How To Write Short Stories

This is a guest post from Emma Newman, author of short story anthology, From Dark Places.

I must confess, when Joanna asked for tips on writing a great short story, I panicked.

Quite apart from the usual fear that I would be declaring myself an expert (to which I have an intense aversion) I found myself worrying about answering one question before I could even contemplate this post:

What’s a great short story?

I mean, even before we consider the “great” part, there are so many different kinds of short stories. Ones with twists and ones without, ones with only 6 words, some that are almost novellas. Some that focus on only one person, in one place and time, some that span centuries in only a couple of thousand words…

Then I realised that really, all I can do is talk about how I approach writing a short story, and leave it to you to know which short stories are great for you (after all, one person’s great short story is another person’s torture).

It goes without saying that short stories need to be tight. Characters and worlds need to be sketched with minimal details that reveal pages and pages worth of ideas and details in a reader’s mind. There’s no room for flabby description, nor any exposition that doesn’t move the story forwards. But what else is needed?

Prompt, please

I prefer to write short stories inspired by prompts. Sometimes stories pop into my head fully formed, but that’s rare, and if I depended on that purest form of inspiration, I would not have an anthology on sale. I set up my Short Story Club to ensure that I would always have an original pool of prompts to choose from, and the one I pick as the winner each month has to have a key quality:

It has to make me ask a question.

For me, that is the essence of building tension in the incredibly short timeframe the short story permits. It’s there if a question is created in the reader’s mind, within the first paragraph – ideally the first line if possible without sounding too contrived. That’s the hook, once you have the reader asking that question, you have them reading on to find out the answer.

Let me give you an example

One of the stories in my anthology begins; Dear Michael, The dog is in the oven. Don’t open it, it’s too late. I’m sorry.

My hope is that the reader will think “Dog in the oven? How did it get there? Did she bake it? Wait – she seems remorseful… was it an accident? How do you accidentally bake a dog?!”

If the reader has a similar train of thought, the tension is already created. That question is the life blood of the story, and carries the reader onwards. I’ve read hundreds of short stories in my life, and all of the ones I have read till the end and loved, have lit a question in my mind.

Often a good prompt will create several ideas, and I have a rule that has served me well so far; never go with the first one. When I’m mulling over the question asked by the prompt, the first possible answer – and therefore story – that occurs to me may seem wonderful in the first instance, but it never is. There’s a reason it pops up first; it’s top of my creative mind, which invariably means it’s residue from something I have recently consumed, or an idea that I have already played with recently, or just plain cliché dressed in different clothes. Either way, it’s less original than I aim for and has to go.

Not every story has to be driven by an obvious question

Sometimes, a situation can be set up that is intriguing enough to simply make the reader curious. And that’s good in anthology; if I started every single story with a “grab the reader by the throat” question, that would get very tired, very quickly. But a question does need to arise at some point, and if not a question, a desire to see some kind of change.

And that’s another thing…

Something has to change in a short story (one that I write anyway) even if it is just the reader’s perception of what is really going on (a.k.a. the twist). If I can set up a question, lead the reader to think that the answer is one thing and then reveal it is actually something completely different – without cheating – then I am most happy with my story. The best twists are the ones which are shocking, and then obviously what was happening all along – the ones that make you go back to the beginning and re-read the story knowing the truth, and smiling all the way through when you see all of the clues that were given along the way.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are great short stories out there that don’t create a question, and don’t always create a change. They can simply be snippets of a person’s life, told so beautifully that they don’t need anything else, but in my experience, only the most superlative writers can pull that off. Not all short stories need a twist – not all of mine do, but they have to be satisfying.

All I’m saying is that the stories I most love to write, and the ones my readers most love to read, are the ones that beg a question and involve a change.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What makes a short story great for you? Do your favourite short stories have anything in common?

About Emma Newman

Emma Newman has proven that book deals are indeed like buses. Her debut short story anthology, From Dark Places, is out now and her debut novel, 20 Years Later is being published in July 2011. Signed copies of From Dark Places are available from her website (http://www.enewman.co.uk/my-books/buy-a-signed-edition-of-from-dark-places) and if you like dark short stories, join Em’s Short Story Club (www.enewman.co.uk/sign-up-for-free-stories) to get an original short story for free in your inbox every month.

