Writing a story – even just a short story – is a lot like painting a picture. First, you start with a blank canvass. This can be very daunting, especially if you don’t know where to begin. But if you can get past the challenge and create a logical (though in the age of postmodernism, logic is sometimes unnecessary in a story) path from point A to point B, you can turn a simple idea into a fleshed out short story that is sure to entertain your readers.
In this article, I’m going to teach you the basics of writing a good short story. Whether you intend to publish it or just share it on your blog or writing website, it will be a story with a point and a clear message while, at the same time, drawing your readers to finish and appreciate your story.
What Makes a Good Story?
This is a good question, though sometimes it is a pointless one. If you read short stories, you’ll find that a work done by Poe is totally different from the style of Chekhov or Joyce. It’s pointless because, when you ask a person what made them attracted to a story, they may point out to elements that are a part of a writer’s signature style. Not everyone will like your work (this may be one of the hardest things amateur writers should accept), so when you want to write a “good” story, you shouldn’t be focusing on stylistic elements that vary from writer to writer.
“The Importance of Single Effect in a Prose Tale,” an essay by Edgar Allan Poe, talks about the importance of the “unity of effect” or what literary critics and writers call the singular effect. For him and many others, this was one important factor of any short story if an author wanted to write a good piece of literature. While the definition of a short story has been blurred over the centuries, Poe believed that short stories were consumable in one sitting. During that time, a story must bring out one emotion or effect towards the reader. Therefore, unlike films, plays, and novels that have the time to stray away from the main point of the story, everything added in a short story must point toward a single effect the writer is trying to achieve.
For me, however, a “good” story is not just a single effect alone. It is one that has the ability to captivate its readers. There are short stories that, no matter how they fit your preferences in genre and style, you just can’t be bothered to finish the story because you just aren’t that invested in knowing how it ends. It could be because the ending is predictable, the characters aren’t likable (or at least interesting) enough for you to care what happens, or it just didn’t make logical sense. But a good story is one that keeps a reader invested. In writing, time is gold, and you want your readers to give your short story the time of day. If it’s not a good story, why would a reader waste any more time reading it when they can find a more entertaining story?
There are many elements to a good story – some of which I can’t even teach you because a lot of these factors depend on the style you want to write in. But if you’re looking for a basic-level story that is entertaining, you’ll want to look at three elements: character, setting, plot.
Before we continue, you’ll might want to get a pen and a few papers for this next part. Some writers can web out the next parts in their head each time they write a story, but even some of the best writers of the past and present like to map out their ideas before they start filling in their canvass.
Short Story Ideation
It’s difficult to define a short story as literature in different times and cultures use the term to describe a wide range of literary pieces. The average word count of a short story ranges somewhere between 500 to 4,000 words, but it is possible to label prose fiction as a short story even with 20,000 words (a short novel would have roughly 50,000 words), down to flash fiction with less than a hundred words.
Based on Poe’s definition on the singular effect, short stories are works of fictions that are usually consumable within one sitting (compared to novels and books that may take days or weeks to finish) and, due to this constraint, must not stray away from the actual point of the story – in other words, everything written in the story must have a purpose towards that singular effect.
The first step to writing is to create an idea. As of now, you might have an idea for a story you’d like to put into words. You can write a story about anyone or anything you see, an idea that came in a dream, or just an idea that you think is going to make a good story. In one simple sentence, write that idea down. There’s no need to write down details like the character’s name or motivations as we’ll get to that part later. But it’s important to start with a clear idea.
Instruction: Write a one-sentence idea down.
Let’s say your story is about a woman making a deal with the devil. It’s an idea that’s already been used in a lot of stories and films, so you’ll have to add your own personal twist: the woman brings a lawyer to negotiate plans. Now, what part of that do you want to write about? Because short stories don’t have a strict word count, any idea can be a short story or a novel depending on what your story focuses on. If you want an in-depth look at the chain of consequences of her deal with the devil, it may have to be a novel because the singular effect cannot hold as there are multiple emotions present (i.e. she will obviously be happy that her wish is granted, but you can expect she will suffer because you can bet a deal with a devil is not without its fine print). But if you’re looking at the one scenario of her talking, negotiating, and agreeing to make a deal, this can fit into one story.
