4 Tips for Writing a Short Story

I recently wrote a guest article at Writers in the Storm on 6 Reasons to Write a Short Story. So that was a bit of why, but how do you craft an effective short?

While there is much advice about writing novels that translates to writing short fiction, other aspects don’t seem to apply. For instance, the story structure for novels — with various theories, diagrams, acrostics, and outlines — doesn’t fit a lot of successful short stories.

By researching, taking an RWA course on short stories, reading other stories to see what worked (and what didn’t), and using trial-and-error, I came up with my own tips for writing a short story.

1. Limit your characters. You don’t have enough time and space to develop many characters. Just as you wouldn’t introduce twelve people in chapter one of a novel, don’t overload the short story reader with too many names and faces.

Make sure every character must be there.

  • Does each character contribute to this particular storyline?
  • If you have two secondary characters each serving a purpose, can you mesh their purposes and create a composite character?
  • Does your main character need so many friends or family members?
  • Can you refer to a character by their profession or appearance, such as “the police officer” or the “red-headed cheerleader”?

If you need to mention several people, maybe you can link them more generally. For instance, you could refer to a group of friends by their leader’s name, like “Rudy and his gang.” Or group them in a memorable way.

In my upcoming short, A Little Fairy Dust, the main character, a fairy godmother-in-training, has three sisters, all with names beginning with F. Having their names all start with the same letter allows the reader to immediately recognize a sister without needing to know exactly who’s who. Although be careful not to be gimmicky; have a story reason for your choices as well.

2. Forget those subplots. Choose a main plotline, and maybe one subplot. You can’t weave several plots together the way you can in a novel. Know who and what your story is about, and stick to that.

If you’ve ever written a query, synopsis, back cover copy, or an “elevator pitch,” you already understand this principle. When describing a novel, you stick to the main story with the protagonist, the antagonist, the primary conflict, and its resolution. Approaching a short requires the same perspective: Whittle away at the whole convoluted story to find the core element within.

Indie author Kait Nolan does this well in her Meet Cute romances, a series of shorts celebrating the first meeting of a romantic couple. As she explains, “You’ve got a very narrow window that requires quick and ruthless worldbuilding and leaves no room for you to get distracted by other stories beyond your main plot—and that includes backstory. Don’t overcomplicate by trying to tell more than one story.”

3. Squish the timeline. One of my stories happens in the course of a few hours, and another occurs over the course of four months. But in both, the timeline is truncated—by choosing a single event or by sharing only slivers of the whole story.

Shrinking the timeline to a single day or hours can give your short story a sense of urgency—that now-or-never feel.

My Sister's Demon book coverOr you can cover a longer period of time, but expect to leave stuff out and do a little telling to catch readers up. This can work well with internal or external dialogue as the main character reflects on something that happened during a time gap. For instance, there’s a month gap each between most chapters in My Sister’s Demon, so at one point the main character summarizes:

In the last month, she’s bought all kinds of not-Nickie stuff—everything from a black-and-blood-red clothing line to bags of marijuana to creepy wooden idols she found in some weird magic shop.

With one sentence, the reader gets the overall picture: things got worse. Slid seamlessly into real action time, you can keep the reader up-to-date, cover a greater time span, and maintain your focus.

4. Remember the arc. While studying up on short stories, I read many examples from writers that weren’t stories at all. They were scenes or interesting premises, but conflict and a growth arc were missing. A beautifully described scene or character is not a short story. The same character arc applies to short fiction: Your hero must face an obstacle and change as a result.

Make your main character face his fears, encounter difficulties, wrestle with a villain, fight for true love. There should still be an inciting incident, crossing of a threshold, building of stakes, a climax, resolution.

You won’t have as many plot points as you would in a well-structured novel, but you might be surprised how well you can cover a character arc even in a short story. Think of how many times in your own life you’ve learned something important from a single, attitude-altering event.

Just like in a novel, make each word count in your short story. But feel free to use a little trial and error yourself. Shorts can be a great way to step out of your comfort zone, tell an impactful story, and hone your writing skills.

ROW80 Wrap-Up

Yep, this is the final report for Round 2 of A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.

