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Five Tips for Writing Compelling Short Stories

Writing a short story seems like it should be simple, but it's an art many writers struggle with. I know some writers who can stare down a 100,000 word behemoth with no fear, but who can't wrap their heads around writing short stories. I wouldn't call myself a fantastic short story writer, but I DO love writing and reading short stories, and over the years I've thought a lot about what makes a short story work, and how that differs from what makes novels work. So today I'd like to share a few tips for writing compelling short stories.

light purple flowers and a black fountain pen resting on a cream colored book page with the words "Five Tips for writing compelling short stories"

In my experience, the secret to a good short story is focus. If a novel is a video of a cross-country road trip, a good short story is a close-up snapshot of a high or low point on the journey. The trick is to capture the essence of an entire journey in one or two pictures. Some ways to maintain this tight focus include:

1. Include only one or two point of view characters. In a short story, especially one under 5,000 words, the reader doesn't have time to get to know a lot of individuals. It's better to have a few characters, or just one character, whose personality really shines. In a longer work you can head hop several times without giving your reader whiplash, but in a short story too many voices make the story feel rushed and create confusion.

2. Pay attention to the details. I've read a lot of short stories that read like a novel with all the description taken out. You need description, but you should choose details carefully. Think of it as decorating a very small room on a very tight budget. You only have room for a few accessories, and they're all costly and precious. Choose the ones that give you the most impact for your money.

3. Select your words carefully. Every word has a denotative meaning and a connotative meaning. The denotative meaning is the relatively objective meaning, the definition you can look up in the dictionary. The connotative meaning is the subjective experience of the word, its shading and nuance. It is shaped by the tastes and perceptions of the culture that uses the language. So, for example, look at the words "lush" and "overgrown". Both words denote an abundance of plant life. But one suggests luxury, and the other neglect. (A little side note: this is why a thesaurus is not always your best friend. By all means, use a thesaurus, but don't use a synonym with which you aren't familiar: you could end up saying something you didn't mean to say. If you stumble across an unfamiliar word in a thesaurus, skip it and choose one you know well.) Choosing the word with the precise shade of meaning you desire allows you to paint vivid scenes with fewer words.

4. Edit thoroughly. All rough drafts suck. This is as true of short stories as it is of novels, poems and screenplays. As with any other piece of writing, short stories are best when they get a chance to sit in a drawer (or a file on your computer) and cool off. Then give them an editing run on your own. Then send them to others for feedback. Then make revisions. Then repeat the process as often as necessary. Just because it's a short story doesn't mean it's a throw-away. A well written short story can get under a reader's skin and stick with them for days.

5. Voice is everything. I saved this for last because to me it's the single most important factor in gripping fiction. The voice sets the emotional tone of the story and often reveals the personality of the point of view character. It's true for all fiction, but especially in a short story where you have only a moment to capture the reader's interest. The good news is that if you're someone who normally writes longer pieces of fiction, short stories are great places to experiment with different kinds of voice and refine your personal style.

I hope these tips will be helpful for you in your writing adventures! And if you have any great tips for writing short fiction, feel free to share them in the comments.

Background photo of flower and fountain pen by Debby Hudson, courtesy of Unsplash.

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Michelle Simkins

polytheist . writer . maker . witch

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