Here are two ways I’ve worded Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher. Try to observe which one is best suited for a short story and which one is better for a novel:
- A man goes to visit his ailing friend and his friend’s sister, only to find that their once noble house has sunk into madness and despair.
- A man visits and cares for his friend until he dies.
Both choices do happen in the story, and you might find it difficult to tell which one is better for a short story. This is because any idea can be turned to a short story depending on how you plot and write it. In the first example, you might think it sounds like a short story idea because you know that, in the end, the narrator will walk out of the house when madness has completely consumed the two Ushers. At the same time, it sounds like a logline for a dramatic television series. Depending on how much information you put and the kind of plot you want to see, the idea you wrote down can be a short story depending on what you plan next.
Step One: Creating a Character
Before you can map out a logical plot, you have to build the characters. This may be a difficult step if you haven’t done it before because, by nature, most of us are so used to doing rather than observing. For example, how do you react when you spill ketchup on your white shirt? On its own, it might not say much, but it does suggest how you react to minor inconveniences in your daily life, which says a lot about you as a person.
Since this is a short story, you don’t have to know all the details about your character like what their favorite color is or what they got for their fifth birthday. However, to create a logical story, you need to know your character and how they think in such a way that, if you had to think about a random fact about your character, you can spew out information that may or may not relate to the story.
For example, going back to the “deal with a devil” idea, let’s say the two characters you need to build are a woman and the lawyer. From the story alone, you can tell that the woman is in a desperate situation and, thus, turns to the devil to have her wish granted. But unless you’re going for a flat character, you need to know more about this girl. It’s alright to have flat characters since not everyone has to be focused on the story. Plenty of stories focus on doing deals with the devil, though, so what if instead of focusing on the woman striking the deal, we turn the story’s attention to the lawyer?
Since this story deals in supernatural elements and fiction deals in the suspension of disbelief, we can set aside the supernatural part and assume that the two characters accept the possibility that the devil is real. Let’s make and list down three things about this lawyer that are critical in this story.
- The lawyer is brave or at least self-assured of his skills. Everyone knows that when the devil makes a deal, there’s always a loophole or consequence that the person making the deal may not notice. This lawyer is so confident in his skills that he knows he can face up the devil and point out any loophole that could put his client in jeopardy. Let’s say that makes him cocky, even, and is smug each time he catches a loophole and calls the devil out for it.
- The lawyer’s self-confidence is based on years of successful trials after another. He’s not the young and arrogant lawyer who thinks the world is at his feet; he’s a lawyer that has proven his skills after decades of cases, which means he is around his late forties or early fifties.
- It takes one to know one, and for the lawyer to be brave enough to face off with the devil in a battle of legal wits, he has dealt in underhanded ways of winning his cases. He is not proud of it, but he is not above celebrating each of his major victories despite the questionable ways he does to achieve them.
In all three points, I’ve mentioned things that, once I start writing my short story, I don’t intend to add all this information to my story. But, writing that about him is necessary when building my character because it creates details and nuances about him that make him a more realistic character. For example, I’ve said that his self-confidence stems from experience over youthful arrogance, thus I was able to infer that my character should be around his middle ages. A young ambitious lawyer acts differently from a seasoned lawyer who has already reached the top, so when I finally write my story, I can make it clear that this isn’t a lawyer expected to fail after so many years of success.
Now, try to do this same character mapping with your idea. Find a main character (let’s just start with one) and then try to write down three things about them that is important to the story. You can write as much as you want, but try not to stray too far from the story. It’s nice to know what Hogwarts House your character identifies as (since it says a lot about how they see themselves), but not so much knowing the name of the saleslady who sold his favorite pair of socks (which makes no progress on finding out more about your character).
Instruction: Write down three descriptions about your character. In each description, feel free to write the implications or reasoning behind this description.
