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  1. isaac223

    isaac223 Active Member

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    How to Properly Write a Short Story?

    Discussion in 'Short Stories' started by isaac223, Nov 6, 2016.

    While, clearly, many common elements in writing a short story are shared with every other form of writing a narrative, however, I feel that there are certain elements -- like making a likable character, presenting and resolving a conflict and telling a decent narrative in a shorter amount of writing -- make it harder than other forms. How would I develop and set up a decent narrative with a properly presented and resolved conflict, likable characters and whatnot in just a few pages of writing?
     
  2. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    The best answer you're going to get for this is to read a bunch of short stories and find some that you really love. Then find out what works for those stories. There's really no one way to do it. On top of that, what makes a good short story is subjective. Some people like Hemmingway, some people despise him.

    Here're some respected, wonderful short story authors to check out.

    Flannery O'Connor
    John Cheever
    Raymond Carver
    Ernest Hemmingway
    Kurt Vonnegut (Welcome to the Monkey House)
    Nathaniel Hawthorne
    Franz Kafka
    Nathan Ballingrud (Not as well-known/famous but I really like his stuff)

    Those authors run the gamut in terms of genre and style. There are many, many more, but those are some of my favorites and go-to recommendations.

    ETA: It's worth mentioning that you already nailed the biggest fault I see in short stories: Conflict. I've seen and written a ton that fall flat on managing and resolving a conflict within the short story. You already know that needs to happen. Just try it out.
     
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    William Trevor. Any list of short story authors needs him :)
     
  4. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    Read. Read. Read. That's how to do it. If you read enough you won't have the question of how you do it. And you will also see that not every main character is likable and not all stories end with a resolution. I recommend reading contemporary short stories as well. Can't wait to read the new Pushcart anthology.
     
  5. isaac223

    isaac223 Active Member

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    Thank you for these suggestions. I'll be sure to look into all of them. Not sure if he's considered "too well known" for it to be impressive, but I also carry around a collection of Edgar Allen Poe's works for some reference for the general Gothic Fiction/Fantasy genre(and often just for some leisurely reading).

    Got it! Read. Read. Read. I'll just have to pay more attention to how its done than just simple reading though, eh? Thanks for the advice. I'll be sure to look into more short stories to read.


    I honestly just wanted to write some for the sake of loosening up my brain for my bigger project, but... Well. I guess when I don't know how to do Short Stories properly it doesn't particularly help, eh?
     
  6. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    There isn't necessarily a proper way to write a short story or novel, but reading will expose us to the many forms of storytelling. I don't think you have to pay any more attention than you normally would while reading. And I think it is that simple. The more I read, the better I write. For me, when I started reading more short stories, I started writing better one. I noticed a difference right away. It's crazy how well it works. It's almost like reading fuels the writing and we all operate better on a full tank. But for short stories especially, I think reading a ton of them and often is so beneficial. Reading is really the best thing a writer can do to improve their skills.
     
  7. Ebenezer Lux

    Ebenezer Lux Member

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    Kafka, I'll tell you, had a rather peculiar style, but there are definitely things to learn from that crazy diamond. I also recommend reading some Oscar Wilde short stories, especially for the dialogue. And Borges!

    In summary, my recommendations:

    I second Kafka
    Oscar Wilde
    Jorge Luis Borges
     
  8. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for her short stories, and she's more contemporary than a lot of the other authors being mentioned.

    You might also want to seek out anthologies, especially those in the genre(s) you're hoping to write. Anthologies can be a nice way to read a variety of authors and figure out what works for you and what doesn't.

    In terms of the writing itself, I'd abandon the word "properly" and replace it with "effectively". It might not be any easier to answer the question, but I think it'll open up the possibilities for you.
     
