Tips for Writing a Great Short Story
By Margaret Lucke
I love short stories. There’s something satisfying about a tale that can be read in a single sitting and make its impact all at once. For a writer, a short story offers the challenge to create a work that’s succinct yet fully formed – as well as the advantage that, though not necessarily easier to write than a novel, it certainly takes a lot less time.
In addition to writing stories of my own, I’ve had the privilege of reading many short story manuscripts as an editor, a writing coach, a contest judge and a teacher of fiction writing classes. I’ve even written a book on how to write them. I’ve had the opportunity to look at short stories frontward and backward, upside down and sideways, and I have a few tips to offer that might help you in writing yours.
Sharpen the focus. A short story doesn’t give you much room to stretch into subplots, characters’ backstories, or philosophical discourses. It works best when you concentrate on one incident, one set of circumstances, one series of actions and consequences. While a novel can cast a floodlight on a subject, a short story illuminates more like a flashlight’s beam.
If your narrative wants to sprawl, don’t try to stuff it into a too-tight literary form. I recall one student whose story was bursting at the seams, filled with characters, plot twists, and locales that cried out for more development. The author was surprised when I suggested that what he’d really written was the outline for a novel. Taking the notion to heart, he turned what had been an overwrought short story into a fine novel.
Have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I hear you saying, “Well, duh,” but what this means isn’t as obvious as it seems. I’ve read plenty of narratives that claim to be short stories but in fact are not. They’re character sketches or personal essays or portrayals of a slice-of-life moment. They open and close and have words in between, but they don’t have the forward thrust that’s expected of a story.
One definition of story that I like is “the telling of a series of connected events.” A series of events implies movement through time. In a short story, the beginning, the middle, and the end of a story each have a specific function in orchestrating that movement.
In the beginning, something happens that throws the main character’s life off center, even if just a tiny bit, and requires the character to take some sort of action.
The middle describes what the character does to deal with this new circumstance.
The end reveals the result—the character has restored balance, or embraced the new situation, or perhaps has failed to do either if it’s that kind of story. But whatever the outcome, something for the main character has changed. The change might be as large as new life circumstances or as small as a new understanding or insight, but as a result of what has happened, nothing will ever be quite the same.
Make every word count. This is good advice for novels, too, but it’s especially important for short stories. There’s no room for flabby sentences, excessive explanations, or unnecessary details. Don’t worry about this while you’re writing the first draft, but be ruthless in the editing.
An example is my most recently published short story, “Femme Fatale.” When I saw the call for submissions for Black Coffee, an anthology of noir crime tales, I knew this tale was a perfect fit for the theme. The problem: the editor wanted no more than 6,000 words, and my story had 7,000. I sat down with a printout and a pencil and begin whittling. Was this adjective necessary? Could I lose this witty line of dialogue? Could readers visualize the scene without this line of description? It took several passes through the manuscript, but when I was done my narrative was cleaner, tighter, and more powerful—and much shorter. When the anthology was published, I was honored to have it include “Femme Fatale.”
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Margaret Lucke’s new mystery novel is Snow Angel, featuring artist/PI Jess Randolph, who joins the frantic search when, on the eve of a high-profile murder trial, the star witness’s seven-year-old daughter disappears. She is also the author of the novels A Relative Stranger and House of Whispers, and two nonfiction books on writing, Writing Mysteries and Schaum’s Quick Guide to Writing Great Short Stories. Her most recent short story is “Femme Fatale,” which appears in the noir crime anthology Black Coffee. Visit her at http://www.MargaretLucke.com.