A Short Guide For Writing Short Stories (Because They Are Tricky AF!)

Because I used to suck at them but now I have found my way…

Use the five act structure to craft your big ideas into tiny blips of beautiful fiction

I never finish writing my short stories.

I wish I fulfilled more fiction submissions but whenever I attempt short fiction I end up annoyed, angry and insecure.

How can anyone write a story so short?? Are my ideas just too big for short fiction?

NOPE. Think again. It’s a craft, dumb-dumb. You can write anything!

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately because I keep thinking I should be working on more submissions since I have all this extra time at my desk.

As it turns out, short stories are awesome. They are in no way diminishing of big ideas. In fact, think of how juicy your big idea will read in only four pages. It’s like condensed soup! SO MUCH FLAVOUR!

I want to write juicy short stories. Don’t you??

The trick to a good short story is momentum.

Short stories move insanely quickly through the 5 Act Structure and if you and I focus on moving our story through those 5 acts, I think we can really be short story all stars. (Learn about the 5 act structure here.)

For example, try reading Raymond Carver’s Neighbours. Notice how the introduction of these characters includes a conflict! The character makes a decision based in the conflict that changes the world of the story forever, action action action and then a kind of wonky short ending. 

Here’s something I’ve been practicing that I think might work for any writer with big ideas/a million ideas:

1. Take an old story, one you haven’t finished yet

I am so sorry to make you read through your hard drive but believe me, some of your best ideas are lying dead on the floor somewhere and it’s your duty as a writer to forgive yourself for killing them and bring them back to life.

I have found incredible things: A story about a Jewish pig farmer whose mother is forced to live on his farm which results in her building a synagogue on his land to somehow mess with his pig product sales (weird), a story about two angels who are asked to live on Earth and they hate it so much that they take up drugs to numb their sense of responsibility (WEIRDER) and a story about a house with no one in it (a great example of me trying too hard to write profound things).

Pick anything. ANYTHING. Enjoy the read. You’re about to pull apart your own work.

2. Break apart what you’ve written into character and environment

Start writing about each element individually. One thing that is really important in a short story is a sense of place and time so make sure everyone in the story is grounded in who they are at the time of the action. Additionally, make sure they are somewhere very specific.

Give yourself lots to choose from. For example, in my story about an empty house, I want to write and write and write about all the rooms in the house. Know everything. Inspire yourself with fictional information.

Find the juiciest conflict

Out of everything you’ve written, play around with the various things that could go wrong.

For example, if we look at the Carver story, Jim happened to have access to his neighbour’s home and he was therefore able to steal his neighbour’s medicine, an action that arose from the basic conflict of jealousy.

The story follows a logical chain of conflict-suspension-discovery-action. Over and over and over again. The more specific each of those things are to the person and place you are writing about, the juicier your story.

Imagine the details. Make yourself laugh. Write the most outrageous option.

Write 5-6 pages focused, very focused on the conflict

It’s one thing to free write for elements of your story but, when you are writing the story, I suggest you maintain a mantra of the main conflict.

So, in my story about a pig farm, my mantra, for an entirety of five pages, is “his mother is sabotaging the farm, mother is sabotaging the farm, mother is sabotaging the farm”.

That example reminds me of a great short film by Woody Allen that debuted in “New York Stories” where his mother appears in the sky and constantly nags him. The conflict does not let up for the entire short story. It’s short! Intensify the point to earn the resolution.

You might have to do this a few times before you have a story you’re proud of but you’ll notice that you start finishing stories quickly and the act of writing them is no longer upsetting.

Maybe soon I’ll publish a piece of fiction on this blog, though I have never done it….who knows!

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