The Anatomy Of A Short Story : Thursday’s Thoughts On Writing

How do you write a short story?

Sometimes it begins with an idea, or a mood, but for me, most often, a short story begins with a hook. When I have the time and the inclination to work on a shorter piece, I don’t wait for inspiration to strike. I make it happen.

Usually this occurs during mindless tasks where I’m free to let my thoughts wander, like while doing the dishes or washing my hair in the shower. And it starts with a challenge:

  1. Think of a first sentence that’s shocking, or intriguing, or just plain grabs some attention.

When I land on a sentence I’m happy with, I use it as my launching point to develop a scene or a character or a plot by asking:

2. What situation might this apply to, who might say it, or what might it lead to or mean?

One of those answers will be stronger than the rest. Sometimes I get an image in my mind of the person who would say it. Other times I imagine a chain of events that the line sets in motion. Occasionally the overriding thought is the place where the character is or event occurs when the sentence happens, which dictates:

3. Whether the story is driven by character, plot, or setting.

Knowing that, I’m able to take the next step forward, juggling a few “what if” or “if, then” scenarios.

What if this character did that? OR If this happens, then that happens.

Example: A character is in trouble. What did they do to get in trouble? What will they do to get in trouble next? What will they try to get out of trouble?

This allows me to create at least two points in the story, which:

4. Gives me the jumping off point I use to begin writing.

Sometimes the rest flows organically, practically writing itself. When that doesn’t happen, I create momentum by answering questions like:

How can I create tension? What does my character want? How should I deny them that or make them fight for it?

Answering these questions often provides me with the crux of my story, which:

5. Gives me an endpoint to aim for.

But the process doesn’t stop there. In fact, I’m really only getting started once I have a first draft. Because then it’s time to edit.

6. The first round of edits I tackle the story, which means I have to ask myself:

Is this believable?

How is the pacing?

Do the characters/settings/moods/themes need to be developed better?

Have I created enough tension to keep the reader vested?

Is there something in the story (a feeling, an emotion, something experienced by the senses, etc.) that most readers will have encountered themselves at some point in their lives? (Giving the reader something to identify with help

7. The second round of edits, I address the structure.

Is my meaning clear?

Are my sentences easy to understand?

Have I bogged down the pages with too much description?

Is there too little description? Am I leaving my characters and readers in a wide, empty space?

Do the events segue smoothly from one to another or are there jumps?

Are my character’s actions consistent with their personalities?

Is there any information in the story that contradicts something else on the pages?

After answering these questions, I’m ready to:

8. Edit. Edit. And edit again.

Checking for grammar, punctuation, typos, etc.

9. Then it’s time to think about publication.

This is when I decide what genre or category the story best fits. Then, I research who’s open for submissions using Duotrope (which charges $5 a month for full access) and The Submission Grinder (free, but perhaps not inclusive).

10. Then I sumit!

Which involves carefully reading the requirements for each publication, making sure I follow directions, and a great deal of finger crossing.

This post came about because I realized I haven’t had any stories published this year – I haven’t even submitted because I’ve been focusing on a novel instead. So, I’m dedicating the next 6 weeks to brushing up a few old pieces, writing a few new ones, and submitting, submitting, submitting. Hope to have some acceptance news soon!

If you have any questions, I’d be more than happy to answer them to the best of my ability, based on my own experiences!

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