On Writing Fiction and Short Stories

On Writing Fiction and Short Stories


I’ve been asked several times to publish a Hub on how to write a short story, but since I’m simply not qualified to teach writers, all I can do is tell you how I go about it:

1) I study the authors I admire and enjoy reading, from the classics to people like Stephen King and Louis L’Amour. I don’t try to copy them, but I do help myself to techniques I like.

2) I’ve learned the importance of an opening sentence, because it’s often the difference between someone reading you, and someone ignoring your story. For instance, consider the opening line of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”:

“Marley was dead, to begin with.”

OK, just six short words, but the reader automatically wants to know who in the world Marley is, and why the heck we should care that he’s dead. Dickens hooked his readers immediately with that line, and is still hooking them nearly two hundred years later. If he had begun with, “It was a cold, and dreary winter night’, probably only those who had nothing else to read would have kept on reading.

3) I look at writing as an art, and just like an artist, I try to show my reader the story, rather than tell the story (yes, I know it's a cliché). In other words, I try to paint them a word picture. For instance, look at two different approaches for setting the same scene:

Version one

It was early morning, and Dave Wilson was sitting on his front porch listening to the ranch animals stirring. In the kitchen, Martha Wilson was cooking breakfast.

Version two

The leaves of giant cottonwoods filtered the early morning sun, dappling it softly across the dust of the ranch yard. Dave Wilson was enjoying the coolness of dawn, sitting quietly on the front porch. Somewhere, a rooster crowed a greeting to the new day, and a calf bawled for his mother. The familiar morning aroma of bacon and coffee drifted through the front door, informing Dave that Martha was up and about in the kitchen.

The same scene, but while the first version told you what was happening, the second showed you what was happening.

4) I’ve found that my story ideas are often inspired by something I see or hear at the most inopportune times, and I know from sad experience that if I don’t write it down ASAP, I’m likely to forget what it was. ‘The Inheritance’ was inspired while watching a movie, and if you’ve read the story, you also know what movie it was.

(Of course, pausing a movie while we make notes will necessarily irritate our spouses, but that's the price we authors must pay.)

Some stories come from random inspirations, and some come from personal experience, but they all depend on personal knowledge. I only write what I know, which of course, is another cliché.

I always have the entire story firmly in mind before I start, so that my characters are well defined and the sequence of events make sense. Some writers prefer to outline, but I usually don’t for short stories.

I also sometimes envision the conclusion first and then write a story around it. But above all, I avoid the unnecessary detours, diversions, and dead ends that some writers employ, because that would leave my reader rightfully wondering why in the world I did that. I like relentless plots that grab you and won’t let go. So do most other readers.

5) One of the most frequent comments I get are how real my characters seem to be, because, they say, I take such pains in their descriptions. The fact is, in most cases I hardly describe my characters at all! I simply point my readers in the right direction and let them decide whether the characters are handsome, beautiful, tall, fat, skinny, homely, whatever.

I never overwhelm my reader with details unless they are necessary to the story. I let the reader picture the details. For instance, if I simply describe a Sheriff as having a shock of gray hair my readers will automatically envision an older man wearing a hat and badge with a worn face wrinkled by time and perhaps a bit stooped. They then think I did a marvelous job of describing him. (I will probably regret revealing that!)

Many otherwise great stories are spoiled by far too much information. I never make my poor reader plod through an intricate description of what someone looks like or what she’s wearing unless it’s an absolutely necessary part of the plot.

6) To my way of thinking, the best way to develop my characters is through dialogue. For instance, my character Gimpy Wilson was described as having a bad leg and looking older than he was. That was basically it for his physical description. But his real development and personality came out in his dialogue as a grumpy, cantankerous jailor with a ferocious temper, but who also had a very courageous and valiant side he tried to keep hidden.

With dialogue, we can create anyone we please, and often with just a line or two.

7) I like a great finish, and as those of you who've been kind enough to read me know, I often lead readers astray so I can sting you with a twist conclusion. However, most good stories don’t do that. They simply wind it all up neatly and bid you goodbye. A well written story should not leave a reader hanging on loose ends, so a good conclusion is as necessary as a good first paragraph.

