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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