How to write a short story and improve your writing skills

Improve your writing skills - cover image for writing a short story

The short story has a long and rich tradition, spanning everything from the gothic to the contemporary. Learning how to write a short story will improve your writing skills, as you can apply many of the techniques you learn to writing longer forms. Short stories are not necessarily any easier to write, but telling a complete story in 5,000 words rather than 100,000 enhances your storytelling ability in the following ways:

Learning how to write a short story hones your sense of form and structure

A short story is not really a novel in miniature, but it has many of a novel’s features, from fictional characters to rising and falling action. Stories that are traditional narratives (as opposed to fragmentary vignettes or character studies) mirror many aspects of the novel. For example, one aspect of writing that writers often struggle with is how much information to give the reader and whether their own thoughts about the story have made it to the page. Sometimes, a writer knows the story so well they fail to convey essential information. Short stories give a writer the chance to practise revealing information in different ways without having to do this over a longer arc. Writing short fiction is also a useful exercise in conveying important themes quickly as the main action of the story unfolds.

Short fiction enables you to experiment with plot devices

Writing a short story as preparatory work for a novel can be useful. Given the shorter time commitment, you can experiment with different plot devices.

A plot device is an incident or anything else that changes the direction of a story or helps to moves it forward. A writer can experiment with half a dozen different plot devices and still have written only around one-third of the total words in a novel. For example, the plot twist is a good one to practise in the short story form because if done clumsily, it can frustrate or annoy readers. The nineteenth century writers Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry were masters of the plot twist in which information introduced at the end of the story changed the reader’s understanding of what went before. Modern masters of this device include Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. The key is that the plot twist should play on the reader’s assumptions, which are often based on character assumptions, rather than misinformation that comes from the author. The unreliable narrator is a narrative device that is also used to play with expectations set up both by what characters tell readers and the seeming direction the story is taking.

There are many other types of plot devices. For example, the search for an object can be the catalyst for an entire story. This might be the ring in Lord of the Rings or the search for the corrupted Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Learn which plot devices could be effective for making your novel memorable and intriguing by using them in short fiction first.

In short fiction you can kill your darlings easier

Faulkner quote - kill your darlingsAlternately attributed to the writers Arthur Quiller-Crouch and William Faulkner, the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ urges authors to cut their manuscripts as much as possible even when there are characters, plot developments or lines of prose that they have fallen in love with. Writing a short story is a good exercise in cutting away the fat and making every detail count. In fact, doing so is even more important in a short story than in a novel. While a novel can be somewhat forgiving of digressions, every moment in a short story has to push the story forward, as there is limited space to grab readers’ attention and entertain, move, thrill or terrify them. Writing short fiction will help you master the ability to ruthlessly eliminate unnecessary digressions, characters, words and sentences.

Short stories enable concise character development

Too often, novel writers give in to the temptation to develop character through long flashbacks and back story. In a short story, it is necessary to set up a character and convey a distinctive personality through only a few key details. For example, a character might be quickly sketched in a few lines based on how they are dressed and how they respond to an episode of conflict. Another way a character can be concisely developed is through brief lines of dialogue:

Writing a short story helps you write lean dialogue

In a novel, you have the opportunity to develop the voices of different characters over a much broader canvas. In a short story, you need to give those characters distinctive voices within a fraction of the space. Depending on the nature of your story, there might be little dialogue or a character might have a longer monologue, but there is still a limited amount of space for characters to talk. Writing short fiction forces you to hone your dialogue skills as you show who characters are through how they express themselves.

Writing short stories provides great novel groundwork

The novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes began life as a short story by the same name, and it is not uncommon for novelists to take published or unpublished short stories and develop them into novels. In a short story, you can begin mulling over major themes that you will explore at greater length in a novel. Use the condensed medium to sketch out the basics of your characters and plot. This can result in a more tightly structured novel.

Shorter fiction lets you refine your writing style, line by line

There is a reason that when a poet turns to writing fiction, critics will often comment on the writer’s command of language. Like poetry, short stories give you the opportunity to work on your prose at a very precise level. If a story is just a few thousand words long, writers really can pore over every word. Novelists who feel that their prose could use some developing might try writing a few short stories and giving extra attention to the construction of every sentence.

Write a short story to practice pacing

Managing structure across the space of a novel can be challenging. A short story lets you do this across a much shorter story arc. Just like novelists, short story writers must consider when to introduce information, where turning points will happen and how to create a climax and resolve the story.

Use your short story as a testing ground for different narrative techniques

Short story writers are just as prone as novelists to start with a too-slow buildup. Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in a writing workshop or reading slush can tell you how many stories start with an inauspicious beginning like the protagonist waking up. In a short story, if you start in a place that doesn’t quite work for your story, there are only a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand words at stake, unlike in a novel where you might have to go back over tens of thousands of words.

Use short story writing to practice point of view

Point of view can be a tricky concept to master. Many aspiring writers understand the difference in first, second and third person. In omniscient point of view, a narrator who has access to the thoughts and actions of all characters is telling the story. In third person limited, the narrative may jump between characters’ heads, but at any given time the narrator can only report what that character sees and knows. The real problem with point of view tends to come with switching between characters’ POVs. First you must keep in mind at all times whose eyes the reader should be seeing through. Second, jumping between characters’ points of view should not be done recklessly. It’s best to be consistent about point of view from chapter to chapter or at least within individual scenes, but it is also possible to move point of view around during scenes if it is done carefully and the reader is clear on whose point of view they are reading at any given moment. These types of distinctions can be focused on and worked out while writing short fiction. Moreover, you can get a better sense of whether to tell a story in first, second or third person. It is much easier to rewrite a short story after realising it should be in a different point of view than to do so with an entire novel.

Writing a short story helps you master building tension

As is the case with structure, it can sometimes be difficult to identify the throughlines in a novel that create tension due to its length. This is much easier in a short story. Building tension takes place over fewer pages and so the mechanisms of doing so and of complicating the situation are much more compact. For writers who struggle with this aspect of novel writing, a short story can be very instructive.

It also lets you practice writing endings

improve your writing skills - writing the endWhether you are telling a story that is 3,000 or 100,000 words long, endings can be tough. However, as with so many other aspects of short story writing, if you flub the ending of a short story, you have committed less time to the entire enterprise and it is less daunting to go back and work out the source of the problem. The end of a short story should have its seeds in the beginning, and often you might simply need to return to the start of the story and revise it in order to better prepare the reader for the ending. At other times, the story may have gone off the rails in the middle or near the climax. In this case, you might feel more prepared to excise a few thousand words of prose to construct something that leads naturally to a more satisfying ending.

Short stories are not merely training grounds for novel writing; writing short stories is a skill in and of itself, and some of the most revered modern writers, such as Alice Munro, Ray Bradbury and Jorge Luis Borges are primarily known for their short fiction. However, writers who believe themselves to be novelists primarily can still benefit from trying their hand at short fiction. One advantage of the concision a short story teaches is that when you turn to the novel form, you have the necessary tools to write a beginning that will quickly draw the reader in because you do not need pages and pages to sketch a believable world, characters and situations.

Writing short stories cannot teach you everything that you need to know about writing a novel. For one thing, there is no substitute for sustaining a story for the 80,000-100,000 words or more required for a novel. Furthermore, there is little room in most short stories for subplots, secondary characters and the more involved complications that will keep raising the stakes for the protagonist of a novel. However, as the novel progresses, lessons learned from writing short stories about dialogue, pacing, point of view, building tension and more will improve your writing skills.

Do you write short fiction? How has it improved your writing skills overall?


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