How to Write a Great Short Story: 5 Key Tips
Do you want to be a writer? A short story is an excellent place to start. I'll show you how to write a captivating one with these five key tips.
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Short story tip #1 - Create a distinct protagonist
Like a novel, a short story should have a main character. Even though you have much fewer pages for character development, you still need to do it. If your reader doesn't know the sort of person your protagonist is, connecting with that character can be difficult.
However, you need to be efficient with your words. A novelist might spend seven pages describing all a character's hopes and fears, but you can't in a short story. You need to decide on the information you want to convey, then do so in as few words as possible.
Express the following about your protagonist early on:
Short story tip #2 - Give your protagonist a serious problem
Your story can open with your protagonist already in trouble. Or, you can open by showing them going about a typical day. If you pick the second option, that day should only be typical for a page, maybe two. You need to throw your protagonist into a conflict quickly.
Make sure they have something to lose if the problem isn't solved - what's on the line is known as "the stakes." In a thriller story, the protagonist may lose his life if he doesn't solve his problem (ex, a serial killer targeting him). In a romance story, the protagonist's life may not be in jeopardy, but something else important should be (ex, her shot at a lasting relationship).
Once you establish that something major is at stake, your reader should feel a connection with your lead. And once emotionally invested in the character, your reader should eagerly turn your pages to see how the problem turns out.
Short story tip #3 - Stay focused on one problem
In novels, a protagonist may run into various problems. Supporting characters may confront their own dilemmas, which can play out over many chapters. Short stories don't offer enough room to properly address multiple conflicts.
Make sure the conflict that arises from your hero's problem is a compelling one - then stay focused on that single conflict through the story, remaining in the POV of your lead.
That being said, though you should concentrate on a single plot thread, that thread shouldn't be flat. You want to escalate your conflict - you want the challenge for your protagonist to seem increasingly harder. If possible, you even want to "raise the stakes," ie give your protagonist more to lose going into the climax than at the story's start.
For example, let's look at the thriller story mentioned earlier, about a serial killer targeting a man. At the beginning, the man is with his friend, an off-duty police officer with a sidearm. Toward the middle of the story, the killer murders the cop. Now, the unarmed man is alone - defeating the killer has become a more difficult challenge.
Just before the climax, the man finds out the killer plans to murder his wife after him. Now, more is at stake if the hero fails to defeat the villain. Not only will he die, his wife will too.
Short story tip #4 - Create an air of mystery
You don't need to explain the context of every story event to your reader. Not only does this eat up valuable page space, it takes away any mystery. Raising questions in the mind of your reader is good. You want to eventually provide the answers, but delaying them builds suspense. Along the way, you can drip bits of information.
For instance, the serial-killer story may open with two men in suits running through the woods. Your reader will wonder why they're doing this. You don't have to explain that they're running from a serial killer (even though they are).
Possibly, you can show one of the guys tripping over a log. The other panics. While he helps up his friend, he says, "Hurry, I see him coming."
Now your reader knows they're running from a man (you've dripped some information). However, your reader doesn't know who this man is (you've raised another question). A page or two later, you can reveal that their pursuer is wanted for fifteen murders.
Short story tip #5 - Put in a twist near the end
A twist is a major reveal that pulls the story events in a drastically new direction. The key to writing a good twist is to subtly hint at the shocking truth through the story, while misdirecting the reader so the connection isn't made.
In a short story, a good place for a twist is during the climax, directly before it, or directly after. In any case, it should occur toward the end.
For instance, in the serial-killer story, during the climax, the reader may find out that the main character was responsible for sending the villain on the killing rampage.
The main character is a surgeon who was medically careless during a procedure, causing his patient - the villain's wife - to die. After lying in court, the doctor, along with the help of his high-priced attorney, was found innocent of any crime. The death, coupled with the lack of justice, pushed the already-troubled villain into a darker place, which led to a rampage.
Here's how to create an effective twist from these events...
Through most of the story, you'd portray the doctor - the main character - as a sensitive, moral family man, while portraying the villain as an emotionless butcher. The masked villain wears a necklace with a ring on it. The police assume it's some ritualistic death symbol.
During the climax, when the villain has the doctor cornered, the villain finally removes his mask. His eyes are filled with tears. Though he's definitely a murderer, he's not emotionless. The villain gives the doctor a phone and insists the doctor admit what he did to the police. The doctor confesses to medical malpractice and lying in court.
Content with this admission, the villain sets down his gun. He clutches the ring around his necklace and tells the doctor it belonged to his wife. The police show up and take away both men.
