In its simplest definition, a short story is fiction that can be read in one sitting. But beyond that simple definition, there is so much more to a short story than meets the eye — and even more to writing one!
Many writers make the common mistake of assuming that writing a short story will be easier than writing a novel. On the surface, this may be true, since short stories are obviously shorter than a novel, and, therefore, less time-consuming. Deeper than the surface, however, is the fact that short stories use the same literary techniques of a novel and the same methods of characterization, but the author has far fewer words to achieve the same effect. In other words, despite the significantly lower word count, a short story can be as complicated — if not more so — as writing a novel. As a writer, you should include within your short story much of what a novelist would include in his or her novel — you just have a lot fewer words to do it in!
But if you are up for the task, and you want to write a short story, let's go over some tips from the experts on how to do it. We'll start with the advice of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, one of the most famous American short story writers, who enjoyed a long writing career that lasted for over 50 years. Within that timeframe, he published three short story collections, five plays, five nonfiction works, and 14 novels, the most famous of which is Slaughterhouse Five (1969).
Before we look at his tips for writing a short story, however, keep in mind that even Vonnegut suggested breaking his own "rules."
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor, Vonnegut wrote.
She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.
So why am I reading rules if they are meant to be broken, you might ask. Well, the answer to that is complicated, and we suggest using the following as tips rather than as rules, per se. In short — some rules are made to be broken, particularly in writing, but a general guideline is always helpful as you set out to write.
Tip 1 —
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Let's start with Vonnegut's advice, which begins with a reminder of focusing on writing a story that is important. While this seems obvious, many writers begin the process of writing a short story without considering their reader. However, your reader is the very first consideration you should make, and you should assume that he or she is a stranger to you. What is it that you have to say — what story do you have to tell — that would appeal to a complete stranger? How do you, as a writer, appeal to someone whom you've never met or with whom you've never spoken?
One way to do this is to write about something that is a common experience or feeling. The more compelling your story is to a broad audience, the greater your chances of finding success in publishing it. While there are certainly great short stories that have been published dealing with unique circumstances, those which focus on common human experiences and emotions are the ones that are most memorable in the minds of audiences.
Tip 2 —
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Here's the second piece of advice Vonnegut gives us. And, it calls to mind Eudora Welty, another prolific and famous American short story writer, who is best known for her short stories which depict life in the American South. In them, she broached topics that are heavy and ugly, such as racism and poverty, and created many characters who were as unlikeable as they were realistic. One aspect of her writing that attracted large audiences was her ability to show dark, complex themes interwoven into everyday characters and events — making small towns and small-minded people a central focus of her work.
However, in most cases, we like her characters, despite how fallible and tragically human they are. We root for them despite the circumstances and see their heroic qualities interwoven into their faults. It is this attraction, this desire for the characters to be happy despite their miserable surroundings, that makes Welty's readers love her work.
Tip 3 —
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Vonnegut's third suggestion involves character motivation, and it is arguably THE most important question a writer should ask when creating a character that readers find memorable. That question is simple: What motivates this person? Why are they doing what they are doing in the story? What is it that they want and are hoping to achieve?
Character motivation is a key part of how readers will identify with the characters you create in writing a short story. For example, a twenty-something male reader might have a difficult time identifying with a middle-aged female character. However, if that female character is motivated by the lure of fame, and the many dangers that go along with the temptation of it, it's a desire that the reader knows personally. It's this motivation that connects the reader to the character, making differences in gender, sociocultural status, and age nothing more than trivial details.
Tip 4 —
Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
This part of Vonnegut's advice reiterates the importance of making every word count when writing a short story. One of the great things about short stories, as a genre, is the way that they are able to make use of the same literary devices as full-length books. However, in a short story, there is intensity in their use, simply because reading in one sitting is a more intense experience than reading in multiple sittings. When a reader is exposed to a story all at once, without real life having an opportunity to creep in and pull his or her attention away from a book, it is truly an experience that could become quite memorable rather than just a passive activity.
The same is true for characterization in short stories. Characters who leave a lasting impression on the reader do it because:
- They are deep and complicated
- They go through a set of complicated circumstances
Through this complication in their lives, even if they are the type of person a reader would never encounter in his or her real life, this motivation — a common human trait — will connect the reader to what is happening in the story. Readers will be concerned about the outcome of the story simply because they are concerned about the welfare of the character. This ability to create memorable, human characters a reader can root for (or root against) is what separates great short story writers from mediocre ones.
Tip 5 —
Start as close to the end as possible.
Vonnegut's fifth tip has as much to do with the pacing of a story as it does with the short story's plot. We've been comparing short stories to novels, but unlike novels, short stories should start as close to the end as possible. While it may seem counterproductive to skip out on setting up the story from the beginning, there simply is not enough time in the span of a short story to tell a story from beginning to end. Rather, if you need to visualize it in your mind in comparison with a novel, think of a short story in one of two ways:
- As the very end of a novel or its climax
- As a snapshot of an important moment taken right in the middle of a story that stands on its own, without a lot of exposition
There are many details you'll feel the need to include to clue your reader in on what has happened before this moment in your short story. However, you should always ask yourself…does this detail advance the action or identify something important about my character(s)? If the answer to any of these is no, then don't include it. Your reader doesn't have to know everything about your characters' past to understand who they are in the present.
Tip 6 —
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
This one is somewhat indicative of Kurt Vonnegut's worldview, and not necessarily a view shared by other short story writers, but you should know about it either way. It's also important to note that in Vonnegut's most well-known short story, Harrison Bergeron, the main characters' 14-year-old son is killed on-air with a double-barreled shot gun, while taking over a television station in a futile attempt to overthrow an oppressive government. In this case, Vonnegut's advice certainly paid off well for him, so it is worth considering.
The takeaway from this tip is that when readers experience shocking events through a short story, it is a sort of cathartic experience for them. The best short story writers in American literature enjoyed this element of shocking the reader (for example, Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O'Conner, etc.) While it certainly isn't necessary to do this, it's important to know that the greats have done it — and have found success in doing so.
Tip 7 —
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
This comment from the famous writer is classic Vonnegut, but it brings up an important point: Your story should be written for one person. In many cases, that person should be you.
Tip 8 —
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
This advice goes along with Vonnegut's fifth tip, which is to start as close to the end as possible. In doing so, you'll need to let your reader know the exposition and the details of what led your characters to the point where they are in the short story. Again, as we mentioned previously: Be careful here, though, and make sure you don't crowd too much exposition into the beginning. Only give your reader what they need to know to understand your characters and what led them to this place.
Tip 9 — Separate the writing and the editing process.
This isn't Vonnegut's advice, but it is a suggestion you'll find throughout our blog on various writing topics, and it is worth repeating regarding writing short stories. It is important that you understand that writing and editing are two very different processes, and they should be completed separately. This means that when you sit down to write, don't second guess yourself by writing, reading what you wrote, and then changing it. Rather, most experts agree that it is better to write without making changes — just continue writing without revision — and save those changes for a different time when you are editing the story.
Tip 10 — Read, and then read some more.
Stephen King, arguably the most prolific writer of our times, has this advice:
If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write. Simple as that. Reading short stories written by others — particularly the greats — will help you more than reading this blog post ever could. While reading, you'll subconsciously pick up on writing practices used by other writers, as well as learn what publishers look for when they consider a short story (or short story collections) to publish.