Although small in size, a short story has the power to be as immersive as an epic novel if written well. In the blog, our fantastic editor and successfully published short story author Anastasia Parkes gives us her advice and tips on how to write a short story that will captivate readers.
Churchill described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Some writers like to bedazzle and confuse. I prefer stories intriguing but pin-sharp. The constraint of around 6000 words is liberating yet challenging, telescoping your characters and events into a nutshell.
A short story revolves around the day that changes everything. A dilemma erupts, requiring action, decision or collapse. This can be external, human (attack, betrayal, reward) or environmental (war, heatwave, floods). Or internal: sickness, pregnancy, success.
Characters ascend, or descend, towards crisis and resolution, like riding a wave. They might be sucked under, tossed into the air, or land safely. The tide might recede, lulling us that all is well, but after the calm is when the tsunami breaks.
Every word counts. You must have a compass and a goal. Some short stories peter out. Others drop off a cliff. I like to enclose my world neatly, like a cityscape inside a snow globe. A great story reverberates like a tuning fork long after it’s finished, but only if readers care.
The all-important hook should startle or excite, pushing the character directly into the heat and the reader into unfamiliar territory.
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis opens: ‘Gregory Samsa woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself changed into a giant bug.’ The conflict is blinding, but the resolution disastrous. His repulsed family lock him up.
The pace can be rushed and crazy, or deceptively leisurely, but it must be handled deftly and economically, and the ending must be credible.
Your story may have haunted you for years, or it might be spontaneous, but it must feel box fresh. Dare to be outrageous. Don’t pussy foot if you have something to say. You don’t need a ‘label,’ but some idea of genre will keep you focused. So a crime story should introduce victim, murderer and sleuth. A romance should portray the transforming/redeeming/doomed power of love. A philosophical or religious tale can be illustrated with colourful symbols.
This comes from what you see and hear, experience, what you hate, love, read, eat. Pay attention to conversations in the supermarket, on holiday, spotted in the newspaper.
My short story collection Stabbing the Rain bristles with personal snippets. An awkward family gathering igniting forbidden passion; an adulterous weekend trashed by a message from home; a diagnosis triggering despair. If life is somewhat pedestrian, ‘borrow’ drama from the outside world. Pose the question ‘what if… the car hadn’t braked in time, he had missed that flight, she had taken that job offer?
Ghoulish or Gothic stories specialise in the twist (Tales of the Unexpected, Don’t Look Now) but such shocks are equally effective in the midst of a supposedly mundane situation. Muffle your own voice and adopt a new one. Get off your chest something you feel strongly about. Mountaineering. Mental illness. Murder.
The internet is fine for research, but try asking real doctors, police officers, psychiatrists, strippers about their lives. Go parachuting, learn the piano, visit a prison, cook in a restaurant. Then create your characters from bits of others, like assembling a scarecrow. Put a Love Island contestant’s breasts on a shy academic – metaphorically or really!
What you know will always lend authenticity, but avoid lecturing. A story can be thinly disguised autobiography so long as it informs, enlightens and entertains. Sonali Diraniragala’ book ‘Wave’ about the tsunami was reviewed under ‘fiction’ – perhaps because it was so dramatic.
Writing techniques for short stories
Show, don’t tell
Don’t hit us over the head with description and theory. Instead of saying ‘I looked hot and sweaty’ show us: ‘My clothes were sticking to me.’ Someone angry doesn’t declare, ‘I’m angry.’ They slam the door. Body language, actions, impressions, and dialogue will show interaction and make characters three-dimensional, whether we love or loathe them.
Don’t go to the other extreme, though. Don’t withhold. It’s a thin line between captivation and confusion.
Some writers favour the stream of consciousness, like filming with a hand held camera. This works with the ‘unreliable narrator’ eg someone disturbed, or broken hearted, or alcoholic, or criminal, but keep it real.
Kill your darlings
Jack Kerouac said ‘One day I will find the words and they will be simple.’
This isn’t just about tightening up ponderous or flowery prose. Simplification applies to the most basic of descriptions, so instead of ‘walked weakly’ use ‘stumbled.’
Even in a short story characters need a family, food, clothes, mannerism, belief systems, motivations, flaws. What would they do if they saw someone shoplifting/hitting a child/fainting? What do they want? What do they regret? Who do they love? This will clarify their viewpoint, how they react to and resolve conflict whether by adapting, changing, opposing others or fleeing. They may triumph or fail. If they won’t come alive, use the first person.
Drives plot and brings characters to life, but it must be natural. TV soaps are a master class in evolving drama, where fights, affairs, laughter, tears, tragedy, comedy all flow from the characters. So:
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ ‘Yes please.’ ‘Milk, sugar?’ ‘Great’ – is very dull.
But: ‘Cup of tea?’ ‘Got something stronger?’ ‘This early in the day?’ ‘You’re right, Mavis. Tea it is. Got to be good!’
Texts and emails are also excellent tools for dramatic impact.
Writing Exercises for short stories
Analyse the conflict in a fairy story eg Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel .
Try summarising a news item in dialogue form. Bring that information to life through conversation without being stilted or formal. Use builders/mothers/shoppers to discuss the incident/discovery – a water-cooler scenario.
Practice pitching your story. What or who is it about? What is the conflict? Sum it up as a headline. My story The Wrong Face is about a woman whose family do not recognise her after cosmetic surgery. That headline would read: ‘Family rejects mother after botched op’ .
See Anastasia’s advice put in to practice in her powerful and personal short story collectionStabbing the Rain which is available on Amazon. She has also written the extremely successful erotic fiction trilogy, Unbreakable, under her pseudonym.
Anastasia is just one of our fantastic editors who is available to give you incredibly valuable advice on your manuscript. Take your writing to the next level with an editorial critique today.