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Rated: E · Column · How-To/Advice · #2127530
Some helpful advice to write an effective short story, including terms and examples.
We're all here on writing.com because we want to share and improve our writing. Among the simplest types of writing is the short story. The most effective short stories may cover different topics and employ different writing styles, but they all have certain traits in common. Let's talk about those traits one by one.

An effective short story has a clear plot.

The plot is the storyline. It's the sequence of events that occur in a piece of fiction. With a well-written story, the reader should be able to identify the beginning, middle, and end. You, the writer can do this by brainstorming events that should happen in your story. Once you've finished brainstorming, the next step is to determine a logical order for these events. Each event should somehow foreshadow or influence the next event.

Keep the following questions in mind as you develop your plot:
What?: A well-constructed plot needs to develop a theme. What idea are you trying to present throughout your story? What must happen in your story in order to convey your message clearly?
When?: As mentioned above, a well-written plot follows a logical sequence of events. What must happen before another event can happen?
Why?: Why is it necessary for this event to happen? If there's not a specific reason for including an event, leave it out. Otherwise, you risk confusing your readers.
Where?: Part of writing an effective plot is creating a believable universe for the events to occur. The location should be relevant to what's happening.
How?: How will your characters reach their goals? How will you keep your readers' interest? How do events relate to one another?

Now let's look at some examples of an ineffective plot:

Example 1: A princess met a pauper, and they later lived happily ever after. What makes this plot ineffective? For one thing, there's no sequence of events. There's a beginning, and there's an end. But what happened to lead to the happy ending? The reader wants to know how the story went from point A to point B.

Example 2: Jim is eating a banana. Dave slips and falls. Jim throws his banana peel on the floor. What's wrong with this plot? The events don't follow a logical sequence. We know that Jim is eating a banana, but we'd usually expect Dave to slip and fall because the banana peel is on the floor.

So how do we correct the problems with these ineffective plots?

In the first example, we can strengthen the story of the princess and the pauper by doing the following:
* Explaining how the princess met the pauper
* Including more events between the beginning and the end. Namely, we need to detail the events that led to the happy ending.
* Mentioning any obstacles the princess and the pauper encountered, and how they overcame them.

In the second example, we can strengthen the story of Jim and Dave by doing one of these:
* Putting the events in logical order. If the banana peel caused Dave to slip and fall, the story needs to show that Jim threw the peel on the floor before it tells us that Dave slipped.
* If Dave slipped for some other reason, clearly explaining what caused him to slip
* Possibly explaining why Jim threw the banana peel on the floor instead of in the trash
* Possibly explaining why Dave couldn't avoid the banana peel

So as you can see, writing a plot is important. Besides writing events in a sensible order, the writer also must make sure that every event serves a purpose and ultimately satisfies the reader's curiosity.

Now that we've planned out our plot, it's time to focus on the next important aspect of a story: the characters.

Every effective short story must have well-developed characters.

In writing, be it prose or poetry, the characters are what give a story life. If a story were a sentence, the characters would be the subject, telling us who or what. As a writer, your job is to create characters that readers care about. As with plot elements, every character should have a purpose for being in the story.

Since effective writing is no accident, the writer must plan every aspect of the story. It's no different with characters. Once you've got an idea of your plot, it's easier to plan the types of characters who are involved with setting that plot into motion.

Keep the following questions in mind as you plan your characters:
Who?: What is your character's name? Is this name significant somehow? How is this character related to other characters? What are this character's origins?
What?: What drives the character's choices? What are those choices? What is the character trying to accomplish? What are the character's dominant personality traits?
Why? : Why is this character important to the story? Why does the character do what he/she does?
How?: How does the character overcome obstacles? How does the character interact with other characters? How does the character show his/her personality traits?

How can we create and develop a strong character?

Remember that the audience wants to read about characters that keep their interest. Whether characters are based on reality or fantasy, the writer's job is to be sure to give readers a reason to care about them.

* Use indirect characterization more than direct characterization.
Direct characterization gets its name because it directly tells the reader how a character is feeling or what the character is thinking. (An example would be "Shane was angry when he came home from school.")
Indirect characterization uses a character's actions to show the reader how the character is feeling or what the character is thinking. (An example would be "When Shane came home from school, he flung down his backpack, stormed up the stairs, and slammed his bedroom door shut." This is preferable because it shows, rather than outright telling, the reader that Shane was angry. Furthermore, using indirect characterization allows readers to develop a mental image of how the character responds to a situation.)

* Plan your character the same way you plan the plot.
* Be sure you clearly answer the questions above when you're developing your character. Creating a fully realized character is easier when you know where you want to go with him or her. Everything your character says or does must have a purpose that directly contributes to the plot.
* Be consistent throughout the story. If you use local color dialect in the beginning, use it every time the character speaks. If a character is usually rude and sarcastic, you don't want to suddenly make him charming and polite without clearly explaining why.

Now that we've talked about the two most important elements—plot and character—, let's consider one other aspect that contributes to an effective short story.

An effective short story uses clear and vivid language.

It's common advice, but it still holds true: show, don't tell. Why is this important?

* Using vivid, straightforward language allows readers to be drawn into the narrative. Consider, for example, the difference between a shaking branch and a trembling branch.
* When a writer uses direct, specific language, the reader is able to create a clear mental image of both the plot and the characters. Ideally, writing should appeal to as many of the senses as possible: tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, seeing. If you're writing about a pizza parlor, you want the reader to mentally smell the pizza and see the décor.
* Using clear, direct language prevents unnecessary confusion. Especially with uncommon or complex topics, sentence structure should be simpler. You don't want jargon or unfamiliar words to interrupt the flow of the story.
* Making effective word choices saves time and curtails wordy, turgid writing. Consider, for example, the difference between "ran quickly" and "bolted." One sounds more crisp and exact than the other, while using fewer words. When you use a strong noun or verb, you don't need to "augment" it with extra words that may not clearly get your point across.

Instead of said, try: exclaimed, snapped, barked, whispered, remarked, responded, replied
Instead of ran, try: bolted, sprinted, fled, jogged
Instead of looked, try: glanced, peered, gazed

As you write, ask yourself, "Does every word serve a purpose? Is this the best word to use here? Can I express this more clearly?"

That seems like a lot to do and a lot to remember. During the planning process, write everything down. As you write your story, refer to your notes to be sure you don't omit anything. Writing a short story is a lot of work, but it's well worth the effort if you want to become a more effective writer.
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