Writing a Short Story

We tell stories every day of our lives. “What did you do last week?” “What happened with your cousin and that girlfriend of his?” “How did your mom break her leg?” –the answers to these, and a million similar questions that make up our everyday conversations, are stories, narratives with a beginning, middle, and end. Usually there’s some kind of static situation at the beginning; then complications happen, with unexpected turns for the better or worse, so that things as they were at the beginning more or less fall apart. But then, because of someone’s ingenuity or good (or bad) luck, everything refashions itself into a brand new state of being, one we might never have imagined. Often it’s in some way the reverse of the state of things at the beginning. (from http://esl.culips.com/2010/10/the-art-of-telling-stories-in-english/)

 The principal difference between our chatty, enthusiastic narratives in response to everyday questions and a fine written short story lies in the shaping.

Short stories, or fictional prose, can vary in length from the six-word short story (Hemingway’s famous “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” tells a complete and poignant tale) to upwards of 20,000 words. Many literary magazines ask for somewhere between three and five thousand words. So part of the joy and challenge of writing a fine short story is knowing what to leave out without leaving out too much.  If “show, don’t tell” and “provide sensory detail” are fundamental tenets of good short story writing, “select, select, select” is their emphatic caveat.

Short Stories vs. Novels (though it’s not a competition)

Perhaps a helpful way to define the difference between a novel and short story is to say that a novel has room for at least one subplot—one story that goes on alongside or underneath the main one—and often more than one. Consider all the subplots in J.K. Rowling’s well-known Harry Potter series—Harry’s longing for his parents, the rivalry between Malfoy and Potter, the question of whether Snape is a good guy or a bad guy.  All are interwoven, and in one way or another, all are resolved. But in a short story, there is rarely room for development of a subplot. The writer of the short story—the teller of a good tale—must introduce relatively quickly a character who needs or wants something but is prevented from having it, so then takes action to obtain it, running into trouble in the process. (See? An everyday occurrence! No wonder we love short stories!)  The short story is, conventionally, about how she gets out of this secondary trouble and, hopefully, ends up with the prize—but as often as not, ends up losing it, having gained something else entirely.  Obviously, a short story may be short, but it certainly is not simple!

Here’s an example:

In Kevin Moffett’s “Further Interpretations of Real Life Events,” a story that’s partly about writing short stories, Frederick Moxley is the character who, on the surface, perceives that he doesn’t have something he wants: recognition for the ability to write a good short story. He’s pretty self-deluded, though, and the action of the story consists of his running into trouble as he keeps trying to believe he’s actually got the thing he wants to be recognized for. His father—who has his same name, and who lived through the same crisis Frederick did years ago, when Frederick’s mother died—is being published to some acclaim. Thus Frederick must come to terms with his childhood issues with his father before he can begin to recognize where his own failings lie, and how to resolve them. On the surface the story looks straightforward: Frederick’s father is encroaching on his son’s territory, and Frederick wants him out of there. But as he thrashes around in the thickets of writing and father-son issues, he begins to see that perhaps his father has a degree of wisdom and understanding (especially about the earlier crisis) that allow him to be the better writer. By the end, Frederick doesn’t receive the accolades he wants for himself, but he is less deluded about why they’re not forthcoming. And his relationship with his father has definitely changed.

“Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” has approximately 9000 words; one protagonist; one (or maybe two) antagonists; a few supporting characters; lots of action, including flashbacks and “interpretations”; and one (complex) lesson learned. And between the first word and the last, it has a great number of witty lines, astute observations, memorable motifs, and moments of sharp and funny dialogue. It’s a pleasure to read the story, especially if you’re interested in the conflicts involved in being a writer of short stories! So how does this story work so well?

Five elements traditionally need attention for a short story to work, no matter what the original impetus for the story is. (In “Further Interpretations,” Frederick’s sole original impetus for writing short stories is his angst about his father, who, in his opinion, remarried too soon after his mother died. This limitation is, of course, part of the problem. He can’t see beyond it.)  Each of these five elements has its own treatment here at Writing Commons. If you think of the short story in terms of characters (people who have needs or desires), plot or narrative arc (the actions those characters take to realize their desires), setting (the props, and the time and place which make the actions necessary), point of view (who’s telling the story? Why?), and language (image, metaphor, and style), you have the beginnings of a toolbox for shaping your eager answer to the question “What happened to —– and why?  and then what did they do?”

Whatever impulse leads you to the short story—your sense that your life is full of puzzlement, unfairness, contradiction; your fondness for entertaining your friends; your fascination with the enormous variety of people in the world, and the strange ways they see and respond to it—writing with these five elements in mind can help you express the story with subtlety and finesse.

The (Arguably) Five Elements that Can Help You Express Your Story (There Are Surely Others)

Characters (note a few below, from http://www.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/3398/young_children_appear_to_reject_story_characters_who_are_obese) may seem “ordinary” at the beginning of a story, but by the end they must come to terms with their very specific, individualized weaknesses and strengths if they are to make the changes toward which their desires compel them. Appearance, actions, thoughts, speech, and the judgments of other characters help reveal your persons’ faults and virtues. The discrepancies between any two of these (thought and action, for example) can often propel the story forward.  “[Carrie’s] tall with short brown hair and brown eyes and she wears clothes and—see? I could be describing anybody,” Frederick Moxley says early in “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events.” He knows a good writer needs to be specific, sensory, concrete, but he can’t actually do it. That inability is part of the conflict. How might you differentiate between these seemingly ordinary, and even similar, characters? Details—even just one striking detail—will make them come alive for your readers.

