I like stories. Presumably this applies to all fiction writers. Novels allow us to weave complex narratives that evoke authentic worlds and intriguing characters. The advantage of a novel is that it gives a writer the time and space to build a fictional, yet believable world. It can also be argued that it gives writers too much time and space.
Short stories can also contain rich settings and compelling characters, but they impose efficiency on a writer. While it might seem scary at first, I find that the limits of a short story often boil down the work to its most important and compelling parts.
So where to start ? There is no magic formula, and every writer goes through their own unique process, but I want to eight general guidelines while sitting down to write a short story.
1. Choose a number of pages and stick to it (mainly). Word count also works if you prefer this reference. Either way, knowing in advance the physical space you need to work with helps you determine your scene sequencing and overall story arc.
2. Decide on your theme in advance. It is important to know not only what you are writing about, but also why you are writing. What is your story about? Understanding this allows you to map your scenes and character arc to the successful development of a cohesive idea. You will take your story from an entertaining thread to a substantive experience that will truly make the reader think and feel.
3. Each. Word. Accounts. The effectiveness of language is essential. Details are important. Your characters need to feel real, your world authentic. Every word that falls on this page must serve a purpose. There is no room for fluff.
4. Get a rough idea of your story arc. Some authors plan everything in advance. Others discover the story arc while writing. Either way, you want to have taken into account the key points of your story arc and at least have a workable concept of your ending. This will allow you to keep your writing focused and deliberate.
5. Don’t take the above point too seriously. Your story map should not be frozen. Sometimes in the middle of a scene or an interaction with a character, we are struck by inspiration. Our fingers strike the keyboard in an unexpected rhythm and we discover an unforeseen story rhythm that is much more satisfying and powerful than anything we could have imagined. Don’t be afraid of these times. Kiss them and then adjust the heading accordingly.
Love every moment of the process. Enjoy. Complete stop.
6. Draw your own course. It is certainly not a magic formula. What I am describing above is what works for me. Taking the time to chart your course before diving into the news allows every word to be written with purpose. On the other hand, writing the story without a plan and uncovering the narrative as you progress is exciting and challenging. Both approaches have their strengths.
Anyway, when you come to a conclusion, I recommend that you step away from the room for a few days. Let it sit, give yourself some mental space from your creation, then come back with a fresh, critical look. If you’ve found your theme in writing or find that your story has to hit certain beats to reach its full arc, start editing and revising the piece of what could be a heavy starting point at one. full, powerful and (mostly) intentional story starting point.
7. Build a community of writers. It’s fine if everything goes well, but what happens when you hit a storm? The narrative does not work. Your ending is hokey. Deus ex machinas surround you like sharks armed with laser beams. Do you give up and let the story get lost in the storm?
Absolutely not. Trained writers have the resources and tools to combat these times of darkness and confusion. Your first and best resource is a community of writers made up of fellow writers you trust to provide honest but supportive feedback. Take the time to find or build such communities. Having a crew by your side is always worth it.
8. Trust the process. Learning and mastering the trade is absolutely essential. Writing is an art, but it is also a process. Learn this process, master it and trust it. It doesn’t mean that you lock yourself into a certain structure or format that will dictate your stories until the end of time, but rather grants you a compass, sextant, and map that will help you find your way to the where you and your story should be.
Either way, remember: have fun. I love this job. Write about what’s important to you, take the story in directions that excite and scare you, and don’t be afraid to take risks. Writing is an art, and art can be painful.
Putting our work out there to be read by people we don’t know is terrifying, but stories have been part of human culture for millennia. This is important work that must continue, and I hope this advice will be helpful.
The question is: are you going to chart your course and tell your story?
Derrick Craigie is Associate Dean of the Faculty of Creative Writing and Literature at Southern New Hampshire University. He is a teacher, writer, father and amateur mountain dweller. His writings can be found on dwcraigie.com. Follow Craigie on Twitter @dwcraigie.
Explore SNHU’s Online Masters in Creative Writing and Low Residency MFA.