Image: Flickr CC AndreaLeev

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Comments

  1. says

    I have never really been interested I stories, plots. I do, however, find people fascinating. That said I don’t need to know their life stories. I suppose what I like best are slices of life like the short story I wrote about a gambling addict sitting on the floor in her hall waiting on the postman bringing her giro. That’s all that happens. She sits, thinks, talks to herself, to God, to an imaginary postman and the story ends when she realises she’s getting to post. Another story takes place on the bus to work, a woman confesses to another woman that she has a crush on her, only the entire monologue takes place in her head; she has never spoken to her and it’s pretty obvious that she never will. Many of the characters in my short stories don’t even have names.

  2. says

    Great article! To me, a short story is much more challenging than a novel because your character can grow and change convincingly in a novel.

    Some of my favorite short stories are classics: A Rose for Emily by Faulkner, any of Poe’s stories (what was the one about the beating heart?), The Ransom of Red Chief (one of my students’ favorites when I taught 9th grade English), and Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I guess I am giving away my age with these legendary stories.

    Kim Green

  3. says

    Great post! I like the idea of using prompts to inspire a story. I’ll have to try that. Went to your site and loved the narration sample,as well as the blog post. I had to sign up for the stories! Thank you Emma. And thank you, Joanna. you always have great guest posts! I hope you’re settling in well.

    • says

      Thanks Marcia, your comment on my site made my day! I really need to update my voice work page actually, as a new audio book I narrated has gone on sale now. Blimey, just so many plates to keep spinning!

  4. says

    I found this post most helpful when revisitng a short story I’m about to submit to an anthology.

    One additional piece of advice was that a novel should be about the most important time in someone’s life but that a short story should be about the most important event.

  5. says

    Thanks for this great tip, I really enjoyd it. I think that in a short story any thing is possible and not only twists and question, they are an excellent help, but I think that in a short story one could explore all and try all views and things, it is valid. Some work, other do not. Again thanks Emma for this comment and Joanna for your excellent Blog.

  6. Lerato says

    “one person’s great short story is another person’s torture”!- as an unpublihed writer it has given me courage. thank you for great tips.

  7. says

    Great Article! Very insightful. I love the way of using prompts. Never really thought about it. It creates mystery and intrigue. LOL. I was wondering what was the dog doing in the oven. :) But its definitely these kinds of things that forces a reader to read the post. But sometimes a short story just comes to you. Atleast thats what happened for me. A few daya ago I wanted to post on my blog but nothing was coming to mind. I decided to create a short story and then the daunting question. What kind of short story? I dint have a plot, did’t have a story line. I decided to wing it. I worte one sentence and then the next. Soon after I finished a paragraph. Then my sotry started to take shape. I created chacracters and then build some emotion into the story. 2.5 hours later. I was absolutely amazed at how well the story turned out to be. May not be the finest yet, but still. I was happy to say the least. I woudl appreciate your thoughts and comments on it. Its called “Those 2 extra hours” on my blog. That’s two words :))

  8. says

    I love to write short stories a lot, as it requires shorter time to complete. By the way, I’ve read your debut novel and it’s great Emma! Keep it up :)

  9. Okamii Hatimaze says

    I’m a kid, yet every word you have posted are very friendly and understandable. Thanks for the tips, Emma.

  10. says

    I do love writing short stories, but sometimes its hard getting started or simply figuring out what you want to write about. I usually use prompts for writing practice, but it would be interesting to see if I can create a short story from a writing prompt. Thank you for the helpful tips.

  11. says

    Thank you for this post. I appreciated that you didn’t try to theorize about what makes a good story. Most articles I’ve read talk about theory, but what I really like and need at this time is practical suggestions on overcoming the obstacles of writing short stories. Thanks again for the information.

  12. NGUSE HABTE says

    WONDERFUL EMMA I WAS TRYING TO GET SOME ASSISTANCE ON HOW TO WRITE SHORT STORIES AND THANKS I FOUND YOUR TIPS VERY INTERESTNG.PEASE TRY TO ADD SOMEMORE

  13. Mari says

    Hi! I must say thank you for the tips. I have always dreamed of becoming a writer since high school. I love reading books from bios to fiction and with each book that i read, the drive to write my own story gets intense. I have hundreds of stories running through my head but my problem is how to start. I’ve tried writing articles online for 4 years and I’ve been told (by my BF) that i’m a very good writer and i could become great someday. Maybe if I’m not working so hard to make both ends meet…

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