Writing Tips: Short Story Writing - How to write a short story

Keeping a story compact is one of the writer's greatest challenges

The writer at twenty-three.  A variety of backgrounds, including six years in the Royal Australian Navy between 1954 and 1960 provided plenty of experiences for the writer's later writings.
The writer at twenty-three. A variety of backgrounds, including six years in the Royal Australian Navy between 1954 and 1960 provided plenty of experiences for the writer's later writings.

The fewer the words, the higher the quality required

Welcome to Writing Tips: Short Story Writing - How to Write a Great Short Story

Many budding writers are told to get practice in their art by first of all learning to write short stories. I doubt that this is good advice, for writing a short story can be one of the writer’s most challenging projects. This is because in the short story, quality is paramount; every word must carry weight, the story needs to work to a climax and then cease, abruptly –nothing more to be said – and the reader needs to finish the yarn feeling that it is complete...and satisfyingly complete .


Snippets from life aren't really stories

I have picked up many a book which supposedly contains short writings. It might be a compendium of stories written by people who belong to a writing class or club. The quality of such writing may be quite good. But generally they do not contain short stories at all; rather, they portray snippets of life; significant episodes, but no real story.

So what does a story, and in particular, a short story contain?

Soldiers in Korea at the time the incident is purported to have happened.
Soldiers in Korea at the time the incident is purported to have happened.

Writing Tips - Short Story Writing - How to write a great short story - Set the scene right away

Well, it needs to have a setting. It needs a subject who is central to the story. There needs to be some sort of action, preferably some conflict. The action needs to be undertaken, and the conflict either resolved or brought to some sort of conclusion, e.g. a victory or triumph – or its opposite, a defeat, a tragedy; something that gets to the heart of the reader. The short story writer is after an emotional reaction, for the most part.

A short story is most effective if its progress leads to the unexpected; a sudden twist, maybe even a double twist. But this is not essential. A story is good if it simply carries the reader away on a visual trip which also grips his or her heart-strings. For example, most people know of the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage. I’ve told that story orally dozens of times and it is still welcomed by my listeners. They love it. Films have been made of this incident, and dozens of detailed books written – and probably many a short story writer has used the Titanic’s sinking as a setting or backdrop.

Writing Tips : How to write a great short story

I guess one of the best ways to show the budding writer how to present an effective, prize-winning short story is to put forward one of my own. Here it is...

Here is the story I wrote in 1968. In 1970 I had it published in the Department of Civil Aviation’s (for whom I then worked) in house magazine, “Air .” In 2008 I resurrected it and entered it into a short story contest where it took out second prize. The story was told to me by a work-mate, who claimed that his elder brother was a soldier in the Korean Conflict and had told him this tale. It is believed to be a true.


Example of a Short Story - "A Korean Christmas"

Set the Scene

It was cold and dark on the hill, but inside the dugout the soldiers felt snug and warm.

The fighting had been bitter and bloody all along the front, but that was now over, for a while, anyway. For it was a time of truce; a forty-eight hour truce in which the opposing armies would cease to kill each other and attempt to live a little.

The seven men sat on empty ammunition boxes around their make-shift table.

They were playing cards. In front of them were little piles of coin money and a few crumpled notes of small denomination. Close by were several cans of American beer. Occupying a place on honour near the head of their plank table was a big, dark, raisin-studded Christmas cake. The eighth of their number, “The Kid,” was outside on sentry duty. They had let him take guard alone tonight; there would be no trouble.

Korean Mountains in Winter
Korean Mountains in Winter

Introduce the main player or players and 'the problem.'

Outside, the eighteen-year-old sat huddled in the corner of the sandbag enclosure, his back against the tripod of the heavy machine gun. He felt proud to have been elected to stand guard. The boy had joined the squad only yesterday and already his mates had put him in a position of trust. His eyes flickered from left to right and then back again as he peered across the pale patch of snow beyond the barbed-wire perimeter.

Out there was the no-man’s land he had heard so much about. The Reds had agreed to a two-day cease-fire, but “you couldn’t trust the oriental bastards,” he thought to himself. What did Christmas mean to a North Korean?

It was then that he heard the sound; the slight squeak of a boot on fresh snow. The Kid raised his head, listening intently. There it was again. He could feel his heart beating rapidly somewhere up in his throat. No time to warn the fellows. Here they come- four, no five of them! The dim shapes moved slowly towards him. His hands trembled as he fumbled off his mittens and released the safety-catch on the machine gun.

