When writing a short story, it helps to know how it will end. I suggest you put together a broad outline of your intended story arc. I’m a retired bookkeeper, so I have a mathematical approach to this. Divide your story arc into quarters, so you have the important events in place at the right time.
Assume you have a 4000 word limit for your short story.
You have less than three paragraphs before a prospective editor sets your work aside. If those paragraphs don’t grab her, she won’t buy your story. Pay attention: you absolutely must have a good opening paragraph.
The first 250 words are the setup and hook. The next 750 words takes your character out of their comfortable existence and launches them into “the situation” –will they succeed or not?
The next 2,500 words detail how the protagonist arrives at a resolution.
The final 500 words of your story are the wind-up. You might end on a happy note or not—it’s your story, but no matter what else you do, in a short story, nothing should be left unresolved. For this reason, I feel subplots should not be introduced into the short story unless they directly advance the larger story. You need to use every word you are allowed to make that story the one the publication’s editor can’t put down.
I am a plotter, so I write my short works to an outline. However, I will deviate from my original plot if I have an idea that works. I need that structure when I begin writing, or my plot will stall, and the story will never be completed. When I don’t know how the story will end, the plot wanders all over the place, and I have a story that will garner a pile of rejections.
Theme is an essential tool for writing a coherent short story, and many anthologies are themed. When you assemble your outline, ask yourself these questions:
- What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?
- What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme?
- At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
- How badly does he want it and why?
- Who is the antagonist?
- What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
- What happens at the first pinch point?
- In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
- Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
- At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?
- How does the underlying theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story?
What narrative mode will you use? Who is the best person to tell the story? One of my favorite short stories to write, Thorn Girl, is in the forthcoming anthology, Swords, Sorcery, and Self-rescuing Damsels. I could easily have told her story in third omniscient POV, but I had a compelling main character with a real, gut-wrenching story.
Originally, I tried to write her tale in my usual narrative mode of Third Person. As I worked, that mode didn’t feel as close, as intimate as I wanted.
My MC had to tell her own story.
The theme was a good theme, but it was a challenge to write something original and not overdone. It was an excellent opportunity to think wide.
In the first draft, there were several places that I thought were the beginning. As always, I had difficulty deciding where the story actually began. After reading that first draft, my writing group pointed out that the narrative had to begin at the point of no return, as there is no room for backstory.
I tossed out the first half of the original story and begin at what I had originally thought was the middle. That was when things began to fall together.
What did my character actually know? Realistically, she could only know what she witnessed.
I spent some time figuring out what she really could have witnessed or overheard, and then worked only with that information.
What did my protagonist want? At first glance, it seemed obvious, but the purported quest was only an impetus, a prod to move her down the path she needed to travel. Her true quest was to find herself as a human being, as much as it was to honor a promise made and quickly regretted.
What was she willing to do to achieve it? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, and until I wrote the last line, I didn’t know what she was capable of or if she had the backbone to accomplish it.
Short stories are a real training ground for authors because words must be rationed. Writing short stories forces me to consider how my limited number of words can be used to their best advantage. It requires me to tell a large story using a limited number of words carefully chosen for their impact. Word choice and sentence structure must convey a massive amount of information: mood, atmosphere, setting, hints of backstory – all packed into a finite space that is already occupied by knowable characters, a coherent plot, and an ingenious resolution.
I try to keep conciseness and creative word choice in mind when writing longer works.
To wind this rant up, need drives the short story, theme stitches it together, and word-count limits force concise storytelling.