"What a pleasure to get advice from a pro! I will do as you suggest and send it back." T L, South Africa
Are you tired of getting rejections with no indication of what is wrong with your manuscript?
Here are some pointers to writing a good short story.
HOW TO WRITE A GOOD SHORT STORY
There are many places on the internet where you can post your stories and get feedback from fellow writers, but this doesn’t always result in getting the help you need to improve your writing.
Before you put pen to paper, you need to know who your reader is. You will not write the same way for a 20-year old student as you would a retired professor. Study the magazine you hope to write for: the sort of stories they publish and the style of writing.
I started this website when the UK went into lockdown, a time when libraries, bookshops and newsagents were shut. My aim was to give lonely and isolated people something new to read every day, stories that would put a smile on their faces. The elderly, especially those who did not use social media, were the most isolated and in need of help and they make up the bulk of the readership. They like entertaining, easy-to-read stories on all subjects and don’t care for a lot of swearing.
Before you start writing, be sure you know what your story is about. Easy, I hear you say.
Stories need to be more than documentaries full of facts. If you are going to engage your reader, you need to know what the emotional essence of your story is. Is it reconciliation, revenge, triumph over fear? Is it realising that what you have is valuable, finding a way through grief or discovering inner strength? The emotional essence is a thread throughout your story, linking everything together.
It is just as important to understand your characters in a short story as with a novel. Are they chatty or reserved? Critical or easy going? Stubborn or changeable? So many stories have cardboard cutouts, performing actions like a puppet on a stage. In a short story, you might only be able to focus on one aspect of your character's nature, but you should know your character intimately, as this will determine their response: whether they speak in short, jerky sentences, or rambling ones; whether they leap in to help, or spend time thinking up a plan.
So often a plot is imposed on the characters and it doesn’t fit very well. I’ve even read stories where the character changes personality to suit the plot line! Avoid unbelievable plots and the ones that have been done to death: a woman accidentally bumps into a long lost love from fifty years ago, they declare undying love and life happily ever after.
Avoid listing what happened: “She did this and then that happened.” It’s good to get down the outline of the plot, but then there's work to do. Compare these two versions.
C nodded and the nurse held a cup to her lips, gently letting her sip some water slowly. C blinked and looked up, the nurse had smiling, kind eyes. She put the cup to one side.
The glass was cold against her parched lips. “Drink slowly, now,” the nurse said. The water trickled down her throat. It hurt when she swallowed.
Opening paragraph. Writing in chronological order is not always effective. I couldn’t engage with one story, which I thought was about a girl who wanted to be a singer. One day, I got it out again and made myself read to the end, where I discovered it was about a boy with locked-in syndrome.
The opening paragraph is your market stall. Set out your wares. Here is the opening paragraph for A Bite To Eat.
The bottle was cold to the touch. Could it really bring Roger back to her?
Would you have been so interested if I had written, She met Roger at the office party. He was an architect and she was a secretary. They had been married thirty years.
Don’t write that A spoke to B. Give your readers the dialogue. It brings the story alive.
J shocked her mother by saying that her relationship with A was ending. She had to say it face to face, not on the telephone. She found herself talking to her mother’s frozen expression. After a long silence, her mother did find some words. She could not understand how neither J nor A had shown any outward sign of crisis during the family time together. She asked J if she was with another man, at which point J stormed out. She couldn’t tell her mother that she had concluded that her mother and grandmother had both been shoe-horned into subservient roles by marriage.
“My relationship with A has ended,” J said.
Her mother stopped loading the dishwasher and turned, her smile fading. “But you were so happy together. What’s happened? He hasn’t been two-timing you, has he? If he has …” She wiped her hands on the dishcloth and held out her arms. “You poor thing.”
J turned away. “No, not that. It’s me. I – “ How could she say that she felt her mother and grandmother had been shoe-horned into subservient roles by marriage and she didn’t want the same thing?
Show, don’t tell
Show the reader how a character feels by describing their body language, or the words they use. As a general rule, eradicate adverbs from your writing.
I waited excitedly every day for the postman, which often made me late for school. But the letter never came.
As soon as I finished breakfast, I raced to the window to watch for the postman. “Come on, you’ll be late for school,” my mother called, but I pretended not to hear, sure that at any minute, I’d spot that red jacket coming along the street.
Two more examples
When C woke up, she felt groggy and had a very dry mouth.
C's eyes seemed to be stuck together. She forced them apart but could see nothing but a soft light floating above her head. Snuffling noises came from the corner. Was she back home in the bedroom she shared with her sister? "Water," she croaked.
She drove home to her neat and tidy flat.
She opened the door of her flat. It was like a show home, with not even a buttery knife in the kitchen or a magazine slung on the settee to show that someone lived there.
Be concise, but don’t try to pack too much into one sentence.
M returned the greeting from the newcomers, a young couple who were carrying the last of their possessions from a hired van into the house next door.
The revised version is shorter and it tells us something about the couple.
“Can you manage?” Mary called as the young couple manoeuvred a brand new red leather settee out of the hired van.
The elderly lady sat alone by the window, watching the birds perching on the branches of the trees outside. She thought how carefree her feathered friends were. Not a care in the world. As she looked down at her wristwatch, she heard knocking on her front door. It must be her regular nurse, paying her a visit.
The revised version tells us that the lady is elderly, although this word is not used.
She sat alone by the window, watching the birds on the branches outside. How happy-go-lucky her feathered friends were. Not a care in the world. She glanced at the antique clock, the one she and William had bought on their honeymoon, nearly sixty years ago. Her nurse would be here any minute. Yes, here she was, just drawing up in her car.
Writers often do not know when to end. They continue after the tale has been told and the reader has understood the point they were trying to make. It irritates the reader, who is silently screaming, I know! I got it! You don’t have to go on!
Make the ending as punchy as you can.
I happily conceded defeat to my great-grandmother’s superior skills, specifically, those that required an axe.