Writing Short Stories That Work

Writing a short story that works involves learning how to construct a foundational framework by use and development of plot, theme, characters, denouement and conclusion.

Creative short stories need not all look alike, but they do all share a basic structure that makes them "work": they're readable, entertaining or profound. This involves learning certain basic skills that support all successful writing. Once these skills are developed, one may want to explore various ways of using them, or even of breaking the rules; but as all serious artists know, one must know the rules before they can be broken.

*The Passionate First Draft*

In the first place, the writer must have both passion and patience. When you write, you leave the territory of the mundane. The first draft of your story need not follow any rules necessarily, but should be an outpouring of words. Believe in what you are writing. Explore the interior realm, and pull words from your grief, pleasure, happiness, anger and pain. Describe concretely and specifically what you see with the inner eye, how you feel, what matters to you.

Don't write out of a sense of duty. Good writers do not try to teach a lesson, or to be socially or politically correct. It is far too easy to censor our good writer, to mentally project our mothers or other relatives looking over the shoulder. A first draft should lie on the page spontaneously, buzzing with the joy of creative energy, regardless of form or quality of content. As one learns to write, stories will tend to shape themselves in the first draft, since the basic rules become basic to one's nature, but beginner's needn't worry if the first draft is messy. Learning to write a short story that works is like learning anything else: a child rides a bike shakily at first, and scrawls his name with huge and awkward letters. It is the same with the art of short story writing.


After you write a first draft, it is a good idea to let the story sit for a while, a few days or even weeks. It is easy to love one's own writing in the same way that we can each put up with our own singing, even when others cannot! Wait a while.

When you come back to the story for its first revision, start to notice a few things. Does the story have the basic elements? Does it have a believable plot? What is the theme, or the point of the story? Are the characters real? How does the plot build to the point of tension wherein everything is resolved in the denouement? Is the conclusion satisfying?

*The Basic Elements*

Plot. This refers to the premise and action that takes place in a story. A traditional plot involves conflict, and there are all kinds of conflicts that can be used. These include, conflicts between people, interior conflicts regarding decisions, conflicts between obligation and desire, or even good versus evil. Be aware of the conflicts in your story. Do they support and move the plot forward? Is the plot believable in terms of character motivation?

Theme. The theme refers to the point you are expressing in the story. This might be very subtle. Does the point come across as a natural outgrowth of the plot, or does it seem forced or "preachy"? Stories that work express themselves without the feeling of didacticism, or that one is being taught a moral lesson; rather, the lesson of the story sits within the plot and development of character naturally, and therefore powerfully.

Characters. In stories that work, the characters are more than cardboard caricatures with wooden hands. When you look at your first draft, consider character motivation. Do they react reasonably in proportion with the traits you have granted them? Do they speak naturally, or does the dialogue sound like an actor reading lines? It might be a good idea to make up a history for your characters, known only by you, which isn't necessarily expressed in the story. A writer should know more about each character than he or she tells. This gives each character an aura of mystery and believability.

Denouement. This French word refers to the way the conflicts in the plot comes to a pique and are concluded. The short story that works handles this with care, since this is usually the point where the implicit theme stands or falls. Do the conflicts resolve or not resolve themselves in the story? If we are left hanging, not knowing whether the conflicts have gone in either direction, the story usually doesn't work.

Conclusion. How does the story conclude? Has the character changed in any way? Has he learned or not learned from the resolution of conflict?

*Tightening Things Up*

Once you establish these elements in your short story, go through and scratch out every word, paragraph or page that does not contribute to them. You may have a wonderful description of a city on the second page which has nothing to do with the story. Be brutal. Scratch it out. You might have a brilliant quip on page four, or some allusive alliteration on page six, that do not contrubute to the basic elements. Do away with them. Believe it or not, the story actually works better without them, is easier for others to read, and become a powerful vehicle of artistic expression. A short story is not a novel; it is more like a poem, where every word and sentence counts. You make each word count by deleting extraneous material.

*Let Others Read It*

Listen to the advice of others. If a lot of people are distracted by some sentence you happen to love, think about changing it. Don't be afraid to revise. You are the creator, the writer, and you have it in your power to produce something beautiful. This means revision, which is not an act of mutilation, but of creation--though it may feel temporarily painful now and then.

Re-read your story with a critical mind when you are in different moods, and re-write it accordingly. A story that works does not just "happen", but it is the fruit of rewriting and revision. You will dioscover that you will see it differently and find various new things you want to change according to your various moods.


Once you have the basics down, you can begin to work on your own style and unique voice. But these come later. Short story writing takes skill as well as an artistic temper; you must learn the skills before you can shape it into art.

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