How to Write Short Stories that Readers Love

Making readers weep and laugh is a hard job but Fun

Sean P. Durham
Aug 14 · 10 min read

Short stories, when well written, pack a punch and leave the reader feeling as if they just had an experience never to be forgotten.

Short stories are often seen as a good primer for beginners and aspiring novelists.

The truth is, writing a short story has little to do with learning to write a novel, or priming yourself on how to build characters and worlds.

A short story is really a discipline in itself — a different type of story telling.

How many Words to Tell a Story?

A 500 word short story is a tricky balancing act to pull-off — one reason why so many of them seem so trite and follow a pattern that leaves a reader groaning — similar to when somebody tells a bad joke.

Long-short stories, for me, are around 10,000 to 15,000 words. That gives me space enough to get everything down that could end up being a pretty neat story, and everything in between.

How to Begin Your Story

It always begins with an inkling of an idea that just nags at my brain. This morning one of those inklings was bashing around inside my skull. It was distracting — that’s a good sign — and so I let it develop for half an hour or so.

Often, the tad of an idea that starts the thought processes for a short story develops into a series of flashes that somehow connect.

It’s difficult tell if your idea is the start of a story, or if it’s somewhere in the middle.

Beginning to write the short story is an exploration. Rather than immediately start with dialogue to create interactions, I find narrative writing that leads to a culminating points will show me where best to use dialogue to create a scene.

An Idea and How it Develops

A man wakes up one morning, no milk, so he decides to go to the shop. He walks along the road and enters the shops and buys milk — no, wait a minute, he doesn’t make it to the shop at all. He walks along the road, and just as the shop is in sight, a big black Rottweiler dog comes balling out of a quiet driveway and attacks him.

A writer’s mind knows instinctively that no conflict will mean a boring story not worth telling.

So, allow roving thoughts to push up ideas. It doesn’t matter if they are stereotypes or a bit off the wall, and don’t quite fit, so long as it creates a conflict of some kind, it’s a part of the framework.

As you write the story it’s important to let it flow. Don’t edit as you write. Just focus on what is happening and constantly ask questions about tension, and if the tension that you see is leading to conflicts that create good scenes.

How Stories move along

Next of course, somebody witnesses the scene and calls an ambulance. He ends up in a hospital bed — if he’s lucky enough, and it’s there in the hospital, the real story begins.

It would probably begin at that point because that’s were he will come into contact with other people. Nurses and doctors busy themselves, stemming the flow of blood, stitching his legs up. Both legs are ripped to shreds. His world has changed dramatically.

A very short story has no room for a backstory on the main character. If your story is longer, over 10,000 words, then a little indication of who the main character is helpful and will fit into the story. Maybe just one little passage that tells the reader who the character normally is, then continue to focus on the story.

So, at this point, you know you’re on to something. A person’s world has been through a small dramatic change. Things will happen.

The dramatic moment of a dog attacking the man in the street, served to create change in his day which was not planned. He will now be carried by events, and hopefully deeper into circumstances that he can’t control, creating more conflict.

I also know that at this point there is no idea of an ending in sight — but, that doesn’t matter.

The story begins to take shape. And shape, or the first sign of it, is the first sign that a story is emerging into a narrative.

Plot doesn’t play much of role in my thinking. I’ve tried, but plotting is like grabbing at thin air. It doesn’t really structure a story, it bolts it together into a stiff, machine-like effort before you’ve found out anything about characters and what they want to do.

You’re thinking hard about how the story could develop, and how the action could rise. In order to get readers to cry or laugh you have to think about raising the stakes with each new scene.

If there is any plot in a good story it will develop through character and narrative. You’ll be able to define it when a successful story has been told.

Exploration and patience is a great writing tool.

Writing is a very different thought process than simply thinking about a story.

Plotting is an academic idea of thinking about a story on paper. It ensures that the writer has a plan to follow and a set of characteristics in a person or dog that must be followed in order to be successful — otherwise, there’d be no reason to plot it.

I tend to find that if I try and plot something, it helps me get going with confidence. But somehow, the plotting soon becomes nothing but a helper in staying in the right direction. I’ll drift away into better ideas which were built on the basis of a basic plot idea.

A plot that is written on the back of a beer mat, is just a structure for more important thinking and the twisty-turny route that you will have to follow as you write.

It’s for that reason that I don’t have much faith in detailed plots and outlines in fiction. You might think differently, so experiment with plotting a short story, and experiment with writing as if you are following lead thoughts of your mind.

Writing by the Seat of Your Pants

The mind works in a special way when your work comes from a different part of the brain than the planning side. Creativity.

My stories always revolve around the character, even short stories about gangsters in Madrid, “The Colombian Brothers”. I wrote by following their deeds and followed the path that led to their conflict.

I didn’t know anything about what they might encounter until I began to write the story.

I did know who they both were. Brothers, gangsters, criminals with a deeper personality than your average stereotype criminal.

The Colombian Brothers, isn’t a high octane thriller — it’s a short story about two gangsters who need to collect a package of guns from an illegal dealer in downtown Madrid.

I’m sure you can imagine the conflict that such a situation offers up. So I went for it, kept writing about their journey from a hotel room, to the barrios, to the location where chaos ensues.

It worked as a short story and many people seem to like it. Even though I avoided turning it into a clichéd piece of stereo-type thriller — full of nothing else but what a reader wants to hear — padding lifted from Hollywood thrillers.

