Maybe you’ve read a lot of short stories and want to start writing some of your own. Or maybe you’ve been writing stories but can’t seem to get them published anywhere. We all know what a short story is, but what should a short story be? And what makes some better than others?
Having spent six years editing literary magazines, and working with some of the most notable authors in the industry, I know that not every fantastic short story starts out that way. But I also know that through a careful, strategic approach, you can transform any story from good to great. Here are some tips to get your started on crafting a killer short story.
Why write a short story?
Let’s talk about the most important point of writing short stories. Yes, short stories can help you land an agent and launch your entire writing career, which I’ve seen happen more than once, and they can make you a pretty penny. But the best thing that writing short stories can do for you is make you a better writer.
How? Simply put, writing short stories teaches you to be focused, pointed, and concise. Because you don’t have 100,000 words to talk about side stories or histories, you must know exactly what you want to say and then figure out how to pare it down to its essence.
Short stories are a great exercise in discovering where you spend too much time, what information you’re repeating, and how to make the most of what you give the reader.
Where to start?
Begin by asking yourself what you want to write about. And I don’t mean plot.
Dig into the heart of what you are using your writing to uncover. Are you looking to crystallize loosely connected thoughts on social equality? Are you struggling to process a trauma in your life? Are you interested in the way social constructs crumble when people are pushed to their limits? Kneading at whatever elemental themes are driving you will allow you to create a more cohesive and powerful story that resonates with readers.
A quick exercise: peel back the top layer
Pull out your two favorite short stories: one you’ve written and one you’ve read. Reread each and write:
- a one-sentence description of what literally happens in the stories
- a one-sentence description of what is being explored below the surface.
Next, think about how these undertones manifest through plot — where and how do they appear? Is it through mood, character description, dialogue? Where are these elements subtle and where are they most obvious? How we perceive stories is the first step to changing the way we write them.
Write what you know?
I’m sure you’ve heard the recommendation to write what you know. This doesn’t mean that if you’re a teacher, you should write a story about a teacher. To write what you know means to write about something that is emotionally true to you. This is good advice because doing so will make you more familiar with the nuances of the story you’re telling, such as the emotions, perceptions, and implications of each action.
Sometimes life puts us into some pretty wild situations, and people have indirect ways of regaining their footing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a story about astronauts, miners, or divorce. If you dig into the ways that you process grief or stress, you’ll create a fuller, truer, and more complex set of stories and characters.
Quick Exercise: mine your emotional memory
Think about a time you’ve been wronged, embarrassed, or pressured. Write a few sentences about how an individual event affected your friendships, performance at work, or attitude. Did you become short-tempered, passive-aggressive, forgetful, or disoriented? What did each of those things look like?
Once you understand that the road from action to reaction is hardly linear, you can begin to organize your story. Think about how often we take the stress of our jobs out on our partners, or take our anger at our partners out on our children. It can take hours to process emotion, and in that time reactions subconsciously seep out. If you think about what that road of emotions looks like for you, you can begin to mold the details and direction of your story, making it easier to map it out and keeping it interesting and genuine.
We read in order to better understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us. If readers are looking to identify with a story or a set of characters, you need to make sure that readers can see themselves reflected in that story, as that character, there on the page.
It's no about the what, it's about the how
As far as the subject goes, each story doesn’t have to be unique. Some of the greatest short stories are about the same old topics of love, relationships, and loss. In fact, the plot is the least important part of creating a short story. Sound crazy? It’s not.
Think about what you as a reader gain from a great book. What makes a story great is not the story line but the voice, the details, the perspective—all of which are entirely unique to the writer and, if done well, translate to the reader.
Take David Gates and David Sedaris as two examples. Both write stories that often deal with hardships and loss, but their deliveries create two entirely different moods in the reader—one dark and despondent, the other light and humorous. It doesn’t matter which approach you choose, so long as your readers can to immediately identify with your characters. Speaking of which, we wrote a guide to building full, complex, and relatable characters.
Below are three recommendations for excellent short story collections—because we've got to read well to write well.
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (for focus and undertones)
- The Collected Stories by Lydia Davis (for language)
- A Hand Reached Down To Guide Me by David Gates (for character building and mood)