1. Read 12 books. I read 13 books and one short story. In case you’re curious, here’s the list:

  • Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point-of-View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson (nonfiction craft)
  • Unearthly by Cynthia Hand (YA paranormal)
  • Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (nonfiction craft)
  • The Collector by Victoria Scott (YA paranormal)
  • The Quantum League: Spell Robbers by Matthew J. Kirby (middle grade paranormal)
  • Self-Publishing Attack by James Scott Bell (nonfiction craft)
  • Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress by Tina Ferraro (YA contemporary)
  • After the Scandal by Elizabeth Essex (historical romance)
  • Stupid Cupid by Tina Ferraro (YA contemporary short)
  • Defiant by Jessica Trapp (historical romance)
  • How to Ruin a Summer Vacation by Simone Elkeles (YA contemporary)
  • No More Christian Nice Girl: When Just Being Nice–Instead of Good–Hurts You, Your Family, and Your Friends by Paul Coughlin and Jennifer D. PhD Degler (nonfiction)
  • Sketchy Behavior by Erynn Mangum (YA suspense)
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (YA contemporary)

2. Finish editing SHARING HUNTER, a young adult contemporary novel. Once again, I did not complete this. But I’m so amped about where I am now that I almost don’t care. (Almost.) I’ll push this goal to next round, but I expect to get it done soon.

3. Edit one short story to publication quality. Last week, I still hadn’t hear back from everyone about my next cued story, A Little Fairy Dust. But I’d rather hold that one until I’m absolutely certain it’s ready for publication. It’s almost there. But I also did the last polish and formatting for another short in the series.

4. Publish and promote two short storiesMy Sister’s Demon was published on May 15, and I flipped my planned sequence and released The Vampire Exclusive on Friday, June 27.

The Vampire Exclusive cover
Click for link to Amazon

5. Stay on top of ROW80 sponsor duties. In total, I visited 64 ROW80 updates, and I think I hit everyone who participated in this round at one time or other. I truly find it inspirational to see how other writers are progressing by setting manageable goals and taking important steps in their writing journey.

Are you a fan of short stories? What tips do you have from reading or writing shorts? And how was your week or your round?


Baton Blog Hop: My Writing

The marvelous Kait Nolan tagged me for the baton blog hop. So I’m answering the questions and tagging three others at the end of the post.* 

Julie sitting at laptop
Writing at my local coffee shop

What am I working on? Two major projects right now. The first is my series of six young adult paranormal short stories, which begins with the first story, My Sister’s Demon. I’m editing, polishing, formatting, and loading them up one at a time. This self-published series is titled Paranormal Playground. (See the first cover here.)

Then I’m editing again through Sharing Hunter, my young adult contemporary novel — which has been a labor of love and madness, depending on which day you ask me. Actually, I adore these characters and their story, so I’ve taken extra time and effort to get it right. I’m planning to pursue traditional publishing with this novel.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? If you’ve visited my blog for a while, you might have noticed a new tag line up there: A handful of real life, a heartful of story. Writing YA paranormal and contemporary, my tag line is true for both of these. I hope to capture a slice of real life, something we can all relate to, but then tell a story that brings your heart into the equation. That “heartful” could be the tender feelings of romance, the intense desire to solve a mystery, the pounding nerves of fear, etc. But I hope having my characters deal with whatever they face — be it a crush on the boy next door or the need to exorcise a demon — can encourage the reader to take life on and come out a winner.

As for the uniqueness of my writing, I’m a snarky girl. And it comes across on the page. So I hope to bring some wit to the stories as well.

Why do I write what I do? I actually answered this question recently in a post I did for the A Round of Words in 80 Days blog:

I think part of what keeps me wanting to write YA and MG is when I ask myself, “If I could write for one and only one niche group, who would it be?” And it’s young girls struggling with who they are in those formative ages. That’s when I fell in love with stories, when books sent me to worlds I didn’t know and got me out of the frustrating one I was in, when fiction sometimes seemed far more real than the stupid drama of junior high and high school. It’s when I realized that books could be friends.

How does my writing process work? I call myself a “plantser” (I think I got that word from author Roni Loren). For me, what tends to happen is I write a first chapter by the seat of my pants based on some scene, premise, character, etc. If I can tell there’s something to this, I step back and develop the idea further.

I write a plot outline, which at this point includes things like the opening, inciting incident, plot points, setbacks, climax, wrap-it-up. I don’t get much more detailed than that before I start writing. My story often changes as I write, and that’s fine. I can easily adjust a plot outline, but when I try to plot individual scenes in advance, my brain tends to get overwhelmed and my writing gets stymied.