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Personification: What it Is and How to Use it for Great Writing
Learn what personification is and how to apply this powerful literary device to your settings and more.
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What is personification?
Personification is the giving of human qualities to non-human items, such as buildings, animals, and even concepts, like fear or perseverance.
The two major forms of personification:
Why use non-human personification in writing?
In books, screenplays, and other forms of narrative writing, personification can help an audience emotionally connect with non-humans. Since emotion is very important in storytelling, writers try to widely weave it into their stories. Personification is a literary tool that can create an immediate, and strong, emotional connection, thus is used often.
In addition, when characters embody concepts, the theme of a story can feel more visceral.
Let's look at some examples...
Examples of non-human personification in writing
Non-human personification is critical for stories with non-human characters. In a fantasy story, for example, most of the characters might be animals. For an audience to identify with them, they should be given human qualities like the ability to talk.
In a science fiction story that takes place in a different galaxy, all the characters might be aliens. Though these aliens may not look like humans, the writer should give them certain human qualities so the audience can identify with them.
For instance, although most of these aliens may be seventy feet tall and have IQs of 850, they live in homes with families (just like humans) and bicker with family members (just like humans).
Emotion isn't just effective with characters, but all elements of a story's world. Settings are a great place to apply personification to create a human connection.
For instance, let's say a character in an adventure story enters a dangerous jungle. A writer can elevate this scene by personifying the jungle. "Human vs. human" conflict is emotionally engaging. And though a jungle isn't a human, if it can feel like one, the conflict can become more vibrant...
Ken takes his first step into the Bagana wilderness. The jungle's hot sun stares down at him. He looks for shade, but wherever he goes, the unforgiving sun finds him.
Like a setting, objects in a story can feel more vibrant if personified. Let's look at an example in an action story...
Charles knows he's in trouble. He can hear his enemy's footsteps racing toward him from behind. Though Charles lost his gun, an old friend is still around. His set of brass knuckles, hanging out in his pocket.
Examples of human personification in writing
Let's go back to our personification example, "Jill is the embodiment of joy." When characters in a story represent concepts, the theme of a story can feel more palpable to an audience.
A theme is the takeaway about life in general an audience would have after finishing a story. Since themes are abstractions about life, they involve concepts. Examples of story themes:
When certain characters in a story embody concepts related to the theme, the conflicts those characters go though can show the depth of the theme, and thus, make it more believable.
For an example, let's look at this theme: Unresolved issues from the past can ruin the future.
In this story, our main character will be Bill. He used to be a criminal. He went to prison for ten years. When he gets out, he decides to leave his life of crime behind and create a peaceful future for himself in the suburbs. There, he meets Sophia, a kind woman who has never committed a misdemeanor in her life. Bill views her as a potential wife - she represents "the future."
A couple months into dating Sophia, Bill gets an unexpected visitor at his doorstep, Allen. Allen was Bill's old criminal associate, who feels he's owed $90,000 from a job they did over a decade ago. Bill doesn't believe Allen's justification, and even if he did, doesn't have $90,000 on hand. Allen, who represents "unresolved issues from the past," keeps antagonizing Bill.
Sophia can't help but notice Bill's conflict with this angry stranger. To get revenge on Bill, Allen eventually targets Sophia. In the climax, she escapes death. However, even though Allen is arrested, Sophia has lost interest in marrying Bill. She decides to leave him.
Key tips for using personification in your writing
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You might also like my posts on alliteration examples, metaphor examples, and symbolism examples.
Examples of Metaphors for Great Writing
Find out what a metaphor is and how you can use this powerful literary device to elevate your writing.
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What is a metaphor?
A metaphor falsely states that one thing is another while creating a truthful, symbolic comparison. Some examples of metaphors:
What is the difference between a metaphor and a simile?
These two literary devices are often mixed up. They are quite alike, but with a key difference.
With a metaphor, you state that one thing is another. For instance, "his kitchen is a sauna" and "her argument is bulletproof." In a simile, you also compare one thing to another, however not as directly. You don't plainly say one thing is another, rather say it's similar to another.
A word like "is" can still be used, however, a word such as "like" or "as" goes with it. Some examples of similes:
Examples of metaphors in narrative writing
Metaphors play a variety of roles in narrative writing. Two major categories:
Use metaphors for great descriptions and dialogue in narrative writing
A great description creates a vivid image in a reader's mind. However, if a writer eats up multiple pages describing a single character, place, object, etc, the motion of the story can come to a standstill. Readers may get bored, even if the language is colorful.