Step Two: Outline Your Short Story
The best way to do this is to look at your problem using the parts of the story. A traditional plot structure has five parts: an introduction, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and a resolution. While most stories have started straying away from the traditional structure, this is still the best way to outline a story for beginners. Take the devil story, for example. Using my idea and the build-up of a character, I’ve come up with a map of how I want the story to go.
Short Story Summary
Temporary title: Plea Bargain
It starts when a woman named Jane goes to negotiate a deal with the devil. She is desperate to save her failing company, so the devil appeared with a deal telling her he can help her. Before the devil can convince her to sign the contract, though, she informs him that she never signs blindly and has brought a seasoned lawyer to help her go through the contract to make sure she avoids all the possible loopholes. The lawyer and the devil then go back and forth with the contract, with the lawyer finding a dangerous loophole that could harm his client each time. It appears that the lawyer is winning, having caught a catch each time.
The devil, frustrated, decides to manipulate the lawyer. He tells the lawyer he is aware of his many legal successes and how most of those were won due to a killing or injuring key witnesses or their loved ones. He informs the lawyer that even if his client walks away with a clean contract, the lawyer will eventually die and suffer in hell for his crimes. While the devil cannot forgive the lawyer’s sins, he can promise a lighter sentence. He provides the lawyer with a clean statement: convince his client to sign, and he will receive a lighter sentence for eternity when he goes to hell.
The lawyer agrees on the deal. He takes the contract and, ignoring the loophole, lies and convinces his client to sign. The devil says that the company will be saved, but Jane will not be allowed to see it happen and is dragged to hell. Immediately after, the devil tells the lawyer that, in his haste to avoid fiery damnation, has missed one loophole and is dragged to hell as well.
Hell opens up once again, and Jane walks out. It is implied that the devil uses Jane to lure sinning lawyers in attempts to get them to sign away their souls to hell.
Now, let’s put that into a plot structure. The introduction of the story provides the exposition: Jane is supposedly trying to negotiate a deal with the devil, but she has brought a lawyer to the negotiation. As much as possible, don’t make your introduction an exposition dump. It may be easy to tell a story to your readers when they know all the facts, but if you give exposition for the sake of exposition without making it interesting, you could be making your readers bored and more likely to want to read something else.
Notice how, in this story, the lawyer does not say “Ah, the devil!” or doubt if he’s really seeing the devil in person. In stories like these where the supernatural is involved but you don’t want to make it a story about an everyday person horrified at the sight of a supernatural being, it is best to treat the supernatural entity as commonplace. Remember the singular effect: you’re wasting time making the character fear the paranormal entity when that’s not even the point of the story.
Next, we have the rising action. In going back and forth, it’s clear that the devil has met his match in this lawyer, and his plans to trick Jane into signing the contract. I thought it would be boring if the devil gives in and everyone gets a traditional happy ending. But then I saw that I haven’t really built a character for Jane and thought, what if Jane didn’t really have a character built because she’s just there for the purpose of the lawyer meeting the devil?
That’s how I came up with the conflict: since the lawyer has a shady past, he’s obviously going to hell when he dies. So, what if the devil told him this, putting the lawyer in an emotional position. Surely, his resolve will break and he will choose to save himself over his client. So, with his emotions high, his ability to catch loopholes is compromised, forcing him to make his own “plea bargain” with the devil.
The story comes to a head when the lawyer saves his own skin and advises Jane to sign despite the glaring catches in the contract. She is dragged to hell, which was premeditated by the lawyer.
Just as the lawyer thinks it is all over, he is dragged to hell, having missed a clause that allows the devil to take him to hell before his time. At the end, Jane (who is revealed to be a demon) is brought out of hell and it’s revealed that the devil, tired of waiting for sinners, has taken matters to his own hands and is getting them down to hell by making deals.
Structurally, it makes sense. Even though the reader is initially unaware of Jane and the devil’s alliance, everything makes logical sense. Because of her lack of a character build and a few foreshadowing ideas in the story, it makes sense that there’s going to be a twist like this in the end. I’ve never been a fan of short stories where the twist or the solution to the conflict is something that pops out of the blue. It’s a cop out because you’ve just given your protagonist a solution which was never foreshadowed.