    Cynthia June and deadrats like this.
  9. pitviper

    pitviper Member

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    My formula for a successful short story: write it, the cut it by half. Maybe even two-thirds. There's so much the reader doesn't need to know, but that you need to write. So go ahead. Write it all. Then cut it ruthlessly. A short story should be mostly action, little description, and 1500 to 5000 words (now watch me break my own rules; I'm such a hypocrite). The two key words are: Don't explain. Don't explain, don't explain.
     
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  10. pitviper

    pitviper Member

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    "Flannery O'Connor
    John Cheever
    Raymond Carver
    Ernest Hemmingway
    Kurt Vonnegut (Welcome to the Monkey House)
    Nathaniel Hawthorne
    Franz Kafka
    Nathan Ballingrud (Not as well-known/famous but I really like his stuff)..."

    Lovecraft, Barker....
     
    Seven Crowns likes this.
  11. pitviper

    pitviper Member

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    "Kafka, I'll tell you, had a rather peculiar style, but there are definitely things to learn from that crazy diamond. "

    Shine on.


    Margaret Atwood.
     
  12. Dreams_on_Mars

    Dreams_on_Mars Member

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    I am writing a short script for a short movie, (3-5 min) and so I think this may be similar. The thing is, instead of an entire story, you may just write one scene. Instead of exploring lot's of characters, it may just be one. It is like the distillation, like taking something that could be a whole story, a whole universe and look at it under the microscope to one small part of it.

    I like The Fly by Katherine Mansfield and The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe, obviously others are good, but at the moment I am thinking of those two.
     
  13. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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  14. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    Honestly writing shorts is far easier than a full length novel or novella.
    You don't have to cram in subplots and a whole lot of extra junk.
    It can be little more than a skeleton with muscles on it, really.
    Plot, theme, genre, and go. Like DeadRats said, you don't even
    have to have a resolution if you don't want.

    Now I am not going to say that shorts have to be simple stories,
    because they can be as complex as you like. Though the more
    complex they are the longer they will be.
    Max length should be at its upper limits 30-45k, before you start
    getting into novella territory. Though I think most average around
    10-20k, mind you they can be as short as you want to make them.
    Though the shorter they are, you better be able to squeeze in all
    of the elements for a basic skeleton and in a damn good fashion.
    Otherwise your short may not have the same effect as a short that
    is a 1/4 to a 1/3 longer than yours. Think novel, but strip it down
    to a manageable chunk in condensed form, and poof you have a short. :)
     
  15. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Contributor Contributor

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    I think by likable you mean interesting.

    Think in term of scenes. A short story isn't a twelve-round championship bout, it's one tight combination. You set it up, drive it home, knock it down. If you limit your scenes, and you know how long you tend to write each, you can fit your words under the goal.

    I would check out the pros from your genre. Go to the respected magazines and best-of anthologies. Don't just read for story. Look at the characters, transitions, depth of setting, how the backstory fits in, speed of dialog, mounting tension, etc.
     
    Cave Troll likes this.
  16. NobodySpecial

    NobodySpecial Contributor Contributor

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    Don't forget Ernest Gaines and Samuel R Delaney.
     
  17. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    All of what you've said regarding why shorts are easier is exactly why they can be harder.

    Good shorts are not simple bone and muscle tissue; they're complete with a complex nervous system and consciousness (extending your metaphor). From where I'm standing, it's more difficult to create life in 5k words than it is in 90k.
     
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  18. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    I agree with Spencer1990
    To me, it reminds me of when I wanted to play in a band. I thought I'll play bass, it only has four strings and you pick half as much.
    Well as we all probably know the bass is the back beat the turnaround and the bridge. Then you have the wild man coming off a ripping guitar solo,he looks to the bass to see what chord there in and what is the bar count.
    My point is, that it may seem easy because of the lack of flesh or dialog, but you still need to say what you were going to say without those features.
    Much more difficult.
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2017
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  19. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Don't overthink it. I was terrified of writing short stories because I thought I couldn't contain my ideas or condense them and then the short stories I read always blew me away. They were awesome little gems. And I didn't think I could ever write anything like that. I joined this site and had to wait a week or two, I can't remember, to post something so I decided to write something fresh and post it. My first ever short story. I started with an idea -- a lost space traveler becomes obsessed with a little blob creature that he eventually can't rid himself of -- and just wrote. I let it flow. Tweaked it a bit and posted it.
    I usually start with an idea or a theme for a short story ... some small nugget. And keep it relatively small. For me a short story is not about many things but usually exploring one thing/idea/feeling and making it kinda grand.
     
