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How to Write a Short Story: The Basic Basics

Updated on March 3, 2018
Scott Gese profile image

Born East of the Dakota's, raised in the American West. I'm a writer of books, blog posts, magazine articles and short stories.

Writing a short story isn’t rocket science, but there are certain fundamental steps that you should learn in order to write a decent one.

It's not Rocket Science
It's not Rocket Science | Source

The objective of this article is to introduce you to those fundamentals through basic facts, tips and examples.

Anyone can scribble words onto a piece of paper, that’s easy. But the whole idea of writing is to be able to take certain words and put them together in such a way as to create coherent sentences. Then take those sentences and combine them into meaningful paragraphs. Finally arrange those meaningful paragraphs into a complete project. In this case a short story.

As with anything, You should master the fundamentals first. You can improve your skill level from there. Weave a good story line within those basic fundamentals and there you have it, a well written short story.

Where to Start
Where to Start | Source

Where to Start

Start with a Clear Theme

Before starting your story, you should have a good idea of what you’re going to write about. Are you trying to make a statement? Does the story convey an underlying message? If you don’t have a clear theme, your story may not resonate well with your readers.

Have a Good Story Line

A good short story has two sides. There’s the learned technical side and there’s the side where your imagination comes into play. If you have little or no imagination you could be in big trouble, unless of course your ambition is to write technical journals.

If you’re more interested in writing fiction, and you have an imagination that will allow you to come up with a good story line, you’re half way home. So, before you put pen to paper, put your imagination to work and come up with a good idea for a story line.

Sketch It Out
Sketch It Out | Source

Sketch it Out

Start by writing down a few basic ideas. Your story line doesn’t have to be elaborate. A sentence or two on each of the following elements will give you a good start on the outline of your story. This is your blueprint in which to expand upon and help you stay focused on your story.

Decide the point of view

You have three main points of view to choose from.

First Person (“I”)

This is where a character in the story actually tells the story. Since they are part of the story, they can’t tell more than they know.

Second Person (“you”)

The reader becomes part of the story.

Third Person (“He or She”)

A narrator outside of the story is used.This is the most common point of view.The narrator is unlimited in the scope of his knowledge and can explore the thoughts of the stories characters.

Story Structure
Story Structure | Source

Story Structure

Story Outline

After you've sketched out a few basic ideas, but before you begin to write your story, work on writing a basic outline. You can do this by dividing your story idea into its six basic elements, or stages. They are as follows…

  • Introduction
  • Initial Action
  • Rise in Action
  • Climax
  • Fall in Action
  • Conclusion

Think of these elements as a smooth and seamless journey over the top of a mountain. Each one initiates the next. Here are some examples.

Introduction

This is the road that leads to the base of our mountain. The introduction sets the stage of your story. It introduces the setting, the characters, time line and other important elements that draw your readers into the story.

Initial action

This is the foothills of our mountain. The initial action is the element of your story that initiates the next element of your journey over our mountain. The initial action could be as simple as an accusation by one character to another which brings on the rise in action.

Rise in action

This is where we actually begin to climb our mountain. The rise in action was caused by the initial action. For example, an accusation (initial action) brings on a punch or a drawn gun (rise in action). The rise in action is followed by the climax.

Climax

Here’s where we reach the summit of our mountain. This is the most intense point, the turning point of the story. A good climax will take a reader to the edge, and then take them a little bit further. Continuing with our example…an accusation (initial action) brings on a punch or a drawn gun (rise in action), followed by a bar brawl or/and a gunfight (the climax).

Fall in action

Here’s where we begin the decent down the other side of our mountain. Falling action is the beginning of the conclusion of the story. Our example continues…an accusation (initial action) brings on a punch or a drawn gun (rise in action) followed by a bar brawl or gunfight (the climax) followed by the last punch or last shot that leaves one man standing (fall in action).

Conclusion

We are now over the mountain and on the other side. This is where you leave your readers

  1. hanging with either an unresolved conflict,
  2. satisfied with a resolved conflict, or
  3. with an unexpected twist at the end of the story.

I’ll finish the example here… an accusation (initial action) brings on a punch or a drawn gun (rise in action) followed by a bar brawl or/and gunfight (the climax) followed by the last punch or last gun shot that leaves one man standing (fall in action) followed by the conclusion…The last man standing is the end of the story (leave them hanging), the last man standing is the sheriff and all the outlaws are dead (resolved conflict), the director yells “cut” and everyone gets up. The readers didn’t realize it was just a movie scene, until now (twist).

