Writing Short Stories: A Primer

One of the first rules about getting into literary fiction seems to be that you start with short stories. Novels can be too unwieldy for a beginner – short fiction is a safer arena to practise in. All the stalwarts of literature have done it, which means that newcomers looking to cut their teeth ought to do it too.

My own feelings about this rule have changed over the last two years. My first foray into literary fiction was a novel, one I gave eighteen months to. I was actively against writing short stories, in fact, chiefly because I didn’t much enjoy reading them. I would far rather have savoured a good long novel that really fleshes the plot out. Plus, the very fact of there being a rule about starting out with stories put me off them.

Last summer, however, I decided that my novel needed to be shelved for a while so I could come back to it with renewed perspective on how to fix it. In the meantime, I opted to swallow my prejudices and try my hand at short fiction – influenced, largely, by Joyce Carol Oates’ short story course I took on Masterclass.com – and proceeded to come up with about half a million bad ideas that I ditched after varying degrees of effort to salvage them. I did, however, also complete a few stories that I’m happy with – one of which became the spotlight feature in Eclectica’s Jan/Feb 2021 issue (#bragalert). And for the foreseeable future, I plan to work on getting better at this particular form of fiction.

From a craft honing perspective, here’s why short stories are ideal for the beginner – they’re short. No matter how difficult it may be to write a good story (and believe me, it’s hard as hell most of the time), the fact remains that you don’t need to come up with hundreds of pages worth of good writing. Anywhere between two to twenty pages of coherent prose and you’re done. Which also means that they’re a good exercise in learning not to ramble, because there just isn’t enough space for rambling. You learn to keep only the things that count, be it dialogues, descriptions or characters. And that, believe me, is a skill that will make you a finer writer even if you choose to later specialise in 1000-page novels – because you’ll have learnt by then to keep the fluff to a minimum. Bottom line? As someone who tried starting with a novel and then moved on to short stories, they’re honestly your best bet if you’re just starting your fiction journey.

One battle I’ve faced a lot with short fiction is, how do you know the right amount of detail and scene-building to put in? How do you build your characters enough so the reader cares what happened to them, yet not so much that you complicate the plot? And for that matter, how do you come up with plots that aren’t just the same old story? Over the last eight months or so I’ve tried to find some answers to these questions, both from great writers and from my own experimentation. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far.

Let one thing happen

I recently took Neil Gaiman’s course on Masterclass.com, and when it comes to short stories he advises letting only one thing happen. That’s actually a great rule of thumb, as long as one understands what he means by ‘one thing’. Your story should basically centre around an important incident – such as a birthday party, someone’s death or a theft – and delve into the details and events leading up to and/or following it in sufficient detail for the story to feel engaging and complete. It doesn’t literally mean that you talk about one thing throughout the story.

Don’t be afraid to keep characters as names

One thing I’m terrible at is knowing how big a role each character needs to play. Do I give the postman who drops off the pivotal letter a home to go back to? Does the alcoholic mother need to reveal why she started drinking? While the shorter landscape of a story means that the characters that do make it to the plot need to all matter somehow, know that it’s perfectly acceptable to have someone speak one line and then vanish. Maybe the line includes an important bit of information, maybe it’s comic relief, maybe you just need a quick glimpse of the person to add colour to a setting – whatever the case, they don’t need any more attention than just that one line. And that’s okay.

Keep the cast small

On that note, try to avoid having too many characters, even if they just have cameos. Most stories will work just fine with four or five characters, or even less. The more people you have, the more you need to worry about making each of them count, and then you could end up having too much of setting and dialogue and not enough forward-moving plot.

Keep descriptions short

I know the pain. You’ve laboured all morning over the perfect description of a waning storm, and you’re determined to fit it into your story by hook or by crook. But but but – it disrupts the rhythm of the story. It doesn’t fit anywhere organically. And you want your story to breathe as a whole. Which means – exeunt waning storm description. Of course, that doesn’t mean exeunt entirely. I have a separate Google Doc titled ‘Bits and Pieces’ where I store all those pretty lines and paragraphs that didn’t make it into any of my stories. It’s a repository of sorts that I can refer to if I’m feeling stuck with a future project. The thing about good ideas is that they can be reworked – they rarely belong to just one context and nothing else.

Backstory is great – in small doses

Some amount of explanation is usually helpful in setting the context for your story – family dynamics, for instance, or why the failed professor on a road trip failed in the first place. What’s important, though, is to weave the backstory into the actual story rather than devote an entire section to recounting it. Let the facts come out in bits, maybe through dialogue, incidents, parallels or flashbacks.

Invest in building your storyline

One thing I’ve observed in the short stories I’ve read is that a lot of them tend to be variations upon the same handful of themes. Divorce, affairs, troubled parental relationships, angry siblings, failed holidays, dinner parties gone wrong. You can’t have too much going on, so you make the story as dramatic as possible, which often translates into picking one of these well-worn themes. And I think that was the original reason for my beef with stories – too many of them are too similar to each other. Of course, I know now that this isn’t the failing of the craft, but of the writer. It’s our job as fictioneers to ensure that every story we put out has something special about it. Does that mean your story can’t have a divorce or an angry sibling? Absolutely not. But always aim to weave something into your divorce/angry sibling plot that makes the reader think ‘I’ve never seen it done quite that way before’.

Read more short stories

Goes without saying, you can’t nail a short story unless you see how the masters have done it. Katherine Mansfield, Guy de Maupassant, O’Henry, Saki, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Anton Chekhov, Bernard Malamud – take your pick of the greats. Many of the top online literary magazines are free to access and publish some impressive short fiction in every issue, both by stalwarts and by up-and-coming writers. Read the stories – then, read them again and try to spot what worked for you in the story and what didn’t. Were the characters sufficiently formed? Did the themes come out naturally? Did the sequence of events make sense? Did the characters show a convincing growth arc? Was the language compelling and aesthetically appealing? There’s a tremendous lot to be learnt from just paying attention to how other people’s stories are constructed before you start constructing your own.

Where do you stand on short fiction? Do you love working with it, or does the page limit bother you? Who are your favourite short story writers? Love to hear your thoughts – and of course, if you have any short stories of your own published online, leave the link below, and congratulations!