I’ve written a lot of short stories. I’d sold 87 and a serial before I ever sold a novel and I stopped counting sales when I passed 150. I edited two short story anthologies for the Romantic Novelists’ Association and I’ve led many short story workshops. During that process I’ve distilled my short story ‘recipe’.
- In the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a short story is defined as concerning a single episode. The simplest way of observing the single-episode structure is to write about one conflict or puzzle.
- I decide on the conflict or puzzle I’m going to write about
- and decide whose conflict/puzzle it is.
- That person will be my central character, ie I’m writing their story.
- I give the central character the viewpoint
- begin at a point of change or significance and plunge into the story.
- I make the central character work out how to solve the conflict/puzzle herself or himself
- via a pivotal moment (which you might prefer to think of as a turning point or the key)
- to trigger the resolution.
- Rather than ‘ending’, I think ‘conclusion’. NB For some reason I don’t think too much about themes or messages in short stories, although I do when writing a novel. I have no idea why not … maybe they just arise out of somebody solving a conflict.
Getting structure into my short story
Before I begin I express my idea in three points. Either:
- pivotal moment
I think carefully in commercial terms. Is the conflict correct for the genre and the magazine or anthology I’m writing for? Are the characters? The ending? If I’m writing a short story as a promotional tool for my novels, is it in the same vein and voice?
Now I write only a few short stories each year but that’s more about lack of time than lack of inclination. Short stories have a lovely pure-story feel to writing them.
Writing short stories for writing competitions
This isn’t something I did much, to be honest, but I know a lot of people met success and reward via competitions. However, I was the head fiction judge at Writers’ Forum for five years and when asked for my tips for entrants would say:
- Follow the rules. This sounds obvious but it’s amazing how often I’d receive 5000 words when there was a 3000-word maximum.
- Write the type of story the judges are looking for. At Writers’ Forum it was all about story (probably because I was the judge) but I also judged competitions for Writing Magazine and for various other organisations. In that time I received what amounted to essays on a subject or theme or the first chapter of a novel and stories that were nothing to do with the stated subject or title.
- Make your story stand out. I once had to read about 200 stories concerning Emily visiting the Falkland Islands. You’ve no idea how I appreciated those with an original approach. In about 160 of them poor Emily was visiting in memory of her lost love or family member. Whilst I had every sympathy for her it became hard to feel enthused.
- Submit in time for the deadline, if there is one.
- Send the correct fee, if there is one.
- Don’t attach a discourteous note to the judge. (Yes, seriously, this happens.)
- Don’t attach a discourteous note to the magazine. (Ditto.)
- Write a fantastic first page, the best you possibly can. When you’re up against maybe a hundred other stories you don’t want to make it easy for the judge to put your story down.
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