Write Better Short Stories – Part 1

Short stories require writers to be economical – there’s a limited amount of words to work with, since most of the elements you find in a novel are condensed into a short story format, but that doesn’t mean the quality and depth of the story should suffer because of it.

The key to a good short story is not what it’s about, but how it’s written. Get the structure right and the story will work.

The best way to write better short stories is to start with a bit of planning. Lots of writers don’t plan, and prefer to ‘wing’ it, but the result is not always a well-crafted piece of fiction. 

A story plan doesn’t have to be detailed. It can be a few paragraphs of ideas or scenarios, or a brief outline and some characters. It just needs to be enough to help you write your story, so you’ll want to include the following as you plan:

  • Storyline

  • Characters

  • POV

  • A central theme

  • Setting the scene

  • Beginning, middle and end

Firstly, know what your story is about. Short stories don’t need complex plots. A simple premise is all that’s needed to build a story. For example, there could be a man trapped by a fire and he must find a way out to his family, or there are three friends who go hiking in the forest and become lost. These ideas can form a framework for the story.

Know who your main character is. Don’t have too many supporting characters because this can complicate the story. Keep it simple. Two or three characters, which might include an antagonist, would be sufficient for the reader to follow. It will also keep the narrative tight and on track.

Choose the right POV for the story – whether it’s first person, which creates immediacy with the reader, but is limited, or third person, which is more common and easier to write, but doesn’t have the same immediacy. Both POVs create different perspectives and different advantages and disadvantages, so make sure you’re comfortable with the one you choose.

Choose one main theme. Storytelling room is limited, so don’t try to cram in several themes, as they won’t be explored properly. One or two main themes are more than adequate, so for instance, in our ‘Man trapped in a fire’ example, there might be themes of fear, regret or courage.  The ‘three friends go hiking’ example might explore themes of friendship, survival or even betrayal.

You also need to set the scene to show the reader where the action takes place. Unlike novels, short stories often take place in one location and don’t move around much. This allows the story and the reader to focus better. 

You should also have an idea of a beginning, a middle and an ending. This doesn’t have to be precise or rigid because things constantly change as we write, but it’ll help you stick to the main thrust of the story, especially if you want to create a story with a twist, which requires more thought if it is to work properly.

In Part 2, we’ll look at structuring the beginning, the middle and the ending.

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