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So You Want to Write a Short Story

August 7, 2010

I love to write. While writing is not my current profession, I have had a certain amount of experience. I make a point of always writing well, even when the work in question is simply a report for a client. While visiting friends a while ago, the conversation turned to short fiction. I love reading and writing short stories. There is something particularly magical about a well-crafted story. While I do not claim the ability to write such a short story, I like to think that I can create something that is at least enjoyable to read. The friends I was with at the time are not writers, but share my love of short stories, and the conversation turned to the process of writing them. Joking, I claimed the ability to write an entire short story in one sitting. After dinner, my friends called my bluff, and the evening turned into a bit of a game, where I pretended to present a lecture on “How to write a short story”. These friends of mine have a rather posh entertainment room, complete with a large projection screen and hookups for a computer. I discussed the process, and typed the story before their eyes with much laughter, comments, and jokes on all sides. The entire process took maybe an hour. Our fooling about consumed a large amount of that time, and so the process took longer than it might have if I were working by myself. I have put the story into its own page at the top of this blog [link] so that you can read it if you so desire. Here I will attempt to briefly recreate some of the fake lecture I gave. Please keep in mind that this was done as a jest, and is not to be taken too seriously.

When writing a story it is often best to know the last line before you start. This helps keep you interested during the process. So, let’s pick a good one for this story, how about: “He stood, watching the flames lick at the new fuel for a moment longer, and then went back to his book.” This line includes lots of possibility, and provides us with something interesting to aim for. The next step is to take this last line and examine it for the presence of a good title. I always give my stories titles either at the beginning of the writing process, or while writing the first page. Coming up with a title early gives you something to fall back on if you are stuck. That is, if you don’t know what to write, just think about what would be in a story with the title you’ve already given it. Since the last line we have just come up with seems to hint at cold weather and a certain cozy feeling, let’s call this story “The Blizzard”.

So, we have a last line and a title. Next we must decide some of the particulars, for example what will the overall feel of the story be? This sort of thing doesn’t require any great thought, just jump in and start making decisions. Thus, let’s decide that the story will be a bit-dreamlike, and about a man’s evening at home during a blizzard. OK, We’re making great progress! Now for some deeper stuff — people really like it when there is some deeper meaning to literature. So, let’s include something along the lines of a man getting in touch with his inner child. That sort of cliché is bound to sell. What next? Well, at this point I like to jump in and let my fingers tell me how the story is going to start. Without giving it any thought at all, let’s see what sort of first paragraph I’ll come up with. “William turned his mind to the cold drifting snow outside his window. He had no way of knowing how long he had been dreaming, but had been roused by a pop from the fireplace and reminded of the pressing cold without. The sun had long since set, and the dark window returned his reflection, touched occasionally by a single lighted snowflake.

Gosh, I knew I could trust my fingers to come up with something fitting. I know that we’re heading in the right direction because there is a clear connection between this opening, and conclusion we already wrote. Lovely! Let’s keep going. There will have to be a bit about the chap thinking about the snow, and maybe we can fit in something about his emotional reaction — something slightly forbidding maybe. Good. Now for a bit of a childhood flashback — let’s have him make hot chocolate the way his mother used to. Oh! We haven’t decided on a country — let’s set it in New England. Ok, now that we’ve had a bit of a flashback, time for something from his currently life. Ok, things are flowing well — time for the dreamlike state to seep in. Enter mysterious young child with same name as protagonist! Very deep that — positively delightful. From here on out it’s just a matter of letting the story finish itself — letting it get more and more dreamlike, and build to some really deep, thought-provoking line. Hmmmm, how about we put them both at the window and see what happens: “It’s very beautiful” said the boy turning back to the window. The man agreed and turned back as well. “But it hides things” remarked the boy after a pause “What?” asked the man turning back to the boy. The boy looked back up at him and said, “It’s just like time — it can even hide you from yourself.”

Now isn’t that nice? And did you notice how the language changed slightly? I made overuse of “the boy” and “the man” — it creates a vague mistiness that adds to the dreaminess of everything. Now we just need to have the man wake up and we’ve made it to the final line that we came up with way back at the start: The fire popped and roused him from his dreams. He got up from his chair after carefully marking his place, and put another log on. He stood, watching the flames lick at the new fuel for a moment longer, and then went back to his book.

See how easy it is to write a short story? There’s really nothing to it. Of course, writing a good short story is an entirely different matter and not something that can be put together as quickly and mechanically as I have demonstrated (I assume — not having written many good short stories I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter). But for most everyday uses, this sort of rapidly assembled affair is perfectly usable, and good enough for most needs. As I like to think about it, since everything these days seems to be so rapidly, shoddily, and cheaply constructed, why not literature? It really would be foolish to expect last century’s quality and commitment to good work to continue to exist in this century’s throwaway culture. I mean seriously! Anyway, I hope that you have enjoyed this brief demonstration of how to write a short story and will stay tuned for further lectures. Next time perhaps we will explore the complexities of writing modern poetry. Have a good night everybody.

  1. Absolutely brilliant. Wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, yet, somehow, I get the feeling that this just might work! Am heading off to read the results now. Great post.

    • Thanks for the lovely comment. I am very glad that the post came across as tongue-in-cheek, as I intended it, rather than sarcastic, the way I was worried it might.

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