Writing Short Stories

Writing a compelling short story requires skillful implementation of the same techniques used in writing a full-length novel:

  •  Creating a powerful opening that immediately hooks readers
  • Crafting a believable plotline that is intriguing from beginning to end
    • Starts with conflict, has rising suspense, and builds to a climax of tension
    • Progresses with each occurrence leading logically and naturally to the next one
    • Ends with a satisfactory resolution that readers will feel positive about
  • Choosing point-of-view characters to reveal the story through
    • Believable characters that readers will relate to, find interesting, and cheer for
    • Characters who will change for the better as a result of what happens in the story
  • Developing secondary characters for the main characters to interact with
  • Revealing the storyline through a balance of scene and summary
  • Showing powerful emotions without telling readers what the characters are feeling
  • Weaving in brief but vivid descriptions of people and places, dialogue that’s realistic but not mundane, and the POV character’s thoughts, reactions, and observations

The unique challenge with a short story is accomplishing all that in just 1,700 words or fewer! That’s where editing comes in.

Editing a short story requires:

  • Analyzing the theme you intended to portray to determine whether the story clearly reflects it (Unlike a novel, there should be one main theme for a short story.)
  • Determining whether there’s a better place to start the story (earlier or later)
  • Considering whether different POV characters might work better (or if you have too many for a short story)
  • Making sure everything in each scene is something the POV character for that scene could know, think, or observe (No omniscient “head hopping.”)
  • Showing what the POV character is thinking without staying in his/her head too long
    • Need a good balance between action (things happening) and internal thought
  • Reading each character’s dialogue out loud to make sure the words sound natural and fit with the character’s personality
    • And making sure each character sounds unique (not all the same or like you)
  • Acting out each character’s movements to make sure they don’t conflict
    • For example, having a character sit when he or she is already sitting
  • Changing most passive “telling” sentences (was/were/had) to active “showing”
  • Taking out most (if not all) back-story/flashbacks and making the scenes active
  • Eliminating all unnecessary words, sentences, paragraphs, characters, details, etc.
  • Replacing verb/adverb combinations with descriptive stand-alone verbs
  • Replacing noun/adjective combinations with descriptive stand-alone nouns
  • Breaking up lengthy monologues, narratives, and internal discourses
  • Varying sentence lengths and structure (Longer sentences are best for slow-paced scenes; short, choppy sentences, even incomplete ones, create a faster pace.)
  • Checking for words or phrases that have been repeated, especially in close proximity
  • Looking for where you have consecutive sentences or paragraphs that start with the same word (then rewording or reorganizing to avoid that)
  • Evaluating the ending to ensure that major loose ends are tied up and readers will feel satisfied when they read the last sentence

Before you submit a story for publication, make sure you have proofread very carefully for:

  • Typos (use spell-check, but don’t rely on it)
  • Inconsistencies (in format, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc.)
  • Misspelled words (including words that are not spelled correctly for the usage in the sentence)—per Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition)
  • Punctuation errors—per The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition)
    • For Christian terms and aspects, follow The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style (2004)
  • Pronouns that have a missing, incorrect, or inappropriate antecedent
  • Dangling or misplaced modifiers
  • Grammar mistakes, especially those that could affect the meaning of the sentence
    • Exception: you may intentionally write some characters’ dialogue and internal thoughts with the grammar that would be natural for that character

If you are not familiar with fiction-writing techniques, please read and study books on the subject prior to submitting material for publication. Here are some I recommend:

Crafting Novels & Short Stories by the editors of Writer’s Digest

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass

Story by Robert McKee

Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins

Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway

Creating Characters by Dwight Swain

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

The Art & Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall

Practical Tips for Writing Popular Fiction by Robyn Carr

Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

If you don’t usually read well-written fiction, you will have a difficult time writing it. Here are some novelists I recommend:

Angela (Elwell) Hunt

Francine Rivers

Cindy Woodsmall

Susan Meissner

Deborah Raney

Gayle Roper

Brandilyn Collins

Once you’ve studied the techniques, read several good novels, and tried your hand at writing fiction, I encourage you to join (or start) a critique group, or find one or more critique partners, who are also fiction writers. (If you’re not sure how to do this, check out the American Christian Fiction Writers at www.acfw.com. Among other things, they help writers get into critique groups who usually exchange manuscripts via e-mail.)

After you’ve polished your writing to the best of your ability, I suggest you consider hiring a professional freelance editor to help you take that manuscript to the next level of quality. (If you’re not sure where to find a good freelance editor, you can check out the Christian Editor Connection. Just go to www.ChristianEditor.com and fill out the online form for Authors Seeking Editors.)

Writing short fiction, especially for a compilation such as my fiction-lover’s devotional series, allows you to:

  • Practice fiction-writing techniques
  • Hone your tight writing skills
  • Gain experience dealing with rejections (Any writing you do for publication is likely to be rejected multiple times before it’s accepted by a traditional publisher—better to get through the early stages of that with pieces you haven’t spent years working on.)
  • Get published—YEA!
  • Get paid (at least in copies of the publication in which your writing appears)
  • Have something fun and personal to give to family, friends, and loved ones as gifts
  • Gain a publishing credit for your writing resume (which will look good to future publishers)
  • Be connected with well-known, established authors whose stories are also in the book
  • Participate in joint promotional efforts with other authors who are in the book
  • Get to know other authors at promotional events and writers’ conferences (a good ice breaker for conversations with people you may feel nervous talking to)
  • Gain exposure to the publisher of the devotional series
  • Get your name “out there.”
  • Benefit from cross-promotion (Readers who buy the book because they recognized other authors’ names will also discover you!)
  • Know that readers around the world, for years to come, will be blessed by what God has called you to write.

Once you have followed the above steps and created a powerful short fiction story (and written a brief Life Application that encourages readers to consider how the story may affect their own lives), I hope you will check the devo guidelines, follow them carefully, and submit your writing to me. I would love to include your work in a future publication of my Fiction Lover’s Devotional series.

God bless you in your writing journey!