Guiding Questions for Writing Short Stories

how to write a synopsisMany people dream of writing a bestselling novel someday, and some even start writing a novel they hope will climb to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list. Few people actually finish the stories they started, however. Writing a novel is hard. When you come up with a great story idea that gets you really excited, the writing seems to just flow as scene ideas come to your head. It doesn’t take long, though, for the excitement of your original idea to begin to fade. When that happens, the time spent writing often fades as well.

Every November, writers around the world participate in a program called NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a novel of 50,000 words during the month of November. It’s a great contest that gives writers an opportunity to push themselves to start and complete a novel. In 2013, there were 310,095 participants. That’s 310,095 people who had an idea they were excited about and began turning it into a novel. Sadly, only 14% of those participants completed their novels. Of course, may have went on to complete their novels beyond the November 30 deadline, and in fact, many do. But NaNoWriMo shows that writing a novel is hard and requires you to push yourself.

If you want to write a novel, you should definitely develop a strategy for getting from concept to completion. Udemy’s Novel Writing Workshop is a great resource for helping you with this. Another option on the journey toward writing novel, however, is writing short stories. The difficulty in writing a novel is that novels are long. They require a lengthy amount of time to complete. You have a story you want to tell, but unless you’re a full time writer, you may not have months develop a story to its completion. If you work full time, a novel could take you years to complete if you only have a few hours a week to dedicate to it. Short stories offer you the opportunity to develop a story and complete it in a much shorter time frame. Writing short stories gives you the gratification of knowing you wrote a complete story from start to finish.

Characteristics of Short Stories

  • Length: A typical novel will run anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 words and sometimes even longer. A short story, while there is no official limit on the amount of words you can use, is usually somewhere between 1,000 and 20,000 words. Stories that are shorter than 1,000 words are in the realm of flash fiction, which is another interesting story form to try. Obviously, if you decide to write a short story of 20,000 words, you’re still going to be writing a story that will take you some time to complete. In order to get the satisfaction of completing a story, you might want to consider your short story sweet spot to be somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 words. While a novel may take someone several days or even weeks to read, a short story is designed to ideally be read in a single sitting. Not only do you get the satisfaction of writing a story from start to finish in a short time, you reader gets the satisfaction of reading the complete story in a short time.

  • Story Scope: Because they are limited in the amount of words you can use, short stories typically deal with only two or three characters and focus on one single story event.

  • Character Development: The limited length of short stories means that they are also limited in the amount of character development they can present.

  • Theme: Short stories typically have a theme, or a moral argument, that is the author’s idea of how people in the world should behave or believe. It’s the controlling idea of the story, and while it is a moral argument, it should be told through great storytelling without than being preachy.

Tips for Writing Short Stories

When you’re writing a short story, it’s a great idea to let some strategic questions guide you through the process. In addition to the tips you’ll find below, a course like Udemy’s Beginning Writers Workshop can help you think through concepts like story structure and writing dialogue.

Whose Story are You Telling (Characters)?

Your short story should focus on one character or a small group of characters. Your main character is the hero of the story and is called the protagonist. You should include some character description about your character, but only the details that are integral to the plot of your story. Some character details you might want to include are the character’s gender, age, appearance, personality, career, hobbies, backstory, but, again, only include details in your story that are integral to the plot. Include characters who are allies to the protagonist, such as a spouse, parents, a significant other, a boss, etc. if it’s integral to the plot.

Your character will often have a human embodiment of opposition to what they are trying to accomplish in the story, and this character is called the antagonist. The antagonist is the person who is trying to keep the protagonist from reaching their goal, and it’s up to you to decide the lengths this person will go to in order to oppose the protagonist. Your antagonist may or may not be evil, but they’re definitely an opposing force.

What is Your Story World (Setting)?

Your story takes place somewhere and at some time. The setting may be an integral component of your story’s plot, but it doesn’t have to be. You definitely need to include some details about your story world toward the beginning of your story to give your reader some context of where and when your story is taking place. A firmly established story world helps give the story a more realistic feeling to the reader. You may also want to include important cultural norms for your location, as well as any weather conditions that are integral to your plot.

