How To Write A Short Story

Short Cuts – How To Write A Short Story

How do you write a short story? In this post, we look at the mistakes people make and give you a formula for how to write a short story.

I was asked to judge five creative writing competitions in a period of 18 months in 2010 and 2011. One of them was a short story competition for a popular writer’s group. The theme of the yearly competition was Almost Strangers. The stories ranged from ghosts of the past to children of the present and machines of the future.

Which made me wonder, ‘What do people want to read in 2012?’ If I am any judge, readers want to be amused and entertained. They want authors to include observations of the ridiculous. The character, who is empathetic and flawed, should have an AHA moment. What readers don’t want is the rehashing of Apartheid dramas. They do not want clichés, the obvious, and silly twists in the tail.

Most common mistakes in the entries?

  1. Lack of pacing.
  2. Misuse of viewpoint.
  3. Too much telling.
  4. Not enough use of the five senses.
  5. Switching tenses.
  6. No plot.
  7. Not enough dialogue.
  8. The ‘too’ obvious twist in the tail.
  9. Long, convoluted sentences.
  10. The omission of the image that makes a good story.

Why did I choose the winners? 

The stories:

  1. Were well paced.
  2. Were clever.
  3. Made full use of dialogue.
  4. Used all five senses.
  5. Had clear beginnings, middles and ends.
  6. Contained good characterisation.
  7. Had great South African settings.
  8. Were based on a good idea.
  9. Were easy to read.
  10. Contained the magical image that makes or breaks a short story.
Neil Duffy won the competition with his story, On the road.

If you want to write a short story, I have a simple formula you may want to try.

Short Cuts: a recipe that works.

You obviously need a clear beginning, a middle, and an end, but this will equip you with a slightly more refined plot recipe, which you could use repeatedly. If you have a clear understanding of scene and sequel, you will understand this.

Please note: this is not the only way you could plan and write a short story. There are probably as many methods and plot structures out there as there are writers and stories. However, this works. If you follow this structure, you will have a completed, rounded story with all the necessary elements.

It’s as simple as this….

1.  Dramatic Start (Scene)
2.  Decisive Sequel
3.  Surprising Middle (Scene)
4.  Satisfying End (Scene)

Remember that sequels are less than half the length of scenes.

If you want to learn how to write a short story, sign up for our online course.

by Amanda Patterson

© Amanda Patterson

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to show and not tell in short stories, buy this workbook: How To Show And Not Tell In Short Stories. If you’re looking for a course, sign up for Short Cuts.

Posted on: 2nd January 2012