How to Write a Short Story

You probably came here thinking I’d have some sage advice for you, right? Or at least I’d be able to direct you toward some Better Way of Writing. “Here’s a college graduate who studied writing for four years and is going to grad school! Surely she knows something about writing that I don’t,” you think. Well, I have some bad news for you.

There’s no real way of writing a short story.

I hear you. “But length has something to do with it, right?” “My teachers taught me the conflict-crisis-resolution model. You’re saying that’s not true?” “What about a realization for the characters? That’s got to be necessary.” After all, I’m no professor or educator. What do I know, really?

Here’s something your writing professors might not tell you. There’s no single true way to write a story. It’s tempting to define a short story by length, number of characters, time elapsed in the narrative, presence of epiphany, adherence to a conflict-crisis-resolution model. Humans endlessly seek to categorize things they don’t understand, and more than a few scholars and writers have attempted to define a short story as such. But the truth is, defining the short story is counterproductive. Every story is different—every writer is different. To expect the same things of Anton Chekhov’s and Tobias Wolff’s and Samuel Beckett’s stories is to ignore the specific circumstances, styles, lives of each writer.

There are a few generalities we can apply as a loose definition of a short story. They are short enough to be read in one sitting, are interesting to readers, resist paraphrase and summation, and provide some sense of completeness for the reader. Additionally, a short story is complete when nothing can be added or removed. But the further hows and whys of a story resist definition. Where one successful story might have a singular point-of-view character, other equally successful stories may have a wide host of characters. Where one story might occur over the span of a single dinner, others may stretch over a whole lifetime. The one truth of short fiction, it seems, is that for every rule posited by a writer, there are scores of stories that laugh and thumb their noses in the face of such rules.

Some young readers might feel more comfortable with the confines of a conflict-crisis-resolution model where others would prefer a more fluid approach. Similarly, when first starting out as a writer, it can be easy to restrict the scope of one’s writing to focus on single characters and strict timelines. But that’s not to say stories that don’t do those things are bad or wrong. They are simply different. And they all start the same way: as an idea.

Exercise: Write about a time when you or a character had a realization, or epiphany, and found out later that the epiphany was wrong. Stay concrete and specific, and write about what led to you or the character realizing the error of the epiphany.

This post was influenced by Alice LaPlante’s book, Method and Madness, chapter 4. The exercise included here was paraphrased from the book.

Writing After a Long Break

Studying writing in college forced me to write on a weekly basis. I was so used to writing that I wrote over summer breaks and tried starting my own writing group. During my senior year I wrote so much, though, that I suppose I…burned out. The following summer was a recovery period. I wrote every so often but nothing progressed further than a rough partial draft. Then I grew restless and bored with my unstructured days and found a job. The recovery period grew into a year-plus dead period. I tried to write but I wasn’t inspired. Here I was, not writing, barely even reading, on the cusp of beginning graduate school, while classmates were working on novels and plays and short stories. It was embarrassing.

This presented me with one heck of a dilemma. Writing had been my go-to hobby since fourth grade, and being unwilling to write frustrated me. Earlier this month, I finally decided I needed to do something about it instead of wait passively for inspiration to strike. I had to make myself want it.

One of my classes had used a textbook: Method and Madness by Alice LaPlante. We didn’t read all of it, probably less than half. It was on my bookshelf between a box of paints and my hardcover Mistborn books. If it helped me in the past, then why not use it again?

I pulled it out one night and started on chapter 1. I took notes. I did the exercises. And while I haven’t started writing my own, unprompted material, it’s helped get the words flowing again.

In short, today’s writing tip: If you’re having a hard time writing, pull out an old writing textbook and start reading. Think the prompts are boring and too amateur-y? Try them anyway. Here’s a prompt for you in case you want to skip the textbook part.

Exercise: Observe your surroundings. Write about them in excruciating detail. Mention the single unmade corner of your bed. Describe the shape of the leaves on the tree outside. Capture the taste of your favorite drink on the page. Walk to a street corner and transcribe a conversation between a family waiting for the bus. Don’t expect many, or even any, of these details to become launching points for stories or poetry. Instead, use this as a way to work on your craft and revive (or start cultivating!) your writing instincts.

Is there a writing prompt you’ve had good experience with in the past? A favorite textbook you’d like to share? Leave it in the comments!