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How to Write a Short Story
Stories tell the journeys of our lives. When constant bruises are made, we find some source of connection that makes everything okay. And short stories are perfect for that motive. The English Journal says, “With today’s blurring moral standards, it’s more important than ever…to read.” (129). With more readers, comes a higher demand for story-tellers, but not just anyone. They should emotionally provoke the reader into uncovering the depths of the world they are entering into. But how is that creation possible? The possibilities are endless, from choosing characters to deciding their fate. The option is in the writer’s hands. By incorporating the basic elements of general story-telling, you can write a better short story.
But to write any story, you need to decide who your audience is. Will they be children, adolescents, or adults? The Journal of Education Research says, “The age of the main character relative to the age of the reader is shown to be a fairly potent characteristic.” (147). The decision will be crucial, as well as the right material. Does your story consist of romance, or the adventures of getting a puppy? After all, a child won’t understand a teenage girl hoping a boy will kiss her, while that adolescent won’t care about adopting a puppy.
With the audience in mind, you are ready to create the protagonist and antagonist. The difference and the role they play are crucial. The protagonist is the hero, and star of the journey. While the antagonist is the bad guy; they get in the way of the protagonists’ goals. But they don’t have to be in human form. They can range from being nature, society, fate, or even lay in the protagonist himself. For example, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat. The protagonist is a self-destructive alcoholic that grows “moodier… (and) more regardless of the feelings of others.” (3). The antagonist, the black cat, gets in the way of his irritability, causing severe action that creates consequences lasting a lifetime. According to Write Source, “(They) should have a specific role that introduces complications that block that main character’s goal.” (356). And whatever form that may be, the complications created will be a critical element in telling the story.
In order for the antagonist to create conflict, all characters must have the ability to care; otherwise their goals and needs won’t matter. “The character who cares about something, finds something important is worth bothering with…Caring is the core is the character. Without it you have nothing…When the time comes to write the story, plunge him into a pre-planned situation that challenges the part of him that cares, threatens the thing he feels most important.” (Swain 3).
Not only is it a great building tool for conflict, but makes figuring out the objective and unconscious motive easier. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited, protagonist Charlie cares about his daughter, Honoria. His objective is to give her a home, thus the line, “I’m awfully anxious to have a home… (with) Honoria in it.” (638). This stems from his need of youth. “He wanted this child and nothing was much good now. He wasn’t young anymore, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself.” (647). Charlie needs Honoria back so he can bestow his dreams into her, so his life can have meaning. This is where the antagonist Aunt Marion comes in. She won’t let him have the child, because he’s a recovering alcoholic, and also believes he killed her sister. This breaks Charlie’s main goal into a series of complications that keep emotions invested and pages turning.
But creating conflict is hard, so formatting your story into a tight structure will be beneficial. Following Mary Kole’s emotional plot theory first will be the exposition, showing “Your characters base line of existence.” (159). The main purpose is to introduce the reader to the character, but it “should last no longer than the first few scenes.” (159). Next is the Inciting Incident – “the moment when everything changes.” (159). The character should now have a goal causing obstacles she’ll need to overcome. Then will come the fall, which “drags the character through the lowest of the low…Stakes will rise, obstacles will be more difficult to overcome, and the emotions…will become more complex.” (162). This leads to the climax, the highest level of conflict as protagonist and antagonist face-off. Write Source says, “It is the moment of truth… (and) should also cause a change…in the main character.” (342). Though the characters should realize the truth in the resolution, which should tie up the story together. In Babylon Revisited, the exposition shows people’s surprising reactions to Charlie being sober. The inciting incident happens during a visit to his family, motivating him to take Honoria by thinking, “(Marion’s) dislike was evident in the coldness which she spoke. Her very aggressiveness gave him an advantage…of what…had brought him to Paris…A great wave of protectiveness came over him. He thought he knew what to do for her.” (634). The thinking process leads him to taking action to getting Honoria back as his own, bringing him to the fall. As he tries to achieve Honoria’s trust in him, he faces temptation to drink, but must set a good example to Marion by controlling his temper. The climax begins when Charlie and Marion argue about the decision. Marion has the advantage when she gets sick, persuading husband Lincoln onto her side as he says, “Marion’s sick…I know this thing isn’t together your fault, but I can’t have her go to pieces about it. I’m afraid we’ll have to slide for six months; I can’t take the chance of working her up to this state again.” Marion wins the battle, which changes Charlie into drinking whiskey as he contemplates Honoria and wife Helen. The story resolves with his changed loneliness. “He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn’t have wanted him to be so alone.” Though it’s a disappointing ending, it rings with secure knowledge that he’ll keep trying.