I hope that gives those of you who asked me to do this some ideas. And if you comment on this, you are welcome to add ideas of your own. Thank you for reading.

Will

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Comments 65 comments

resspenser profile image

resspenser 2 years ago from South Carolina

Every single idea here makes sense. Thanks for the tips! Now, how about a story? Ha!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi, Ronny!

I will if you will! How about a cop/Christmas story this year from the master?

BTW, when it comes to your writing, I'm the student.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

Will,

You are not only a great writer but an excellent teacher. This has to be the best article I've read on writing fiction and short stories! Thank you for sharing your expertise. I will remember this hub next year for the Hubbie awards.

Up +++++ tweeting, pinning, G+ and sharing.

Brilliant!


Old Poolman profile image

Old Poolman 2 years ago from Rural Arizona

Wow, hints and tips from a true master of the art. I'm sure that all of your readers will appreciate this greatly, I know I do.

With that being said, there is only one WillStarr and that is all there will ever be. Technique is only part of the task, the rest lives in the heart and mind of the artist.

I have always had a very clear picture of every character in your stories. I always thought you had provided the visual image for me but now I learn the image was all mine. Well done my friend and looking forward to the next WillStarr story with the hidden twist at the end.

Thanks for sharing with all of us.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

These useful hints are really key to great story writing, Will. And you certainly know how to do it. Thanks for letting us in on some of your secrets. Nicely explained and useful. Sharing, too.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM

Will: You did an outstanding job of teaching us how to write a short story. I can tell you as an English teacher that your tips are spot on. If you can do it you can teach it. Your stories are always enthralling and engaging for the very points you state. Thanks for the tutorial from an accomplished and talented writer.


suziecat7 profile image

suziecat7 2 years ago from Asheville, NC

Great advice from a master short story writer. Like your stories your tips are simple but meaty. You inspire me to get back to dabbling in that genre. Thanks.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

As you may or may not know, I am a big believe is listening to the words of experience. You write one hell of a story, so it would behoove me to listen to your advice. Right on, Will, or should I say WRITE on? Whatever....this is great advice and it is now in my writing folder. Thanks my friend.


Ginn Navarre profile image

Ginn Navarre 2 years ago

I also see here and what draws me in to Fiction writing is that in (my opinion) it really has more freedom. Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck proved this and the rebel in me reaches out and pulls me in with your first word and holds me to your end-twist.

My dear talented friend you have a very special gift and it is an honor to have been able to turn several of these short stories into AUIDOS.


John Holden profile image

John Holden 2 years ago

Will, it's a shame that your grasp of politics is not as sound as your grasp of writing :)

I find long journeys as a passenger are great for developing ideas and I often seem to spend more time editing and revising than actually writing.

Thanks, voted up and interesting.


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 2 years ago from Central Florida

Will, even your tutorial reads like a good story. It's interesting to discover the paths writers take in their craft. Each has his/her own style and progression. I happen to love your stories. I'm often hit with a boy-I-didn't-see-that-coming reaction, which is the sign of an awesome writer, in my book.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 2 years ago from Southern Illinois

Will, I've just recently started writing short stories and starting the story is the most difficult part for me. I have never known the entire story when I begin, maybe that's my problem. Thank's so much. I love your stories..


Joel Diffendarfer profile image

Joel Diffendarfer 2 years ago from Ft Collins, Colorado

Very helpful...a great crash course. This definitely is a must read for both beginning and accomplished writers alike. Very well organized. Please continue to mentor us all. Thanks.


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 2 years ago from South Africa

Excellent and very useful guidelines! Thank you, WillStar :) Shoot me! Giving too much information is one of my flaws.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you Mike, for those kind words!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi, Peg, and thank you!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi Suzette, and that's high praise coming from an English teacher!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi Suziecat, and we all look forward to one of your superb stories!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

I guess guys named 'Bill' just like to write, billybuc! Thanks for the nice comment!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi Ginn!

