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How to Write a Short Story: An Overview

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March 2011
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How is a work of short fiction created? Writing a short story is not based on a particular formula or template.  Writing a short story is a process of shaping and molding, until the writer has crafted a complete story. In writing the short story, the writer makes many decisions—such as setting, voice, point of view, theme. Often, the short story is shaped through a process of discovery, as the writer crafts the story.

Read a few short stories from On Writing Short Stories or the Art of the Short Story, and you will quickly learn that there are all types of short stories. Some are short, only a few pages. Others are longer. Some use the first person narrative; others use the third person. Each has its own opening and ending, one that is unique. Each short story has an authentic voice, setting, meaning. And on and on the originality has been crafted by the writer, shaped and molded, like an artist paints a picture.

The process of shaping a story begins with an idea, which is uncovered or discovered from the writer’s memory, imagination, observations, life experiences. Short stories are created from all sorts of ideas—love, sex, murder, abortion.

From the idea, the writer begins to formulate the story. Often the writer begins writing with less than a complete story. The writer might start with only a situation and central character, theme or main idea, plot outline, and so on.

Once the writer discovers the idea for a short story, the writer begins to craft a complete short story, one that is based on a sequence of events with a beginning, middle, and end.

 The writer must make a decision about setting—time, place, and context of the story. The writer can create a particular atmosphere with the choice of setting and its details. Often, in short stories, the setting is the backdrop of the story. Sometimes, the setting is a metaphor. But the most important function of setting is to make the story believable. The writer’s decisions about setting shapes the story.

The writer must shape an opening that has a hook, one that captures the reader’s attention and motivates the reader to read the story. The writer might introduce a problem, pose a question, or describe the setting or mood.

Next, the writer introduces the main character, develops the conflict, provides obstacles, and introduces the rising action, leading to the climax or turning point. And then the writer must craft an ending.

The writer might resolve the story with a plot twist or epiphany or confrontation. Some stories have an open ending, in which the reader must make his own decision about unanswered questions.  Or the story can tie up all loose ends and answer all questions.

The writer makes choices about the series of events that make up the story. These events must have a casual relationship—or cause and effect. But a series of events or story is not enough. The writer must include a plot, which answers the “why?” of the story. The why of the story is revealed through the motivation of the main character to create tension and take the story beyond just a series of related events.The writer’s choice of events and decisions about the central character’s motives shape the story, mold it.

Sometimes, the writer begins the story with a particular theme or meaning in mind, such as abortion, divorce, sex. Other times, the theme emerges after the writer has finished writing the story. The meaning of the story lets the reader talk about what the writer has to say. The writer’s choice of theme molds or shapes the story.

Before beginning the short story, the writer selects a point of view. The point of view is the character who is the narrator of the story or the focus of the narration. The writer can choose one of the following:

  • First person (I)
  • Second person (you)
  • Third person-limited ( the narrator knows what the main character is thinking and feeling); objective ( the narrator knows nothing in the minds of the characters); omniscient (all knowing)

“Through the eyes, perceptions, or directions of the narrator or narration, we view and experience the story.” (On Writing Short Stories by Tom Bailey) The writer’s choice of point of view shapes the story.

The writer also makes a choice about the type and nature of the central character. In the short story, the story resolves around a protagonist or primary character. So, the writer must develop the character through characterization, including:

  • Dialogue between the main character and supporting cast
  • Thoughts and feelings and impressions of the main character
  • Actions and reactions of the main character
  • Description of the main character

The writer creates a story that involves a main character, who might undergo a change in behavior, or change in perception, or experience an epiphany by the end of the story. The writer’s choice of main character, characterization, dialogue, and change of perception shape the story.

In telling the story, the writer puts into use the components of fiction:

  • Motivation or desire of the main character to accomplish some goal or purpose
  • Conflict within the mind of the central character or an external source of conflict
  • Climax or turning point in the story
  • Resolution of the story

These components allow the writer to shape the story.

The writer also crafts the story by employing figurative language, including simile, metaphor, symbolism, and imagery. Figurative language entertains the reader and makes the “unbelievable believable”, allowing the reader to suspend disbelief. (Keep in mind that a short story is an illusion.) Figurative language enables the reader communicate abstractions in a unique way. Figurative language helps shape an ordinary story into a work of art. Language has the power to transport the reader to another world, and to make the reader think about meaning or significance. (Symbolism)

In telling the story, the writer employs the technique of “show, don’t tell.” The writer shows the reader what happens in the following way:

  • Vivid descriptions
  • Concrete and specific details
  • Dialogue
  • Action
  • Imagery

By showing and not telling the story, the writer to shapes the story.

In crafting the short story, the writer also puts into practice certain storytelling techniques:

  • Stream of Consciousness
  • Flashback or flash forward
  • Minimalism-the use of short sentences to tell the story. See short stories by Hemingway.
  • Foreshadowing
  • Figurative language
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Suspense
  • epiphany
  • Plot twist

The writer’s choice of storytelling techniques further shapes the story into a particular form.

 Once the writer has shaped or molded the short story into a complete story—with a beginning, middle and end— , the story should answer the following questions:

  1. What happens in the story?
  2. To whom does it happen to?
  3. How does it happen?
  4. Why does it happen?

 When you decide to sit down and write your own short fiction, you will quickly learn that writing short fiction is a process of discovery. Often you will not know the obstacles, or turning point, or how the story ends, until you begin writing.  And so you discover the story as you write and make decisions about the story.

To find out more writing short stories, you can read the following:

  • On Writing Short Stories by Tom Bailey
  • The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn

1 Comment

  1. […] 23. Start something new. In the spirit of spring, sew yourself a pretty skirt, bake a beautiful Mother’s Day cake or write a short story! […]

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