Saturday, August 29, 2015

Writing Good Short Stories

This is taken from a handout / lecture/ rant I give my Fiction Workshop students every year at about this point in the semester (second or third workshop, in other words).  I thought some of y'all might like to read it.

It's my tips on Writing Good Short Stories.

(1) These are tips, not rules.  You don't write fiction by rules.

(2) The best short stories will be between 1500 and 5000 words. That’s about two to twenty pages – not a lot of room to develop characters, confliction, drama, and resolution. 

(3) Keep the number of characters in your short story small.  One, two, or three characters is best. 

(4) Your main character should want something. This desire drives the engine of the plot.  If you have two characters in a story, they should both want something, and their desires should be in conflict.  That conflict should be the engine of the plot.  (If your characters’ desires are not in conflict, where is your conflict?  Where is your plot?)

(5) Make your characters smart.  Smarter than you, if possible, and smarter than your readers if you can.  (Your readers are always smarter than you think they are.)  In general, reading about stupid characters doing stupid things is a recipe for a boring story.  This is not to say it can never work – but think carefully before you try it.

(6) The story must be about something that matters.  Ideally, the story should be about the most important day in your main character’s life – the day everything changes.

(7) Start late in the story.  In the 17th century, stories could take sixteen pages to warm up, describing the weather and the economy and where the main character’s grandparents went to school.  You are writing in the 21st century.  Start as close to the end of the story as possible.

(8) Don’t be nice to your characters.  Good stories work on conflict.  Bad things have to happen, or where’s the story?  Make your characters suffer! 

(9) Write in scenes.  Do not, in other words, describe or explain what is happening.  Show us what is happening.  Use dialogue, use description, use physical detail.

(10) No metaphors.  NO METAPHORS.  Do not, do not, do not use metaphors.  No similes either.  You are not writing poetry.  No one is interested in how pretty you can write.  This is fiction.  Don’t tell me, “The silver ribbon of light wound through the splayed verdant thighs of the slumbering stone goddess blah blah blah.”  Tell me: “The river tumbled through the gorge.” 

(11) Pay attention to your verbs.  Good verbs are the powerhouse of the sentence.  Don’t say “The river ran swiftly,” say “The river tumbled.”

(12) Write good dialogue.  (I have an entire separate rant on how to write good dialogue!)

(13) Do not take your reader where they expect to go.  If the story plays out exactly as we expect it to – if your main character wants a puppy, for example, and at the end of the story he gets a puppy, and everyone is happy – what’s the point of the story?  Make something else happen.  (It should be a robot puppy.  And it’s a lot smarter than he is.  And then…?  Or it’s not a puppy, it’s a really old and ugly dog, and it smells bad.  And then…?)

(14) You may well use real life in your fiction – almost every writer does.  But this is fiction.  It doesn’t matter whether this thing really did happen to you, or to this guy you know.  What matters is whether it works in this story.  If it does, great.  If it doesn’t, change it.  The least interesting thing about a fact is that it’s true. 

(15) Less is more.  Once you have written your story, let it sit a day or two, and then go through it and cut it.  Your goal is to strip it to the bones.  If it’s 5000 words, make it 3000 words.  If it’s 3000 words, make it 2000 words.  Ask yourself if you can lose the first six pages.  Ask yourself, about every scene, if you absolutely need that scene.  And if you do need that scene, can you cut the end?  Or the beginning?  Are there are bits in the middle you can cut?  Also, cut every adverb you can, and most of the adjectives.  Go through and look for qualifiers. (Well, almost, nearly, blah blah blah – either you mean it or you don’t mean it. Cut the qualifiers.)  Not only is a shorter story easier to sell, stripped down, tight prose is much more interesting to read.

(16) Know your characters’ back stories.  Even if it doesn’t make it onto the page, know everything about your characters.

(17) Set your stories in real places.  This follows on the previous tip – it goes along with knowing the back stories, in other words.  If you set your stories in an amorphous Neverland, Some City, Nowhere, USA, then you will find it hard to visualize the streets your characters are walking on, or the landscape around them.  What you can’t see, you can’t give concrete details about.  Put your characters in Fayetteville, Arkansas, or Pocatello, Idaho, or Ashville, North Carolina, or Barrows, Alaska – but make sure these are places you actually know something about.  Ideally, they should be places you have actually been.

(18) Revise, revise, revise.

(19) Submit, submit, submit.  These last two are key for being an actual writer.  If you don’t revise, and you don’t submit, you’re just playing games.  You need to revise your work and you need to send it out.  You’ll get rejected, which feels awful.  Just send it out again.  Writers who don’t submit their work might as well not be writing at all.


undine said...

Great tips! I have been thinking of trying my hand at writing short stories and this is very helpful.

delagar said...


Unknown said...

But Carver didn't really write that way until Gordon Lish got a hold of the pages with a blue pencil, did he? ;-)

delagar said...

Did I steal some of this from Raymond Carver, Chris?

I wouldn't be at all surprised! Steal from the best!

D Shannon said...

May I suggest rule 20?

(20) Remember, these rules are not ironclad. There are great stories in which Daniil Kharms violated every one of these rules except rule (13).

I wonder how students would react to The Encounter.

delagar said...

(1) does say that these are *tips* and not rules, D. Shannon -- because you don't write fiction by rules.

(You might have missed that one, because it's in a slightly different front from the rest.)

heebie-geebie said...

(19) Submit, submit, submit. These last two are key for being an actual writer. If you don’t revise, and you don’t submit, you’re just,,,

...a blogger!

delagar said...

LOL. Yes!

"A blog is a little First Amendment Machine."