How to Write A Short Story
If you read this essay carefully and apply the principles it presents, you will be able to write a short story. What constitutes a good short story differs from reader to reader. For one reader, it's a slice of life marked by a gripping conflict. For another, it's a fascinating character study with a distinctive setting. For a third, it's a compelling use of science based in the future. And so on. We're going to concentrate on the "bare bones" of what, in my opinion, all good stories should have.
To write a good story, follow the numbered steps.
1. Immerse yourself in language.
To be ready to write a story in English, your consciousness must be steeped in the best writing in English throughout history. Consider someone who wants to compose music. Before doing that, she probably performs in a band, and before that, she probably studies singing or an individual instrument. She learns how to read music, she studies harmony, she listens to all kinds of good music for years, and she may study at a conservatory. Wynton Marsalis didn't just decide to go into his first recording studio to play the trumpet one rainy day while he was recovering from the flu.
Author Dean Koontz is on record as opposing "literature writing", which is what he calls the classics. But he suggests no alternative for the best and most elegant writing of the ages. He is one of the rare few successful writers without much formal training. His critics insist they can tell the difference in his writing.
If you want to write stories, you should study the literary form. You should study the great masters of storytelling, starting with Homer and progressing to Stephen King and John Irving,, and specifically the great masters of the short story, starting with Turgenev and Chekhov. Read as many books as you can find. You must read classics, not just current popular books. Tolstoy will teach you more about writing than Dean Koontz. You are steeping yourself in language. Keep a journal. Write letters (not just Emails) to your friends. Take writing classes.
2. Think of an idea for a story.
To a trained writer, this idea usually comes in a flash, you have to know how to cultivate the flash. Usually one element of the idea is settled from the start: "I want to write a story about my Uncle Leo" or "The summer we lived in Honolulu" or "The day President Kennedy was shot".
What about that summer we lived in Honolulu, then? Concentrate on what makes that experience significant to you. What other idea would you like to attach to it? Suppose it were "the professional surfers".
That gives you "the professional surfers the summer we lived in Honolulu". What about them to you want to write a story about? Maybe it would be "the surfer who stole my sister's wallet".
"The professor surfer who stole my sister's wallet when we lived in Honolulu one summer". That's a start.
3. Figure your angle.
"Angle" is a journalistic term meaning significance. You need to decide the angle or significance about this larcenous surfer. Your story could be about the theft itself, or tracking him down afterwards, or deciding not to prosecute him and meeting up with him again, or dozens of other alternatives.
If you can't determine an angle, return to Number 1 and tinker with your idea. Maybe you need a new one.
4. Outline your scenes.
Once you have an idea and an angle, it's time to map out your scenes. The story we'll going to tell will be about ten pages long, so we need three good scenes.
(Whether to concentrate on writing scenes or not is a lively literary controversy. For the beginning writer, writing scenes is tidier and easier. In addition, this story you're going to write will be in 3rd Person. That's the best point of view to learn with. 1st Person is too easy, and Omniscient is rarely used.)
Using our larcenous Honolulu surfer idea, we might create scenes of: (1) meeting surfers at Waikiki; (2) holding party at Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where theft takes place, and not reporting it; and (3) encountering larcenous surfer the next week.
Or we might say: (1) party for surfer friends at Royal Hawaiian, with theft taking place and no report made; (2) flashback to happier days at Waikiki; (3) encountering larcenous surfer the next week.
The outline you make can be loose and general, or it can be as precise as an agenda.
5. First of all, some writers conceive their characters as step 1. You do it as you please.
For a ten-page story, three main characters is plenty. Don't plan more than four. You can have many minor characters, but they shouldn't get under foot or make the action confusing.
At this point, with your idea, outline, and characters, you're ready for the hard part: actually writing.
You should swing into this with the enthusiasm that you had when you first learned to dance. You knew you weren't Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, but you were still having fun.
Put as much life into your story as you can. Don't worry about mistakes, because those can be edited later. Life is enthusiasm, and seeing something fresh for the first time.
Once you write a couple of stories, you'll see most of what you did wrong. You'll be able to edit yourself, for the most part.
Editing is not only fixing all the mistakes, but also buffing the story to make it shine.
Every story needs editing, and this was once true even of Chekhov and Stephen Crane stories. It's not unusual for some professional writers to take their stories through 30, 40, or 50 editing cycles.
You will learn to sense when you've reached the Point of Diminishing Returns. This is the point where further editing will not appreciably improve your story. Let it go, and get to work on your next story.
That's how to write a story. Writing a novel isn't much different. Of course, writing a good story or novel is a different subject. We'll treat that later. For now, remember that practice is the only thing that can make you a good writer. Put it into perspective. For example, it's far easier to get accepted by a medical college than it is to publish a short story in THE NEW YORKER.
Copyright Paul Saevig 2001