Helping create conflict through structure can be done by building complications. By writing First, Next, Then, and After will transform the beginning of the scene to showing what has changed. Whether that is a new goal or a set-back, it can range from bigger obstacles to becoming closer to an objective. According to Write Source, “Writing events or details (will) make the conflict more serious.” And better developed conflict will make your story better. The opening scenes in The Black Cat will exemplify. First: the protagonist comes home drunk. Next: the cat attacks him. Then: he cuts out the cat’s eye socket. After: he realizes the horror of his action. What has changed is the protagonist now knows what he is uncontrollably capable of. The next scene continues. First: the cat slowly recovers. Next: the cat’s avoidance sickens the man. Then: he hangs the cat because he can’t stand it any longer. After: he not only realizes how horrible his action is, but not realizes he’s making a sin against God. The list goes on until the showdown between the man and cat arrives. Just listing off conflict in that order will not only make your story exciting to read about, but exciting to write.
To spruce up complications, mixing external and internal conflicts will play a key element in your story. But the difference is crucial to know. According to Mary Kole, “There are two levels of external conflict. Interpersonal can be a fight with a boyfriend, problems with parents, etc. Societal conflict… (consists of) flue epidemics, famine, etc.” (95). Basically it’s a problem you can see. Internal conflict is “the issues a character has swirling in his head about identity and his life in general…It can be: loneliness, self-consciousness, fear of failure, etc.” (95). It is something you can’t see. Giving characters external and internal conflict will turn into a stake, which is an “or else” situation. The man in The Black Cat must kill the cat or else he’ll kill himself. Charlie in Revisiting Babylon must get back his own daughter or else his dreams will die with him. By providing visible goals with invisible stakes will create powerful conflict, which will flesh out layers of deep meaning into the story.
A way to show internal conflict is through subtext in dialog. College Literature says, “Subtext is the underlying motives, gestures, and attitudes of the characters suggested by but not contained in the actual words spoken back and forth.” (42). Just like someone is saying something that opposes how they truly feel. A line in The Black Cat shows this. “Gentlemen, I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you health and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen this is a very well-constructed house…These walls…are solidly put together.” What he is secretly implying is he wants the officers to go, because hidden in the walls that are not “solidly put together” is the wife that he murdered. By implying subtext in your dialog, it not only enriches the conflict, while making the character more interesting.
While incorporating all these story elements, it will be necessary to edit your work, but that process can be tricky. You may think your rough draft is so good that it will be immediately accepted for publication everywhere. That will never be the case. Instead, get feedback from a trusted friend, or join a writers group. But in the meantime, Write Source gives an editing checklist. It consists of,
“Is my main character believable? Is the conflict clear? Does my beginning capture the reader’s interests? Does my middle provide complications that lead to a climax? Does my ending resolve with conflict? Does my dialog (regular and internal) sound natural?” (349). Revising your work following this guideline can help make your story better, and achieve a higher level of writing for you.
Doing all this work can be tough, and scary. A rough draft is always going to be the hardest part of writing. A blank piece of paper can easily turn your mind into an empty, void space where no creative flows exist. This is known as writers block. But Walter Dean Myers calls it “a loss of confidence.” (19). Which is having no belief in your words. When you believe in yourself, it is easier to summon up bubbles of imagination that are waiting to burst through your pen. With no belief, your mind turns into a cactus that pricks the creativity away, creating the block. But there are remedies. Solutions include free-writing, drinking tea, exercising, etc. They also help relax the mind, but saying positive lines such as “I can do it.” Also attribute to confidence building.
But if you incorporate these elements into your story, writing one will become easier with time and practice. Though writing in general, is hard work, your creation will always be worth the pain. Brenda Ueland says, “Everybody is talented, original, and has something to say.” (3). Whether you believe that or not, it’s true. You will never know who you will inspire by putting your words out into the world. Never give up. Let your voice express your words and let that take you somewhere.