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Fun Things to do on a Wet Sunday - A Beginner's Guide to Writing a Short Story
Maya Angelou is quoted as saying "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." That's no less true about short stories than anything else in life.
If you liked writing short stories as a child, or if you've wondered if it's an art form that you'd like to get into, try these simple steps to basic story writing.
To plot or not to plot?
Some writers like to know where their story is going from start to finish before they begin to write.
Others like the story to unfold organically and grow from the end of the pen on its own, writing whatever their mind's eye shows them.
If that sounds a little 'out there', you may find that when you sit quietly with paper and pen or a keyboard, ideas just pop up into your consciousness spontaneously. Don't censor them because this is a first draft and you can edit later. Get things out onto the paper and then judge.
You will need to try both ways before you find which suits you best and you may find that both work for you depending on your mood.
How to find ideas for short stories.
Ideas are everywhere, it's just a matter of trapping them. Here are 6 methods - if you have other ways then please add them to the comments at the end - we'd all love the hear them!
1. Make a long list of random words - this can be an ongoing project if you like. For example chair, table, brunette, tall man, train, car, fire extinguisher, computer etc. Close your eyes and pick 4 of them. Who is the brunette? Where is the chair? Where is the car going? And how are you going to incorporate the fire extinguisher?
2. Look through any newspaper and pick 2 completely unrelated stories. Study the characters in the stories and what's happened to them. Could you knit these stories together to make a piece of your own fiction?
3. Which novel are you reading at the moment? Or did you have a favourite fairy story as a child? Try re-telling this story in a modern era or re-tell it from the point of view of another character - what does s/he see/think/feel? There's an example of this latter technique from the tale Jack and the Beanstalk - the story told from the Ogre's wife's point of view.
I wrote them - they're not great but they're short and were great fun to do.
4. Find a picture, a postcard or an old photograph and write the story behind the picture. What's happened? Who are the people? What's the message on the postcard and what about the writer/recipient?
5. Write a story each sentence beginning with consecutive letters of the alphabet. Work either A-Z or Z-A.
6. Choose a well-known phrase, use that as a title, or a variation of it, and go from there. There’s a example here – a variation of ‘same s**t, different day’ became a short story called ‘Same Smile, Different Man’.
Which person's point of view?
When you read a story you'll notice that the action is either written as what the writer did/saw/felt (ie I did, I saw, I felt) or from what other people did, saw and felt - he did, they said, she felt.
This is writing from the first person point of view or from the third person's point of view (PoV) respectively.
Writing from the writer's perspective (first person PoV) means you can only know about what the writer could experience, think and feel. So you can only speculate what other characters are doing/thinking/feeling or have them speak to the writer about it. This PoV has the advantage of making the story more intimate and personal.
If you write from the third person view point you can show what all the characters are experiencing, thinking and feeling because you are overseeing all of them.
A less common perspective is the second person view point. This is like a monologue where the writer is talking directly to the reader or her audience using 'you' - you did this, you did that. There's an example of this in Coleman's mother's story.
Dos and don’ts for making good stories.
Like anything else, practise, practise, practise. Here are some tips that will have people laughing and crying.
- Do have a compelling hook to the story. Grab the reader by the scruff of the neck and make him want to read on to the end. The first line should have the reader wonder what's coming next or what's going on (but hopefully not confused - making your story hard work will put the reader off).
- Do make sure the ending is satisfactory. It doesn't need to be happy but it must tie up all the loose ends. Villains should get their just deserts and you should not (under any circumstances) wake up to find it was all a dream. Dallas did that in the 80s - it wasn't good then either!
- Do use speech to move the story along. Characters talking about what's going on, who's doing what etc are vital to the story and mean you don't have to bore the reader with lots of description. Speech also tells the reader a lot about mood and surroundings.
- Do leave out anything that doesn't add to the story - using the bathroom, driving to work etc.
- Do make the story as long or as short as you like. There's a genre called 6-word stories and one of the best of these is by Ernest Hemingway. He simply wrote: 'For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.'
- Flash fiction has many definitions but is generally thought to be stories of less than 1000 words. Longer stories are often published as serials.
- Do use strong adjectives (describing words) and verbs (doing words). For example 'brown hair' could be 'chestnut' or 'mousy-brown'; 'running down the street' could be 'lolloping' or 'sprinting'. These words give a much more vivid image.
- Do create characters that seem real. When you care about them your readers will too and that emotion will be what makes them read to the end of the story.
- Don't have too many characters in a short story - it gets confusing for the reader. 3-4 is fine.
- And don't use too long a time line. Big sagas cover generations but a short story should perhaps be no longer than a week.
Writing stories can be fun, addictive and profitable. Look for print publications and websites that take (and pay for) stories but be aware that the competition is fierce.
Happy writing and please do add your tips below.