Points I've learned to ponder when writing short stories.
|Whenever I begin a short story, I remind myself of two things: to try to get in touch with readers' senses as much as possible by writing something to see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and feel (emotionally), and to try to keep eleven specific points in mind when writing my story in hopes of composing a tightly-written story that sticks in readers' minds. Those eleven points are:
Focus - Some of the most successful short stories I've read are the stories that stuck to their themes and storylines. They pulled me and kept me reading by maintaining a strong focus. It seems the more tightly drawn a short story is, the better.
Theme - While every story I write won't have some sort of deep, underlying message to it, I still like asking myself what exactly will my story be about. I try to answer the question in one or two sentences whenever possible, and notice that when I do, I usually spend less time smoothing out a story, trying to make it "say" what I want it to say. If you're aiming for a clear message, then try asking yourself just what is that underlying message or statement you're trying to convey to readers? Knowing what you want to say might lead you to tighten your writing, and maybe end up with a story that'll linger in readers' minds.
Time Span - Short stories usually cover a short time period. I try to remember to keep my short stories narrowed down by staying focused on the story's theme, and working to paint a picture explaining the main event for readers. In creating three-dimensional characters, I work to keep all of the characters' emotions, thoughts, and actions relevant to the story.
Plot - A plot is a causal sequence of events that draws the reader into the character's lives and helps the reader better under why characters make certain choices. For example, it is not enough for me to portray to readers that my main character wants to find a treasure rumored to fill its owner with magical powers. I need to also get readers to understand why the character seeks such a treasure by creating sensible character motivation(s). And whether readers come to love or hate the character, I need to at least give them a character to care about. These goals can be achieved through plot.
A plot's structure is the way in which the story elements are arranged. A plot usually consists of these elements: Exposition, the information needed to understand a story; Complication, the catalyst that begins the story's main conflict; Climax, the turning point in the story that occurs when characters try to resolve the complication; and Resolution, the set of events that bring the story to a close. Every short story does not have a plot structure that follows a straight line of the elements listed above. Plot structure can vary depending on the needs of the story.
Characters - It's important that I remember not to include too many characters in a short story. Too many characters might cause the story to spin out of control. Sure, I could solve this problem by extending the short story into a novella or novel. But if my aim is to write only a short story, I try to limit the characters. Two or three characters, or, sometimes, even one character, seems sufficient enough for a short story. Only you will know how many characters it'll take to portray your story, but if it begins to seem like your story is growing out of control when you don't want it to, then try to limit the number of characters.
Point of View - Choosing the story's narrator is as important as trying to create three-dimensional characters. There are several choices to consider when deciding who will tell the story. The most common types of POV used in short stories today include First Person POV and Third Person Limited POV. These are the two points of views that I mostly use in my short stories.
When a First Person POV is used, the story is told only through the first person point of view character. For example, "I walked in the room." When the Third Person Limited POV is used, the story is told through the experiences of one major or minor character. There is also the Third Person Omniscient POV and the Second Person POV. A story written in the Third Person Omniscient POV is told through a narrator who knows everything about the characters. This type of story is practically told through all of the characters' thoughts and actions. A story written in the Second Person POV is told in a way in which the narrator appears to be the reader. For example, "You enter the darkened room." While the Third Person Omniscient POV and the Second Person POV are not widely used in short fiction writing, a bit of experimentation can be fun.
I try to also be mindful of some of the point of view mistakes that can happen. Head-hopping and a slip in point of view are among the most common point of view mistakes. Head-hopping involves switching back and forth between different characters' thoughts and actions. A slip in point of view involves telling something that the point of view character couldn't know. For example, if a First Person POV character has been shown to be gazing ahead, then that same character is shown seeing something that occurred behind her/his back. Whatever point of view that is chosen, keeping that point of view consistent is important to the story.
Hook - "Begin your story with a bang." We've all heard that one, haven't we? However, with short stories, I've noticed that it's more often sage advice than not. Beginning your short story with conflict, whether you choose to do it through action, dialogue, or atmosphere and mood, can hook readers and perhaps keep them reading.
Description - I've actually come across submission guidelines where an editor stressed, "More story, less description." Depending on the market you're planning on submitting to, story word limits might only allow you a small amount of description throughout your stories. A publication that wants more action than descriptive writing in stories, and publications that cap their word counts at around 3,500 to 5,000 words, usually place strict limits on the amount of words you can spend on description. On the other hand, a publication with story word limits from around 8,000 to 10,000 allow you to spend much more of the story on descriptive writing. Regardless of word counts, I try to remember to make every word count toward the story.
Setting - I recently read Dru Pagliassotti's editorial, "This Story Doesn't Stand Out," and thought the article was also great insight into an editor's mind. The article also confirmed my suspicion of why I'd finally gotten published by SDO Detective after several unsuccessful attempts--the last mystery tale I submitted was set in Ancient Egypt. Sure, mystery stories have been set in Ancient Egypt before, but there were none at SDO. So, I took the chance, and submitted "Minkah's First Case" . While setting still isn't my main concern when I begin a short story, I make a conscious effort to try to place the story in a unique setting. Maybe by doing so, the story will head down an unexpected road and end up a better read as a result of the journey. After cracking a market with a story set in Ancient Egypt, I also have to resist the urge to set all of my stories in Ancient Egypt. I'll always be grateful to Ms Kimmie for her Strange Setting Challenge when she served as a Mystery Newsletter Editor. Update: Dru Pagliassotti's editorial, "This Story Doesn't Stand Out," can't be found online.
Twist - Every story doesn't have to end with a twist, but an occasional twist can be fun. I enjoy trying to write some of my own short stories with a twist. You can surprise your readers with an ending they should have seen coming, and maybe even leave your readers guessing about your character's fate after the story has ended. I recently read a short story that offered readers three different endings. It wasn't a twist seen often, so I really enjoyed coming across such a story. It was unpredictable and memorable, as are most successful twists. Have fun trying to create your own tale with a twist.
Denouement - I always try to end my short stories in a sensible, satisfying way. A reader left too far in the dark by the end of the story will be an unhappy reader. As a reader, I don't mind being left to wonder a bit about what else might happen to a character after the story has ended, but not to the point where I'm scratching my head at something that doesn't quite make sense where the story is concerned. As a writer, it's important that I try to write a logical, mostly unpredictable ending that ties up all the major loose ends.