5 Tips for Writing a Strong Short Story
Caleb Galloway, Guest Contributor
We asked Caleb to share his hard-earned tips on writing short stories. His efforts to understand this genre have already started paying off: competing in the short story division of California’s Desert Empire Fair, he won 2nd place with his first entry, and his second entry won 1st place, with Best of Division (and a cash prize).
In many ways, writing short stories can be daunting for beginning writers. A non-writer may equate shorter with easier, but a writer?… How in the world do you tell a story in only 7,300 words?!
For a long time I did not even try because I believed failure was inevitable. But once I actually forced myself to give it a go, I realized that it’s really a lot less intimidating than it seems!
I’ve now successfully written several short stories. Along the way, I discovered 5 tips that I hope you will find helpful in your own short story endeavors.
#1 Begin…at the End.
I once heard an author say that to write a successful short story, you have to start as close to the end as possible.
I’m a perfectionist, and very detailed oriented. When I write, I want to record every little thing. When it comes to short stories, there just isn’t room for everything. So where do you begin? Well, at the end.
This is where writing a short story can be easier than a novel. By starting at the end, you effectively skip most of the story’s difficult content and scenes.
It’s like fast-forwarding Star Wars and only watching the Death-Star battle or The Return of the King and only watching the final struggle between Frodo and Gollum.
Starting at the end places your audience on the doorstep of the best part of your story: The final conflict, where villain and hero face off for everything at stake.
#2 A Fast Pace Wins the Race.
When I read a short story, I expect a brief, enjoyable, fast-paced read with all of the feelings, emotions, and thrills of a full-length novel. That expectation throws a lot on the plate of short story authors. It’s also why a fast pace is essential for short stories.
Normally, the pace increases as the hero approaches the final conflict. Since a short story starts at the final conflict, it needs to hit the ground running and catapult your readers headlong into the action from page one.
Here is an example:
The window shattered, jerking Steve Channel awake. He looked, panicked, to the open door that led out to the living room.
“Hello?” He called out, sitting upright. “Is anybody there?”
A short story without a fast-paced beginning risks smothering your reader in “story fluff”: the extra content that doesn’t add anything important to the story. It is irritating to a reader to endure a slow beginning, only to finish the story and wonder how your details were relevant to anything.
An exception would be if a slower-paced beginning is the only way to convey vital clues concerning the story’s main plot. But be careful not to slow it down too much.
#3 A Small Cast, Limiting the Extras
Most readers make an emotional connection with protagonists as they learn and grow along with them on their defining journey. Since a short story jumps to the end, that connection doesn’t exist.
That leaves you with a short amount of time to make readers connect with a pre-defined character who isn’t going to change much in 7,300 words.
That’s no easy feat!
It’s made harder by the fact that most stories need a supporting cast. Star Wars just wouldn’t be the same without Han Solo or Chewbacca. Nor The Lord of the Rings without Merry, Pippin, or Samwise Gamgee. But in a short story, it just isn’t feasible to feature any more than a few characters. This is why it’s important for short stories to only have a small cast.
I generally aim for three to four characters per short story at a maximum (although many short stories feature only protagonist and antagonist). A small cast gives you the time and words to focus on who really matters: the protagonist.
#4 Backstories: a Way to Tell What’s Going On
Many writers view backstories as a waste of space in a short story, considering you already don’t have a large amount of space to work with. I disagree; actually I’d go so far as to say that backstories can be vital to short stories. If you toss your reader straight into the action with no explanation, it can be downright confusing as to what is going on!
The key to having a successful backstory in short stories is to keep it relevant to the story and short.
To continue my earlier example:
Steve edged towards the bedroom door, alert. Who had broken his window? Was it his neighbor? Jim had been pretty irate after last week’s argument concerning the scratch in his sports car’s door. Or was this a robbery?
I tend to ramble on backstories, but generally, one or two sentences are all that is necessary, and try interspacing them throughout the story to avoid info-dumps.
