Short stories last for just a few pages. If masterfully written, these brief tales are as powerful as novels. They have the same key elements as full-length stories. But developing these common elements is a challenge for short story writers, who don’t have many pages to develop them. In a few lines, they must introduce the characters, describe the setting, set up the central conflict, advance the plot, and communicate the theme.
Is it possible to incorporate all these elements into a short story? O. Henry, Munro Leaf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, and dozens of other authors prove that it is. Can you meet the challenge? If you follow these tips, you may significantly improve your writing abilities.
A character is a person or creature involved in a story’s plot. In short stories, the writer must convey the personality of each character with succinct descriptions and dialogue.
Here’s a tip: Choose one main character from your story. Use a marker to highlight whenever this character acts or speaks. Then, read what you’ve highlighted. What sense do you get of the character’s personality? If you aren’t moved, add more detail. How about the character’s actions? Are they consistent with his personality? Revise speech and behavior that doesn’t seem to fit his profile.
Central characters should have depth. People are complicated! To make your character seem real, you need to add internal complexity.
Here’s a tip: Give your character a trait that will illustrate her personality. Readers tire of characters who never take any action. Goals, needs, and desires drive people to do unexpected things. Use ambition, for example, to explain why your timid character makes a bold move. Secrets also add interest to flat characters. How might a person with a dark secret behave? She might be defensive, shameful, or wary of strangers. A happy secret might produce feelings of elation, complicity, or superiority that color her thoughts, emotions, and actions. Think about what would motivate your characters!
Settings anchor the characters in time and place, often determining their clothing, customs, dialogue, and beliefs. Weather conditions can be used as foreshadowing devices-from ominous expectation suggested by storm clouds to hopeful anticipation when the sun breaks through. Some writers claim that setting is the most influential component of a short story.
Here’s a tip: Consider multiple senses when developing your setting. Writing expert Ginny Wiehardt encourages writers to perform an experiment: Think about your story’s physical location and the time period it takes place in. What images do you envision? What tastes, smells, sounds, and textures do you associate with the setting? Jot down each thing you think of, regardless of whether you feel it’s relevant to the story. After you’ve exhausted your imagination, ask yourself what one mood you want your readers to experience as they read your story. Is it hope, melancholy, regret, or some other state of mind? Review the words you wrote and circle the ones that contribute to your desired mood. These are the words you want to feature.
The conflict occurs between two entities in a short story. Sometimes, the main character struggles against another person, a society, or even nature itself. In other stories, the conflict is internal. Though conflict is one of the most complex elements of a story, the advice is simple.
Here’s a tip: Make sure your conflict has a genuine purpose. Conflict moves your story along. Meaningless conflict will be boring, contrived, and perhaps even annoying to your readers.
Here’s a tip: Concentrate on only one conflict. Too many will turn your short story into a novella!
The plot is the series of events that occur in the story. In a short story, you can only include so many actions. The following tip comes from famed author Kurt Vonnegut.
Here’s a tip: “Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.” Use this rule not only when writing your story, but also when doing revisions. Line by line, ask yourself if the sentences fulfill one of these two roles. If a certain sentence doesn’t, decide whether you want to eliminate or revise it.
What do you want your story to tell your readers? The theme is the message. You can write a short story without one, but the stories that have stood the test of time contain strong themes.
Here’s a tip: Don’t say it outright. Readers should be able to discern the theme from the story itself. If they can’t, your theme isn’t clear.
What short stories have affected you? If you study some examples, you will find that the elements of any good story, long or short, are the same. You must have a strong theme, well-developed characters, an appropriate setting, a central plot, and a major conflict. If you follow the tips above to develop these important aspects of your stories, you will see a noticeable improvement in the quality of your tales. Your readers will thank you!