Write out a short and simple description of what you want to see happen in each of these stages. Referring back to this outline as you write your story will help you maintain your focus.

Keep your time span short, your character count low and your writing tight.

Keep Your Time Span Short

Remember, you’re writing a short story, not a novella or an epic novel. You don’t have the luxury of covering much of a time frame. You need to keep it short. The main events of a good short story should be held to a moment, a minute or even a day or two. To go beyond that is risking the focus of your story.

Minimize Your Character Count

Developing good characters is essential in any story. You need to decide up front how many characters you want to bring into the plot. If you have too many, you won’t be able to develop them effectively, and this has the potential to dilute the theme of your story. Don’t use more than you need to illustrate the story’s theme.

Developing a character may be nothing more than a short description of their dress and features, or as elaborate as recalling past history and relaying mannerisms. Your readers need to know something about your characters, especially if they are your main characters. This will help them become more involved in your story, which is exactly what you want.

Your Writing Should Be Tight

The following suggestion may sound crazy, but it’s an essential element in writing a good short story. Read what you’ve written out loud. Does it flow well? Does it sound natural? Or does it sound choppy and forced. This is a great way to determine what extra words you can do without, and not take away from the story itself. Don’t use unnecessary 'filler' words. It may improve its length, but it makes for a sloppy story. You need to make every word count. If it doesn’t work toward improving your theme, get rid of it. There’s no room for filler in a good short story.

Stay Focused
Stay Focused | Source

Stay Focused

Keep the main thing the main thing. Don’t be tempted to head down rabbit trails. It’s easy to do, but rabbit trails tend to peter out. You may become lost or find it difficult to get back to the original theme of your story. You need to stay focused on the theme, or your story may end up as a convoluted jumble of worthless ideas.

Some important final thoughts

Show it, don't tell it.

Your readers aren't mind readers. You need to paint a vivid picture of what it is you're trying to convey. You do this by filling in the details. What does your character look like? Are there certain mannerisms that you feel are important to get across? How about the landscape? What does the room look like? How does your character dress? What type of day is it? The list can go on. You don't have to go into minutiae here, but you do need to help your reader see what you see.

Start with the first word

You will never know exactly how your story is going to come out until you start writing. The more experience you gain, the easier it will be to fine tune your characters and the plot of your story as it evolves. But you have to start writing. Sitting at your desk and thinking about it won’t get the job done.

Start Strong

Most readers are unforgiving. If your story doesn’t catch their interest within the first paragraph, or even the first sentence or two, you’ve probably lost them. You need to start strong. Let me repeat that. YOU NEED TO START STRONG. You may not get a second chance.

Read what others have written

By reading the works of other good writers, you can get a good feel for what it takes to write well. Look and study what they’re doing. Pay attention to the technical aspects of their work, including grammar, punctuation, how they put together the elements of their story and how they seamlessly move from one element to the next.

Get Experience

There’s no substitute for experience. If you want to become good at writing short stories, you need to sit down and start writing them. The more you write the more experience you’ll gain. Pay attention to what you’ve learned here as you write, and before you know it, you’ll be writing some “Winning” short stories.

Final, Final Thoughts

I hope this information will help you become a better short story writer. If you’re sincere about learning and improving your craft, I know it will. I'll leave you with a couple of personal suggestions as you finish reading this article.

Learn: Continue learning as much as you can from whatever sources you can find. Don’t ever stop. What I've written here is basic stuff. It's not enough to make you a great writer, but it's enough to get you going.

Write! You should write something every single day. Even if it’s only a paragraph or two, you need to get into the habit of writing. Just thinking about it won’t help you grow. You need to actually sit down and put ink to paper.

Walk away for a day: You would be surprised at what mistakes you'll find when you re-read your story with a fresh set of eyes. Use yours or someone else's. If you have someone else re-read your story, be sure they're not afraid to point out your mistakes.

Use a good online editor: There are several. hemingwayapp.com works well for basic grammar editing. There are others. Just Google online writing editors to find more.

Don’t give up: I hope you have a hunger for not just writing, but for writing well. It may not happen for you over night, but if you keep at it with persistence and conviction, you’ll be writing some epic shit before you know it. And I mean that in a good way. Good luck.

Write Epic Shit
Write Epic Shit | Source

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© 2018 Scott Gese

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