Don’t Fear Your First Short Story

Don’t Fear Your First Short Story

In this blog, we look at short stories and tell you not to fear your first short story. We also give you five steps to writing a short story.

The post looks at why the short story offers the perfect form for a new writer. It allows you to test your ‘writing wings’ and explore your creativity. The five easy steps will guide you through your first draft.

A Very Good Place To Start

‘Where do I begin? What do I write?’

For a new writer, these questions can be intimidating. Even paralysing.

A poem may seem too whimsical, a novel too daunting (read ‘terrifying’) What can you do? Well, write a short story.

As Maria sings in ‘Do-Re-Mi’ in The Sound of Music, ‘Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start.’

The short story is the best place to start. And here’s why:

When you go to art classes, you don’t start off with a portrait. Instead you learn by drawing something small and familiar. An egg, an avocado. A pattern of some sort.  The basic lines and shapes. Slowly, you learn to shade, to move onto bigger pieces, bring in colour – and so on.

It’s the same with writing.

As Toni Morrison said: ‘Your life is already artful – waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.’ So true.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that we all have stories to tell, that there are stories all around us. Anyone can tell a story. You just have to find them and put them on paper.

Try this simple five-step process to guide you through your first short stories. Ready?

5 Steps To Writing A Short Story

1. Start With Something Or Someone

Don’t overthink the first line, just get it down on the page. You can even start with something small but significant. ‘That morning I got caught in traffic and missed my eight-thirty meeting.’  Go on from there.

You could start with a character: a meddling neighbour, a handsome co-worker, people in a doctor’s waiting room. Even a fragment or phrase can get you started.

Carmel Bird, an Australian short story writer, says short stories should ‘thrill’ you and the reader – so if you feel that spark of excitement, you’re on the right track.

The important thing is to just start writing. Don’t delay.

Read Top 20 Literary Quotes About Writing Short Stories

2. Follow The Story

Just write the next sentence and the next, without worrying about where it is all going.

Follow the breadcrumbs. Trust your instincts. Add another fragment to the story, then another. Keep going. Try to write the draft in one sitting. (At least one day or weekend.)

If you write about the doctor’s waiting room, for example, you may notice a woman with mussed-up hair leaving the room. She’s un-steady on her feet and her husband helps her. ‘He holds her upper arm, firmly, like she’s under arrest.’

As you write, you will discover what your story is about. Trust the process – it never fails. In the end, it’s not about a stranger with unkempt hair at the doctor’s office. It’s about human fragility and loneliness. Fear. Isolation. The boredom of suburbia. It always comes down to something human.

Maeve Binchy, the Irish writer, said she made her characters ‘kind of ordinary’ – that way, readers could relate to them.

Read: 6 Top Tips To Write A Kick-Ass Short Story

3. Find A Voice

When you’re finished writing the story, read it aloud. Does it sound like a story you could tell around a campfire? Or was it a bit more ‘formal’?

If you wrote the story in the first person, the character’s personality will come through. Third-person viewpoints are less intimate, but you may notice a certain style in the writing.

All of this is your ‘voice’ and it may surprise you – or shock you. But, once you know what it is, you can get better at it. You can make it your own.

As Ralph Fletcher says in What Writers Need: ‘When I talk about voice, I mean written words that carry with them the sense that someone has actually written them. Not a committee, not a computer: a single human being.’

Discover more about viewpoints.

4. Endings & Beginnings

It’s always wise to put your story aside for a few days. When you’re ready to read it again, don’t start at the beginning.

Why? While it seems counter-intuitive, read the last few paragraphs first. Take a few minutes to think about how the ending makes you feel. Does it make a comment on the characters and the situation they find themselves in?

What mood does it evoke? Are you developing a signature or personal theme?

Now, read the opening lines of your story. Almost immediately you will know if the beginning ‘matches’ the ending you just read. You will see where you started, where you ended up and where you went off course.

Spend some time working on the start and end of the story. Do this before you edit the rest of the story. 

5. Leave Some Stuff Out (OK, A Lot Of Stuff!)

The ‘editing’ process doesn’t have be brutal. You’re giving your story a neater haircut – not taking it off to the guillotine.

Circle words, passages, or incidents that you feel don’t help the story. Would it be better to cut these? Not sure? Wait a few days and read it again.

Let’s take the story about the woman in the doctor’s room. Maybe you have too much description about the weather. Or went into too much detail about her illness.

You realise you could make ‘use’ the space to flesh out the character of her husband. Or add in some dialogue.

As suggested in On Editing: ‘By listening to your writing’s heartbeat you’ll learn when a scene should be speedy or slow. By forcing yourself to keep your story’s secrets for as long as possible you’ll ensure that there’s a constant thread of tension pulling your reader onwards.’

Take on the 12-month story challenge in Deadlines For Writers.

The Last Word

We hope these steps five steps to writing a short story gave you the courage  to write your story. That maybe, as Maria sings in Do-Re-Mi’ you will find ‘a drop of golden sun.’

anthony ehlers Anthony Ehlers facilitates courses for Writers Write. He writes awesome blog posts and workbooks too.

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Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Posted on: 16th March 2022
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