Short Story Elements Don’t Have to Be Confusing

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Let’s face it, short stories can be pretty difficult to write. It’s such a small amount of space, on average 2,000 to 5,000 words, in which you as a writer are expected to squeeze an entire theme, setting, character or two – essentially an entire story start to finish. Everywhere, you see the “Elements of a Good Short Story”, mentioning setting and context, plot, tension, climax, and conflict resolution. I’ve seen them all over the place, and while these are helpful guidelines, I’ve found them lacking in the explanation of what that actually means for your story.

None of these elements of a short story are particularly confusing to understand, following the classic “story arc”, whether that revolves around a course of action for your character, a magical element or arch nemesis suddenly introduced, or the simple internal working-out of a deep emotional struggle. But too often I read reviews of others’ short stories that balk at the “lack of tension”, that “the story had no real resolution”, or that “the theme was vague and uninteresting.” Even as an onlooker, I find these comments unhelpful in the extreme.

When I majored in Creative Writing Fiction in college, which feels way further back in my past than I’d like to admit, my favorite Professor said something that stuck with me forever. He said, “Forget all this ‘element crap’. If your guidelines are vague, your story will be vague. All you need to do in your short story is to answer these questions: Who is your character? What do they want? What’s standing in their way of getting it? What are they willing to do to get what they want?”

  • Who is your character?
  • What do they want?
  • What’s standing in their way of getting it?
  • What are they willing to do to get what they want?

Very, very simple, and far more straightforward than what I still see out there today. No, I can’t claim credit for this break down of a good short story, but I couldn’t stand by and deprive you, my fellow authors, of what may be a better understanding of how to make sure your story gets everything it needs.

If you spend your time worrying about writing in the correct elements, your characters and plot will suffer for it. On the other hand, if you just write your character into whatever happens to pop out, without staying inside any “box” at all – even an extraordinarily large one – you may have fantastic ideas, but the story isn’t really a story without some type of structure. These questions have helped me immensely with my short stories, ever since I wrote them down in a college notebook and the sometimes sponge-like, sometimes hardened-cement organism that is my memory.

Ask yourself these questions before, during, and after you write the draft of your story. Get into your character’s head, know them, shake hands, write an interview where they answer these questions themselves, even. You’ll find that the “conflict and tension”, your character’s struggle with trying to get what they want, will stand out more than before. You may even find that a “resolution” appears in unprecedented places. Go there – it’s perfectly acceptable.

In addition to these questions, I want to briefly add a few “fundamentals” that I personally find essential to a good short story. If nothing else, they’re extra tools in your toolbox.

  • Get right to the point. You have a limited number of words in a short story, and it’s not the wisest decision to take up half of them explaining your character’s daily routine, who their mother was, or what their favorite color and animal are. Unless, of course, those are huge points in the story line (and even then those details would better serve the story if you add them into the descriptions and/or action and dialogue). This doesn’t just hold true for short stories, either. Even in novels, you want to draw your reader in immediately with where the actual plot starts, where the story begins. Of course, novels have a little bit more wiggle room in terms of leading into “getting to the point”, but extra information at the beginning is, well, pretty erroneous. Treat your short story as if you were talking to a friend. If you wanted to tell them about the guy who almost ran you over with a car after work, would you start the story with describing waking up that morning and what you had for breakfast? Or would you start it with clocking out of work and walking outside, or even when you stepped onto the sidewalk on the street in question?
  • Share only what’s critical. Sure, your main character may have walked into the florist’s to buy flowers for his mother, may have had a conversation about the whether or complimented the florist’s shoes, but if your story is about how he met the woman of his dreams, why do you need to write that conversation with the florist? He may have a really nice car, but if this is a romance about their first date, why do you need to write a paragraph about all of the cars he’s had in his past, how he got into cars, and why it’s such a slick ride? One of my previous posts, Self-Editing Tip #1: Everything Needs to Go, goes into more detail on how to do this when revising your work.
  • Stick with one POV. This one is really important. The point of view of your writing can make or break a story, depending on how you use it. You have such little space and only so many words to get this whole story out, and switching back and forth between more than one character, or even between third person personal and third person omniscient, both takes up space and shatters the flow of easy reading. In longer short stories that border on novella length, this may be acceptable. In novels, it’s done all the time. But short stories are a gem in that they get the job done quickly, succinctly, and with necessary intensity. Make sure that what you write is only something that your main character can see, touch, taste, smell, hear, think, or know themselves. If your main character is in the doctor’s office with the door shut, don’t write about how her daughter crosses her legs on the couch and texts her boyfriend. Your main character can’t possibly know that’s happening while she’s in the exam room. She may imagine that’s what her daughter’s doing, and then you’re good to go. But if it’s not in her own head, or with her own senses, it will only hinder the story.

I will never say that writing a short story is easier than writing a novel. It doesn’t even necessarily take less time, especially if you have the wonderful quality of revising your work to death until its last gasp. These guidelines, on the other hand, may definitely help to make writing short stories just a bit more enjoyable. Enjoy.

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