Writing Short Stories

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Can't get much shorter than this.

The short story format is popular with both readers and writers, and for the beginner it’s perhaps the most accessible avenue to a career as a professional author. However, its popularity means there’s a lot of people competing for attention. This page offers some advice that might help you stand out from the crowd

 

In this article we’ll look at:​

  • ​What is a short story?

  • The best short stories have a twist

  • More examples of short story twists

  • Writing tips for short stories

  • Flash fiction

  • Where do I send my short story

What is a short story?

What’s the difference between a novel and a short story? The obvious difference is length: novels start at around 70,000 words, while short stories are usually between 800 and 7,000 words (stories between 7,000 and 70,000 are sometimes called novellas). However, this difference in length reflects a more important distinction —  a short story is short because it deals with one idea. A novel can contain many ideas and, within reason, it can be as long as you want, but a short story is focused on one central concept.

The best short stories have a twist

Because short stories are centred on a single idea there’s a danger they can be predictable. Take the following premise: 

Jane wants to go on holiday, but hasn’t got enough money. She remembers there’s an old painting in the attic she thinks might be worth something. She tries to find it…

In our ‘Jane and the Old Painting’ story there are a limited number of outcomes:

  • Jane goes into the loft and finds the painting; or she doesn’t.

  • Jane finds the painting and it turns out to be valuable; or it’s not.

The reader can figure out these endings for themselves and if the story does end predictably they might feel cheated. This is why most short stories end with a twist, a surprise ending that will amuse/alarm/amaze or even horrify.

A surprise ending for ‘Jane and the Old Painting’ might work like this:

Jane finds the painting and takes it to an art dealer. Much to Jane’s dismay the painting turns out to be worthless. Later we find Jane lying on a beach. She’s congratulating herself on unearthing the painting and having it valued…

At this point the reader is wondering what on earth has happened. If the painting was worthless where did she get the money from? We would then reveal that, while the picture was a dud, the picture frame was an antique and worth a lot of money (picture frames can be valuable in their own right). The story ends with a nice twist — Jane solves her problem in an unexpected way.

More examples of short story twists

Here are some twists from the author Hugo Hector Munro (better known by his pseudonym ‘Saki’). Most of Munro’s short stories were humorous, but some had a darker side.

In The Hounds of Fate a young man is walking along a quiet country lane towards a large house. The man knows that the son of the house (who hasn’t been seen in years) is dead and he’s going to try and assume his identity. The man looks like the dead son and if he’s successful he’ll inherit a fortune (there’s every reason for this deception to work — the story is set in the days before fingerprinting and DNA tests).

The story grabs our interest because as soon as we know what the man is up to we wonder if he can get away with it. Will he be recognised as an impostor? What will happen if he’s unmasked? What will happen if he isn’t? Unfortunately for the young man his trick works all too well. An old enemy of the family sees him, mistakes him for the son, and sets a pack of savage dogs on him. The young man runs, but there’s no escape, he’s going to be torn to pieces. There’s the twist — the man’s deception is successful, but it proves to be his downfall.

In The Hounds of Fate the whole story leads towards this powerful climax. However, some twists aren’t nearly so dramatic. In the Saki story Filboid Studge a poverty-stricken young man is in love with a girl, but the girl’s father can’t stand him. To gain the father’s approval the young man helps him out with a problem. The father is a food manufacturer who, for various reasons, has been lumbered with a horrible breakfast cereal called ‘Filboid Studge’ that tastes so awful no one will eat it. The man comes up with a brilliant advertising campaign on the lines of ‘anything that tastes this bad has to be good for you’, the cereal becomes incredibly popular and the father makes a fortune.

This story intrigues us because we want to see how the man will sell this foul cereal and impress the girl’s father, and the details of his ridiculous advertising campaign are very funny. This story doesn’t lead to a dramatic ending, but it does finish with a twist — after the huge financial success of the cereal the girl decides she’s now too rich to bother with the young man and marries someone else.

