Five Key Elements of Writing a Short Story
(In response to THIS request)
Writing a short story can be broken down in many ways, but the following five elements constitute what I believe make up a pretty solid core:
- Precise, sensually focused writing
To write a good short story you must have all five of these things worked in. I realize that may make the process seem overly simplified, and it isn't, there's a lot of nuance to the craft. But for someone looking to analyze their stories or for someone looking for where to start, this is a great place to begin. Let's get moving by breaking down the first element in some detail.
An interesting character is what will make your reader care. Pretty obvious, I know. But creating one requires more than just coming up with some cool idea like "I'll make her like my Aunt Hilda used to be" or "He can be like the man in the wheelchair that talks to me at the bar." That's a good place to begin, but that's not quite good enough to count as a "character."
The thing about a short story is that, well, it's short. Which means, you don't have time for any wasted words. So, your character is going to have "pop" right out of the gate. To do that, you need to focus down on exactly what trait it is about your Aunt Hilda or the man in the wheelchair that makes them "pop" for you.
What is it exactly about them that stands out? What is the crucial detail that makes them so interesting to you? The thing that defines them. Perhaps Aunt Hilda chews Red Man tobacco, or maybe the wheelchair man always sings his orders when he buys a drink. Is it Aunt Hilda's size and football player pushiness that sets her apart? Does the wheelchair man always cry when he talks about his dog?
You'll notice I'm not talking about eye color or the fact that the wheelchair man lost his legs in a tractor accident. What you're looking for is the BEST details, the INTERESTING details about this person, the thing that makes them "characters" rather than just some other human being.
Finding this critical detail or element will require a lot of thought, but when you find the right detail, you will know. It will feel right. Once you find that detail (or two), BLOW IT UP! That's right; you're writing a story here, exaggeration is your friend. You can't just say that Aunt Hilda is pushy and chews Red Man. You have to have her knock three women over at the supermarket and spit a dark stain on the younger one's clean white skirt. Or maybe she punches a trucker in the eye. Now come on, that's a character people are going to want to read. So, find a trait, the right one, and blow it up.
Once you have a good character lined up, you need to decide what it is that person wants; what is their motivating desire. It doesn't have to be something huge either, there's some amazing short stories out there with characters who want no more than to drink a glass of milk, or who just want to have a piece of lemon cake.
But no matter what, you need to know what it is that matters most to your character. And, not only do you need to establish this, there has to be something at stake for them if they can't get whatever it is they want (in the example of the milk drinker, the little boy would be beaten if he spilled).
We can run with the Aunt Hilda idea since we kind of have her started now. What does a truck-driver punching, tobacco chewing woman really want? Maybe she wants respect? Maybe she wishes she were a man. Perhaps she really wants to be thought of as ladylike. Hey, there's a fun idea, what if that's what Hilda wants, just to be seen as a woman for once, seen as feminine?
So there you go, now you know what motivates your character. A desire. But what's at stake? If Hilda can't be seen as a woman, what's the cost to her?
Well, maybe she'll never get the man she secretly loves. Aha, perhaps we've stumbled on the REAL desire of our dear old Aunt Hilda.
I think you see how this works.
Ok, so now we have a cool character with a desire. So how do we get a story going? Well, the best way to do that is to put our cool character into a situation and just see how it turns out. The key here is to make your character make decisions and, well, let them go horribly wrong. It seems cruel, but remember, you're writing a story. Nobody wants to read about Aunt Hilda who made all the right choices and ended up with her beloved Charlie Cooper in the end. How boring is that? So, let them make mistakes and deal with the consequence. That's what stories are about.
Alright, since we're talking short story here (emphasis for now on the "short") we want to get that going right away. So, start right in. Don't mess around with long-winded back stories and a lot of set up, blah-blah going on. Just jump right in. Seriously, like, right into the middle of the story.
Here's an example for our Aunt Hilda story... a possible first few lines:
Walleyed Tom Porter with the scar from Vietnam had poor Charlie pinned against the wall, kind of crammed into the corner and wriggling so much he made the juke box skip. Aunt Hilda gasped when she seen it and stood up, fat fingers balling into a fist. "You put him down this instant, Tommy Porter, or I'll make meat pie out of you," she said. Then Aunt Hilda strode right up to Tommy and spat brown tobacco juice on his shoe. "Put him down," she said again. And you know what? Old Tommy Porter did.
Ok, I'm obviously not going to win any awards with that, but I think you can see the point. Right out of the gate we've got our story underway. We're working in some character details through the action (which we'll cover later in more detail), we've got the object of her desire (Charlie) and we've created the beginnings of "conflict." Not the bar fight mind you, that's not the conflict that I mean. The conflict is where Charlie is going to have a hard time seeing Hilda as feminine after she just saved his butt in that bar fight. Remember, that's what Hilda's desire really is and Hilda's choice of walking over there and confronting Tommy undermines her real desire. See how fun that is?
Now you have a nice story underway, and poor Aunt Hilda has a lot of work to do. Charlie's ego, her brutishness, there's lots of stuff in her way, lots of conflict. She's got a lot of work to do if she's ever going to get Charlie to see her girlish side.
Anyway, starting out in the midst of the story gets the readers involved immediately and saves them having to slog through a bunch of backstory which, frankly, they just don't care about. You should know that back stuff yourself, in fact you should write out whole back histories for your characters so that YOU get to know them well. But your reader just doesn't give a crap. Leave it out.