  20. NateSean

    NateSean Senior Member

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    I wouldn't go so far as to say writing short stories is easier.

    If anything a short story's word limit forces you to practice things like word economy. It forces you to balance out style, setting, pace, what to leave out, what to include.

    A poorly written short story is easy to write. A short story that leaves people wanting more long after the writer has turned to dust takes practice and skill.

    To that end I would recommend The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, To Serve Man by Damon Knight and anything by Neil Gaiman.

    Stephen Moffat is a great lover of the short story. All of his earlier episodes of Doctor Who were stand alone stories that refused to let you forget about them.
     
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  21. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    @NateSean it depends on what limits you impose on your
    short stories, word count wise. Mine average 10k or more,
    but yes there is a bit of word economy to consider. I don't
    much care for the imposed limits of 1k-5k, when I write shorts.
    Yes you're correct that there needs to be a tighter balance of
    all the major elements, compared to a Novella or Novel.

    I am not familiar with Neil Gaiman's work. Though I have
    a few shorts compilations of Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury,
    and one that is from multiple authors. Used to have one
    by Laurel K Hamilton, but I loaned it out and never got
    it back. :p
    So for me it is easier to write shorts, compared to longer
    works, though I have written 1.5 novels so far. What makes
    it harder for me to write something in the 100k-120+k range
    is the fact that there is a lot more to fill in the pages with.
    And it can be daunting to pound out so much, but even
    in a shorter story I can go into a fairly decent amount of
    detail if I choose to do so. On the other hand my Novel/Sequel,
    started out as a short story that simply had more story than
    I had originally thought. If I had kept it shorter, it would not
    have had the same effect nor a satisfying conclusion. It would
    have lacked any oomph if you will. :)
     
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  22. Radrook

    Radrook Banned Contributor

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    Some might say that puzzling the readers at the outset is the way to go. You know by having them wondering and saying:

    1. Where and when is this happening?
    2. Who are these people?
    3. Why are they saying that?
    4. What was that sound!
    5. That doesn't make any sense!

    etcetera. and keeping them in that state of disorientation for as long as possible while providing subtle hints.
     
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  23. Laurus

    Laurus Disappointed Idealist Contributor

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    I don't think confusing the reader is the right way to approach a short.
     
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  24. Skibbs

    Skibbs Member

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    I have written a few short stories, and when I do, I tend not to name too many characters. When I write stories like this, I tend to focus on the description of character rather than too much dialogue or scene changing. For example, I felt compelled to write about a western town one day, and I wrote about a character killing one of the townsfolk - by describing it like this:

    Meanwhile, back in the town, a dark mass was forming a few feet above the ground. It consisted of purely shadow, a hostile creature that was pure evil. It floated forward across the ground towards the sheriff's office, and into the cramped room.

    Alongside this (and you don't have to listen to this part), I try not to name my characters. I like to leave that - mostly due to me not writing much outside poetry - as it makes it much more of a priority to focus on this one character; rather than making the reader focus on a dozen or so. Hope this helps you a bit.
     
  25. Radrook

    Radrook Banned Contributor

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    That's good advice. I had this novel written by a very famous SF writer and I could never get past the first few pages because he dedicated them to introduction of a bewildering number of characters each with a hard-t0-pronounce alien name. After years of attempting to read it I wound up throwing it into the trash can.
     
    Ray Elkins likes this.

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