How To Write Short Stories (With Working Examples)

by richardhutton

Easy steps for turning your literary potential into a dramatic force to be reckoned with.

 

In my short professional career as an unpublished author, many readers have asked me ‘how can I write short stories?’. Well, let’s turn the question around and ask instead ‘how to write short stories?’. It is important to ask this question, if we are to find an answer for it.

Following the following steps will see you following in my footsteps. 

Writing

Of the many options available, I always opt for writing in pencil first. After I have chosen my pencil carefully, I begin to write. Very often I will then go over this with pen. Afterwards, I type these notes up. I always use paper – even if it is not available – because this is the most reliable source of blankness. 
 

 

Opening

A gripping first line is vital. In fact, it poses something of a gambit, if you will – almost an unwritten contract between author and reader: ‘this is the journey I will take you on, if you’re willing to pay the fare, or trade in kind’. Consider the following examples:

‘It was January, and the weather had grown distinctly autumnal’. 

Or: 

‘A former narcissist himself, James immediately acknowledged his lady love’s claims to superior distinction at boules’.

Or even:

‘I may be deaf, but I can’t stand all this shouting racket’ Mable noted in her secret diary.

As you can see, employing a capital letter at the beginning of such a sentence is imperative. It is from such ambiguous beginnings that an author can take the narrative in almost any direction. For instance, a story beginning with a lonely bachelor throwing his bus fare into a wishing well can progress to a mule watching a delivery of hay to a neighbouring barn. For a finale, there could be a power-cut, just at the moment the farmer’s daughter resolves to become a professional cornet player. They die in each other’s arms. 

 

Setting

For the importance of setting in a period drama, consider the following:

‘Mildred had always admired Alfred’s ropey exterior from afar. “Why is the pitch of his voice so curiously shrill?” she enquired of her disabled sister Ethel’.

This drama is clearly occurring at a scene of excitement. Perhaps the two women are hanging laundry on a washing line, while the love object – for that is what Alfred is – stands looking into the distance, taking a break from bricking up the doorway of an evictee.

A contemporary version may differ, and display the clear benefits of adding a surname to each character. For example:

“Oh dear – it’s raining again” Mildred Barmtree murmured. “It always flipping rains these days” her paralytic sister replied. “Oh yes, and don’t you believe it! It always rains; even when it doesn’t” she added, nursing her cracked ribs’.

The setting here could be a rundown scarf factory, in which the pair had sought refuge following the end of the world. Alternatively, it could be a small, family-owned café. Both sisters have reunited, after several hours apart. 

 

Composition

It is important to be rich in detail. This adds texture, and real human feeling to a prose narrative. For example: 

‘Pygmalion was a child who – at the tender age of three – was already acutely practised in the pulling of dogs’ tails. So much so, in fact, that many of the town’s elders suspected his spirit was that of a reincarnated tomcat. Possibly a witch’s familiar; or at least a disgruntled former household pet. They were unwilling to take a chance here. Thus it was decreed that the child should be left to forage for honey in the misty mountains’.

Let’s take a look at the same paragraph without any detail: 

‘Pygmalion was left to forage in the mountains’.

This is clearly no longer masterful. In fact, it is less good.

 

Dramatic Tension

What is dramatic tension? The answer is simple: it is the tension borne of drama.

It is important to create an atmosphere of uncertainty in any tale – especially a good horror story. Good examples include the following: 

‘It was the middle of summer, and yet Constantine felt cold. He recalled the incredibly poor syntax of the last letter he had penned to his recently widowed mother. He shuddered with dread and chill’.

Alternatively: 

‘“What? Five pounds for that? Ridiculous! I won’t pay!” Charles cried, following the official changing of his name by deed poll’.

Mystery and suspense are particularly thrilling. A personal favourite of my own would be ‘Mr Cobbles was a Rotarian. What this meant, Dorothy did not know’.

 

Dilemma/ Narrative shift:

These elements of our craft provide different perspectives upon some real action. This could involve putting an umbrella up, for instance; or training a dog to fear newspapers. Let’s look at some dilemmas in action: 

‘“Too many women are men these days” Winston thundered. “Aye, and too many men are women” his mistress replied, feeling faint. Opium had proven necessary after all’. 

Or:

‘“Even if it is exactly the same, it’s completely different” Rabbi Tucholsky remarked to a passing Imam, having noted a difference in the venerable sage’s respective trainers’. 

Or even:

‘“If you don’t like the game then don’t play it; and if you do, then stop sodding whinging’ his mother yelled, sobbing quietly’. 

