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Writing Advice

Short story building blocks

Yesterday I talked about misconceptions and some of the differences between short stories and novels. Today I’d like to talk about some of the tools you have at your disposal when you’re writing a short story. Some of these are applicable to novel writing as well.

Plot Development

Plot starts with an idea. Maybe your idea is delivering medical supplies from one end of the galaxy to another. Or defending a magical kingdom from evil invaders. It could also be something more contemporary, like solving a murder or falling in love.

A story, however, is more than just an idea. A story is a character with a struggle or a goal, and the plot is the character’s journey to resolve their struggle or reach their goal. Short stories tend to focus pretty tightly on the protagonist, and they usually have a smaller cast of characters than novels. If you need a refresher on character types, please check out this post.

We’re all different. Some writers will come up with the character first, and then need to figure out their plot. Others will have the basic plot seed idea and need to create a character and whatever motivates them. You need all of these to have a story. How you reach that point depends on your writing style. Plotters will most likely want to figure this out in advance. Pantsers will discover it as they write.

Rather than tell you how to come up with your idea, character, and struggle or goal, because I think that’s going to be different for everyone, I’m going to give you a few ideas on how you can structure the events that happen in your story. Three act structure is pretty common, so I’m not going over it today, but feel free to read up on that one on your own.

Open in media res

This basically means start where the action is. You don’t have a lot of wiggle room in a short story, so ideally you’ll start it around the point where your character, struggle/goal, and plot idea converge. If you start too soon, you may not hold your reader’s attention. If you start too late, things might be confusing. Additionally, if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, you need to get to the fantasy or sci-fi elements ASAP. It’s a little jarring to think you’re reading a contemporary fiction story and find out it’s set on Mars when you’re 2/3 of the way through, you know?

I’ve written about opening stories before, so feel free to have a look at that, too.

Build tension

Some people like to say that you need conflict to keep a story exciting, and while they’re not wrong, they’re not completely right either. You need tension. Conflict can be a source of tension, but it’s not the only source. Your characters could be trying to survive a natural disaster. Maybe they’re escaping the Titanic. It’s not your character vs the Titanic in that case, or your character vs the iceberg, it’s just your character trying to stay alive. (It could be your character fighting another character for space on a lifeboat, though, and that would be conflict.)

The whole point of tension is to elicit an emotional response in your reader. Once that tension starts building, it needs to continue to escalate until the story hits its climax. Your character has something important that they’re at risk of losing, or something they need to gain at any cost. Make it expensive.

Try/fail cycles

You could consider this one character development, too. Basically, this is when the character tries different things to meet their goal. They try something and fail at it. Then they think about it a bit, try a different approach, and fail again. Repeat at least one more time.

It’s plot development because it helps build tension, but it’s character development because your character should be growing and learning something from each cycle. Their relationship with the reader should get a little deeper with every cycle as well.

Wrapping things up

Your ending needs to be an emotional payout for the reader. It doesn’t matter if it’s happy or sad or somewhere in between. A story is sort of like a promise for your readers: Read this and I’ll make you feel something. I’ll make you feel love. I’ll make you feel nostalgic. Something. If you don’t fulfill that promise, your readers are going to feel let down. If you nail it, people will reread your story just to recapture that feeling.

I’m not saying your story should be predictable, just that you owe your readers a payout for sticking with you. I know this isn’t the best example, since they’re not short stories, but I think Pixar movies are great at giving their audience a big emotional payout at the end. They force their characters to make hard choices, maybe even going against what the character thought they wanted in the beginning, and it’s fantastic storytelling.

Character Development

I’ve talked about character development before. Here is a link to my Character Development tag, which should contain all of the posts I’ve written to date. Most of that is applicable whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, so feel free to refer to it if you need help.

Backgrounds

Less is more. If something in your character’s back story isn’t relevant to your character’s goal, or your plot, save it for a different project.

Agency

This one might be a little tricky depending on what’s happening in your story. However, as much as possible, your character needs to be making choices and dealing with the consequences of those choices. I think it’s a weakness when the protagonist spends an entire story simply reacting to things that are happening around them instead of being the one who makes things happen.

Sometimes you have to get creative about giving your characters agency. Like in the Titanic example I used above–they’ve got no control over the ship sinking, so you have to figure out a way for your protagonist to take charge of the narrative. It isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the extra effort.

Are you ready to write yet?

I hope this is information you’ll be able to use when you’re writing your own short stories. You’re always welcome to leave a comment if you have any questions or anything you’d like to add. And of course, hit those social media buttons and share my posts if you think they’re helpful!

How’s your NaNoWriMo project going? Keep on reaching for those goals! Even if you don’t get all the way to 50,000 by the end of the month, remember that just starting a novel is a heck of an endeavor. Tomorrow I’ll talk a bit about a short story that I developed, so I hope you’ll come back for that.

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