Sunday, 31 January 2010


Writing Short Stories – Part 1

So where do you start? Well, you start with an idea. Think of it as a wire frame from which to add layers and elements of your story, but remember, your idea is NOT the plot. The plot is the situation of your story; the idea is the thought process used to bring the story to life.

The short story is concerned with a small but significant incident in the life of your main character. This will involve him or her solving a problem or achieving an important goal, and how he or she does this. ALL stories must have this.

Your story will also need cohesion and structure, and an understanding of the mechanics of writing - elements that encompasses plot, theme, conflict and motivation. We’ll look at these in more detail in Part 2.

In essence, all stories should follow a basic structure – The beginning, the middle and the end. Let’s look at these separately.


• Introduce the Main character to your story.
• Set the tone – Is it romance, horror, thriller, fantasy etc?
• Set the scene – where will your story take place?
• Show the Main character's problem or goal.

You should introduce your main character early in your story. Don't bother with long introductions or great blocks of narrative explaining everything, because this tends to slow the story to a complete stop. The art of good story writing is to jump straight in and then feed snippets of information to the reader gradually. Start your story midstream, close to a crisis point. This is known as The Hook. Grab your reader’s attention immediately so that they want to know what happens next. If you don’t, then your story could end up becoming a chore to read, or worse still, unlikely to be published.

Setting the tone works effectively with a great hook. A good writer can establish the tone of the story immediately, and do so within the first paragraph, for instance:

He watched as blood spilled from the wound, the gun nearby...’

‘Jane leaned over and kissed Christopher softly, her eyes gleaming like quicksilver, anticipating what he was about to say...’

‘Phil knew the moment he stepped out of the pub and fell into the only pile of cow dung in the entire village that he’d had too much to drink...’

You can see from the examples that the tone is immediately set, without the need of long drawn out descriptive passages. You can start your story with dialogue, a piece of action, or through statement. The hook should be a surprise, provocative, or maybe thrilling/exciting. The general idea is to grab your reader by the jugular.

Read back through the opening of your short stories - does it surprise, shock or intrigue? No? Then re-write it.

Does the story starts in the right place, or does it start too early? If it starts too early and you have a page and a half of boring narrative even before any action taken place then get rid of it and start again. Always be honest with yourself when looking back at your own work, don’t be afraid to be self-critical.

Again, analyse the opening paragraphs published short stories - look at how and why they work.

The Middle

This part should show the motivation for the character’s actions – the reason they are striving to solve their problem, the path they take to reach this goal, and what they do to overcome barriers and complications in their way until the climax is reached. These barriers should be a coherent series of events (or just one event) the main character undergoes before reaching the story reaches its conclusion. This should be done logically, and should never be contrived or forced. There should be lots of ‘what ifs’.

For instance, here’s an example of a simple plot for a short story:

David wants a new car, but can’t afford it on his meagre wages. He wants it to impress his friends and be accepted by his peers, but his girlfriend won’t be too happy. He’s desperate, so he robs a bank. He thinks he’s got away with it. The girlfriend finds out and is angry, but she knows she has to tell the police, and he will end up in prison. But she loves him...

David’s story has the following goals and barriers:

He wants a new car - His meagre wages can’t support it
Acceptance of his peers – His girlfriend won’t like it
Money for the car from the bank robbery – he’s now a criminal
Getting away with the crime – his girlfriend will tell the police

See how the structure works? Just as David thinks he’s okay, another barrier pops up to scupper his dreams.

Every story should evolve logically. If it doesn’t, it will show in your writing and the resulting story could end up forced and convoluted. You have to make the narrative, the dialogue and the description run smoothly together, without sudden jumps or disjointedness, and the resulting cohesion will ensure a smooth transition from the beginning of your story to the middle and through to the end.

The End

This is where you bring your story to a close in a way that leaves the reader satisfied. Don't be tempted to explain too much prior to the dénouement, because then you may be in danger of dragging the story to an anticlimax. Make your ending swift and effective, especially so if it has a twist in the tail. A good short story would have kept the reader guessing to the outcome right to the end. Again, I would advise studying published short stories to gain insight how endings work, and why. Above all, endings should right.

