Thursday, January 10, 2008

Tips for Writing a Short Story

by Jennifer Stewart

All writers must have a command of the language and a great vocabulary in order to write a short story (or a novel or an article ...) 

Structure of Your Short Story
Novice writers are often given this advice on how to structure their short stories:
  • Put a man up a tree
  • Throw stones at him
  • Get him down
When you come to think of it, it's good advice for any writer. So follow the steps in the plan below to start writing great short stories.


Short Story Plan 
Start with a situation - a problem to be resolved for your protagonist ( the man up the tree).
Then present the problems that can occur (throw some stones):
  • Misunderstandings / mistaken identity / lost opportunities etc
The final step is to show how you can solve the problem - get the man down from his leafy perch - safely.
  • Love triumphs / good conquers evil / honesty is the best policy / united we stand 

Short Story Theme
Every piece of writing must have a message or thread of meaning running through it, and this theme is the skeleton or framework on which you hang your plot, characters, setting etc.
As you write, make sure that every word is related to this theme. 
It's tempting to use your short story to show off your talents at characterisation, descriptive writing, dialogue or whatever ... But every excess word is a word that dilutes the impact of your story.
The best stories are the ones that follow a narrow subject line. Decide what the point of your story is and even though it's tempting to digress, you must stick to the point otherwise you end up with either a novel beginning or a mish-mash of ideas that add up to nothing. 

Time Span for Your Short Story
An effective short story covers a very short time span. It may be one single event that is momentous in the life of your main character or the story may take place in a single day or even an hour. Try to use the events you depict to illustrate your theme.

Setting for Your Short Story
Because you have such a limited number of words to convey your message, you must choose your settings carefully ... there's no room for free-loaders in a short story! 
That doesn't mean you have to be trite or predictable when deciding on settings. For example, some of the most frightening settings for thrillers are not cemeteries or lonely alleys, but normal places where readers can imagine themselves.
Appeal to your readers' five senses to make your settings more real.  

Characters in Your Short Story
Around three main characters is all a short story can effectively deal with because too many will distract you from your theme.
Don't give in to the urge to provide detailed background on your characters ... decide on the characteristics that are important for your theme and stick to those. If you fall in love with your character, use him/her as the basis for a novel later on.
And if you have trouble making your characters come to life, this will be a boon! It's a store of 1001 Character Quirks! Just like having a magic box of ideas for every character you could ever imagine ... mix and match characteristics to come up with memorable characters for all your stories.

Short Story Dialogue
Never underestimate the power of dialogue in conveying character, but it must contribute to the main focus of the story - don't just use it to pad out your characters. Every word you put into the mouth of your characters must contribute to revealing your theme ... if it doesn't, be ruthless and cut it.

Vivid Imagery for Your Short Story
Vivid imagery also draws the reader in.
Capture the reader's interest in, and empathy for, your characters. You need to paint such a vivid picture that the reader can imagine himself or herself to be in the scene. Again this goes back to placing yourself there and transposing this into your writing as we discussed earlier.
That involvement is often referred to as reader empathy. And an empathetic reader lives the fictional dream. Let's look at some of the ways in which this can be achieved ... Click to read more about how to create vivid imagery in your short story.

Plot for Your Short Story
Begin with an arresting first paragraph or lead, enough to grab the readers and make them curious to know what happens next.  
Make sure your plot works - there must be a beginning, a middle and an end. But don't spend too much time on the build-up, so that the climax or denouement (as in the twist ending) is relegated to one sentence, leaving the reader bothered and bemused but sadly, not bewitched.  
And don't signal the twist ending too soon - try to keep the reader guessing until the last moment.
If you're telling a fast-moving story, say crime, then keep your paragraphs and sentences short. It's a trick that sets the pace and adds to the atmosphere you're conveying to the reader.  

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