Tag Archives: How to write short-stories

The Short Story: Need, Limits, and Theme #amwritng

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.

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Crafting the very short story #amwriting

During the month of January I will be exploring the many aspects of the craft of writing short, salable works. I periodically discuss the importance writing to build stock for submissions to magazines, anthologies, or contests. However, many authors have difficulty keeping a story short, and there is an art to it.

Some authors are naturally skilled at this, so if you are one of those lucky people, this may be of no interest to you, but thank you for stopping by!

So, now we get down to business. First up is the short story, works that are 2,000 to around 7,000 words in length.

First, decide what length you want to write to—if you have no specific contest in mind, 2000 to 4000 is a good all purpose length that will fit into most submission guidelines. For those of you who have trouble writing short works for contests and anthologies with rigid word-count limits, this is where taking the time to do a little storyboarding becomes critical.

Let’s say you want to write a story that can be no longer than 2,000 words. You know what the story is, but when you sit down and begin writing, you think you have too much story for only 2,000 words. You need to map it out.

Short-stories are just like novels, in that they have an arc, and you can make it work for you.  By looking at it from the perspective of the story arc, you can see what you must accomplish, and how many words you must accomplish it in.

Every word in a 2,000-word story is critical and has a specific taskthat of advancing the plot. To that end, in a story of only 2,000 words:

  1. No subplots are introduced
  2. Minimal background is introduced
  3. The number of characters must be limited to 2 or 3 at most
  4. Every sentence must propel the story to the conclusion

For the purposes of this post, suppose we need to write a short story for submission to a fantasy anthology.

This method works for stories written in any genre and for essays, so the underlying method is not “fantasy” specific. I have used the following example before when talking about the (very short) short story, and I use it in my seminar on the subject.

First, we will carefully read the publisher’s guidelines, so we don’t waste our time writing something that won’t be accepted.

  • We discover that the guidelines stress that the wordcount limit is a strict 2,000 words, and longer submissions will not be considered.
  • The theme of this anthology is Truth and Consequences, and the theme must be strongly represented throughout the story.

Our submission will be titled A Song Gone Wrong.

The inciting incident happens off screen. We’re saving precious words by opening with our main character already in trouble, and everything the reader needs to know will be conveyed in the opening scene.

The Plot: Because he was a bit too specific when a putting a local warlord’s fling with another man’s wife into a song, our protagonist is now a wanted man in danger of being hung for treason.

Divide your story this way:

Act 1: the beginning: You have 500 words to show

  1. setting: the village of Imaginary Junction,
  2. general atmosphere: the weather is unseasonably cold
  3. introduce the protagonist and show him in his situation: In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is  hiding
  4. introduce the antagonist(s): Soldiers of the lord he has inadvertently humiliated are searching for Sebastian.

Act 2: First plot point: You have 500 words to tell how

  1. the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian
  2. he is hauled before the angry lord and
  3. thrown into prison, sentenced to hang at dawn, but now you are at:

Act 3.: Mid-point: You have 500 Words to explain how

  1. Sebastian meets a dwarf, Noli, also sentenced to die.
  2. Noli is on the verge of managing an escape but needs help with one last thing.
  3. Noli and Sebastian manage to complete the escape route,
  4. but the guard seems suspicious, hanging around their cell door, hampering their escape

Act 4: Resolution–you have 500 words to show how

  1. The smart guard finally is relieved by a less wary guard, which allows
  2. Sebastian and Noli to squeeze through the escape route.
  3. They are spotted at the last minute, but Noli’s friends are waiting, and
  4. They are whisked to a dwarf safe-house, leaving Sebastian free to embark on his next short-story adventure

Once you have parsed out what needs to be said by what point, and in how many words, you can then get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good short-story.

You will see that to keep to the strict limit of words and still convey your story, you must choose your words carefully.

  • Use a wide vocabulary to show mood, setting, and reactions. You are an author, so you must craft the prose. It is your job to find words that best convey what you want to say, concisely in one or two sentences.
  • Sebastian can’t give Noli a recap of his troubles onscreen—all that will have to be off-stage.
  • Conversations are critical—they are the vehicle through which you convey the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece.

You can quickly plot and write a story of any length this way, just by

  • Dividing the specified word count into four acts
  • Keeping the theme of the story in the forefront
  • Make use of your thesaurus. Put your large vocabulary to work by using words that say what you mean with the least amount of “helper” words (adjectives and adverbs).

After a few times of creating short stories using this method, you won’t need to think about it. Once you know the length a given tale has to be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.

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#amwriting: keeping short stories short, when all your stories want to be long

Autumn Landscape With Pond And Castle Tower-Alfred Glendening-1869

Autumn Landscape With Pond And Castle Tower-Alfred Glendening-1869

Over the summer I posted several times about why we need to write short stories, and each time I’ve talked about writing them to build stock for submissions to magazines, anthologies, or to enter into contests. Today, I want to talk about the art of keeping a story short.

First, decide what length you want to write to–if you have no specific contest in mind, 2000 to 4000 is a good length that will fit into most submission guidelines.

For those of you who have trouble writing short works for contests and anthologies with rigid word-count limits, this is where mapping your story becomes really important.

Let’s say you want to write a story that can be no longer than 2,000 words. You know what the story is, but when you sit down and begin writing, it’s like there is way too much story for only 2,000 words. You need to map it out.

Short-stories are just like novels, in that they have an arc, and you can make it work for you.  By looking at it from the perspective of the story arc, you can see what you have to accomplish, and how many words you have to accomplish it in.

short story arc

Every word in a 2000 word story is critical and has a specific task–that of advancing the the plot. To that end, in a story of only 2,000 words:

  1. No subplots are introduced
  2. Minimal background is introduced
  3. The number of characters must be limited to 2 or 3 at most
  4. Every sentence must propel the story to to the conclusion

Lets say you are writing a fantasy, titled, A  Song Gone Wrong. Because he was a bit too specific when a putting a local warlord’s fling with another man’s wife into a song, our protagonist  is now a wanted man. Divide your story this way:

Act 1: the beginning: You have 500 words to show these plot points

  1. setting: the village of Imaginary Junction,
  2. the weather is unseasonably cold
  3. In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is  hiding from the
  4. Soldiers of the lord he has inadvertently humiliated

Act 2: First plot point: You have 500 words to tell how

  1. the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian
  2. he is hauled before the angry lord and
  3. thrown into prison, sentenced to hang at dawn, but now you are at:

Act 3.: Mid-point: You have 500 Words to explain how

  1. Sebastian meets a dwarf, Noli, also sentenced to die
  2. Noli is on the verge of managing an escape, but needs help with one last thing
  3. Noli and Sebastian manage to complete the escape route
  4. but the guard seems suspicious, hanging around their cell door, hampering their escape

Act 4: Resolution–you have 500 words to show how

  1. The smart guard finally is relieved by a less wary guard, which
  2. allows Sebastian and Noli to squeeze through the escape route
  3. They are spotted at the last minute, but Noli’s friends are waiting, and
  4. they are whisked to a dwarf safe-house, leading to Sebastian’s next short-story adventure

Once you have parsed out what needs to be said by what point, and in how many words, you can then get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good short-story.

You will see that in order to keep to the strict limit of words, you will have to choose your words carefully. You will have to find words that really convey what you want to say, concisely in one or two sentences. Sebastian can’t give Noli a recap  of his troubles in your hearing–all that will have to be off-stage. On-screen conversations are critical–they will convey the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece.

After a few times of creating short stories this way, you won’t need to think about it. When you know the length a given tale has to be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.

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