Don’t conclude from this, though, that you always need a backstory; a lot of scenes are self-explanatory. Have someone proofread your short story and let you know if anything was confusing. Then add backstory details if you think it may help.
#5 Practice Makes Perfect
When it comes to writing, nothing is ever perfect on the first try. Short stories are no different. Writing short stories is a skill that has to be constantly honed; the more you practice, the better you get.
A good exercise is to take a scene from your favorite movie and turn it into a fan-fiction short story. This is good practice, and somewhat easier—you don’t have to come up with content because the story has already been told.
I also recommend entering short story contests. I have entered three state fair contests, one in California and two in Missouri. Judges often offer helpful feedback, and some contests offer cash prizes if you place.
If you just can’t get a story to fit within the word count, maybe it’s a good sign that your story needs more room to unfold. Consider shifting it to another category:
- Novellette (7,500–20,000 words)
- Novella (20,000–50,000 words)
- Novel (70,000–90,000 words)
Do you have any tips on writing short stories? Leave a comment!
Caleb Galloway is a young Christian novelist currently working his way (albeit slowly) through the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum as he finishes high school. When he’s not jumping between several half-finished novels, you can usually find him enjoying the many aspects of homeschool farm life in the central Missouri Ozarks (where he’s allergic to everything that grows.) His hobbies include photography, chess, and playing the ocarina. His favorite genres to write are science fiction and medieval fantasy. You can read his newest blog posts every Thursday at TheNeverEndingPath.wordpress.com, under the penname of OzarkScyFyWriter. Also on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and Pinterest.
* Please note that links on The One Year Adventure Novel Blog to other websites and blogs do not constitute an official endorsement. We are not intimately familiar with all the writing and opinions contained in outside links.
Great points! I’m in the process of a Novelette and it is very hard to be concise. Trying to include backstory but not go too deep is difficult. I think I will take your advice on fast pace into serious consideration.
Rachael, glad that you enjoyed the article! I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. I’ve always had the same trouble with going too deep in backstory. If you’re writing a novelette you have a LITTLE more room for backstory, but I would still try to keep it on the smaller side of things. The only stories (in my opinion) that can really afford to do full-blown backstories (without it taking away from the story) is a full length novel. Good luck writing!
Hi Caleb! My 7th grader is about to write a 2-4 page short story for a county contest. I am helping by researching and giving her tools and knowledge such as what I’ve found here. She is already a good writer for her age, and intellectual. I noticed that your age and other qualities are similar. In passing this along to her, I wanted you to know that you are currently a role model!
All of this to say thank you, and good luck on your contests as well!
Like I always tell Riley… you cannot win if you don’t enter!
Enjoyed this little foray into your writing world. Thanks for sharing!
Excellent tips that also follow neatly hand in hand in with what my (Danish) teacher taught me in school. After I started writing more seriously I wish I had those dull, dusty school books with me still!
I have written long, long stories, always. And never finished. I am currently trying to force myself to write all my characters’ most important background story as short stories. Having great fun.
I’ve actually surprised myself in how short I am able to make it!
It has helped me realize how self explanatory some scenes really are. And I think that’ll ultimately make my other stories better (:
Short stories are a brilliant tool, and brilliant on their own!
Thank you for the wonderful tips! I think an unpredictable ending is a very good thing for a short story. You have to strike the reader with a plot twist at the end to leave an unforgettable impression.
Thank you Caleb for the five points. This is the first day of my writing career in an attempt to write short stories. I’m 75 years old and at last I am having some ‘me time’ I’ll keep a watch out for anymore info’ you write in the future.
Excellent work. This was very helpful.
Extremely marvellous guide lines. Me at 78years, generally write short stories. I also tried my hand and wrote one Novel. From the guidelines I would be able to use valuable information in my future stories. Thanks. Wish you HAPPY NEW YEAR.