how to write a good short story

Ha! Fooled ya!

I don’t think there is one single how-to in order to write short stories, but since I’ve been doing a fair bit of short story writing, I’d like to share some thoughts. Feel free to discuss and disagree.

In general, short stories work best if they contain the trifecta: plot, character and voice. Now I’m sure everyone can point at stories that lack one of these elements. Pieces that are all character where little happens, stories that are all explanation of some weird thing where there are no characters, but I’m pointing at the first two words of this paragraph. Have trouble writing a sellable good story? You might just make sure it has a strong plot, interesting characters and a distinct voice.

Plot. Obviously, when writing a SFF story, it has to have a fantastical element. The story is usually stronger if this element is integral to the plot, in other words, if the story resolution depends on it. Showcase your inventions here. I think it also pays to make sure your story contains a mix of scene types. Action, hiding, talking, a physical fight, a word fight, they’re all scene types. A story with all action tends to be just as monotonous as one with only talk, or only travel scenes. Try to order your scene types so that the most exciting one coincides with the climax of the story.

Characters. Which character are you going to use to carry the story? And does this character have enough at stake to carry the story? The character must have an interest in the fantastical element that forms the basis of the story, and must have the means to learn more about it. The choice of character is one of the most important ones you can make, I feel. The character also has to be appealing. I don’t necessarily mean sympatic, but the character has to interest the reader. A lot of readers dislike whiney characters. In addition, the character should have something else at stake besides the main plot element, something on a personal scale. But, on the other hand, you’re not writing an episode in the latest soap, so keep the soapy stuff in the background.

Voice. I feel voice is related to character, not half as much to the writer behind the keyboard. A different character (young, old, formal, uneducated) requires a different narrative vocabulary. Voice contributes heavily towards the tone of the story. You don’t need a strong voice, and voice is often very subtle, but if you write a story in a bland, cookie-cutter voice, it lacks a certain passion. Voice and character must match, which is another reason I point at character selection.

The most important thing I’ve realised is that you shouldn’t submit a story until all three of these elements are as strong as you can get them. Get the plot right first, then work on the character, then work on the voice. Edit each time. Take out words the character wouldn’t use, add little bits of colour. Only submit when you feel you have done the best by your story and you can’t possibly wring any more leverage from your idea.


3 comments on “how to write a good short story

  1. Hi Patty,

    Thanks for this, another great entry in what is fast becoming one of my favourite writing blogs.

    Just a question, if a setting is crucial to the plot (it’s the key part of the fantastical element) and to the character’s interest in the fantastical element, do you think it’s ever ok to start a short story with a paragraph of scene-setting?

    Some people swear that you must always start a short story with action/dialogue/inner monologue these days or the slush wrangler won’t read past the first few lines. Would you say this is true? Description is too bland? Or can an intriguing introduction to a setting work?



    • thanks!

      About starting the story with a paragraph of scene-setting… meh. As far as I know, there are people who will quote any number of ‘thou shalt nots’ in writing. Meh to them. Sometimes, a paragraph of scene-setting is just what the story needs. That said – it had better be really interesting scene-setting, written in an interesting way. The standard variety, y’know, start with the weather and the castle walls, and the horses and the king, yeah… you get the gist. If your scenery is interesting enough, go for it.

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