After over a decade of judging thousands of short stories in our national writing competitions, our Writers College judges have compiled a list of eight tips to help you onto the shortlist.
What exactly is a short story?
A short story is not a commentary on current affairs, an article about collecting clocks or a humorous opinion piece for the back page of a magazine! A short story is just that: a made-up tale about characters where something happens (usually bad), and you hope everything will turn out fine in the end.
Let’s see a more formal definition. According to Wikipedia, a short story is a piece of fictional writing, usually with fewer than 5000 words, that contains these basic elements: characters, setting, plot, conflict, resolution, climax, dialogue, a protagonist and an antagonist.
But definitions don’t tell you that a short story has to grab your reader’s interest from the word go. Nor have you got the luxury of pages of flowery descriptive writing as you would have in a novel.
You have, in this case, 2000 words to bring in your characters, define the setting of your story, and introduce some sort of conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist that will keep the reader dying to know how it all ends.
Does this mean every story has to have a happy ending? Definitely not. But it should reach a satisfactory conclusion so your reader thinks, “That was a good read”.
So study these eight vital steps below, and send us a story that will grab us and make us say: “This one’s got something!”
1. Create plausible, detailed characters.
Name your characters. Work in their ages and details about their appearance in subtle ways. Don’t give us vague, shadowy, formless characters. Your reader needs to relate to them, and whether he likes them or hates them, feels sorry for them or cheers them on, is up to you, the writer.
Read more about developing your characters’ character here.
2. Use believable, succinct dialogue.
Dialogue is very useful. It’s rare to find a short story that has no conversation in it. Just telling the reader what your character is doing and thinking can become very monotonous. Conversation makes your story come alive. It adds depth to your characters and the reader can understand their feelings through what they say.
It’s important to keep your dialogue as natural-sounding as possible, but at the same time, it has to be concise and add to the meaning of the story. So cut the waffle and make every word count.
Remember to start dialogue on a new line for each speaker. Punctuate your dialogue correctly. More dialogue tips.
3. Create a credible plot.
Things must happen in your story. Characters must clash, overcome an obstacle or solve a problem of some sort. Read about how to create a twist in the tail.
4. Use the correct tenses.
Decide on which tense you will use for your main story, and stick to that throughout. Many authors use past tense for their stories, in which case flashbacks within the story must be written in past past tense. If your story is happening in the present moment, you can use present tense. Present tense helps to foster a sense of immediacy and increases tension in the writing. However, when writers write an entire story in present tense – including present tense for flashbacks – it can be confusing and off-putting for the reader. Study your tenses here.
5. Your story must make complete sense.
Don’t make big plot jumps. Don’t leave out important details. Don’t tell us about a character wearing a red dress, and then, one paragraph later, she is ski-ing in a polar parka across the Arctic. Make sure your story facts are credible, plausible and congruent. Read about creating logical flow.
The Basics of Creative Writing Course
6. Use similes and metaphors, and slip in unique images.
Literary devices add colour and originality to your writing, and creating pictures with your words is the easiest way to keep your reader hooked. Read about 11 Ways to Keep Your Reader Hooked.
7. Keep your point of view consistent.
Will you use first person, or third person narration? Whichever you choose – stick to that perspective throughout. You can’t, furthermore, refer to your reader as “you”, and then “we” and then “one”. You have to keep the narration consistent, and use the same pronoun and its variants throughout your story. Read more about Point of View.
Here is an excellent series with in-depth explanations for point of view.
8. Edit your story carefully.
Spelling and grammar errors, typos, formatting issues – these all detract from the reading experience. Make your writing appear effortless by editing carefully. Find out 20 editing pointers here.