Now, try it with your idea. First, create a brief summary of your story. I prefer to write it in paragraph form, but if you can organize your thoughts better in bullet points, do it that way. And then try to structure the plot to see if it makes sense.
Instruction: Come up with a brief summary. Try to plot the story out in a structure to see if the story would make sense.
Step Three: Write (and then Keep Writing)
From this point out, a lot of the writing style has to come from you. Anyone can teach you how to build a good character and a plot that makes sense, but when it comes to writing it down, it has to depend on your own writing style. What I can do, though, is offer you these tips:
- Don’t cling to your original idea.
One time, I was writing on a short story idea of the police trying to solve a high school murder where three students are suspects. I thought the idea was golden and, though I had not yet formed all the details, I thought it would be an entertaining read. Towards the end of my writing, though, the idea retained all of the characters, but it removed the need for police and was a scene in the guidance counselor’s office as the crime was reduced to someone defacing the school founder’s statue.
Your idea may seem good when you first think about it, but you can’t cling onto it at the expense of a convoluted plot and characters don’t really work. It’s difficult for some writers to admit their original idea is bad, but some of the best writers recognize that the idea may have to change to form a cohesive story without necessarily throwing away everything you’ve built. Towards the end of your writing, you may find a completely different idea from the one you started, but the result can be much better to read compared to your original idea if you forced yourself to stick with it.
- Use active words, not verbs
In writing, there’s a difference between action words and verbs. Here are two snippets: pick which one sounds better to read.
- Ginny reached for another pizza slice while she was still chewing on her previous slice.
- Ginny got another pizza slice when she was still eating her previous slice.
The words “reached,” “got,” “chewing,” and “eating” are all verbs, but “reached” and “chewing” are action words because they are words you can act on. You have to remember that your readers and reading, so action words help them visualize a scene in their minds. The flow of a sentence in a story moves better if you use action words to describe what they’re doing. In this example, it’s easier to envision a girl reaching out of the table while her mouth was moving on the first sentence. In the second sentence, you can imagine the same thing, but to your reader, it feels more like you narrating about Ginny’s actions than them imagining Ginny actually doing the work.
Using action words also helps with a rule my creative writing professor liked to call, “show, don’t tell.” To avoid exposition dumps in the beginning of a short story, as much as possible, it’s better to show the audience the state of things through your characters’ actions and the environment around them than to tell the reader point blank what is going on.
- Get feedback.
Once you’ve finished the story and read through it, it may seem good to you (because you wrote it), but you’re not writing for yourself. You’ll want to have a second pair of eyes to read through the story and see if it is understandable. A lot of writing instructors may tell you to ask your friends to review your story, but I strongly advise against this. Unless your friends are the type who believe in radical candor and won’t sugarcoat what they say to make you feel better, it’s highly likely your friend will shower you with praises and make you think you’re the best writer and an undiscovered modern-day Lovecraft in the making. It’s nice to hear praise about your work, but if it’s unfounded praise, you’re not going to learn how to improve and grow as a writer.
Not everyone will like your writing style or genre, so it’s best to get an opinion of a fellow writer or a professor who has experience writing and critiquing in various genres. In my experience, they focus less on your style and genre and more on how you can improve on building your character to make the reader invested enough to care about what happens next.
But if you want a story that can please the general public or you don’t know a lot of professors that can give you their opinion, publishing your stories online in websites like FictionPress and Wattpad (for beginner writers who want to surround themselves with fellow amateur writers) or The New Yorker and The Atlantic (for more advanced short story writers who are brave enough to face the review of professional literary critics) can help you find feedback.
Once you’ve mastered creating a character and developing a cohesive plot, you can start writing your story in your own style. How you do that is up to you, but take note that even some post-modern and experimental types of short stories stray away from the traditional plot structure. By following these steps to creating your character and plot as well as following these tips, you can create a story that entertains your readers while still having the sense and logic that won’t confuse them or destroy the point of your story.