Often arresting, multi-layered and thought-provoking, writing short stories can be a tough nut to crack - it’s not easy condensing so much into so few words. Having said that, great examples of the form typically offer their audience the richest of reading experiences, which, ultimately, is one of greatest pleasures of writing.
To help aspiring and emerging writers rise to this challenge (and potentially find an audience through submitting to the Love Reading Very Short Story Award), read on to discover our top 6 sure-fire tips for writing show-stopping short stories.
1. Read short stories
All writers worth their salt read. A lot. And when it comes to short stories, it’s worth reading broadly to appreciate the huge range of styles and techniques used by exceptional short story writers, among them Jean Rhys, Angela Carter, Franz Kafka, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Colette, Dostoyevsky and Edgar Allen Poe (of course, these examples hardly touch the surface, but they offer a spread of styles and genres, and they’re all incredible writers).
Recently read gems include Stick No Bills, Motherland and Afterparties. You could also read the winners of the 2021 Love Reading Very Short Story Award - The Radio won the People’s Choice Award, as voted by the Love Reading community, while The Hole took the Judges’ Award.
Reading quality picture books also comes highly recommended. The best of them variously use characterful drama, humour, and edge-of-your-seat thrills to explore big themes with deceptive simplicity and clarity - in only a few hundred words. Sound familiar? That same description could be pretty much applied to short stories.
2. Dance like no one’s watching
That is to say, write as if no-one’s reading - yourself included. Get something on the page, no matter how rough, over-written, under-written, or lacking in shape and structure your first draft turns out to be.
In short, try not to edit as you go. See where the act of writing takes you. At this stage you’re writing to find out what your story is about, to see (for example) who pops in for a visit - characters have the habit of turning up unannounced when you’re in full flow. You’re also writing to see where your story goes - ideas have the habit of taking unexpected turns as you write, Alice in Wonderland style.
While short stories ultimately involve distilling to an essence, at first draft stage you’re better off letting everything flow, free and easy. You’re not making your house visitor-ready. You’re sifting through a big old mess that you’ll clear up later, before your guests arrive.
If you find yourself chewing the end of your pencil, or deleting five words for every ten you write, you might want to give yourself a nudge - set a timer and challenge yourself to write without stopping for, say, half an hour. The key thing here is to push on, not back. Keep moving forward.
3. Scrutinise with outsider’s eyes
Re-reading your work with fresh (and critical) eyes is when you discover what your story’s really about. Maybe you set out to write a bittersweet tale about a trip to the seaside. Or a thriller involving a deathbed revelation. Or a romantic comedy in which someone loses a valuable possession - and finds love. Whatever the scenario, the chances are, your story isn’t only about that scenario. It’ll have other themes embedded in it too. These might come to light on your first re-reading, or later, after a few rounds of re-writes. Either way, becoming aware of these themes will help you improve your story. This realisation will guide you to develop and hone your characters, and to introduce and embed symbolic imagery (as succinctly as possible, of course). Talking of which...
4. Get to the point through re-writes
Here’s a checklist of questions to ask yourself about different elements of your story as you re-read and re-write:
Character - do I have enough detail? Are all my details necessary? Why does it matter what colour their eyes are? What does the fact they “glanced” rather than “stared”, “murmured” rather than “yelled” (and so on) add to the story?
Dialogue - when I read my story aloud, does my dialogue sound realistic? Does it reflect who my character is? Does it move the story on? Does it contain, reflect or contribute to my story’s themes?
Place and atmosphere - you could repeat the character questions here, but address them to your story world. Set the scene, but ask what matters. Is it important to know it’s a sunny/rainy etc day? Why does the table cloth need to be yellow? Perhaps it does (it might be a symbolic motif - more on that below), or maybe you don’t need to mention the table cloth (or whatever) at all.
Now go back into your story to figure out what’s missing, and how to express it as succinctly - and with as much impact - as possible, bearing the above in mind.
5. Start as you mean you go on
Your opening line is so, so important. Try to make it contain the essence of your story - what it’s about, what it aims to say, the journey it will take, and where it might end.
That’s not to say you give the game away in your opening, though, or that it’s the longest sentence in the world. Rather, this means you need to make every single word work as hard as possible. Consider using foreshadowing (read The Hole for an excellent example of this), or including striking (and meaningful) motifs, images, or symbols that run through the story. Perhaps these will be speckled throughout, shifting as your plot develops. Or perhaps you’ll only return to them at the very end. Either way, they’re worth bearing in mind. Done well, referencing a single colour, smell, shape, or object can make your readers laugh, cry, or explode with shock. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
But a word of warning on imagery - this doesn’t mean using, for example, excessively flowery language. Your writing should be succinct, and your style should be unique. As an example, the story worlds and styles of two of my all-time favourite short story writers couldn’t be more different - Jean Rhys writes taut, tight, sparse stories laden with unspoken tension. In contrast, Angela Carter has a wildly exuberant, playful style.
6. Rinse and repeat
Now it’s time to make your home visitor-ready - no dust, nothing shoved under the sofa. Or, to return to that dancing metaphor, this is when you’re finessing your moves in preparation for being watched (i.e. read). This means re-visiting steps 3, 4 and 5 to make sure all your subtle steps and shuffles (the minutiae of your descriptions and symbols, for example) are as perfectly placed, and perfectly timed, as your dramatic signature moves (your story’s big themes, and your character’s over-arching journey).
If you fancy putting these 6 sure-tips tips for writing short stories into action, head here to find out about the 2022 Love Reading Very Short Story Award.
Joanne Owen is a writer and publishing professional with over twenty years’ experience of the book industry. Alongside writing and reviewing books, she hosts writing workshops and is an Editorial Expert for Love Reading.