What is Your Moral Argument (Theme)?

Writers rarely lack the overriding desire to change the world with the stories they tell. A moral argument doesn’t mean that you have to be religious and tell a religious story. It just means that you have something you believe is important for people to know, do, or believe, and you want to use the vehicle of story to communicate it. What do you want to communicate to your reader about how people should behave in the world? Another way to think about it is realizing that all stories are about a conflict between good and evil. Your moral argument is the way your character overcomes a specific evil. Though the opportunity for character development is limited in short stories, your character should have a moral dilemma in the beginning that they solve by the end of the story, and how they do this is your theme.

Who is Telling Your Story (Point-of-View)?

Point-of-view is the angle from which your story is told. Will your main character tell the story or someone else? Will the one telling the story even be a part of the story or just an outside observer? There are three main POVs you can choose to tell your story from.

  • First Person – The person telling the story is your main character from his or her perspective, using first-person pronouns (I, me, we, etc.).

  • Third Person Limited – The person telling the story is an outside observer who isn’t a character in the story. The narrator is able to tell the reader the thoughts and feelings of one of the characters, typically the main character. This POV uses third-person personal pronouns (he, she, they, it). This POV works well if you want to have something hidden from your main character that one of your other characters is thinking.

  • Third Person Omniscient – This narrator knows all, which means they can tell the reader anything any character is thinking or feeling. You’ll also use third-person personal pronouns (he, she, they, it) in this POV.

What Happens in Your Story (Conflict & Plot)?

The easiest way to think about the plot of your story is to start with your protagonist. What is your main character’s flaw and what is his or her goal in the story? For example, in the short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan, a story that was adapted into the movie Memento, the main character wants to find the person responsible for murdering his wife. The next thing to think through is what is opposing your character from reaching his or her goal? In “Memento Mori,” the main character’s inability to remember anything is his opposition to reaching his goal. In the movie adaptation, the opposition is compounded by antagonists who take advantage of the protagonist’s amnesia. The plot of your story is the journey your character goes through to overcome the opposition to reach his or her goal or not. In fact, your character may realize that the goal they were pursuing was the wrong goal and will end up reaching a different goal. Because of the brevity of short stories, your story will usually focus in on one major story event that decides whether or not the protagonist reaches the story goal. Short story plots typically follow the plot structure below.

  • Exposition – This is the part at the beginning of your story where you will introduce your reader to your story world and your character(s).

  • Rising Action – This is the part where the story begins to get complicated for the protagonist as the conflict becomes more intense.

  • Climax – This is the highest point of conflict in the story. At this point, your reader should be wondering if the protagonist will overcome the opposition or not.

  • Falling Action – This is the part of the story where things start to go back to normal or reach a new normal as the conflict is either resolved or not. The reader should have the feeling that the story is winding down and that they are seeing the results of what the protagonist accomplished in the climax.

  • Resolution – This is the conclusion of the story where all the loose ends of your story are tied up. The reader should get the impression that this was either a happy or sad ending.

Just remember that you’re writing a short story, so you’ll have to move through these plot points quickly without making the story feel rushed.

Proofread, Revise, and Edit Your Story

After you’ve written your story, you want to make sure you’ve produced a polished narrative, which means reading through and making sure your sentences flow, your dialogue sounds authentic, and there are no mechanical errors. This course on Udemy will help you to proofread any piece of writing you produce.

Writing short stories is a lot of fun, and it’s great practice for writing longer stories. It forces you to focus in on what’s most important to the story you’re telling, and you get the unmatched feeling of knowing you took a story idea from concept to completion. If you decide to start writing short stories, you’re in great company. Stephen King, arguably the greatest storyteller around, began his career writing short stories for magazines. You can begin your journey to writing success by writing short stories as well. If you’re interested in some practical tips for getting your creative writing skills off the ground, check out Udemy’s course on creative writing.