For those of you who may be unaware, Ginn has made audio renditions of some of my stories. Check her out!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi John Holden, and welcome to Will Starr world. I was unaware that you also write fiction, so why not post some so we can enjoy?


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi Shauna and thank you! Again, my musings in this Hub are in response to several requests and not meant to be hard and fast at all. As you point out, there are as many styles as there are writers!


John Holden profile image

John Holden 2 years ago

There is a minute amount of fiction here on Hubpages. This isn't the place I choose to put most of it. Unfortunately since my stroke I've almost stopped writing entirely.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi Ruby Jean!

I often start a story with some dialogue. Once you have your characters defined, you can always let one of them open your story with a line that catches your reader's attention:

"I haven't seen it rain this hard since I was a little girl". Ruby Jean stared out the living room window at the downpour.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, Joel Diffendarfer, and welcome to HubPages!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

You have flaws, Martie? Who knew!

How much detail I put into a story depends on how much detail is needed. If the reader needs to know that one of my characters has special features, then it's necessary. But if it gets in the way of the story, then I don't make my reader slog through a lot of detail, because we all have a mind's eye, and we all like to use it.

I send my stories to a state prison, and some inmates have sent my their depictions of my scene settings(so many are artistic!), and it's amazing to see how differently a reader pictures a scene from what I had in mind.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

I'm sorry to hear about your stroke John, so I wish you a full and speedy recovery. In light of that, I'll be sure to avoid raising your blood pressure from now on, my friend!


John Holden profile image

John Holden 2 years ago

Ah Will it was few years ago now, just never got back the attention span to write much more than short sentences. Blood pressure is fine!


Cardisa profile image

Cardisa 2 years ago from Jamaica

Finally giving away those secrets! Very good, and you said you don't know how to teach writers. This is very good. The painting the word picture part is hard but I'm working on that. thanks for the lesson Bill, you need to do more hubs like these.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Take care John, and stay well.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you Carolee! This was well received, so maybe I will.


drbj profile image

drbj 2 years ago from south Florida

Who said you are not qualified to teach writers? Lose that thought! You just did a bang-up job with this post, my friend, so banish that canard from your mind. I would be happy to be a student of yours ... any time.


mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 2 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

Hello Will. You are the acknowledged master of the short story. When are you going to try your hand at a longer work? There are some nice tips here and I see that many have arrived (as usual) to see what you have to offer. Nice to see you giving up some of those secrets that have your readers spellbound.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, drbj!


mary615 profile image

mary615 2 years ago from Florida

I enjoy writing short stories, but of course, I have a lot to learn! I don't write many here because they just don't do too well (like poetry). I have compiled a notebook with my stories for my children of my life growing up in the country. They seem to enjoy reading those.

Thanks so much for this, I have learned from your Hub.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Mike. I don't know that they're secrets so much as they're techniques gleaned from others. But of course, some talent and desire is also involved, which is why we're here!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi Mary!

Writing children's stories, in my opinion, is far more difficult than what I do. I envy your ability to do that!


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 2 years ago from Southern Georgia

Always interesting to get another writer's take on creating a short story, Will. I've learned something from many of HP's authors and I'm happy to get your opinion on how to tell a tale. :)


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, Randy!


breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 2 years ago

Not only are you a talented writer, but you are a gifted teacher, as well! Up, useful, interesting and awesome!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Pop!


DJ Anderson 2 years ago

Wow! Great info, here, Will.

I often wish I were 30 years younger and had the time to write.

But, I would not have all the experiences taught to me in the last 30 years.

Great hub, Will.

DJ.


SubRon7 profile image

SubRon7 2 years ago from eastern North Dakota

Will, I think you did a great job here of "teaching" so don't sell yourself short, and don't think I don't learn from you.

About endings. Recently, I received a review for NWOR, Book 2, "The New Civil War" where the reviewer said I ended it too abruptly, and gave me only 3 stars. I didn't really think I ended it too abruptly, but now that a reviewer has said that I will take a look. That's one of the beauties of digital Amazon, you can make instant changes.

