Short stories have been around since people first began telling tales around a campfire. Today, short stories are a way to get creative, share ideas and even teach others something in a fun way. These stories don’t take hours to read, but they give the reader a short break from reality. You can find short story writing examples in the library, online, and in books on your own shelves, most likely. Some very famous writers have created short stories.
Decide On a Short Story Idea
Writing a short story begins with an idea. Coming up with short story ideas is easy for some people, but not so simple for others. Since the first thing you need in order to write a story is the idea, it’s best to spend some time on this step.
Consider the basics of your story. The questions who, what, when, where, why, and how should all be answered before you go any further. This will also help you set the scene for the story, which is where the story will take place.
Once you’ve narrowed down your story writing topics, you can start focusing on the actual writing. But first, you need an outline.
How to Write a Short Story Outline
The outline gives your short story structure helps keep it on track. This is particularly important since you are writing a short story, rather than a novel. There is little room for extra rambling in a shorter work like this, so staying on topic is essential.
Your outline should focus on short story structure, with a strong beginning and a memorable finish. Consider using a template if you have difficulty creating an outline from scratch. The template will give you all the information you need to write a quality outline that can then be built up into a full story.
Not everyone will want to use an outline, but for short stories, it really is the best option. An outline gives you a direction and ensures everything you want to include in the story will be fit in.
Short Story Structure
Every good story has a beginning, middle, and an end, but the truly great stories need to follow a story arc. This is where short story structure comes in. Ideally, you’ll start out with your first scenario, which spurs the main character into action. The story should build up to the climax and end on a fitting piece that may or may not leave the reader hanging.
Begin your short story with a great first paragraph. From the first sentence, it should draw the reader in and get them to read on. Think of each paragraph as a mini chapter. Since the story is so short, it’s essential to make everything work it all together.
Once you’ve hooked the reader, you can move right into the story. Unlike novels, a short story requires fast moving scenes. Get straight to the action. You don’t have a lot of room to develop the storyline, so make it count.
The end of the story should be just after the climax, or it may actually be the climax. Many stories end abruptly when the high point is reached. However you choose to end your story, make it an ending to remember. You want people to talk about your story and share it.
Story Writing Tips for Beginners
If you’re new to writing stories, here are a few tips to help you create a successful short story:
Consider using a twist. A twist is something unexpected that advances the plot, but changes the reader’s perception completely. Think of the movie Sixth Sense, where we discover that the main character is actually dead and has been the entire movie . . . at the end of the movie. While short stories don’t have to have a twist, it certainly makes them more exciting.
Pick the right title. Without a great title, few people will start reading your story at all. Choose something that grabs people’s attention and makes them curious.
Edit and revise. Then do it again. The revision of a short story is particularly important because you have limited words to work with. Each sentence must have a purpose. Look at each word and decide if it helps your story move forward. Then delete anything that doesn’t serve that purpose and revise as needed.
Use strong characters. Your characters only have a short amount of time to make an impression, so they need to be bold and show themselves. You’ll probably want to limit the number of characters you use, as well. There’s simply not enough time to develop them all in a few short pages.
Include dialog. People speaking with each other helps break up the story and builds more interest. It is also a great way to help develop your characters and let people know what they’re all about. Use plenty of dialog and refine it until it rings true.
Writing a short story is a skill you’ll need for many classes, but it’s also good to learn how to write a short story just to have the ability. Chances are, you’ll have plenty of ideas throughout your life that can be turned into entertaining stories to share with others.
If you’re still not sure how to get started, consider starting with a short story template. The template will give you tips for each step of writing the story and makes it much easier to create the ideal story.
Mention the word outline in a room full of writers, and you’re sure to ignite a firestorm of passionate debate. Writers either love outlines, or they hate them. We either find them liberating, or we can’t stand how confining they are.
My experience has been that more often than not, those who swear they dislike outlines are thinking of them in the wrong ways. Outlines are not meant to trap you into preset ideas or sap your creativity before you start the first draft. Outlines are also definitely not meant to be lifeless Roman-numeral lists.