Change is the metamorphosis, the realization or the epiphany. Change comes gradually as the story carefully unfolds, but it has to happen by the end. Nobody wants to read a story about Aunt Hilda who is a big brute and who lives through another day and goes to bed a big brute again. Something has to change.
Now, I'm not telling you what has to change. It's your story. It might be in your story, Aunt Hilda ultimately fails to win Charlie over in the end. Maybe she tried several things and all of them fail. But there is still change for her if the story is written well. Maybe she realizes after all her trials that she just isn't feminine. Your story could end with her finally recognizing she has no hope at all. She started out with hope, remember? But now she has given up. That's change. (Maybe not the best way to go, but it's change.) Maybe she just realizes she doesn't need to be justified by a man. Who knows? It's your story, you figure it out (write enough versions of your stories and eventually you will).
The change doesn't even have to be with her, it can be with the reader or the narrator. You'll notice our little example from back up there has a rather "folksy" feel (with all the "kind of" and "seen it" stuff going on). Change doesn't have to be the character's; it can be in the way others see Aunt Hilda instead. We start out seeing her as tough and big and kind of gross, but perhaps by the end we see how she acted out of love, how through the course of several scenes you might write her in more motherly ways, and this can be reflected by the way the folksy sounding narrator is treating her moving toward the end, gradually transforming the descriptions from the brutish things about her to the feminine details (discussed in more detail below). That narrator, and we, the reader, see her differently by the end. Always tough and maybe a little crude, but so willing to sacrifice herself, willing to give anything for someone else. That could be the irony of her plight, so big and strong and confident that at first people never realized just how sweet and vulnerable she is. Not until you showed them with your carefully written tale.
The bottom line is, by the end of the story, the reader needs to have seen or undergone some sort of transformation: Hilda changes, the narrator changes, or the reader's opinion changes. If not, then you didn't write a story, you just wrote a little "slice of life," sort of "a few hours in the day of so-and-so." If you have really amazing style, you might be able to pull that off, but if not, well, slice of life stuff is just... yawn ... not that fun to read.
Precise, sensually focused style
Alright, by "precise" I don't mean as if there is a "right" answer or a "wrong." And by "sensual" I don't mean that you are going to write erotic porn. When I say "precise" I mean, you're going to focus on the important details surrounding the events, like a camera shooting only the things that matter in the scene. Again, it's a SHORT story, almost like a poem, so you don't have room to waste. While a lot of this particular aspect will be improved when you revise, I want to be sure to point it out. Trim away the fat and keep the story pointed at the things that matter and that move the story along.
And, that said, when I use the word "sensually" I invoke the idea of "senses" not of sex. All of them. Not just eyes. Make the world alive, which includes sight and sound and smell and touch and taste. Remember them all. I'm not saying cram random details in willy-nilly, but, remember there is more to life than what we see. "The smell of Red Man tobacco assaulted him as she leaned into his face." Or maybe "Old Hank Williams seemed to stutter when Charlie bounced off that juke box like he did."
The important thing is that you write to the senses. Don't spend all your time in some damn character's head. I'm not saying never go there, but a lot of times writers will start out a good visceral scene and then go into the thoughts to reflect and put the story suddenly to sleep. Frequently it gets stuck there. For example:
As soon as Tommy set Charlie down, Aunt Hilda began to panic. What if I've turned him off, she thought. Oh, he's never going to think I'm ladylike now. I'm so hopeless, what ever should I do? Maybe I should run. He's never going to love me now. I just know I've ruined everything. Me and my big old, stupid body. I deserve to be alone.
Now, whether you think that is ok or not, I promise you, it's terrible. Nobody wants to read that. It's crap, so don't write it. You can't tell people what she thinks, and you can't tell them how she feels. Doing that is cheap and easy and it's bad writing. Hit yourself in the head with a rolled-up newspaper if you catch yourself doing that. Say, "Bad writer, Bad!" and mash your face into the screen. Then start that part over again.
You have to show them. Have Hilda's eyes pop open wide, have her and Charlie stare at one another. Charlie's face goes red, his eyes dart around seeking an escape. He can be heard sobbing through the blinking gap in the spring-loaded bathroom door. Something... have Hilda throw up. Have Charlie throw up. Something. Just, SHOW it, don't tell it from inside that woman's head!
Now, I'm not saying you can never go into someone's head. The thing is, most writers use it as a crutch. Perfectly good stories have been told without ever going into someone's head. If you don't believe me, read Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." So just don't do it until you are as good as Hemingway. If you must do it, limit yourself to no more than a single line.
A few final thoughts
So there you have five key elements to help you write a short story, or at least to get one underway. There's lots of other things we might have looked at, and that you should in time, but you have enough to start writing now. I don't promise every story that you write will turn out the way you want. In fact, most of them usually don't. Writing is its own teacher, though, and the more you write the better chance you have of getting a story right. I read somewhere once that a "writer's best friend is his garbage can." Truer words have never been uttered. The rest is in revision (which I'm saving for another hub).
Getting good at these five things takes time, lots and lots of time. I certainly haven't perfected them yet. I probably never will. But, I do know that through practice and practice and a bit of practice you will get better with every story that you write. Besides, writing is the joy all by itself. It's just nice to know you can keep getting better at it along the way.
Have fun, and I wish you and your short stories the best of luck.