Short stories are one of the most popular literary forms, for authors and readers alike. Although much more time and effort goes into creating a book or a novel, short stories have their artistic value, and their elegant simplicity makes them appear easy to write – which is not exactly the case.
I can’t help but recall the legendary anecdote involving the great Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway bet a few of his fellow authors that he would be able to create a short story containing only six words. They deemed it an impossible feat, but after all the money was placed in the pot, Hemingway wrote down something on a napkin, and passed it on for other writers to read. The napkin read “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn”.
There are examples like this one that can testify to the simple power of a short story, but for the time being, let’s focus on how to write a short story and what you can do to make your writing come to life. Here are four essential tips designed to help you do exactly that.
1. Start with a single detail
There are rare occasions when a complete story will reveal itself to you, right away, beginning to end. More often than not, you will come up with smaller pieces of the puzzle, which can be anything from a specific event around which the entire story is written, a main character’s name or physical traits, a location, or maybe just a particular phrase or word you want to use at some point in the story.
One way to come up with ideas for a story is to schedule a brainstorming session, though inspiration is a fickle thing known to strike at any moment, so make sure you are always prepared to write down the ideas that pop inside your head. Of course, you can also turn to real life for inspiration, especially when it comes to developing your characters.
2. Set up the story immediately
Because of their compact format, short stories do not allow for lengthy expositions, dozens of characters, or meandering subplots. This means you should focus on providing the reader with all the information he or she needs right away and set up the story from the first sentence. Make sure your reader is aware of the event that is taking place, as well as time, location, and all of the characters which carry the story.
Simply put, every single sentence should propel the short story forward, or develop its characters. Speaking of characters, keep in mind that this particular literary form allows only for a small number of fully fleshed-out characters who contribute to the overall narrative. This same approach should translate to the events described in short stories as occurring over a period of days, hours, or even minutes, and taking place in one or two settings.
3. Create believable characters
The key to making your story appear genuine and believable is to make your characters human, with all their virtues and flaws. If you are not sure how to do this, pick a character, and write down a list of all their traits and attributes, like their name or nickname, favorite food, place they were born in, or physical impairments, just as if they were real.
Again, when you are shooting for realism, you must avoid making your characters perfect. In fact, why not have some fun and create a character that is deeply flawed, or even has a villainous side? If you think readers will have a tough time identifying with a character who makes questionable moral choices from time to time, consider Batman, who is nearly psychotic in his pursuit of criminals, or the serial killer Dexter from the TV show of the same name.
4. Make it short, but meaningful
Kurt Vonnegut had a great advice for writers: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” A short story doesn’t give you much space for elaborations of the psychological triggers behind the characters’ actions, but you should still achieve sense of completion. The reader should understand where the culmination of the plot comes from. He needs to realize what the protagonist wants and why he made the morally significant choices that mark your short story. While this doesn’t mean you should aim to please everybody’s taste with your short story, the reader should walk away after reading your work and feel as if it was worth their time and effort.