. Is my dialogue ok?

  4. Does it have a beginning/middle/end?

Let the Story Write Itself. Writers often have a very specific idea of where they want their stories to go, what they want their characters to do. However, in the process of writing you may change your mind. Your characters might be trying to “write themselves” into another direction. The story you had in mind might not be working out the way you wanted. Listen to your characters and your writer’s intuition.
Inspiration. Learn what inspires your. Is there a certain type of music that gets your creative juices flowing? Did you hear a funny conversation on the bus and thought it would make a great addition to your story. Let the world inspire you. Go to art museums, look through magazines. Watch plays, dance recitals, bad television. Get your inspiration from anywhere and everywhere.

Basic Fiction Exercises
Inspiration Exercise: Look through a tabloid magazine and choose the most outrageous article you can find. Is the president meeting with aliens? Has a woman given birth to Bigfoot’s child? Read the article and think of your own story idea. How would you turn it into a story of your own?
Beginnings Exercise: The following is a list of famous first lines (from popular novels.) Choose one and begin writing your own story.

  • If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born . . . The Catcher in the Rye (1951), J. D. Salinger

  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett), Leo Tolstoy

  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984 (Nineteen Eighty-Four) (1949), George Orwell

  • When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee

  • All children, except one, grow up. Peter Pan (1911), J.M. Barrie

  • The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy (1938), Samuel Beckett

  • This is the saddest story I have ever heard. The Good Soldier (1915), Ford Madox Ford

  • A screaming comes across the sky. Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Thomas Pynchon

  • It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. City of Glass (1985), Paul Auster

  • Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The Stranger, or The Outsider (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert), Albert Camus
  • The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. Neuromancer (1984), William Gibson

  • I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. Notes from Underground (1864; trans. Michael R. Katz), Fyodor Dostoyevsky

  • Where now? Who now? When now? The Unnamable (1953; trans. Patrick Bowles), Samuel Beckett

  • All this happened, more or less. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Kurt Vonnegut

  • Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. The Debut (1981), Anita Brookner

  • It was the day my grandmother exploded. The Crow Road (1992), Iain M. Banks

Endings Exercise: Read the following short story. The ending has been purposely left out. Create your own ending. It can be as long or as short as it needs to be: a sentence, a paragraph, a page. It’s entirely up to you. The author’s ending is on the following page for those interested in seeing how the author chose to end this piece.

The Wig

By Brady Udall

My eight-year-old son found a wig in the garbage dumpster this morning. I walked into the kitchen, highly irritated that I couldn't make a respectable knot in my green paisley tie, and there he was at the table, eating cereal and reading the funnies, the wig pulled tightly over his hair like a football helmet. The wig was a dirty bush of curly blonde hair, the kind you might see on a prostitute or someone who is trying to imitate Marilyn Monroe.

I asked him where he got the wig and he told me, his mouth full of cereal. When I advised him that we do not wear things we find in the garbage, he simply continued eating and reading as if he didn't hear me. I wanted him to take that wig off, but I couldn't ask him to do it. I forgot all about my tie and going to work. I looked out the window where a mist fell slowly on the street. I paced into the living room and back, trying hard not to look at my son. He ignored me. I could hear him munching cereal and rustling paper. There was a picture--or a memory, real or imagined, that I couldn't get out of my mind. Last spring, before the accident, my wife was sitting in the chair where now my son always sits. She was reading the paper, to see how the Blackhawks did the night before, and her sleep-mussed hair was only slightly longer and darker than the hair of my son's wig.

I wondered whether my son had a similar picture in his head or if he had a picture at all. I watched him and he finally looked up at me . . .

The Author’s ending
But his face was blank. He went back to his reading. I walked around the table, picked him up and held him against my chest. I pressed my nose into that wig, and it smelled not like the clean shampoo scent I might have been hoping for, but like old lettuce. I suppose it didn't matter at that point. My son put his smooth arms around my neck and for maybe a few seconds, we were together again, the three of us.

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