 

Characterisation

Without any doubt characterisation is the most important part of narrative after the other elements. Good examples of characterisation include the following:

  • A man is tall, heavy-set and gruff; his wife is petite and very delicate. Their child takes after the parents.
  • He wore corduroy trousers. Very often she wore no hat. 
  • The new hand basket was yellow ochre in glaze. So was the young man’s hair and bracelets.

As you can see, these unique characteristics are universal.

Plot Holes

A plot hole means a gap in the telling of a story. These open possibilities for sequels, and therefore additional income for true writers. In fact many authors make an excellent living from telling a story without employing any narrative devices at all, which very often leaves readers wondering what a story was actually about.

For example, a young, ambitious piano tuner has migrated to the disputed zone in one of the Congolese provinces. A tribal chief in the same vicinity has an inborn talent for creating fine jewellery, but not the capital to get his business up and running. Between the two, many possibilities spring immediately to mind. In fact, such an epic could swiftly turn biblical.

Similarly, an adolescent male is attracted to an adolescent female. This provides magnificent opportunities for the seasoned storyteller to outline an impeccable narrative. Perhaps the pair are mismatched, and yet unite over a shared alienation from the external world? It is surprisingly easy to be original and unique.

Dialogue is useful here. Consider the following: 

‘Will you come to my ballet practice?’ Tammy asked;
‘Only, it’s something I value highly, despite my parent’s disapproval’.
‘Ballet is just for jessies and wasters’ Mark said, scratching his broken leg.
‘I love you’ Tammy replied, before pirouetting horrendously.

Obviously, teenagers in the real world have a lot of disposable income. Zeroing-in on their consumer tendencies is something every budding author should consider. In fact, let’s consider how a professional screenwriter might make the previous dialogue more appealing to an adolescent audience:

‘You’re a thick, gangrenous twat. I’m going to ballet. If you don’t like it, fine. I don’t care,’ Tammy said ‘you’re a pencil-necked poseur’.
‘Oh, for God’s sake’ Mark mumbled.
‘I hate you. I literally, absolutely positively loathe you. You are the most redundant excuse for wastage the human race has ever spawned’ Tammy added.
‘Oh, for God’s sake’ Mark replied.
‘This is the most pointless conversation I have ever had. I can’t believe how stupid you are’ Tammy continued.
‘Oh for God’s sake’ Mark groaned.
‘Why don’t you like me?’ Tammy asked faintly.
‘Oh for God’s sake’ Mark sighed, faintly.

A brief interlude could follow, in which the two central characters debate such issues as compromise and sex.

 

Writing For Publication

As any author will tell you, the most important element of writing is publication, because that is the means of making money. So how can you guarantee that your masterful pieces will find publication?

Obviously self-publishing websites are of little interest here – there is no way to make money from them. More to the point, editors of magazines and publishing houses are, without any real doubt, the most intelligent and nuanced thinkers in any highly cultured society. They will never publish any old nonsense – only the very best will do; and herein lies the challenge: how to impress such astute men and women.

Often, it pays to be different. Many authors will not hesitate to send their most cherished efforts to publishers. This is a mistake. Your efforts will simply be returned in the mail or disposed of. Besides which, if everybody does the same thing, where is originality? You’re giving a publisher reason to reject your writing before they have even thrown it away.

No, instead try this: don’t attach a return address. In fact, don’t attach your name either. Better yet, don’t mail your stories from a local post office. Instead, take them to another part of the country, to a business which does not traditionally deal in mail – such as a restaurant – and post them there, first class. A brown envelope is best because of its ‘classic’ feel. Possibly also consider enclosing a pleasing gift – not a bribe, just a gift. A kinetic torch, for example. Or a photograph of a cathedral.

Writing in a language a publisher does not speak is also likely to intrigue. If they cannot read what you have written, and do not know your name, you are guaranteed success.

Ensure that your page margins are exact. Often, I like to use common household objects, such as aluminium foil, or even whisks, to achieve this. Also your typing must be legible. If your handwriting is poor, it stands to reason that your typing will be as well. If people cannot read what you have written, you are guaranteed failure. However, it is perhaps noteworthy here that stories about squalor and desperation are very fashionable among the cultural elites of society. Many authors have earned impressive fortunes from chronicling their own poverty.

In conclusion therefore, following the advice listed above will leave you writing like a true champion. It would be wrong for me to suggest that this is the only way of writing; but it is certainly the best start.

Richard Hutton
Kingston Upon Hull
February, 2011

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