A metaphor is a great tool for creating a vivid description without using hundreds of words.
As you now know, a metaphor states that Thing A is Thing B. Let's say Thing A is a character in your story your audience hasn't yet met. If you choose something for Thing B that your audience already understands, you can immediately give Thing A characteristics of Thing B with a simple mention.
For instance, let's say Thing A is a character named Stanley who has an odor problem. Here's how you can get across that trait with a metaphor:
Stanley sits next to me at the kitchen table. When he reaches for the salad bowl at the center, the stench of a dumpster releases from his armpit.
The reader would get quite a vivid description of poor Stanley in just a few words.
Keep in mind, when you come across metaphors in narrative writing, they're not always written in a straightforward way like the examples we looked at earlier (ex, "his kitchen is a sauna").
In the instance with poor Stanley, the word "is" does not explicitly appear in the comparison, yet a metaphor is still present. The text is suggesting that the odor from Stanley's armpit is the stench of a dumpster, even though the phrasing doesn't include "is."
Metaphorical writing works for dialogue in a similar way as description. A character can get across a vivid point quickly with a spoken metaphor. For example, let's say a narrator thinks a character, Fred, is a bad dancer. Here's how that could come out in dialogue:
Jack, in the passenger seat, asks, "How was that club you and Fred went to last night?"
"The place was all right. But I had to keep my distance from him once he got out on the dance floor. I didn't want people to know I was friends with the guy."
"I thought you two were cool?"
"He's not a bad dude. But those dance moves. His feet are made of concrete."
Not only can a metaphor help describe a person or thing a character is talking about, but the character doing the talking. In this example, in just a few words, the narrator not only expresses Fred's bad dancing, but expresses his own sarcasm.
Now you're accomplishing quite a lot with just a few words.
Use metaphors for great abstract comparisons in narrative writing
In dialogue and description, metaphors tend to be tight together within the text. "His feet are made of concrete" is a metaphor that starts and ends with a single sentence.
However, abstract comparisons may also be present in narrative writing, which can play out over multiple scenes, possibly even the bulk of a story.
Consider the phrase "X is a metaphor for Y," which you've probably heard. For instance, "Ethan almost drowning in the lake is a metaphor for his failing relationship with his son."
With abstraction, a writer can take the concept of a metaphor and broadly connect Thing A with Thing B. Nowhere in the text is a writer saying Thing A is Thing B, yet if the characteristics of Thing A strongly resemble those of Thing B, a connection forms.
Let's say the character Ethan has been struggling to mend a relationship with his rebellious son. No matter how hard Ethan tries, he can't seem to gain his son's attention. Panic grips Ethan. He comes to believe the relationship is over.
Now, let's say Ethan, upset about his son, decides to take a swim in the ocean to clear his head. Unfortunately, he's caught in a bad current. No matter how hard he tries, he can't seem to win the fight against the water. Panic grips Ethan. He comes to believe he's going to drown.
Then someone tosses him a life preserver.
Here, a metaphorical connection is made between Ethan's relationship with his son and his near drowning. Ethan being saved with a life preserver implies that his relationship with his son can also be saved.
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You might also like my articles on alliteration examples, definition of personification, and symbolism in writing.
What Is Alliteration and How to Use it to Elevate Your Writing
Learn what alliteration is and how to use it to improve any kind of writing. Plus, find out what to avoid when applying this literary technique.
If you want storytelling tips for a book, be sure to check out my free online writing course.
What is alliteration?
Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of two or more close-together words, as in "big boat," with "b" the repeating sound.
A repeating vowel sound doesn't form an alliteration. For example, "anticipated arrival" wouldn't qualify even though both words begin with the same "a" sound (FYI, the word pair is instead an example of another literary device, "assonance").
Why is alliteration used?
The human mind tries to find patterns in the world. So, when a person comes across close-together words beginning with the same sound, the mind may pay a bit closer attention to those words than others because it detects a pattern.
Plus, since alliteration is based on sound, it can give writing a rhythmic, musical quality. Thus, it doesn't just draw attention to words, it draws attention to them in a pleasant way.
Examples of alliteration
As mentioned, "big boat" is an example of alliteration. This example involves two consecutive words beginning with the same letter. However, this format isn't the only variety of alliteration...
Alliteration's repeating sound can have multiple letters
"Showy ship" is also an example of alliteration. Unlike "big boat" - which just repeats the single-lettered "b" sound - "showy ship" repeats a double-lettered sound, "sh."
