Short story writing might be a super-popular way into long-form writing fiction but don’t mistake short for easy. Here, prize-winning short story writer and novelist Rachel Connor, shares her eight best coaching tips teaching you how to write a short story – from beginning to end.
1. Limber up your creative muscles by freewriting
If you’re stuck for ideas or feeling blocked, one great way to get going is to use freewriting – it’s a tactic I use all the time to get started:
- First, you’ll need to find a prompt.
- Open a dictionary at random and pick three words.
- Set a timer for ten minutes and write about what might link those words.
What associations do they conjure up? Write whatever comes into your head – without looking back and without editing. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar – nobody else is going to read it – just keep writing until the time is up.
“Before you start writing, try to limber up your creative muscles.”
2. Use prompts to keep you going
If after your freewrite you’re still feeling stuck, look for a word or a phrase that really sticks out for you in the piece that you’ve written and make that the prompt for your next freewrite.
This is a technique called ‘looping’. Do this three or four times until you find something that interests you.
Also, images and pictures of people act as great prompts as do short videos on Vimeo – look at the detail in these images. What interests you? Also, I’m a big fan of people watching. Observe people in cafes or on your commute – ask yourself what’s their story? Who are they?
Related reads: 10 tips to learn from a creative writing lecturer
3. Start with a single point of conflict
All good short stories have a turning point where the main conflict happens. I call this the ‘but’ of the story. The character wants X but Y happens instead. The ‘but’ is the pivot point. It’s when your character has a revelation or an insight, faces a decision or dilemma of some kind.
The ‘but’ doesn’t need to be a dramatic event. It can be something internal, subtle or emotional. Whilst a novel might have lots of turning points, a short story typically has just the one so when you’re setting out, try to keep it simple.
“Try to find a single point of conflict – not many points.”
4. Chip away to give your story shape
I used to do a lot of planning but now I prefer to dive in and spend more time on revising the story – my short stories take around seven drafts to get them right. Trust that in the process of writing and re-writing your story will emerge.
For me, short story writing is like crafting sculpture. You start off with a big block of marble and over time you keep chipping away at the story takes shape. More planning is not going to help you reveal your story so dive in and chip away!
5. Use dialogue to bring your story to life
The best place to start is with what interests you about your character, your idea or your situation. Start with your curiosity and go from there.
Try not to spend too long scene setting – get stuck in. Plunge your main character into the drama straight away. Writing dialogue is a great way to make characters come alive.
Put two or three of your characters into a scene and give them something to do – like pack a suitcase together.
Do they argue? Is there drama? If they’re too similar, your job is to make them different in the next draft.
“Don’t paint your prose purple, plunge your character into a conflict using dialogue.”
6. Understand your characters’ motivation
Getting to the nub of what your character wants quickly is key. You have to have a sense of what makes them tick because that’s the key to the turn in the story.
One good way to work this through is to create a mind map of your character. Write your character’s name on a piece of paper and visually, map out everything about that character.
Ask yourself, what do they look like? What do they want? How do they think and feel? What’s going on in their head?
In short fiction, your characters’ motivation must be crystal clear.
7. Keep it short by cutting
Writers often try to cram too much information and backstory into the first draft – they try to make too much happen.
This is understandable, but for a short story, you need to cut everything that’s non-essential to the main turning point of your story.
If you’re wedded to writing lots of plot and information into your story – then it probably needs to be something longer. Short stories are all about economy.
“If you feel a lot needs to happen, then you’re probably not writing a short story…”
8. Keep honing your story until it’s right
Just because short stories are short, doesn’t make them easy to write – so manage your expectations. Honing your story can take a long time. For me this process can take years so you’ll need to be patient.
Saying that, unlike novel writing you can draft a short story in a day – and that can be a very satisfying experience.
Write a short story from scratch in five easy steps with Rachel Connor’s Flash Fiction Bootcamp plan. Sign up today half price through this link.