- Academic Research and Writing Tips / Tutorial

How Can I Make Short Work of Writing a Short Story?

Maybe you've finally enrolled in that creative writing class you've been meaning to take. Maybe your English teacher has decided to assign a short story for homework. Or maybe you've been kidnapped by Peter Pan and he won't let you go until you tell him a story. The point is, you have to write a story. And you don't want it to take the entire semester.

Short Story

Don't worry. Writing a short story actually can be short work. Just follow a few simple guidelines and your agonies will be over. It may actually - gasp! - be fun.

Let's start at the very beginning, to quote a famous Austrian nun. The blank page is every writer's enemy, but in this case, the pen really is mightier than the sword. (Well actually, the sword is still pretty mighty, but it won't help you write your story.) When the blank page is staring you in the face, answer it back with either a character or a plot. Either one can give you that jump-start you need so you're not looking at a blank page, but instead, a very good place to start. (There's that nun again...)

If you start with a character, begin by giving that person some basic background. Who is he/she, what does he/she do, how old is he/she, etc. Once your character begins to take shape, then it's time to find a sticky situation to put him in. This is the fun part. In real life, you can't put someone in a horrible, miserable situation without getting in some trouble. But in writing... go ahead. Anything from alien abductions to corporate downsizing. How would your character relate to that situation? How would he get himself out? Quick - go write it down!

Your other option is to start with a plot line. Or, as a less intimidating suggestion, with a situation. Brainstorm a few ideas, if it's easier for you than committing to one out of thin air. Write down a pageful of random ideas, and don't say no to any of them just yet. Stories are like dates. They may seem crazy at first, but their very insanity can grow on you, if the fit is right. Hat seems interesting? A bomb threat at a bus stop? Supernatural creatures posing as high school kids and running for prom queen? Or, on the more “realistic” side... a horrible blind date that proposes at the end of the night? Make a list. Take every idea that pops into your head and write it down. Then pick your favorite. That's your story. Now all you have to do is write it.

The trick to making short work of a short story is fun. Have some. The more you get into your story, the faster it will go. Dive right in and enjoy the process. And whatever you do, don't worry about writing something “good.” Just write. The idea comes from you, the characters and setting and plot come from the rich tapestry of your brain. Trust that. Ride the wave of your idea, describing all that is happening in your mind as you watch the story unfold.

And if you get stuck, don't push it. You'll only get frustrated. Try closing your eyes and watching your story as if it were a movie. You just might find that the movie will keep playing even past the point where you thought you were blocked. Now open your eyes and write what you saw. And keep writing. You're likely to find that your story will take on a life of its own. Just give it some space, and trust it. And when you start to think, “This is stupid, my idea isn't going anywhere,” then it's time to take a break and come back to it later.

When you finally reach the end of your story, give it a little while to sit, then come back and edit. Check that it makes sense. Check that you have a solid plot with a beginning, middle and end. If you hit a spot that doesn't sound quite like you want it to, spend a bit of time tweaking it until it does. Eventually, you will find that you've turned that blank page into an engaging short story. Don't tell me. Now you can't wait to write another one.

Yeah, I figured.