 

(Fans of Bugs Bunny should keep an eye out for the outfield board advertising Filboid Studge in the 1946 cartoon ‘Baseball Bugs’.)

Writing tips for short stories

The best short stories follow a few basic rules:

  • The story starts quickly. We have a brief introduction to the characters and their situation and are quickly presented with our first plot-point, the inciting incident that gets the story started (see Basic story structure). A bad short story starts halfway through the text; a good one starts in the first couple of paragraphs. In our ‘Jane and the Old Painting’ story the inciting incident might have been something as simple as Jane looking into the window of a travel agents.

  • It contains sympathetic characters. This is true of any writing but it’s harder to create sympathetic characters in a short story as there’s little time to do it. In Filboid Studge it’s easy to feel sympathetic towards the main character because he’s just trying to impress his girlfriend’s father. It’s a harmless ambition we can all relate to. In The Hounds of Fate it’s harder to feel sympathy as the main character is a crook. However, it’s made clear early on that the man is penniless, homeless and virtually starving. What he’s attempting to do is wrong, but he’s at the end of his tether. We feel sorry for him.

  • It keeps to the point. Remember that your short story should be focused on one idea. Anything you write that helps the reader understand this idea and move the story towards the climax is good. Anything that doesn’t is a waste of space. Look at every sentence you write and ask yourself if the story can get along without it. For example, we don’t need to hear Jane’s deliberations on where she’d like to go on holiday because it doesn’t matter, we just need her to go somewhere that requires money to take her there.

  • There are only two or three main characters. If there are more than this you’re probably writing the opening of a novel. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule but if you find your characters mounting up ask yourself if they’re all really necessary.

  • It ends with a twist. Again, your twist doesn’t have to be dramatic, but there should be some sort of unexpected ending to wrap everything up.

Writing Flash Fiction

The term ‘flash fiction’ (sometimes known as ‘nano fiction’) refers to a short story that is typically less than 1,000 words long, but can be less than 300. Some extreme formats (known as ‘micro fiction’) specify an exact word count that might be as low as 55. To qualify as flash fiction your story must contain all the elements of a traditional short story (location, characters, beginning, middle and a twist to end) but because of the tiny word count some of these elements can often only be hinted at. The trick is to lay out the basic framework of your tale and then give the reader enough information to fill in any gaps for themselves.

 

For example, in our ‘Jane and the Old Painting’ story we might might start the tale with Jane rummaging in her attic looking for the picture. She’s just finished watching the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and thinks she might be onto a winner. We don’t need to explain this behaviour because most people would like more money. We can then rapidly move to the art appraiser, then to her lying on the beach. We don’t need to explain why Jane is on a beach either, people like beaches. The whole story could be done in three scenes.

An excellent way of keeping the word count down is to reference an existing well-known story. If you tell the reader that your main protagonist is a Roman soldier sheltering from a rain of ash in the city of Pompeii, then this initial scene-setting delivers a mountain of background information that leaves you free to concentrate on spinning the details of your own yarn. In the same way, if your story starts with a cell door slamming shut behind a prisoner, we’ve all seen and read enough prison dramas to have a good idea of the perils of our protagonist’s situation. 

Perhaps the best way of learning about flash fiction is to read it. You can find examples of flash fiction at the following sites. Pick a few stories you like and ask yourself how you might have approached the same premise differently:

Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine

Flash Fiction Online

Where do I send my short story?

Periodicals such as women’s magazines and science-fiction journals regularly publish short stories. Short stories often appear on the radio and some publishers produce collections of short fiction on different themes (horror, crime etc.). There are also many competitions for short story writers (Prizes and competitions). But before you start get in touch with the editor/producer/publisher and ask them for details. What sort of themes are they interested in? How long should your short story be?

Self publishing is now also a valid option for the short-story writer, with many authors (including some very well-known ones) distributing individual stories and/or collections in ebook format. For more information see the chapter on Self publishing.

Main image © Ragmar Images c/o Shutterstock

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