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On Writing Fiction and Short Stories

Updated on November 18, 2014

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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    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      15 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I started reading when I was four, Bob, because I loved comic books and demanded that my mother tell me what those balloon words said. I have read most of the greats like Hemingway and Steinbeck (Cannery Row is a favorite because it's so simply written yet so very descriptive).

      I very much appreciate your comments in particular, my English cousin, and would love to lift a beer with you some day.

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 

      15 months ago from UK and Mexico

      I sense a great reader in you, Will, a very entertaining short story writer...the best I have found on HP. When a writer is an avid reader, he becomes a creature of many parts which, when he adds life experiences and maturity, provides a huge bank of ideas from which to draw. The distillation of all this is what fuels the Steinbeck's, Hemingway's and other memorable masters of the short tale. I often think, well, now and again, that the brother of the short story is the well crafted poem: both use the most apt language, pared down to its essence; grab the reader and carry him or her through to the last stanza with perhaps the same feeling as from a delicious, well cooked snack.

      Thanks of all these wonderful yarns, Will.

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      15 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I missed your comment somehow Skellie, but thank you!

    • skellie profile image

      skellie 

      19 months ago from Adelaide

      Hey there WillStarr, it has been a long time since I have commented on one of your hubs and this one was great.

      I attempted a short story a long time ago but it did not get a very good response but I love your tips on how to go about it - I am going to try it again and thanks for the motivating article.

      You are a champion hub artist :) Skellie

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Stella!

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 

      3 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Good morning, Jimmy, and thank you!

    • profile image

      Ghaelach 

      3 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      What a nice thing to say! Thank you!

    • bat115 profile image

      Tim 

      3 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I look forward to reading you, Ron!

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, mary!

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      3 years 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.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      3 years 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.

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Wow! I'm very flattered, Phyllis!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      3 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, DrBill!

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      3 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you Beth!

    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 

      3 years ago from Tennesee

      Will, these are excellent tips.

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      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.

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 

      3 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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      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!

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 

      3 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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

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

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, DJ!

    • SubRon7 profile image

      James W. Nelson 

      3 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....

    • profile image

      DJ Anderson 

      3 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.

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thanks Pop!

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 

      3 years ago

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

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Randy!

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 

      3 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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hi Mary!

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

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      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!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      3 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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, drbj!

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 

      3 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.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      3 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.

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

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

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Take care John, and stay well.

    • Cardisa profile image

      Carolee Samuda 

      3 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.

    • John Holden profile image

      John Holden 

      3 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!

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      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!

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Joel Diffendarfer, and welcome to HubPages!

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      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.

    • John Holden profile image

      John Holden 

      3 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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      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!

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      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 imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

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

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

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

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

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

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hi, Peg, and thank you!

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you Mike, for those kind words!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

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

    • Joel Diffendarfer profile image

      Joel Diffendarfer 

      3 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.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      3 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..

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      3 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.

    • John Holden profile image

      John Holden 

      3 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.

    • Ginn Navarre profile image

      Ginn Navarre 

      3 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.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 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.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 

      3 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.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      3 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.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      3 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.

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 

      3 years ago

      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.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      3 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!

    • WillStarr profile imageAUTHOR

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      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.

    • resspenser profile image

      Ronnie Sowell 

      3 years ago from South Carolina

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

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