It’s All in the Detail

Know exactly what your story is about. Plan your story, ask the ‘what ifs’ and ‘suppose thats’. Make sure that you observe at least two of the three Greek unities in your story. Without them, your story will not work. The unities originated from Greek drama, and consist of time, place, and action.

A sense of time - don't make it too long for short story. Most short stories cover a period of 24 hours, some even covering less than an hour. The longer the time frame, the weaker the story.

A sense of place - most short stories will have just one location, where the action takes place. More than one location is permissible, but too many may unnecessarily overcomplicate your story.

A sense of action - this is pretty self-explanatory and involves the viewpoint of your Main character. Stick to one point of view (POV) within each scene. Many new writers make the mistake of flipping POV between characters within the same scene. You should avoid this, because it only serves to confuse your reader.

So you have an idea for your story, now you need to decide whose story it is. This sounds easy, but you may have several characters within the story and it may be possible to tell the story from each of these characters’ viewpoint. Most short stories only have two characters. This keeps things tight and cohesive. The more characters you have the more complicated you make your story, and it may become difficult to find out whose story you're trying to tell.

In short, keep it simple. A short story really doesn’t have the time to work with too many characters. Two or three characters are sufficient and will enable you to provide some attention to each of them without losing the integrity of the story.

It's worth experimenting with your characters to make sure you know whose story you're telling. It's very easy to start writing your story only for it to change half way through. This is not uncommon, so play around with characters and ideas so you understand the perspective.

In part 2, we’ll look at the next elements to your short story structure...themes & conflict, motivation, sentence structure,charaterisation and description, and more.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Tentative Steps...
Firstly, there are no hard and fast rules about creative writing. Although the technicalities of grammar and syntax must be observed, the best way to learn to write is to simply do it. It’s rather like learning to ride a bike – you get better over time before you finally master it.

Writing can be a dangerous affair, metaphorically speaking. The path to perfection is paved with potholes, barriers and dead ends, and never more so if you are a new writer. It is a daunting task, which can turn into something overwhelming when you are unsure how it all works, or how to put it all together. You’re left wondering how all those elements fit together or how you should approach your work.

There many questions to ask, depending on whether you are writing short fiction or long fiction such as novellas or full-length novels. Questions like 'How should I write the chapters?' or 'Where am I supposed to start? Do I start at the beginning, somewhere in the middle or right at the end?' and 'Do I need a plan? How do I structure my story?'

Remember, there are no hard and fast rules.

If you want to be a good writer you need to read as much as possible and you need to observe everything around you because whatever you do write about, most of what you have experienced and seen will assist with adding the flourishes needed to fill out the bare bones of a story.

The old adage – write about what you know – is certainly true. As a writer, you should know the kind of stories you want to write, and what you already know or have learned through your experience and research will help the overall effect of the quality of your writing output.

Always write within your own boundaries - don’t write about romance if you have no experience of the genre. Similarly, don’t write about science fiction if you haven’t a clue what it’s about. It usually follows that what you enjoy reading most is what you would like to write about too. I enjoy thrillers, so I write in this genre. I also like horror and psychological thriller. I don’t do romance or chick lit simply because I don’t feel comfortable writing in a genre I have no interest in.

If you are new to writing, don’t aim big too start with. Don’t take on an epic 100,000 word blockbuster without first taking baby steps to uncover your own abilities. Sadly 90% of people who take on the challenge of writing a novel never actually complete it. They give up half way through, they become bored, stumble over the intricacies of plot and subplot, they hit writers block and never recover, or it’s simply they just can’t be bothered.

Don’t be fooled into thinking writing is easy...

New writers should consider short stories and flash fiction first to flex your writing muscles before attempting the meaty stuff such as novels.

In a series of articles I’ll take you through the process of writing – explaining the mechanics of fiction and taking you through all the elements required to bring a story to fruition. Things like the basic elements of writing, the structure, planning and strategies required, redrafting and editing, and much more.

Writing is an evolving artform – you never stop learning, and you never stop creating.

Coming Up...

Writing Short Stories