Perhaps you have an idea for a short story and are wondering what is the best way to begin writing it. Or perhaps you have written your short story and are now looking for ways to revise it for a more complex and engaging narrative. You can create engrossing prose and deepen your short fiction with the following strategies:
1) Start in action or movement, or in media res, which is Latin for “into the middle of things.” Because of the space restriction of a short story, you want to engage your reader right away. Movement pulls us into the story faster than stillness. Say for example, you are considering writing a story about a teenage boy who decides to rob a liquor store for the first time. Rather than introducing the character before he enters the liquor store, why not have him already in the store, reaching for his gun and dealing with his inner conflict of committing his first crime? In revising, the real action, when the central character and the conflict first are introduced, may not show up until, let’s just say page 5, and the prior pages are filled with background and ground situation. Try starting on page 5 and incorporate background as the story unfolds, making it a part of the rising action.
2) Include your contract, or promise of the short story, within the first two paragraphs. This gives readers context of what is unfolding, and lets us know what’s at stake for the central character. It is here that we are shown what the character desires, and we can sense that from the events that are beginning to unfold, regardless of whether or not he attains his desires, this character will be altered by the end of the story.
3) Use specific, concrete details as much as possible. Specific details resonate further with readers than lofty statements. Broad-brushed or abstract statements tend to come off melodramatic. Ground them in reality with particular and tangible details. This creates a more experiential reading of your short story.
4) Show and tell. We are all familiar with that dictum, “show don’t tell,” but it is impossible to eliminate all “telling” from a story, especially in short fiction, where we have limited narrative space. Summarizing events is essential to cover extended periods of time or to convey recurring actions that bring context to the present action of the story. The trick is to make your telling look like showing by using specific details that dramatize the telling. For example, let’s look at a section in The Snows of Kilimanjaro to see how Hemingway hides his telling with very specific and concrete detail:
He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself, and what he believed in, by drinking too much that he blunted the edges of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and prejudice, by hook and by crook. (60)
The narrative is filled with tells, but what masks the telling is the insertion of “drinking too much”, a simple phrase that fills in the blanks and grounds all the abstract statements with real, concrete terms.
5) Use internal monologue to create more depth for your character. While you don’t want to come out and explicitly state your character feelings, such as “he felt sad” or “she was happy”, you can express your character’s impressions, judgments and reflections to convey his emotional complexity. Looking at Hemingway’s quote again, note how the character reflects and concludes he wasted away his talent through his drinking. Without actually stating the emotion, Hemingway was able to convey the depth of the character’s regret and shame.
6) Create tension by putting obstacles to the character’s desires. This is at the heart of your short story’s rising action. Your character desires something (what’s at stake?) and conflict arises in his efforts to obtain this desired outcome. Tension is created when we see the character struggling with these obstacles.
7) Allow your characters to be vulnerable and flawed. Let go of protecting them. They’re far more interesting when they make mistakes, say the wrong things or get into trouble. It’s their vulnerability and flaws that make your short story characters human and sympathetic with your readers. This is also part of creating character arc. Sometimes the obstacles to a character’s desires come from the character himself, and it is in the overcoming (or not) of these obstacles that he is changed.
8) Insert your flashbacks (the past as scenes) strategically in the short story. Flashbacks interrupt the present moment, and can slow your short story’s pacing, especially during a key emotional moment. If the flashback is extensive, try working it into a standalone scene, and use simple, unobtrusive time markers (such as “three months ago” or “last spring”) to situate your reader. If the flashback is brief, consider inserting it well enough before, possibly in an earlier scene, so that your character can experience the emotional moment in the present action without interruption. Readers will have the flashback in mind when your character takes action in the present.
9) Have flashbacks and the past in summary inform the present action in your short story. In other words, the past should provide context to your character’s actions or beliefs in the present moment.
10) Stay in the emotional moment. Writers sometimes find it difficult to hang in there during a crucial emotional moment. It can feel uncomfortable. And sometimes, we feel inadequate to express it well, so we have a great deal of development and detail in the short story’s narrative before and after, rather than during the emotional moment, But when we skim over a such a significant moment, readers will feel like they were rushed through or even miss it altogether. Worse, the ending will feel unearned. Lingering in the emotional moment may mean delving deeper into the character’s thinking. Try mining for the thought behind the thought. Or, if your character doesn’t do a lot of looking within, you can still make the moment feel emotionally significant by heightening the character’s sense details (smell, sight, hearing) or his physicality (how the body feels or what is it doing).
Incorporating these craft tips in your writing will go a long way in creating a more visceral reading experience, a more believable arc of change, as well as a more meaningful relationship between character and action. You will be well on your way to writing an engaging and compelling short story.