Plot, or narrative arc (see diagram below from http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2014/06/explosive-theory-and-impact-of-romance.html), is driven by conflict, traditionally summarized by “desire + danger = drama”—your character wants or requires something (an object, a virtue, a beloved) but is prevented from having it and so must act. Action is externalized in good fiction—solitary characters who sit and ruminate do not make very good short stories. Frederick Moxley has to act, once his father starts publishing short stories using his son’s name. He takes action bit by bit; tension rises with each act He must confront his father, though he’s not sure where to start, or even exactly what he wants. But he figures it out quickly enough, because as time presses on, urgency increases until he—or something– has to change.

Setting is the time, place, and props—the physical reality—of the story. Your reader needs to be someplace, sometime, to have the experience a short story is meant to create. Frederick Moxley is a twenty-first century American kid, teaching remedial composition and hoping to make it as a writer. He has a girlfriend and a father with a kind, funny wife—and it’s around Christmastime. The gift at the end of the story is a Christmas gift, and another kind of gift, too. Think of the staging of a drama in a theater (see below, from http://www.mbvisit.com/see/shows/atlantic-stage-celebrates-th-season/article_39c65cd6-e7a7-11e1-8e95-0019bb30f31a.html?mode=image)—there have to be physical cues that drive or support the action. And sometimes, the setting gives you opportunities for motifs, metaphors, symbols.


Point of view requires you to think about such things as pronouns (I or he/she?), verb tense (present or past?), and attitude (ironic or innocent, hardened or humorous?), so that your reader has a sense of being in the presence of a coherent, congruent storyteller, skilled at presenting information in the right order for the best effect. Frederick Moxley tells his own story. “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” is a first-person narrative that feels like he’s talking to you, unaware of some of the contradictions in his own story. If the story were recounted from his girlfriend’s point of view it would be a very different story: she already knows about some of the failings Frederick has yet to discover in himself. Part of the pleasure of the story is coming to understand them as Frederick does.

Language is, of course, the medium for all the above, but I’m talking in particular about imagery, metaphor, and style, that amorphous combination of vocabulary, syntax, and sentence structure that sets your voice apart from any other writer’s, and that makes the difference between a mediocre story and a great one.  In a way, every story creates its own language.  The more you read, the better you will be able to move about in the language and let it help you shape your story. (see the image to the right, from http://www.lousywriter.com/figures-of-speech-metaphor.php)

Let’s try it:

Start with a situation you find yourself in all too often because you haven’t worked out some small aspect of your life—say, you’re often without transportation because you loan your car to friends all the time, or you’re often late to work because you stay up too late playing video games, or you’re always dieting because you can never quite get down to a size 2 (the size your enviable sister wears), and your relationship with food has become pretty obsessive.

Now, give this dilemma to a character who is just enough unlike you (different height, different age, different job) not to be you, so you have the pleasure of imagining your way through a situation not exactly your own.  Exaggerate the situation so that there’s [believable] danger in it—if the character is late one more time she’ll be fired and her children will be destitute; if he can’t get to school he’ll flunk the semester and his only chance at a better life will be gone; if she doesn’t figure out a way to heal her anorexia, she’s going to die. (You’ll come up with much better scenarios—go for it!)  Create at least three scenes through which this conflict can a) be introduced, b) accelerate, and c) find a resolution.  Make the action outward-oriented, not just in the characters’ heads.  List and incorporate details of the time and place of this dilemma. Is it twenty-first century your town?  Mid-twentieth-century Podunk USA, where there are no cell phones and no taxis? Medieval France, where anorexia is just another way to have visions of God?  Decide who’s telling the story. Is it the principal character, speaking from her own observations? Or is some omniscient narrator seeing the story from an outside vantage point?  What’s the best position from which to recount the action?  Allow yourself to be open to the suggestions of symbol and theme which apt metaphors and strong images often engender.  Above all, have fun!

A good short story takes time and revision—often many drafts. But you must start somewhere. So answer the questions above and try it. Go to websites that provide open feedback, such as http://www.sixfold.org/.

(See www.reidkemper.com/2010/10/15-websiteswhere-youcan-post-stories.html for a list of 25 websites where you can post stories and receive feedback.)

Read short stories in literary magazines (http://www.duotrope.com and http://www.newpages.com are two excellent sites where you can find what literary magazines publish your kind of story). You’ll want to see what the litmags are publishing, not to mention just how excellent your contemporaries are at writing such work. Enjoy the journey—you’re creating a world for your readers to enter, and if you love it, they will too. Carry on!

Works Cited

Moffett, Kevin. “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events.” In The Best American Short Stories 2010. Richard Russo and Heidi Pitlor, eds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. 225-245.