Today's the day. It's happening. You've decided to
write your first short story. Maybe this story idea has been kicking around your head for the last 10 years, or maybe you just googled a list of writing prompts and want to give one a whirl. Perhaps you're an accomplished essayist looking to try fiction on for size, or it's possible that you've never written anything in your life outside of school assignments and Instagram captions. Whatever your level of writing expertise, you are perfectly qualified to write a short story. All you strictly need is willpower, paper, and a large cup of coffee. But here are a few extra tips to get you started, because staring at that empty page is the absolute hardest part.
First things first, though: what exactly is a short story? Typically, a short story is defined as a work of fiction between 1,500 and 5,000 words (although 5,000 is a bit long for some publications). Under 1,500 words is considered flash fiction, and under 350 words is sometimes called micro fiction. You don't have to start with a specific word count in mind, but make your peace with the fact that you probably won't have time for those twenty pages of exposition up top. If you want to write a true short story, then here are some suggestions for nailing both the "short"
and the "story" aspects:
Get in late, get out early
This is good advice for all fiction writing, but it's
especially important when you only have a few thousand words to work with. Treat each scene in your story like a fashionable party: arrive late, and leave early (with some cookies wrapped in a napkin). Essentially, that means doing away with lengthy exposition and starting your scene as close to the important, exciting bits as humanly possible. And then move onto the next scene as soon as you can. Starting mid-conversation or mid-action creates instant tension. You don't need to spend a lot of time on what your characters had for breakfast or how they felt about dinner if the main action of your story takes place over lunch.
Let your first draft be a mess
Give yourself permission to write a messy first draft. In fact, give yourself permission to write a
bad first draft. Let go of judgment. Think of the first draft as getting all your ideas out on the page. It's just a rough sketch of the plot. Your second and third drafts (and sometimes your fourth, fifth, and tenth drafts) are all about turning that raw material into an actual story. It's easy to get discouraged when the words on the page don't perfectly match the vision in your head, so be patient with yourself and give your writing a chance to grow.
In a big, sprawling novel or prestige HBO fantasy series, there's plenty of room for multiple main characters with elaborate, interlocking character arcs. In a short story, you probably want to stick to just the one protagonist (or
maybe two if you absolutely must). This means that your reader should be able to easily identify who the story is about, and to root for (or against) that person. It also means that you, the writer, should know your protagonist inside and out. Who are they at the start of the story? Who are they at the end of the story? How do the events of the story change them? Why is today the day their story takes place?
Reveal character or advance action
Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote
eight tips for writing a good short story, and this one is particularly crucial: "Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action." Don't waste a word. Even your descriptive sentences can be used to reveal character traits (what does a person's couch color say about them?). And if that feels like too much to think about while you're writing your first draft, use it as a guideline when you start rewrites for draft two.
Every character wants something (even if it’s just a sandwich)
You don't have to spend weeks writing intensive backstories for every single character. But every character should want
something. Even if they want something simple, like a sandwich or a nap, they need to have some kind of motivation to drive their actions. People in the real world rarely go around doing things just to advance the plot.
Don't add unnecessary elements
To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, if you have a rifle hanging on the wall at the beginning of your story, it must go off before the end. If it doesn't go off, it shouldn't be hanging there. Don't put any extraneous elements into your story unless you plan to use them. But
do feel free to add details at the beginning of the story that become important later on, because everyone loves a good pay off.
Don’t be afraid to get nasty
Be mean to your protagonist, even if you like them. Every good story needs conflict. That doesn't mean you must torture your angelic lil' character at every turn, but stories don't work if nothing bad ever happens. Conflict-free fiction about friends just hanging out and taking care of succulents only works in fanfiction, because we've already come to care about those characters through the conflict of the original story.
Even if you want to write an experimental fiction piece that breaks all the "rules" of short story writing... you're going to want some sort of a climax. If the action of your story builds towards a moment of great emotion/revelation/catharsis/disaster etc, it's far easier to create tension and keep your readers asking, "And then what happened?"
Cut and cut and cut some more
Once you have your first draft on paper, take a moment to congratulate yourself. You did it! Then get a second cup of coffee and start cutting. Chances are good that you have written more than you strictly need to tell an elegant, exciting, affecting short story. Make a copy of your draft and cut with abandon — most cuts are good cuts, and you can always add something back in if you truly miss it.
Write the perfect first line
Once you've gone through several drafts, cut your darling story to shreds, thrown out all the extraneous elements and crafted an explosive climax,
then you're going to want to take a look at your very first line. Does it invite readers into the story? Does it start the action right away? Does it make you feel like finding out what happens next? Spend some time trying out different openers, because a good first line is one of the most important finishing touches.
finally, once you've agonized over your story, and written and rewritten it, and gone back and forth over the title eight or ten dozen times... step away. Put it down. Close your laptop, or cover your vintage typewriter. Send your story out, whether to your friends or to a contest or to a literary magazine. It can be hard to let go of a story and send it out into the harsh world of critics and think pieces. But you have to let go at some point, and allow yourself to celebrate your first short story. So once you've truly finished, buy yourself a nice bottle of champagne, and start brainstorming for story number two.