Instead I wrote something that’s a little different, and hopefully entertaining.

I don’t get much of a thrill out reading graphic details of killings, or of contrived circumstances that I’ve read a thousand times before. So, I tried to make the story about two men who happen to be criminals, and how they ended up having rough and dangerous day in down town Madrid.

Narrative takes you someplace interesting. Plot takes you to a set of well known, unimaginative obstacles that often seem hard to believe, but require the skill of an adept writer to twist and turn words till the reader accepts the plot point as a reality. Like, “how did this suburban housewife get a nuclear reactor into her basement?”

The High Concept Proposition

Plotters like to tangle their way through “High-Concept” propositions and spend the rest of the story using expositionary scenes to justify its unlikelihood of being possible.

I have nothing against plotting — I wish I could find a hum-dinger of a plot that nobody has ever thought of, populate it with characters, write it, and see it fly through the book charts like an eagle flying up to the blue cloudy skies.

The problem with concept stories is that often have no meat on the bones of their plots.

Hollywood has shown us that we can sit through a two-hour movie with nothing more than caricature personalities, an exotic background such as the jungle, an object or person which represents a hidden, threatening monster.

Then faced with the problem of overcoming the monster with an outlandish idea (the concept). The concept could be a secret weapon that nobody has heard of before, or a group of people who have special powers and could help another person overcome their problems — then obtain power themselves.

The problem with this is, is that it works at the level of surprising the audience — after that it’s no longer new or thrilling.

How often have you sat through a thriller waiting for something to happen?

A short story writer has that much space, so the story must move all of the time. That’s why no exposition, long descriptions, or character backgrounds and flashbacks can help, just driving narrative and great dialogue.

When you think of classic thriller movies and books based on these ideas, mostly you’ll be thinking about the first books or movies you saw as a teenager. Since those days, you’ve read and read books, but found nothing to match the first hit that those stories delivered.

The bottom line is that none of these movies and books, the fast readers that entertain for a few hours, are based on real characters. The characters are flat and their actions are often predictable. That doesn’t carry a story far, so it feels like the author is really trying her hardest to run fast with you in tow, simply to take you to the outcome caused by the high-concept idea.

Narrative writing isn’t the same as literary writing.

A story that has no narrative is dead.

Narrative leads the reader along to each conflict, and there, we can listen to the characters communicating with their own style of speech. They talk, conflict, figure a way out and walk off into new narrative flows that take the reader further into the dark forests of your story.

Literary writing is more about artifice, style, and sometimes, those writers who write for writers, for art’s sake. For me, there’s not enough time in life to waste on that lot, I’d prefer a story that gets to the heart of matters and shows me a chunk of life that leaves me gasping and thinking about something real.

As narrative develops I find that I’m being led along, too. I discover my story, I understand more about it, the characters and the objectives and needs that each character wants to reach as I move along with writing a narrative.

Naturally, a plot of some kind will develop out of character and narrative intertwining with each other.

The plot emerges from character actions, and will either work or it won’t. If it doesn’t, I go back and check my narrative where often I find I’ve made a wrong turn. So, I fix it. It’s normally a simple case of discovering that there’s an illogical sequence of events in the narrative.

Writing is a strange practice. Asking too many questions about “why?”, can lead a writer to a dark place that is unpleasant and unnecessarily mind bending.

You can find the answer to Why, after a lot of soul searching. When you arrive, you’ll discover that the Sphinx says, “Yeah, okay, that’s a good answer, but here’s another question to solve — it’s also a `why?´ question,” there’s no end to it.

Better, to always ask the question “How?” It always takes you some place interesting.

When you want to write a story because the idea has been nagging all morning, it’s better to start jotting down bits and pieces of it, developing the idea. This way you’ll naturally be faced with questions of “How?”. “How can I get my character from A to B?”. Narrative will take you there, plot won’t.

If you have a character walk into a room to discover that there’s a mean looking woman standing, waiting, and pointing a gun at him, then don’t ask, “why is she pointing the gun?”, ask, “How will he get out of this?”.

I find that this type of thinking, avoiding the tangled questions that lead to nowhere but more questions, is better for a driving narrative that plows through 1500 words quicker than a Greyhound on speed.

Writing stories is about how your thoughts work, how you see the world. So, a lot of ideas that you have will be personal discoveries about how to keep moving forwards with your story.

I think that a short story can be many things, a snippet of something you saw and expanded on with imagination. It can be a character study of how a woman ended up pointing a loaded weapon at her lover, or it can simply be an attempt to explore a theme that you’ve no idea about, but want to discover.

I’ve written dozens of long-short stories that sit and wait to be edited, I know that one or two will probably edge their way towards the bin before I get far. Others will feel and sound like somebody else wrote them, I’ll sit and ponder, ask myself, “How the hell did I write that?”, “It’s a great little story.” That’s a wonderful moment.

Writing short stories is about creating great entertainment, so they should pack a punch, and cause readers to weep and laugh.

If we work with Stephen King’s thoughts in mind, I think it works as a great framework to build everything on; Narrative to drive the story along from point A to B, and finally point Z ; descriptions, which create a sense of reality for a the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through speech.

From “On Writing”, Stephen King.

Sean P. Durham

Written by

Writing about the Creative Art of Living Successfully at http://seandurham.eu

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