Short story writing is an art form. When I’m judging competitions, I’ve noticed that regardless of genre, the main reasons why I don’t place a story is often then same… there’s a few recurring elements short story writers seem to struggle with. Short story writing is a challenge and you have little time for anything other than key points.
“Prose is architecture. It’s not interior design.” – Ernest Hemingway
What Makes Short Stories Successful?
Here are five important elements many writers overlook:
1. Hook your reader
I can’t stress this enough. Short fiction demands setting and characters are established quickly and efficiently. Hooking the reader in the first paragraph or even the first line is imperative. Tone, voice, style, atmosphere must be carefully crafted.
2. Share only what’s critical to the moment
Every word is valuable so don’t waste your time giving your reader reams of backstory. Tell us what’s important right when we need it. Everything else should be cut.
3. Get right into the heart of the conflict
Don’t waste time setting up your scene or sharing your hero’s musings. Pull your reader to the heart of the story’s conflict right away. If you want to learn how to write great short stories, read them, analyse them and more importantly, think about the writers choices and why they chose them. Be merciless and cut your darlings.
4. Build the climax
Each paragraph, sentence and word should take the reader closer to the climax. If a piece takes too long to get to the action, cut it. Short stories do not have space for meandering.
5. Don’t be predictable
There’s nothing worse than reading a story that’s predicable. When we read a story we’re looking for something fresh and exciting. As a judge I’m glad to read: loathsome, despicable characters. After all, who says we readers all crave likeable characters? I enjoy teeth-scraping honesty; unreliable narrators; a twist; a story written with urgency. I enjoy great tiles – yes titles matter. Not forgetting humour. We all enjoy a good laugh.
These five elements are ones I have seen writers struggle with over the years. When you’ve written your stories, edited them, set them aside and edited again. Submit them to competitions, magazines, collections and anthologies. Quite often (and sometimes for a small fee) you’ll receive feedback. You may win a prize and if you don’t… listen to what they say. Take in their comments and use their constructive criticism to make your story better. You will understand and value their opinions as you grow as a writer.
Practice makes perfect
Revisit a short story you have written (or write a new one). Do specific words jump out at you screaming to be culled? What are the strengths of your story? Are more revisions needed? Share your thoughts in the comments.
By day, Lynette Creswell is an editor of short story writing, a competition judge and mentor at Hammond House Publishing. By night, she is Lynette E. Creswell, a multi-genre author whose first children’s book Hoglets’ Christmas Magic will be published August 2021.