For as long as you can remember, you’ve admired the short story. There’s such an elegance about this form of fiction, and so many people don’t seem to understand just how beautiful it is. But you do. You love short stories, whether it’s a vintage apocalyptic Ray Bradbury collection, or getting a different new story in the new issue of The New Yorker every week. And in addition to having a love for sitting down at your favorite coffee shop and reading the terse tales of Raymond Carver and the creepy stories of Angela Carter, you also love writing stories. But lately you’ve been thinking that you want to master the craft, and you aren’t entirely sure how to go about it.
Sure, sometimes you’re lucky, and you write something good--but how do you become a good short story writer? Well, it’s all about understanding its elements, and knowing how to improve them. And here’s how.
Understand point of view
Voice is one of the most powerful things about fiction. It’s what carries a story, what makes it sound like a song. And while novelists have to worry about weaving different points of view together--take Tracy Chevalier’s work, for example--one of the benefits of writing a story is that it’s more like writing a song. You have to choose a point of view, then stick to it, making it sing for only three to fifteen pages, depending on how long your story’s going to be. Unless you’re writing something experimental like Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” you need to choose if you want to write in first, second, or third person--and who your narrator’s going to be.
It depends on what kind of story you want to write. Flannery O’Connor often writes in the third person, with a little bit of detachment from her characters. In part, it’s because of the cruelty of her fiction, and her beliefs about fate and characters being doomed, that this works. Young adult writers, on the other hand, tend to use the first person because it captures a youthful voice. As for choosing who tells your story, you may not know at first. You need to play around with point of view until you suddenly find one that works, and keeps your story moving forward.
Making smart craft decisions can make a huge difference. Kristen Roupenian, the writer of the viral story “Cat Person,” ended up selling her debut book for five figures because of her popularity.
Think about rising action and structure
Many stories, like plays, have a set structure. For the most part, you’ll have a beginning where a character encounters a situation that forces them to change what’s going on with them. This is called the Hero’s Journey. For example, let’s say your protagonist is forced out of his apartment because he can’t pay rent. He ends up having to move back in with his ex-girlfriend, who has started displaying some strange behavior. He tries to challenge her strange behavior, try to understand what’s going on with her, asking her friends questions about what’s going on. This is the rising action. Finally, there’s a climax, where there’s a final attempt for the protagonist to succeed.
This could work in any genre. Maybe in one version, the ex-girlfriend is having an affair with a married colleague. Maybe in another, she’s slowly turning into an alien, and the protagonist needs to fight against an alien overlord to save her.
According to Sara A. Hoyt, a writing expert, it’s a good idea to map about generally how these events will occur in your story. To learn more about how this structure theory, read more here.
If you’re lucky, a good structure can get you a movie deal! Which is great, considering that the box office revenue of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” reached a gross of $424.67 million in over 4,000 theaters as of January 2018.
Set up scenes with dialogue and description
Finally, once you’ve thought about broader things such as your characters, point of view, and structure, you need to sit down and write scenes. Scenes in stories, for the most part, are made up of two elements: dialogue and description.
Let’s take the aforementioned possible story, about the weird ex-girlfriend. Maybe the first tip-off to the ex-boyfriend that his ex is an alien is when he overhears her on the phone discussing the walk in shower cost with a construction guy. He thinks to himself that $10,000 might be a bit steep for a walk in shower (the average cost of installing a shower is closer to $3,315). But when he confronts her, he learns that she’s turning the entire apartment into a walk-in shower.
This will lead to a scene in which both characters argue. Conflict can slowly build, and with the right description, you can give the reader clues as to what’s going on. For example, what’s going on with all the new Carl Sagan books on the table?
By thinking about these elements, you can master the craft of writing short stories. What other strategies do you use to improve your fiction writing?