Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Writing a Short Story

By Jill Williamson
Some magazines pay for fiction stories, but writing a short story is harder than it looks. Short stories range from 800 to 2000 words in length, which is anywhere from four to ten double-spaced pages. This gives you very little room to create interesting characters, a fascinating plot, and tie it all up at the end. Here are some tricks that help.
Step One: A character with a problem 
Within the first one or two paragraphs, you need to convey to the reader who your main character is and present a problem or challenge that he is faced with. This becomes your plot. It can’t just be any problem, it needs to be an interesting one. This means giving your character some conflict. 
For example, a story about a boy that has to take a test is not an interesting problem. But if the boy needs to get an A on that test or else he will get kicked off the basketball team, then the reader will be interested because you have added conflict and there is something at stake for the character.
I like to use a worksheet to brainstorm short story ideas. (You can print out this worksheet by clicking here. Here are three story examples that follow my worksheet design: 
1. My character is: A basketball player
a. Problem or challenge is: He needs an A on his math test          
b. Creates conflict because: He'll be kicked off the team if he doesn't get an A
c. Therefore, my character’s goal is: To get an A on the test 
          
2. My character is: A girl with a pet lizard
a. Problem or challenge is: The lizard has outgrown his cage          
b. Creates conflict because: She doesn’t have money to buy a bigger cage          
c. Therefore, my character’s goal is: Find a way to earn money 


2. My character is: A boy who loves art 
a. Problem or challenge is: His new art friends want to go tagging          

b. Creates conflict because: Tagging is wrong but he wants to fit in          
c. Therefore, my character’s goal is: Not to get caught


Remember, all this should happen in the first few paragraphs of your story.

Step Two: A Struggle
Now that you know who your character is and what problem he or she is faced with, it’s time to escalate things. Why is this problem difficult for your character? How will he or she tackle it? Let’s go back to our examples.
Basketball boy:Our hero needs an A, and he has no friends who are good enough at math to tutor him. Maybe one of his friends wants to cheat, but our hero can’t risk getting caught. The only person he can think to ask for help is: his ex girlfriend or his older sister (who is mad at him for teasing her and her friends) or his friend (whom his ex girlfriend is dating) or a girl he likes (but is shy around). You get the picture. He needs to pick someone to ask for help that escalates the problem a bit for him. If his mom just so happens to be a math teacher and he asks her for help, that’s boring and not much of a story. Always escalate the conflict.
Lizard girl:Our girl needs to earn money to buy a new lizard cage. Maybe she could offer to babysit for a neighbor, mow grandma’s lawn, walk her teacher’s dog, deliver newspapers for her friend who can’t do the route that day. And what if each time she tries to earn money, she is faced with a need greater than her own. While babysitting, she sees that the single mother of three is struggling to get by and volunteers to babysit for free. Grandma is family and taking money for something she’s always done out of love feels wrong. Her teacher’s dog gets loose and almost gets hit by a car, so guilt keeps her from accepting money for this job. And her friend is saving up to help pay her little brother’s hospital bills so she donates her pay to the cause. Now she’s done tons of work and hasn’t earned a dime!
Tagger boy:Our hero is out with his tagging friends and they pile out of the car to tackle a new project. Torn between his two goals of making friends and not painting graffiti, he gets out of the car. One of his friends throws him a can of paint. They egg him on. They need to be fast. Hurry! He gives in and helps paint the wall.

Step Three: A conclusion as to how it will be solved or what is learned
Now that we have our characters in the heat of the moment, at the end of their ropes, stuck between a rock and a hard place (no more clich├ęs, Jill!), we need to bring them through it using their own wisdom. No fair bringing in a hero to solve the problem or save the day. That would be BORING! It’s important that your character solve the problem himself. So, let’s see what out characters will do next.

Basketball boy:
Our hero sucks it up and faces his fear by asking someone for help. He studies hard and…gets a B! Oh no! But his coach doesn't kick him off the team. He makes him sit out for a game until he can do an extra credit project to pull up his grade. Never let your character off easy, and sometimes it’s fun to throw in that last minute twist at the end.


Lizard girl: 
She mopes about these problems as she walks home from her friend’s house and passes a petting zoo that is looking for a part-time volunteer helper. Volunteer? She needs money! After inquiring inside, she discovers that the zoo has lots of animals, but no lizards. She decides to donate her lizard to the petting zoo and volunteer there also. This way she still gets to see her lizard, the lizard gets a bigger cage to live in, and a lot of other people get to enjoy him too. 



Tagger boy:
Midway between spray painting the wall, a woman runs out of the building wielding a broom. “How dare you paint my home!” she yells. Our hero and his buddies jump in the car and get away, but the guilt eats up our newbie tagger. Having friends isn’t worth getting in trouble and he feels bad about tagging that lady’s house. He works out his frustration on the canvas and paints a piece called, “Graffiti Hurts”, and enters it in the local art contest. His piece takes first prize and he realizes there are lots of ways to create art, and he prefers to do it the legal way.


Step Four: Editing
When you are writing your story, just write it. Don’t stress about making every little sentence and word perfect. Don’t worry about whether it is too long or too short. Just write.
When you're done, go back in and tighten it up. Editing is hard, but very necessary for writing a good short story. Each magazine has a specific length guideline. If you send them a story that is too long, they will reject you, no matter how good the story is. So pay attention to the writer’s guidelines.
Learn to cut needless “fluff” words and strip your story down to the bare essentials. There have been times when I’ve written a story for a magazine that accepts stories at 1200 words. Then the story is rejected, so I sit down and rework it for a magazine that accepts stories at 800 words. Cutting 400 words from a 1200 word story is really hard because that’s ¼ of the story! This takes practice. But I’ve sold several stories that way.
To recap:
1. You need a character with an interesting problem/challenge/goal
2. You need to escalate the conflict
3. Let the main character solve the problem or learn something from it
4. Cut out needless “fluff” words and edit the story to the proper length
Now get to work on that short story!
Here is a scan of one of my short stories that was published. Isn't the artwork cute? Click here to read it.