Alliteration's repeating sound can come from different letters
"Colorful kite" is an alliteration because the same sound is repeated at the beginning of the words, even though that sound comes from a "c" in the first and a different letter, a "k," in the second.
On the other hand, words with the same consonant at their starts don't always form an alliteration. As mentioned, alliteration is about the sound letters make, not the letters themselves.
"That tornado" would not be considered an alliteration. Even though both words begin with "t," the letter is used to form different sounds in each.
The words with alliteration's repeating sound don't need to be directly next to each other
"Cook the cauliflower" is an example of alliteration even though the two words with the repeating sound - "cook" and "cauliflower" - aren't directly next to each other ("the" separates them).
As long as the words with the repeating sound are somewhat close to each other, they form an alliteration.
More than two words can have alliteration's repeating sound
In the examples provided so far, pairs of word share a repeating sound, however, technically, the sound can be repeated in an unlimited number of words as long as they're somewhat close to each other.
"Riding a rusty rollercoaster is a ridiculous idea" is an example of four-word alliteration.
How to use alliteration in your writing...and what to avoid
If literary devices were food ingredients, alliteration would be sugar. Writers can add a bit of alliteration somewhere to get a reader's mind engaged in those words. However, if you dump too much sugar on something, it'll be too sweet. Somebody may take a few bites, but wouldn't want to finish. Alliteration works the same way.
When it's used excessively, it draws so much attention to itself, it can pull the reader's mind away from the underlying message the words are trying to convey.
If you're writing an advertising slogan with just three words, all of them starting with the same sound would probably be a good idea. However, if you're writing a chapter in a book and seventeen words in a row begin with the same sound (unironically), your reader probably won't finish your book.
An example of effective alliteration in narrative writing
Narrative writing is about storytelling, encompassing fiction (ex, a novel) and story-based non-fiction (ex, a biography). Narrative writing is made up of two major components: dialogue and description.
In brief, dialogue is the part of the text your characters say, while description is the rest of the text. Let's look at this example:
Howard sits on the couch and flips on the TV. His wife enters the den. She glares at him and heads upstairs. "Everything all right?" he asks.
She keeps walking up the steps, without a reply.
How can we enhance this segment of narrative writing with alliteration?
Be careful using alliteration in dialogue. Good dialogue should be true to how a character would talk. Since most real-life people don't go out of their way to insert alliterations into their speech, neither should most characters. However, if a certain character in your story is grandiose, and speaking in alliterations is consistent with the character's personality, then go ahead and stay true to that.
Anyway, description tends to be a better place for alliteration, in general.
As mentioned, you can use alliteration to draw attention to certain words. Since you should apply the device sparingly, you don't want to pick random words. You'd want to alliterate for a reason. For instance, you might want to choose words that play a strong role in a point you're making. The added attention can stress your point.
In the example with Howard and his wife, her ignoring him - and him not knowing why - is the takeaway from the scene segment. Alliteration could be used to accentuate this takeaway. Here's a slightly revised version:
Howard sits on the couch and flips on the TV. His wife enters the den. She glares at him and heads upstairs. "Everything all right?" he asks.
She keeps walking up the steps, silent.
Notice the difference? Notice the alliteration? At the very end, "steps, silent." The dash of alliteration highlights her silence, her key characteristic.
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You might also like my posts on what a metaphor is and what personification is.
The Ultimate Guide on How to Market a Book Online
If you want to learn how to market a book online, you've come to the right place. Uncover powerful tactics for BookTok, email marketing, cross-promos, and much more.
Before you focus on selling your book, you want it to be as good as possible. For highly effective writing techniques, check out my free online writing course.
What is online book marketing?
Applying a variety of digital tools to reach your book's target readers online, getting them excited about your book, and encouraging them to order a copy.
Here are your primary digital tools - click a link to jump to its section in the guide:
Why get a writer website?
If you're a writer, I highly recommend you create a website for yourself. It'll make you look professional, plus act as a hub for important information.
To get started, you first need to do buy a domain name - they're not expensive (you can even get one for free)...
How to get a domain name for a writer website
Your domain name should be "your name," followed by ".com." For instance, you're currently on my writer website, which has a domain name of tedgaldi.com. I'd recommend you get your domain name ASAP before someone else out there with the same name as you buys it first.
You can get a free domain name from Bluehost.
The domain name is free if you also get a hosting package from them (which are very cheap, starting at just a couple bucks and change per month). Hosting refers to the servers and technical infrastructure that keep a website running. If you want a website, you must get a hosting package from somewhere.