If you want to try your hand at the craft of short story writing, the following points will give you some basic guidelines.
Creative writing can be fun, but writing a good short story takes talent, skill, and work. To become a successful story writer it is essential to read stories by masters of the art, such as Ernest Hemingway, Anton Tsjekhov, Somerset Maugham or Roald Dahl, and study their techniques and approaches. Furthermore, some feedback from an experienced reader may come in handy during the process, along with an open mind to comments. A successful product will need many rewrites and edits and an idea will also need a certain amount of time to mature.
Idea and Plot
Step one is to come up with an idea that can be developed into a plot. The idea should be original and have some sort of irony or twist to it; for example a protagonist involved in some shady business, who ends up a victim of his own scheme, or it could just be that in the line of events something unforeseen happens that turns the tables completely. Once you have an idea you can start planning the plot. Writers use different techniques for this; some need to have it all worked out in detail before they start writing, whereas others have a fair idea of where the story should go and how it will end, and the plot develops underway. What is most important is to keep in mind the original idea, the turning point or climax, and the twist or irony at the end, then the rest will normally sort itself out during the writing, editing and rewriting.
The way you organise your plot is crucial to make the reader want to go on reading. Structure or composition means the order of events in a narrative. There are many ways to compose a story; the sequence of events can be told chronologically, or it can be told in flashbacks or in retrospect. Here are some examples of different ways to compose your story.
Start near the ending: A common technique to create suspense is to start the narrative somewhere near the ending and gradually reveal how the line of events developed into this dramatic situation. This will encourage the reader to go on reading, which basically is the point of telling the story in the first place.
Chronological sturcture: The chronological structure is not as boring as it may sound, as long as you manage to keep the attention of the reader it is perfectly all right to start with the beginning and end with the ending.
A story within a story: Still another, somewhat more advanced approach, is to create a story within the frame of another story, where the frame story is the actual narrative, but will be complemented by the “inside” story so the theme will come out on several levels.
Start in the middle of the action: Many writers want to start the narrative in the middle of some action (in medias res), then take a step back and explain the circumstances that led to the situation. This opening may be an effective way to capture the interest of the reader from the start.
Foreshadowing: Yet another narrative technique is to insert a small element in the beginning that will foreshadow the turning point or the irony that comes later in the story. It will work as a sort of warning and awaken the reader's apprehension for what is to come. This is a way of building a well planned narrative where all the different elements come together as a unit.
Characters and Setting
Usually a short story casts a limited line of characters, mainly because the story is not long enough to display more than one or two personalities. In a short story there should not be more information about the characters than what is strictly relevant for the plot. Based on the information given about the characters the reader must see their actions and behaviour as credible and logical. The setting should be carefully described and go hand in hand with the development of the plot. Weather, day or night, and the environment in general should also have a clear relevance to the action. In a successful short story these elements form a unit that intensifies the narrative as a whole.
Language and Information
This is to some extent a question of talent. Firstly, it is essential for a good story to avoid clichés, verbal as well as structural. (Check Literary Terms in link collection for a definition of verbal and structural clichés.) The language is what carries the entire story, so it is crucial to put some effort into creating an original non-clichéd language. Secondly, it is important not to be too eager and feed the reader with too much information. The trick is to trust the reader’s own capability to draw conclusions and understand. For example, an effective ending is to stop the narrative when the reader can imagine the outcome, without being told. Roald Dahl had a way with this. In general, one could say that the ultimate writing process will be mindful of what not to tell, which in a good narrative may be more important than what is told. The underlying information presented in hints and insinuations is what gives depth to a story. Study Hemingway’s brilliant technique on this. Keep the description and information strictly to what is necessary for the idea, the atmosphere and the plot. Remember that often “less is more” – and don’t underestimate the reader.
This can be tricky. Many amateur writers just go ahead without giving much consideration to the point of view of the story, and they end up with a confusing and illogical narrative. In brief, the angle means who sees, who knows, and who informs.
1st person form: One common point of view is to see the action through the eyes of the protagonist who then relates the story in a 1st person form. This has some advantages and some drawbacks. The benefit is that it will give the narrative a more dramatic and “self-experienced” style which will be easier for the reader to identify with. However, this angle is very limited and will only tell the story as seen and experienced by the protagonist.
3rd person view: A limited 3rd person view will leave the writer more freedom and possibilities as he can describe the action and the protagonist from the outside, and also tell what goes on in his mind. This gives the reader the role of an observer like a fly on the wall, who at the same time can follow the protagonist’s reflections.
Omniscient view: The omniscient view is the same as a narrator who is everywhere – in the minds of all the characters and at the same time can describe the action from the outside. This angle is not so common in modern writing; it was more used in traditional folk tales and legends.
Symbols and metaphors: Experienced writers will know how to add symbols and metaphors to their narrative to enhance its thematic significance and give the story a poetic touch. This is a subtle technique and will take some skill and practice to apply. But if it is done with finesse these elements will certainly supplement the story.
Title: The title must sum up the theme or the irony in a brief slogan-like expression. It may look enigmatic and even meaningless to a new reader, but after having read the story, a good title will make sense.
Choice of words: Your choice of words should be careful and conscious. This is more than avoiding clichés, because the vocabulary you apply will also provide the mood and atmosphere of a narrative. It is like painting a picture in colours compared to a black and white image. There are, for example, a number of different words that will cover “dark”, and you may choose the one that gives that specific tone which will set the mood just the way you want it. For this purpose it is helpful to work with a good thesaurus at hand; it will present synonyms and different alternatives for the word you want to use
Language freedom: Creative writing is to some extent like freestyle sport. The writer can take liberties with the language that would not be accepted in formal contexts. Incomplete sentences will for example be all right to describe a hectic or dramatic scene, even though your word processor will probably not approve.
Writing a story may seem difficult if one must take all these elements into consideration, and to be honest, it is. Writing is a form of art that will take both learned skills as well as talent. However, with some creativity and practice you may discover your talent as you go along. Go to Mind the Gap (Short Story Writing) for an example of a short story and the techniques used in its construction.
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