29 comments:

  1. I love writing short stories. That's usually how I end up with my novel sized ones. When I get the idea I write the short story, then flesh it out later. I dont know how long my short stories are...probably more of a novelette size. I'll have to check. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Maddie! Good point. Novels can come out of short stories. It's happened to me!

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  2. Thank you so much for this! I'm usually horrible at short stories. My ideas tend to get too big and I can't get what I want out within the word limit. Thank you so much for this! I get the feeling that this is going to help me with my short stories a lot! And your sample ideas were great. Also, thanks for the problem chart!

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    1. I'm glad it looks to be helpful, Kelsey! Keeping it simple in a short story is good.

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    2. Same here, Kelsey :) Thanks Mrs. Williamson!

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    3. I have this problem too!! So glad I'm not the only one, and SO grateful for this post!!
      ~Amo Libros

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  3. This was perfect timing! I have a creative writing class this semester (starts in just 2 weeks - yikes!) that teaches how to write short stories and plays, and all my fiction ideas are book size, so I've been getting nervous. The framework you provided helps me feel much more prepared. :-) Thanks!

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    1. Oooh, fun! I bet you'll learn lots in that class. I'm glad it gave you something to think about beforehand.
      :-)

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  4. I write tons of short stories, but not all of them are good. I'll try to keep this in mind. Thanks!

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    1. Maybe you can go back and edit some of those short stories and look for motivation and such. Don't ever throw anything away. You never know what ideas may someday turn into gems.

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  5. Thanks so much for this post!! Right down my alley. I've tried writing novel-length stories, but I can't seem to keep myself interested in them long enough to finish them! By then, I'm ready to start another story. I always thought I was just not dedicated enough,(which, I'm probably not) or that I really didn't have the gift of writing very much...but your post helped me see that maybe this is my niche. Maybe this is what God "gifted" me with:) Thanks again! Can't wait to experiment more with it!
    BTW I loved your short story. So cute, yet had a great lesson that even appealed to me, and not just younger age groups. Nice!

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    1. Thanks, Ariana! Yes! You could be great at short stories. There are plenty of authors who write simply for magazines. Maybe that's something that would appeal to you.

      My post on Friday will talk about how to find magazines to write for. Take a look at it (on Friday) and if you still need help, I'll see what I can come up with.

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  6. oh, also, do you know of any websites, or links to magazines that look for or want short stories?

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    1. What genre of stories do you want to publish?

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    2. Oops! Thought my reply would show up down here...

      Here is the reply to this part of your question:

      My post on Friday will talk about how to find magazines to write for. Take a look at it (on Friday) and if you still need help, I'll see what I can come up with.

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  7. Wow, what PERFECT timing! I've been struggling with writing a short story for a contest; I tried to start one today, but it didn't quite feel right. Maybe it's just because I'm used to writing longer works, but whatever the problem is, your outline seems like it could really help me out - so thank you!

    (Also, cute story! I agree, the artwork is adorable. ;)

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    1. Glad it was helpful, and the timing too! Best of luck on your contest entry! And thanks (about my little short story). *grin*

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  8. It seems like there are many people posting comments about the timing being great, and I'll have to join their ranks! I'm writing a short story, but it doesn't really have a story arc. It's more of a story with an ironic ending instead of a conclusion.

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    1. If your goal is to leave your reader pondering something, it's okay to have an ironic ending. Not all short stories are alike, just as not all writers are alike.

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  9. I've never finished or even written half of the first draft of a full novel, and I always felt like a failure as a writer for that. I mean, my writer friends talk about all things novel-related, with deep characters and intricate story lines, and everything I write ends up as a great short story but never a book. But the introduction to this post made me think of things differently and actually see short works for the great things they are, and realize that to be a successful writer I need to stop trying to fit a mold and focus on my strength: short stories.
    So thanks for the inspiration, Jill.

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    1. Whoo! I'm so happy that this inspired you, Emily! Like I said before, not all writers are alike. I'm thrilled that you know your strengths. So, keep at it, girl!

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  10. It can be difficult for me to put a story in a short amount of space! I need to keep working on that.

    Thank you for such a great post!

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  11. Jill! What a great post! I've always loved writing short stories. Recently, at school we had to write a short horror story (max. 800 words) for an English assignment. I got 10 out of 10! I was so excited! My teacher is going to publish it in the annual English newsletter for the whole school to see! I was so happy that I could finally call myself a writer. Anyways, enough of my blabber :)

    Your story was so beutiful and warm! It had such a homey tone with a great meaning behind it. And I've got to agree that the artwork is way cute!

    This post was really informative and it taught me a whole bunch! Thanks so much! :)

    Writer_At_Heart

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    1. You're welcome!

      Congrats on having your short story published! How exciting. And thanks for the compliments about my story. It was fun to write.

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    2. Thanks!

      You're welcome!

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  12. I loved this blog! I always struggle with the whole 'too much in a shot story' thing. This has really given me some great tips for short-story writing. Thanks so much, Jill! :)

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  13. Thanks for the post! One thing I love about short fiction is that you can get away with a lot of things you never could in a novel! For example, having a narrator who tells the story and is in the story, but honestly isn't the main focus or main character in the story. I have done that three six times now, (one of which was published) and I love it!

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