This guest post is by K.M. Weiland. Weiland is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as well as Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic, the western A Man Called Outlaw, the medieval epic Behold the Dawn, the portal fantasy Dreamlander, and the historical/dieselpunk adventure Storming. When she’s not making things up, she’s busy mentoring other authors on her award-winning blog Helping Writers Become Authors. She makes her home in western Nebraska.
To imbue your writing with the full power of outlining, you need to approach the process from a mindset of flexibility and discovery. When you do this, you’ll end up with a road map to storytelling success. Road maps are there to show you the fastest and surest way to reach your destination, but they certainly don’t prevent you from finding exciting off-road adventures and scenic drives along the way.
At their best, outlines can help you flesh out your most promising story ideas, avoid dead-end plot twists and pursue proper structure. And the greatest part? They save you time and prevent frustration. Sketching out your plot and characters in your first draft can take months of trial and error. Figuring out those same elements in an outline requires a fraction of the time—and then allows you to let loose and have fun in your first draft.
Let’s take a look at how to get the most out of the outlining process, beginning with the shaping of your premise and working all the way through to a complete list of scenes. (Note: Although this outlining method is one I use myself and highly recommend, keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to outline a story. The only requirement is that you find the groove that works for you. If you start outlining and begin to feel the technique isn’t working for you, rather than denouncing outlines entirely, consider how you might adjust the process to better suit your personality and creative style.)
[Learn important writing lessons from these first-time novelists.]
1. Craft your premise.
Your premise is the basic idea for your story. But it’s not enough to just have an idea. “Guy saves girl in an intergalactic setting” is a premise, but it’s also far too vague to offer much solid story guidance.
This is why your outline needs to begin with a tightly crafted premise sentence that can answer the following questions:
• Who is the protagonist?
• What is the situation? What is the hero’s personal condition at the beginning? How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
• What is the protagonist’s objective? At the beginning, what does the hero want? What moral (or immoral) choices will she have to make in her attempt to gain that objective?
• Who is the opponent? Who or what stands in the way of the hero achieving his objective?
• What will be the disaster? What misfortune will befall the hero as the result of her attempts to achieve her objective?
• What’s the conflict? What conflict will result from the hero’s reaction to the disaster? And what is the logical flow of cause and effect that will allow this conflict to continue throughout the story?
Once you’ve answered these questions, combine them into one or two sentences:
Restless farm boy (situation) Luke Skywalker (protagonist) wants nothing more than to leave home and become a starfighter pilot, so he can live up to his mysterious father (objective). But when his aunt and uncle are murdered (disaster) after purchasing renegade droids, Luke must free the droids’ beautiful owner and discover a way to stop (conflict) the evil Empire (opponent) and its apocalyptic Death Star.
2. Roughly sketch scene ideas.
Armed with a solid premise, you can now begin sketching your ideas for this story. Write a list of everything you already know about your story. You’ll probably come to this step with a handful of scenes already in mind. Even if you have no idea how these scenes will play out in the story, go ahead and add them to the list. At this point, your primary goal is to remember and record every idea you’ve had in relation to this story.
Once you’ve finished, take a moment to review your list. Whenever you encounter an idea that raises questions, highlight it. If you don’t know why your character is fighting a duel in one scene, highlight it. If you don’t know how two scenes will connect, highlight them. If you can’t picture the setting for one of the scenes, highlight that, too. By pausing to identify possible plot holes now, you’ll be able to save yourself a ton of rewriting later on.
Your next step is to address each of the highlighted portions, one by one. Write out your ideas and let your thoughts flow without censoring yourself. Because this is the most unstructured step of your outline, this will be your best opportunity to unleash your creativity and plumb the depths of your story’s potential. Ask yourself questions on the page. Talk to yourself without worrying about punctuation or spelling.
Every time you think you’ve come up with a good idea, take a moment to ask yourself, “Will the reader expect this?” If the answer is yes, write a list of alternatives your readers won’t expect.
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3. Interview your characters.
In order to craft a cast of characters that can help your plot reach its utmost potential, you’ll need to discover crucial details about them, not necessarily at the beginning of their lives but at the beginning of the story.
