Many writers, myself included, tend to devalue short stories because of their brevity. “Real” writers are supposed to craft novels. Some of the most famous authors of the twentieth century, however, were masters of the short story. Think William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor, and O. Henry. At only 5 or 10 percent the length of a novel, a short story may seem far less intimidating, if not downright easy, to write. But short stories come with their own set of challenges that can help hone your skills for larger projects.
When faced with an empty page, finding the ideal place to begin your story may seem impossible. The task can become such a burden that you might avoid starting altogether. In Story Genius, Lisa Cron summarizes the problem thus: “What, specifically, will happen to start the chain reaction that will cause everything to happen?” She’s describing what is often known as the hook. Because it’s the very first taste of your story, it can be the most difficult to determine.
In the kitchen, a competent cook uses a handful of thickening agents to improve the texture, stability, and even the flavor of a dish. Similarly, a skilled writer tackles plot problems with an arsenal of techniques. And I’m going to show you three that you can experiment with to transform your story into something savory and delicious.
You’ve probably heard the expression “That was epic!” thousands of times. But what does it actually mean? Epic is used to describe a myriad of experiences, but we typically treat it as a synonym for big, awe-inspiring, or just plain cool. Movies are full of epic clashes between good and evil. And if you’re hungry enough, hamburgers can be epic too.
Short stories are a powerful medium. In just a few thousand words, they send us on meaningful emotional journeys that linger with us for the rest of our lives. “The Gift of the Magi” illuminates the tender beauty of selflessness, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” exposes us to the torture of a guilty conscience. As much as I love the drawn-out impact of a novel, the quick punch of a short story has an appeal all its own.
Have you ever noticed that one area of plot tends to get neglected? If you browse writing blogs on a regular basis, you’re probably familiar with multiple strategies for structuring a plot, such as the Three Act, Snowflake, Save the Cat, or Hero’s Journey templates. But advice on structuring individual scenes? That’s rare. Knowing how to plot an entire novel is useful, but if you struggle to craft the scenes and chapters within it, you won’t make much progress.
Happy endings resound with hope, reminding us of God’s ultimate triumph over evil. As we turn the last page, we feel homesick for the moment when He’ll wipe away all our tears and usher in the new heavens and new earth. But a thin line separates endings that point toward eternal bliss and endings that have been manipulated to give readers warm fuzzies. For a story to remain honest, the ending needs to reflect victory and reality.
Writers are lovers of drama. Hit us with a fast-paced shoot-out, a heart-rending rejection, or a tragic death scene, and we’re as happy as larks. Because conflict excites readers, we shove as much of it into our books as possible. Although dramatic irony contains that wonder word, it’s subtler than fight scenes and tear-jerking confessions. Dramatic irony involves manipulating knowledge, not action.
Cliffhangers are intrinsic to sensational writing, hurtling readers into the next chapter. Whether a hero dives into a colossal waterfall to save his lady love, or a sidekick literally dangles from a precipice, these scenes all follow the same strategy: raise the tension to a feverish pitch, then switch story lines.
When you think about fast-paced stories, what comes to mind? Cliffhangers that keep you awake late at night, turning pages so quickly that you get paper cuts? Or anemic character arcs and half-hearted themes. Sometimes films and books sacrifice character development for the sake of fight scenes and car chases. But if a character’s experiences don’t change him at all, what’s the point?