Right now several of my friends and I are in creative writing classes, focusing on short stories. I’ve never paid much attention to what goes into a short story–it’s not my favorite form of writing, so I pretty much only do it when I have to for a class or contest. However, lately I’ve found myself focusing more on what exactly you need to include in order to tell a complete, interesting story in about ten pages or less (mainly so that I can write my class assignments faster, then get back to working on novels) (or watching HGTV) (or both).
At this point I’ve ended up with a bit of a “must include in the story” checklist that I go over before turning in a short story. And since Writing Process won this week’s Wordy Wednesday poll, now you can use my nifty little Short Story-Writing Checklist, too. (You know. If you want to. If you don’t, that’s cool too.)
1. At Least Two Conflicts
It probably sounds obvious, but every story needs conflict, no matter the length. When it comes down to it, the definition of what makes a story a story is the conflict.
My rule of thumb is to try to include at least two conflicts in every situation: (1) the external and (2) the internal. The more layers of conflict I can squeeze in, the better.
For example: Suzie and Tommy might be arguing about where to go to dinner, but the underlying conflict between them is that they never agree on anything, so they’re thinking about breaking up. Meanwhile, Suzie has the internal conflict of the fact that she loves Tommy but he drives her insane, while Tommy’s struggling with the fact that he doesn’t actually love Suzie but he doesn’t want to break her heart by breaking up with her.
Boom. Four different conflicts, all happening within one argument. You’ve got a story.
2. Keep Them Moving
This is one that only just occurred to me about a week ago–a story needs movement. While it’s possible to write a good story in which the characters are just sitting on a park bench talking, you still need to have them move in little ways. Whether Suzie fixes her hair or Tommy taps out a rhythm on his knee, they need to move, and the movements need to mean something. It’s not about moving for the sake of moving, but moving to further the story.
Meanwhile, the larger the movement, the easier it is to hold on to the reader. This is sort of a chicken-and-the-egg kind of situation, with conflict, but if two characters are arguing while alone in a room (conflict), chances are one of them is going to pace, or slam her hand against the wall, or repeatedly sit down then stand back up again while making a point (movement). Basically: the louder the conflict, the bigger the movements. And the bigger the movements, the easier it is to grip the reader.
3. Include Dialogue (And Multiple Characters)
You can write a story that has absolutely zero dialogue in it, and it can be amazing. But I find that including dialogue (and therefore also having more than one character involved in the story) makes things a lot easier.
My general formula is to include two characters in a scene, and to write their dialogue solely addressing the surface conflict between them.
For example: In the case of Suzie and Tommy, their dialogue would revolve around where to go to dinner, not their possible future breakup. I keep dialogue focused on the surface conflict, then use the characters’ thoughts and movements to tell the underlying stories of the rest of the conflicts going on.
Plus, dialogue is a great place to establish and strengthen voice, which is muy importante in a short piece.
4. Defined Setting
I don’t know about you, but setting’s really important to me in stories. I like to be able to center myself in the scene–to know exactly what the characters are seeing and touching and smelling. Because short stories are, you know, short, that means you have less space to give your reader a memorable setting. So, I like to use settings that are easy to describe–ones that are probably already fairly defined in the reader’s mind: city streets, lake houses, small town parks, etc. These are things that we’ve probably all been exposed to before in some way, shape, or form, so we don’t need as many details to know what we’re looking at.
By using a well-known setting, you can cut down on the amount of description needed, adding to the amount of space you have to do the next step in crafting a defined setting: show how this setting is unique.
Instead of writing about just any old lake house, talk about how the porch sags, or the neighbors’ cottage is so close your protagonist can hear them arguing when the husband comes home drunk at two in the morning, or the water’s too cold to go swimming even in July.
If you’re writing genre fiction (scifi, fantasy, etc), try to begin with an ordinary setting that we all know fairly well (like a forest, diner, school, etc.) and then warp the smaller details to transform it into something unique.
5. Back Story
[Image from: http://favim.com/image/188660/%5D
Back story is extremely important in short stories (and, of course, writing in general). To know where a character’s going, you need to know where they were before the story began, too. On the other hand, you don’t want to overload the reader with back story. Ultimately, you want to include just enough to give the reader a general idea of the Before without giving them the exact, nitty gritty details. And–returning to conflict, again–you want to include back story for all the different sub-conflicts you’ve got going on (unless one doesn’t have any back story, because it begins during your short story itself… in which case, you know, just skip this step).
Try not to give away your back story in info-dumping paragraphs, but rather just touch on it here and there in details. Like you can mention how Suzie is fixing her hair because Tommy ruffled it earlier, even though she knows that he knows that she hates it when he does that. Or Tommy could be tapping his fingers because he can’t get the song out of his head he was listening to earlier, which was on a love song playlist Suzie made for him–but this agitates him, because he knows he needs to break up with her, despite her good (or bad?) taste in music.
The more you can make your back story invisible by weaving it in with the story presently happening, the better. It’ll give you more depth/layers to play with and make your story feel much more like a 3D, this-is-actually-happening event, rather than just a random, five page assignment you had to turn in for class.
And there you have it, my Short Story-Writing Checklist!
Reminder that you can enter my thank you giveaway up until 12:00 AM Monday! We’ve got a Beanie Baby, golden Oreos, and a B&N gift card up for grabs.
PS. Are there any other specific elements you look for in short stories, or make sure to include in your own? Share them in the comments–I’m always up for hearing more writing tips, and I’ve got plenty of short story-oriented classes to use them on in my future!