Whether a successful published novelist or a creative writing student, all writers should try their hand at short stories at least a few times in their lives. Writing a successful short story – which I’ll define as executing a captivating, engaging narrative arc in roughly 3,000 to 5,000 words – is a great way to hone your skills in narrative structure, character development, and setting, all rendered in elegant prose.
So where to begin? Well…with the story, of course. Short fiction is an art form that differs from, say, telling a story at a dinner party, but it starts from the same seed: the story. So sit down and, in one sitting, write out the story. Don’t worry if it sounds terrible or meandering – this is only your first draft.
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Next, identify your main character. One rule of short stories is that there’s generally only space for a single protagonist within the piece. So if your story is about a traffic accident that involves two couples in two cars and a police officer, your protagonist will be the single person who moves the narrative along. Once you know who the story is really about, rewrite it from their point of view.
Now, write and rewrite your first sentence. It should compel, contain conflict, and introduce an “itch” the reader must scratch. For example, I just opened my Raymond Carver collection and read these two first sentences: “I knew it was a mistake to let my brother have the money”and “I was in my room one night when I heard something in the corridor.” There’s a reason he masters the form, eh?
Then sharpen everything. There’s no room for lazy dialogue or repetitive scene descriptions in a short story; every word counts.
Last: share it. Enter a competition, post to an online forum, self-publish, or submit. Don’t stick it in a drawer; offer it up for criticism. Only then can you learn and improve.
Dionne McCulloch, U.S. managing editor, Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. cornerstonesUS.com