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Working Backwards to Create Tension in a Short Story

Edgar Allen Poe is one of the most prolific and well-known short story writers in American literature, and had much to say regarding the craft, particularly regarding the writer's process. In addition to believing firmly that a literary work should be read in one sitting, in his essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe writes: Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

It is within this concept of knowing the dénouement that the writer overcomes the biggest challenge in writing a short story: namely, the challenge of compressing a meaningful tale into one sitting for the reader. This becomes especially difficult considering the modern reader, whose attention span has become arguably shortened by multiple technological interruptions throughout the day. But the fact remains—if you wish to create a meaningful tale in fewer than 7,500 words, the best way to do it is by working backwards.

But how do I actually do that?

Knowing what to do and doing it are two different things, and if you've never done it, rest assured that working through the entire plot before writing your story might feel counterintuitive. However, the good news is that once you do it, the hard part of writing a short story is over; you can then focus on writing, which becomes much simpler when there is a clearly defined outline to work with.

When I work backwards in writing a short story, I start by asking myself what major change or revelation I want to transpire or be revealed at the end. A word of warning: this could be the most tedious part of the process, because in essence, you are determining a story's thematic focus.

After these questions have been answered and you have created a way to drive that theme home for your readers with a shocking or unnerving ending, you can then determine the best and most representative characters to complete those events or make those revelations. This is usually much easier to do than the aforementioned first step, because now, you have a thematic focus to work on and a solid base plot point (the conclusion) to build upon. Finding a character (or characters) to populate that plot is usually only a matter of looking for archetypes that fit your theme.

What are the advantages?

Although is almost goes against logic to write a story from the end, backwards, you'll find several advantages to undergoing this process. For example, knowing the end allows the writer to do the following:

  • Build suspense at a more correct pace—knowing how the story ends provides the opportunity to build suspense from the beginning, through foreshadowing and imagery from the very first sentence.
  • Build a character around the plot rather than the other way around—knowing a character's fate is highly useful in characterization techniques. Since short stories provide little opportunity for in-depth characterization, building a character around the plot rather than the other way around allows the writer to create a character who fits well into the short story genre.
  • Write the story's arc then go back in to fill in details—this type of outline, if you will, allows the writer to create a more realistic arc. To use geometrical reference as metaphor, knowing the beginning and ending of an arc supplies the writer with the most obvious angle for drawing it.

Building suspense

According to Poe, A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it. One of the greatest challenges for the short story writer, then, becomes determining this mood from the onset, and there is no easier way to achieve this task than to write (or at least know) the ending first. Working backwards from the end toward the beginning in your thought process when creating the story then becomes more intuitive, and allows you to pick out events or conversations between characters along the way that serve to build suspense before the dénouement.


Characterization isn't often a focus in short story writing, primarily because there is such limited space in which to develop a character. This mystery surrounding the character can work to your advantage, though, in that you can offer the reader a targeted, turbulent tour of the inner workings of a character's mind and then pull them right out again, while questions still remain. It's a process that makes the short story genre so uniquely powerful and appealing.

The story's arc

If you work out the end before even beginning the first sentence of the story, you'll likely be tempted to write the end first. This isn't necessarily a bad idea, and some short story writers swear it's the best method. Having carefully planned out the ending—what the main character or main characters will see and experience—you'll be more able to see the trajectory of plot and can more easily work backwards. This helps you avoid two of the most common pitfalls many writers face in the middle of writing a short story:

  1. Wandering off track with plot.
  2. Not being sure "where to go" next.

With the end plainly in sight, and especially if details of the end are worked out in great depth, you'll stay on track with plot and find a more suitable beginning that creates a well-paced short story plot line.

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