We’ve been doing a lot of work on what makes a satisfying short story at the writing group, and here’s an easily digested summary of what we’ve discussed.
A memorable short story will say something about the human condition, encapsulating one idea succinctly, with each scene building towards a crisis point, followed by a point of realisation or moment of clarity. The issue you address at the start of the story should be the issue that is resolved at the end.
A good short story starts in the middle of the action and as close to the climax as possible. At the end of the story, the main character should be in a better place than at the beginning, enabling them to move forward.
Once you’ve chosen an idea, remember these basic steps:
• Set up a problem
• Add some complications to create conflict
• Build the problem to a crisis
• Resolve the problem
Your story should:
• Require a character to make a choice
• Show that choice by actions, and
• The consequences of those actions
Make the opening paragraphs gripping, setting the scene and grabbing the reader’s attention early on, using hooks to draw them in. Set up the reader’s expectations quickly by posing a question that needs answering.
Choose a plot that fits your word count. There’s no point in planning a family saga spanning several generations if the competition rules state ‘no more than 2,000 words’. As a general rule, the shorter the story, the shorter the timeframe should be, so keep it as tight as possible.
Similarly, the number of characters should be in keeping with the type and length of story you’re telling. Too many characters will confuse the story and the word count won’t leave a lot of room for character development.
Put characters in scenes to show their feelings, rather than recounting them. Show them in situations to explain their actions and motivations. You can give readers information about characters by their actions, their physical traits, in dialogue, even in their clothing.
Characters should be consistent, not displaying behaviour that has no bearing on the story or traits that are at odds with the personality you’ve so painstakingly created and which require further explanation you can’t afford.
Avoid character names that can be easily confused or start with the same initial or sound.
Dialogue should develop characters and drive the plot forward. Use convincing dialogue. If you’re not sure, read it aloud. Speaking the words can help you decide if the dialogue is working or if it’s hampering your story with too much punctuation or use of adverbs.
Allow the reader to learn about the characters through their speech. At the same time, push the story forwards, by conveying information in verbal exchanges, building character and plot.
Maintain pace and tension with action, dialogue and varied sentence structure.
Point of View
Who tells the story and how it is told is critical. The tone, feel and meaning of a story can change dramatically depending on who is telling the story. The voice should reflect the style of the story and the style should reflect the subject. The voice you use will depend on which character is telling the story. Are you inside the psyche of a policeman, a nun, a recently divorced woman, or a killer?
If you use a narrator, ensure they have a different voice to the characters in your story. Give them a role, a reason for being in control of the story.
Head-hopping in short fiction can be confusing for the reader so mark any transitions carefully, with a new paragraph or section. Very short fiction is best restricted to one point of view.
Setting is the location of a story’s actions, and the time in which it occurs. It is created by language and introduces readers to the moment, the who and the where. This is when it’s fine to TELL your readers details of scenery etc.
Setting can add an important dimension, reflecting character and embodying theme, so concentrate on how the situation and the events in the story affect or change the central character.
Edit ruthlessly. Use active rather than passive voice to save words. Use allusions to well-known stories, historical events or situations from literature, but don’t make them so obscure that no one gets the inference. A Byronic appearance can say as much about a man’s looks as several lines of description.
A little mystery goes a long way – keep your reader guessing right until the end. Twists are always popular. Make it a clever one that no one sees coming but don’t suddenly introduce a new character who hasn’t appeared in the rest of the narrative.
Most stories have a climax or a turning point, showing that characters are beginning to change in some way or starting to see things differently. But the ending could be open-ended, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusion.
Make the end of the story satisfying for the reader. Stories which fail to answer the questions raised or resolve the situation can be disappointing. Tales that offer hope deliver a satisfying conclusion for the reader.