The thing is, right after "The End" I give a short preview of the next book, so--when I wrote it--I guess I didn't see the need for a more conclusive conclusion.

(In fact, if you don't mind, I'll send you a 1-page attachment.)

I'll be glad to know what you think....


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, DJ!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

I don't mind at all, James, and I'm flattered that you would value my opinion!


Genna East profile image

Genna East 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

Great words of advice, Will, and from an expert. I'm a long-time fan, so I found this very interesting. I especially liked the part about dialogue describing a character. I often do the same. It helps to create the picture without going into descriptive detail and lets the reader develop their own perspective without being led by the hand, so to speak. Excellent article, Will!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi Genna!

You nailed it! In your recent comment on 'Sally Little Britches', you said:

" I always love your characters; they are realistically drawn, engaging and convincing."

Of course other than just their ages, I used dialogue only to create the characters of Jack and Sally, but I'll wager that you have a mind's eye picture of both of them anyway, complete with height, weight, and hair color!

And that was my point, as you so eloquently stated!

Thank you!


diogenes profile image

diogenes 2 years ago from UK and Mexico

That's it, Will, a picture says (and should) a thousand words, and your tip re the sheriff is right on "a shock of grey hair"...a "word" picture.

I collect US crime and detective novels and one writer, James Lee Burke I believe to be the finest writer extant in the world today - in any genre! His prose is often sheer poetry and constantly amazes me, I am sure you are familiar with him...Bob


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Ah yes, the creator of Billy Bob Holland. I wonder if our own Billy Holland knows of Burke?

Thank you for the kind words, Bob! Your opinion is highly valued by this old writer.


bethperry profile image

bethperry 2 years ago from Tennesee

Will, these are excellent tips.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you Beth!


DrBillSmithWriter profile image

DrBillSmithWriter 23 months ago from Hollister, MO

Thanks for sharing. Each of us has our own style. However, probably 80 % or so what what you said is how I've described what I try to do, at one time or another... so, much more similarities than differences, in the end! ;-)


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 23 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, DrBill!


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 23 months ago from High desert of Nevada.

I had to bookmark this hub, Will, so I can easily come back and refer to it till it is ingrained in my spirit. I started to quote one of your tips here, then another, then another, ... then realized I would have quoted your entire hub as a great tip here in the little box. LOL

You are a master at the short story and I sure appreciate all these tips. Thank you so much for this hub.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 23 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Wow! I'm very flattered, Phyllis!


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 23 months ago from New York

I can only echo what everyone else has said. Not too original I know, but, it just goes to show everyone appreciates a master!

Thank you for sharing some of your expertise with those of us still learning.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 23 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

Good stuff. I'm prodding myself to write more short stories, and this is good inspiration as well as good information.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 23 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, mary!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 23 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

I look forward to reading you, Ron!


bat115 profile image

bat115 21 months ago from Los Angeles, CA

This was like attending a Creative Writing class except I think I learned so much more in 10 minutes of reading this than a 6-week CW course would provide!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

What a nice thing to say! Thank you!


Ghaelach 21 months ago

Morning Will.

I don't know if I have something wrong with my settings. I don't seem to be getting as many emails these days letting me know of new hubs from my fellow hubbers that I'm following, except in the HP notification newsletter. It's something I got used to and now miss. This hub is one of those I missed.

It's probably all been said, but what you have written I fully endorse. Being one of your many followers, I look forward to seeing your name in my HP email list of notifications. That's when I stop everything and rush to make a cup of tea, sit and get ready for something special.

I "Hope" we see another one soon. (sorry about the pun)

Have a great weekend.

Jimmy.......................................aka Ghaelach


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Good morning, Jimmy, and thank you!


ladyguitarpicker profile image

ladyguitarpicker 20 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

Thanks for the great tips and useful thoughts. I see your point on the first sentence, it has to be good to grab the reader. Thanks Stella


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 20 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, Stella!

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