Soldier expecting an attack

Writing Tips : Action and climax - then end

The still night seemed to come alive as the automatic weapon blasted out bullets and a foot-long flame into the darkness. There were cries and screams and the sounds of running men.

The Kids seven comrades joined him. They tumbled out into the crisp air, the drink and warmth-induced drowsiness gone immediately. They strained their eyes as they squinted down the slope, rifles at the ready. But they did not shoot. There was nothing to shoot at. The soldiers could hear someone groaning but after a few minutes the sound ceased and there was nothing but the faint singing of the wind across the whitened hill.

Several hours passed and gradually, almost imperceptibly, the scene lightened.

The men still crouched or lay behind the sandbags, most of them dozing fitfully. There had been no movement from the enemy front all night: no shelling, no aircraft overhead, not even a rifle shot. The sun lifted a wan disc over the horizon, its first weak rays shining upon the hill. It was then that the kid saw them- the three figures like broken dolls, sprawled against the hill of white. And around them the little packages of food and wood-carvings and model sampans- the Christmas presents they had been bringing to their enemies.

The last sentence should round it all up

Now, if you take a quick look at this example of how to write a great short story you will see that it has a number of elements: firstly a few sentences which generally set the scene. Then a main character is introduced. Then he is set a problem; something that needs to be decided upon or resolved in some way. There is conflict. In this case it is not so much internal, i.e. in the mind of the main subject, as an actual physical conflict. The kid actually thinks he and his buddies are under attack. The twist comes at the very end; the last sentence. It is a bit like the punch line in a joke. It comes right at the end, the last sentence, preferably the last word.

I hope you enjoyed Writing Tips - Short Story Writing - How to Write a Great Short Story. But it's time to close. This has grown a little lengthy for a Hub. Still, I think it will be of use. Please let me know by way of feedback what you think of it.

Thanks,

Tom Ware.

13 comments

Lora Palmer profile image

Lora Palmer 6 years ago from Warrington, Pennsylvania

Very helpful advice! I will be attempting to apply these tips as I work on my first short story to publish as a hub.


Tusitala Tom profile image

Tusitala Tom 6 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Thank you, Lora. It's always gratifying to know that someone actually benefits from one's writing tips. I wish you well, and look forward to reading that story. And yes, I will include you on my friends list.


SweetSusan1435 profile image

SweetSusan1435 5 years ago from Colorado

Thank you, Tom! I appreciate other writers sharing what has worked for them; and it is obvious from reading this article that your writing plan works!


mary615 profile image

mary615 4 years ago from Florida

You are such a good story teller! This example had a surprise ending which, as you say, is always good. I could learn a lot from you!


carol3san profile image

carol3san 4 years ago from Hollywood Florida

Thanks for the lesson. Much appreciated.


chicagoguy profile image

chicagoguy 4 years ago from Chicago ,USA

good info


A K Turner profile image

A K Turner 4 years ago from West Yorkshire

Love the twist, interesting stuff, gets me thinking more deeply about my own writing. I do agree, I find short stories a lot harder than writing novels loool.


tjdavis profile image

tjdavis 4 years ago from Moscow, Texas

Thanks Tom..not only did you tell us how to write a short story but gave us an example which is what I needed. I did not see that end coming.


Tusitala Tom profile image

Tusitala Tom 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Yes, a good short story is a bit like a top comedian's joke. If the punch line is in the last sentence its good. If it is in the last word it is great. The challenge of the short story is, of course, pruning; taking out every word that does not add to it.

Good luck in your writing.


A K Turner profile image

A K Turner 4 years ago from West Yorkshire

Just to let you know tom I have reposted a link to this fantastic article at the end of my own on the mechanics of short story writing. I would write my own one, but I think yours explains it better than I ever could!


baygirl33 profile image

baygirl33 4 years ago from Hamilton On.

Wonderful information.Best I've seen.

Thank you for sharing . I will bookmark for further study.


Life Iz Beautiful profile image

Life Iz Beautiful 3 years ago from India

Very informative. I am going to bookmark it and re read it as many times as I can, you know, have to drill the point home! Thank you for this article.


Lee Cloak 18 months ago

Great hub, great info, very interesting, thanks, Lee

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