To do this for your protagonist, work backward from the moment in which he will become engaged in your plot (the “disaster” in your premise sentence). What events in your protagonist’s life have led him to this moment? Did something in his past cause the disaster? What events have shaped him to make him respond to the disaster in the way he does? What unresolved issues from his past can further complicate the plot’s spiral of events?
Once you have a basic idea of how your character will be invested in the main story, you can start unearthing the nitty-gritty details of his life with a character interview. You may choose to follow a preset list of questions (you can find a list of more than 100 such questions in my book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success), or you may have better luck with a “freehand interview” in which you ask your protagonist a series of questions and allow him to answer in his own words.
[Here’s a great article on how to structure a killer novel ending.]
4. Explore your settings.
Whether your setting is your childhood neighborhood or the seventh moon of Barsoom, you’ll want to enter your first draft with a firm idea of where your prominent scenes will be taking place.
Don’t choose a setting just because it sounds cool or because you’re familiar with it. Look for settings that will be inherent to your plot. Can you change your story’s primary locale without any significant alterations to the plot? If so, dig a little deeper to find a setting better suited to your plot, theme and characters.
Based on the scenes you’re already aware of, list the settings you think you’ll need. Can you reduce this list by combining or eliminating settings? Nothing wrong with a sprawling story locale, but extraneous settings should be eliminated just as assiduously as unnecessary characters.
5. Write your complete outline.
You’re finally ready to outline your story in full. This is where you will begin plotting in earnest. In Step 2, you solidified the big picture of your story by identifying the scenes you were already aware of and figuring out how they might fit together. Now, you will work through your story linearly, scene by scene, numbering each one as you go. Unlike the “sketches” in Step 2, in which your primary focus was on brainstorming and exploring possibilities, you will now be concentrating on molding your existing ideas into a solid structure.
How comprehensive you want to be is up to you. You may choose to write a single sentence for each scene (“Dana meets Joe at the café to discuss their impending nuptials”), or you may choose to flesh out more details (“Joe is sitting by himself in a booth when Dana arrives; Dana orders coffee and a muffin; they fight about the invitation list”). Either way, focus on identifying and strengthening the key components of each scene’s structure. Who will be your narrating character? What is his goal? What obstacle will arise to obstruct that goal and create conflict? What will be the outcome, and how will your character react to the resulting dilemma? What decision will he reach that will fuel the next scene’s goal?
Work to create a linear, well-structured plot with no gaps in the story (see the checklist on the opposite page). If you can get this foundation right in your outline, you’ll later be free to apply all your focus and imagination to the first draft and bring your story to life.
As you mentally work through each scene, watch for possible lapses of logic or blank areas in how one event builds to another. Take the time to think through these potential problems so they won’t trip you up later. If you get stuck, try jumping ahead to the next scene you know, and then working backward. For instance, if you know where you want your characters to end up, but not how they’ll get there, start at the ending point and then see if you can figure out what has to happen in the preceding events to make it plausible.
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6. Condense your outline.
Once you’ve finished your extended outline, you may want to condense the most pertinent points into an abbreviated version. Doing so allows you to weed out extraneous thoughts and summarize the entire outline into a scannable list for easier reference. Because your full outline may contain a fair amount of rambling and thinking out loud on the page, you’re likely to end up with a lot of notes to review (I often have nearly three notebooks of material). Rather than having to wade through the bulk of your notes every time you sit down to work on your first draft, you can save yourself time in the long run by doing a little organizing now.
You may choose to create your abbreviated outline in a Word document, write out your scenes on index cards, or use a software program such as the free Scrivener alternative yWriter.
7. Put your outline into action.
By now, you’ll be feeling prepared and eager to get going on your first draft. Each time you sit down to work on your manuscript, begin by reviewing your outline. Read the notes for your current scene and the scene to follow. Before you start writing, work through any remaining potential problems in your head or on paper. If the time comes (and it will come) when you’re struck with a better idea than what you had planned in your outline, don’t hesitate to go off-road. These ventures into unknown territory can result in some of the most surprising and intriguing parts of your story.
An outline will offer you invaluable structure and guidance as you write your first draft, but never be afraid to explore new ideas as they occur. Remember, your outline is a map showing you the route to your destination, but that doesn’t mean it is the only route.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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