Anatomy of a short story

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Our first post on the blog is from the chair of our judging panel, Simon Thurtle. You can find more from Simon on his blog, Twitter and Facebook.

Now that the first short story challenge has started, it’s a great time to discuss some thoughts on how to write an amazing short story.

We’ve all heard that “less is more” and never is that truer than with a short story. In many ways, you need to do the same job with a short story that you have to do with a novel, but with a fraction of the space. A good short story is a lean beast; without an ounce of fat in the narrative. But how do you actually write one?

Below are the steps I go through to write my pieces, like Hunter and Sunday Morning, it’s not perfect and the process is still evolving. Hopefully, however, it will give you a starting point to find the process which works for you.

And so, we begin…

 

  1. Have a plan.

As we know, there are ‘plotters’ (writers who plan) and ‘pantsers’ (writers who just write off the top of their head) in this world; but whichever tribe you subscribe to, or even if you’re sat in the middle, you need a rough idea of where you’re heading to.

For your story to work, it’s going to need to be satisfying for the reader once they’ve read it. To do that, it’s going to need to have a beginning, a middle, an end AND a point. That’s right, we want to be taken on a journey and for a reason. So, before you start writing your short story consider:

  • Who are my characters in this story?
  • What are their motivations and objectives?
  • How can I get from the start to the end in a logical way?
  • Which perspective do I want to use for the story?
  • What do I need my reader to know about this world for the story to make sense?
  • What is going to change for the reader from they start to when they finish this story?

  1. Write a short synopsis for your story

Take a small amount of time to write a few hundred words on the broad strokes of the story. Not the detail or dialogue, just the general events of the story. This is the synopsis of your short story, so keep it short and punchy.

Now you have that, compare that to your plan, does it seem like your synopsis matches your plan? If not, now is the time to tweak, BUT not only in one direction. I’ve often found that working on a synopsis expands my thinking and ideas in new directions. This expansion then leads to me refining my plan, so don’t be afraid to amend your thoughts in both directions, your finished work will likely be better for it!

Finally, compare the plan and the synopsis to any requirements you may have for the event, publication or competition which you are writing for. Have you met any requirements needed for this motivation? For example, with our short story challenge, you have a prompt which you must use. Have you used it? Will it appear clearly in your work? If not, then your piece is likely to be disqualified, so now is the time to amend.

  1. Write

At this point, just write. Don’t worry if it makes sense. Just keep your plan and synopsis close to hand and create. This is the point to get all the ideas and thoughts down in the most raw and messy way.

Also, don’t worry about word count, even if you’re massively under. If you can achieve a piece which you’re happy with in 25% of the available words, then don’t pad it out to an arbitrary word count. After all, this piece only has six words but all the impact in the world:

“For sale, Baby shoes, never worn.”

Give your story the space it needs on the page, then get ready for the next step.

  1. Get your spanner out

Now you have your first draft, it’s time to tighten up the story. This is the toughest bit. With this you’re aiming to turn your story into that lean beast we discussed at the start. You’re looking to check that every single sentence does its job in the best way possible and that the whole story flows as one.

Sometimes that will mean trimming out unnecessary phrases, other times chopping them out complete and sometimes you’ll need to add in new sentences.

Be brutal. Be honest. Be considered. It will all help.

As an example, this phrase:

“Rain was splashing on the window and running down in little streams, to collect in puddles on the floor”

Could be tightened up to:

“Rain ran in rivets down the window, pooling on the floor beneath”

We’ve lost seven words from the first but not lost any meaning. Be ruthless with your words, it’ll help your readers and your story!

  1. Read it

Congratulations, you’ve written your short story! Now, you’ll be tempted to share it with the world. But first, go and have a coffee, tea or beverage of your choice far from the story. Leave it alone. Read a book. Watch TV. Do the groceries. Don’t be with the story for a while, the longer the better.

Now come back with another drink and just read your work. First, just read it as it is. Don’t be looking for errors. Just enjoy your work.

The next read through is to check that you’ve hit the points of your plan and any entry requirements for the competition/ publication which the piece is destined for.

If that’s all good, it’s time to run through and look for any little errors. Seen written instead of scene. Grammatical errors. The little things which will make your work harder to read or break the reader out of the world you’ve built.

 

  1. The opener

Now everything is finished and you’re ready to submit your piece, just take five minutes to read the opening lines. Just the first couple. Are they as engaging, exciting, intriguing and generally awesome as they could be?

A killer opener can be the difference between your work being read or not. This is as true with short stories as it is with novels. So, take some time to put a fine edge on you opening lines and increase your chances of success. Think about where your story is going and create a hook that you know your work delivers on.

Once you’ve done that, you’re done! That’s it. Submit your work and jump to the final step…

  1. Celebrate

You just made a story from nowhere. A story no-one else could tell. You did that. Take some time to remember how awesome that is and how proud you should be of what you’ve achieved. You, my friend, are a writer and you did it all on your own.

 

How does my process compare to your own? Do you have a different method? Let us know in the comments and how you’ve getting on with your short story!

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great information Simon.

    I’d been working on my story when I heard about the challenge. Now, I’m doing the rework to include the prompt.

    This was a very clear list about the process for writing a short story, and I appreciate it.

    Thank you!

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