13 Rules for Writing a Great Short Story
I recently read a post at ScriptShadow.com on how to write a great script and it occurred to me that the rules apply to novels, short stories, poems, songs, and even blog posts. Since I write a few short stories, and I am currently struggling through a couple that don't want to be written, I thought that I might try to apply the 13 rules of script writing to writing a short story.
1) AN ORIGINAL AND EXCITING CONCEPT
It goes without saying that you want your story to original and exciting, and maybe to you it is. Stories all seem original and exciting while you are writing them, and then some time later you realize that you ripped off the idea or the idea is not as cool as you thought.
I can't tell you any sure way of making a story interesting, but here are some clues.
a) Can you create a logline for the story? A logline sums up the story in once sentence, like “A medium on Mars contacts the dead from an ancient civilization” or “My boss is infected with an alien parasite”. If it takes more than one sentence to describe your story, it may not be very good.
b) Does the story begin and end in action? In other words, do you jump right into the idea and race to the end? If you don't it might be that your story drags.
c) Does your story talk about the plot and characters? You actions in the story need to be experienced not discussed. The people need to speak and act rather than described. A person's hair color is less important than the way they answer a question or respond to a threat.
It is important to be well read in “the literature”. Read the classics. Immerse yourself in the Golden Age of SF because that's where we all come from. Read the online zines and subscribe to the major pro magazines, because that's what's happening. You will be original if you know where your story comes from and how it fits in with the stories that other people are writing, today.
2) A MAIN CHARACTER WHO WANTS SOMETHING (AKA A “GOAL”)
A story is a journey of the soul. There must be end in sight. This is sometimes referred to as “the promise”. Every story makes a promise and at the end the author keeps the promise. Usually this is overcoming an obstacle or fulfilling a quest. It might be defeating an enemy or escaping danger. It is always life changing for the main character. A character, when he reaches the end of a story, must be changed because of the experience. His goal has been achieved (or not) and the reader's satisfaction comes from the fulfillment of the promise and the reaching of a goal.
Ask yourself how your story has changed your main character.
3) A MAIN CHARACTER WE WANT TO ROOT FOR
A main character must be someone we care about. Either we love the person or hate them. A character that we don't care about is walking through a plot that we can't care about.
a) Characters must be real people, not stock. They are not cartoons or D&D templates. They must have real flaws and attributes. They cannot be perfect or idealized in any way. The reader must feel that they know the character, or might meet someone like this character someday.
b) Characters must reveal their feelings and emotions in some way. They don't need to wear their hearts on their sleeves, but real characters need to communicate their motives and their emotional responses to the reader. They are not chess pieces moved around on a board. They need to respond to each move and the reader must understand the emotional response.
c) Characters must be kept in the dark and not always have the perfect solution. Characters need to be limited. They are not the author. They don't always make the right choice. They need to make mistakes or they are not real. Real characters stumble through a plot and persevere - they are like us and we like them for it. The outcome must always be in doubt and only characters capable of failure are real.
4) GET TO YOUR STORY QUICKLY!
You have one, maybe two, short paragraphs to capture the reader's attention. Slush readers will not waste time on a third paragraph if the first two are boring, badly written or “don't grab” their attention.
A story needs to start with action. It must begin with urgency. Don't waste time in a set up. Start with the knife thrust, or the explosion, or the whispered word in the dark. Don't start by explaining the economic situation on a distant planet and the history of the first Human contact. Start with the local picking the pocket of the spacer.
5) CUT THE WORD COUNT
Short stories need to be less than 5,000 words and 5,000 is pushing the limit. Modern readers don't have the patience for longer stories. Read Arthur C. Clarke and see how he kept stories at 2,000 words and they were great. The pro markets still buy 7,000 word stories and even novellas and novelettes, but the online zines like them short and sweet.
I find that a length of 3,500 words is the short story sweet spot. It is long enough to tell a tale, but short enough that the reader doesn't get bored.
Editors complain about stories with great settings and characters, but nothing much happens. I can't read Agatha Christie or Emily Bronte. It's all talk talk talk, and nothing much happens. I need a struggle. I need collateral damage. I need action or I can't enjoy a story.
The conflict is the plot. How the main character emerges from the conflict is the reason we read the story. Characters must disagree. Personalities must clash. Happy characters are boring characters. We want to learn how a character grows and how he changes. Conflict is how this comes about.
Without a problem there is no solution. Without an obstacle there is no plot. An author promises at the beginning of a story that the main character will overcome an obstacle. We may not know what the obstacle is, yet, but the promise must be made.
The way the main character overcomes the obstacle and fulfills the promise is how we judge the success of a story.
There must be something new in every story. There must me a moment when the reader says “Wow! I didn't see that coming.” This is not a trick ending, although it might be. Surprise is the ingredient that makes the reader sit back and notice. Readers have read lots of other stories so it is hard to surprise them. You need that extra punch of something totally different and off the beaten path. It is hard to do and you won't pull it off all the time, but you should always be trying.
9) A TICKING TIME BOMB
You need to pace your story. There must be a sense of urgency. You characters can't stroll - they must always be running. There must be a sense of urgency. The story has to wrap up in a short space. You only have 3,500 words to get the job done, so your reader must feel the ticking clock and the countdown to the ending. Don't pause or relax. Cut out any part of the story where nothing much happens. Don't have the main character sitting and waiting, at least not for more than a few sentences. Don't have the character drive the car to the next location describing the landscape. Move the plot, move your characters, build the suspense.
If nothing much matters, then your story is a dud. The price of failure must be high. The rewards of success must be high. The author wants the reader to identify with the main character and care about the difference between success and failure. If the main character has no stake in the outcome then the reader has no stake in your story.
This sounds schmaltzy, but your character needs to be someone we really love (or hate) and care about. He has to have a worthy soul, even if he is a villain. Unless there is an emotional connection to the main character, no one will root for him. Give the Main Character a flaw and continually test the flaw. The character has to have gumption and we have to appreciate the worthy soul and ability to overcome this flaw.
12) A GREAT ENDING
A great story has that ending that takes your breath away, or makes you cry, or makes you angry, or scares the bejeezus out of you. You have to have that satisfying click as the book closes and the reader realizes the impact that the story has had. This is hard to do, but is that essential part of a story that makes it complete.
You have to answer the promise you made on the first page and you have to do it in a surprising way so the reader feels the whole cathartic impact of the plot. It is usually just a sentence of even a phrase that makes the whole story gel. It is that last crystal added to the plot; that bit of information that supersaturates the story and makes all things obvious. Good luck if you can pull it off.
13) THE X-FACTOR
Carson Reeves, who wrote the original post about screenplays, ends up with the X-Factor. It is the last bit of unknowable spice that all of sometimes find in a story, but we have no idea how it got there and we couldn't do it again if we tried. The difficulty in finding the X-factor is why we have to write so many bad stories.
The X-Factor, in the words of T.S. Eliot is the ineffable effable effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular thing that makes your story work.
It is because, every now and then, everything goes right, and the story has this little extra bit that makes everything work. Great writers do it naturally. The rest of us do it by accident.