One part of the “writing process” that’s often ignored is editing! I’ve written about editing tips I’ve learned, and Margie Lawson’s Deep Edits program has also really helped. Quality writers have to be willing to dig into their WIPs again and again to get them to the level they can and should be for readers to fully enjoy the story. I continue to learn how to best do that, but I love seeing the story take shape.

Tag, you’re it.

Since I know they have upcoming releases, I’m tagging Melinda VanLone, Catie Rhodes, and S.J. Maylee for this blog hop. If they wish to participate, they can answer these questions on their own blogs and tag 3 more writers to pass the baton.

ROW80 Update

1. Read 12 books. Read Stupid Cupid short story by Tina Ferraro, but I’m not counting that. I also read a nonfiction book and started North of Beautiful by Justina Chen. Halfway through — 6 of 12 books read.

2. Finish editing SHARING HUNTER, a young adult contemporary novel. I edited a little bit, which was something. But now that my short stories are in a good place, I am moving this goal to the forefront. A little forward progress — like a Mother May I baby step.

3. Edit one short story to publication quality. I finished the rewrite of one short story, and I’m happy with the result. This was the last story in the Paranormal Playground series that needed to be completed, and it will be released this fall. Meanwhile, I read through the next release of the series, A Little Fairy Dust, and made editing notes. I need to rewrite sections of the first chapter, but the rest of the story seems solid. Once I get that first chapter in place, I’ll send it to my beta reader. Happy with this progress.

4. Publish and promote two short stories. I finished the Scrivener Compile course offered by Gwen Hernandez, compiled and uploaded the first story — My Sister’s Demon — to Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It should go up this week. *fingers crossed* Halfway there!

5. Stay on top of ROW80 sponsor duties. Visited 8 blogs this week. Done!

So what projects — writing or otherwise — are you working on? And how was your week?

*For future reference, I’m hit or miss with these things, so if the chain letter means a lot to you, I’m probably not the best person to tag! :S)

The Paranormal Playground: Cover Reveal

I’ve been talking on my blog about short stories I plan to self-publish this year. Well, the first one is coming out very soon. Sometime this month.

Each of these six stories is a young adult paranormal told from the point of view of a teenage girl. Beyond that, they don’t really have much in common. Indeed, I’ve named the series the Paranormal Playground*, because that’s how it feels — like I toured the playground of the paranormal, spending a little time with demons and then fairies and then ghosts and so on.

The first story released will be My Sister’s Demon, and I’m thrilled to share the cover and the blurb. I feel like there should be a drumroll, so just imagine a bbbrrrrrrrrr pish in your head, please.

Book cover for My Sister's Demon short story

Every teenager thinks her older sibling is possessed, but Courtney’s actually is. When big sister Nickie shifts from sweet homecoming queen to evil mischief-maker, Courtney alone discovers the true source of change—demon possession. With Hell invading her home and no one to turn to, is she seriously the only one who can exorcise her sister’s demon?

Cover by Book Cover Corner

That’s it! I hope to release one story every 4-6 weeks and at the end put out a box set. It’s been a challenge and a joy writing short stories. I’m eager to share them with readers!

ROW80 Update

1. Read 12 books. Finished Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress by Tina Ferraro. By the way, I don’t know how this YA contemporary novel got on my radar, but I really enjoyed it. 4 of 12 done.

2. Finish editing SHARING HUNTER, a young adult contemporary novel. Well, I’m on fire for this goal now! Here’s where I struggle about announcing good news: I never want to come across as bragging (because I totally hate that). But hey, I submitted the first chapter to the Utah RWA Great Beginnings Contest and received 1st place. And that’s exactly the impetus I need to get me back into the story to polish it up and send it off! A bit of progress.

3. Edit one short story to publication quality. I was struggling with a plot hole on one story and finally figured out the problem involved my not understanding my antagonist well enough. At the suggestion of fellow writers, I wrote the murder scene from the point of view of the villain. It was an exercise just for me, and I felt sick to my stomach when I was done. But yeah, great writing exercise — because it totally cleared up some questions. When I returned to the story, things fell into place, I fixed the plot hole, and I got through one full edit. Major progress!

4. Publish and promote two short stories. Tweaked the book cover with my designer and chose colors for each short story. This series of shorts will have a standard image book cover, with variations of tone and title to distinguish them. I’m hoping to release the first short, My Sister’s Demon, in mid-May. On track!

5. Stay on top of ROW80 sponsor duties. Visited 10 blogs this week. Done!

*Major thanks to Melinda VanLone for suggesting this title while we were brainstorming together. It fits perfectly!