Writing Short Stories

Here are two quotes about short stories from two exceptional writers (who just happen to share the same surname):

“A good short story is almost always a moment of profound realisation. Or a hint at that.       A quiet bomb.” Jospeh O’Connor

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” Flannery O’Connor

The first quote makes a point that is often overlooked – that good short stories are more than just anecdotes, character sketches, mood pieces or slices of life. They can be any of those things, but they should also have a wholeness about them, a sense of unity and of underlying meaning and purpose (even if that meaning is not utterly clear). The reader will take a good story with them throughout their lives.

Simply put, a short story boils down to this:

"Once upon a time, something happened to someone,

somewhere, and it made a difference."

In other words, a short story needs a setting (a some-where and a some-when); a good short story needs at least one main character (someone); something has to happen to the character (i.e. narrative); and it should make a difference (i.e. plot).


There have been many developments and trends in the art of short story writing, with some writers really pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. For beginning writers, however, a few basic tenets should be kept in mind if the art of good storytelling is to be mastered:


  • Remember - short stories are short! I know that sounds obvious, but a lot of beginning writers overlook the fact and get so caught up in grandiose ideas for complex networks of characters with lengthy backstories - the kind of stuff that really belongs in a novel.

 

  • A short story differs from a novel in that it is focussed and refined - it concentrates on just two or three main characters.

  • They normally span a short period of time - anywhere from a few hours to a few days, but rarely longer than that.

 

  • Short stories are centred around a main scene or inciting incident - remember, something happens to someone and it makes a difference!

 

  • The first part of the story sets the scene and leads up to the inciting incident, then the ending resolves somehow, showing what difference it made, or didn't make, or clarifies the meaning and significance of the story in some way.

 

  • The important background details of your characters' lives shouldn't be spelled out in meticulous detail, but should be inferred from what the way they speak and act, from passing references to past events and through realistic dialogue that sheds light on characters' histories and motivations etc.

 

  • In the end, every word should be directed towards setting up or else divulging the main incident. Every detail should contribute something, telling us about the character, the setting, the nature of the problem faced by the characters, and thus helping to explain why they respond as they do and why the story turns out the way it does. This is the point made by Flannery O'Connor in the quote above: i.e. in a short story every word has to count.

 

Here's a useful tip: try to situate the reader in a concrete and specific time and place as early as possible - get them into the story right alongside the character. Be as definite as possible about what's going on.


Lastly, if you intend to write short stories, read short stories! Here's a link to huge database of classic and contemporary short stories.

 

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Last modified: Wednesday, 2 March 2016, 2:25 PM