What Is a Short Story?
A short story is a fictional narrative that focuses on a limited number of characters. It takes 20 minutes to one hour to finish reading it. Its length ranges from 1,000 words to 20,000 words. Its elements are almost the same as that of the novel. However, a short story’s plot is relatively more straightforward than a novel’s. The protagonist in a short story deals with the central conflict in a much faster chain of events and arrives with a resolution quicker than a novel’s protagonist. Nevertheless, short stories and novels are both striking, despite the difference in pace.
Short stories are an excellent medium for writing and reading. Some ideas are better suited as short stories than other writing genres. It takes specific skills to write compelling short stories. It requires the author to be succinct and have some idea of what will happen in the story or its purpose.
Starting a compelling short story can be supported by command of exposition, characterization, and storytelling ability to ensure that the idea does not sprawl into novel territory. It also takes an insightful editor to chop words later in the editing process. Learn how to start a short story today.
How to Start a Short Story: Practical Tips
1. In the Beginning, There Was a Void
Short story ideas come to writers in many shapes, forms, settings, and stages of consciousness. It might have been an idea from a dream, an experience from high school, or a family drama that you wanted to document. Someone might wish to write a short story, but they do not know where to start. Maybe the person has never written a short story or written anything before, and it is okay. This article will help anyone through the process of writing a short story.
Where to Find Inspiration
“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.”David Lynch
Your Own Life
Story ideas are everywhere. They are in the faces of supermarket check-out clerks. They are stuck in the rain with a flat tire on the side of the road. They are in your own daily life. Story ideas are like radio waves—they are always in the air, and it is only a matter of having the right tool to capture and decode the signal. In this case, that tool is an open mind ready to capture the ideas that are already drifting through your daily life and thoughts.
The World Around You
Write down any ideas you have, whether they are big or small. Keep a list of your ideas because you might be able to use them at any point in your writing journey. Be in tune with the world around you and look for the grand ideas that have been nesting in your mind.
Then, revisit the list later and choose a compelling idea. If it is exciting to you, you can make it exciting to your readers. Ideas should excite and energize you and make you sit down to write them down. If an idea does not excite you, find a way to make it exciting or be prepared to wait for a bigger fish.
If you are still short of ideas, you can get your creative juices flowing with writing prompts that interest you. Look for some ideas online, probably in advertisements, movies, community forums, or stories of other people. You will not have a hard time looking for ideas, especially since many people post their personal stories on the internet.
Using writing prompts is an excellent form of short story writing practice and can help improve your writing. It will also teach you to keep an open mind about any idea that lands in front of you.
What is an anecdote in writing?
An anecdote usually appears in your everyday interactions with different people and can be a great way to find inspiration. It is a short narration of a specific happening or event, whether ordinary or grand. In writing, it is frequently used to present a side story. For example, the main character, Sue appeared to be smiling all day. Her best friend, Kate called her later at night, and Sue shared her news:
“Remember when I told you that I had to take a qualifying exam for my scholarship application? I honestly assumed that I would not make it. Well, I’m so excited because I received an email congratulating me for getting the scholarship. Excited is an understatement!”
The quoted statement above is an example of an anecdote. An anecdote can contain any topic, from usual to remarkable circumstance. It may create a joyful experience, recall a past event, or encourage people to take action. The purpose of the anecdote in the story varies depending on the context of the plot. Still, the characters become more human as they express unforgettable memories and feelings through anecdotes.
2. Decide How You Want to Present Your Idea
When the idea comes to you, you might have all of the answers on how you should present them in your writing, or you might have none. The real first step is to critically analyze your idea (you are not using the creative part of your mind here yet) and assess which format will best suit the story you want to tell. Is it a short story idea or something bigger? Is it about the main character’s life or just a moment in their life?
Most novel ideas can be transformed into a short story if you take the right approach or focus on the most compelling moment in the story. Most importantly, remember that a short story must be short.
Short stories can still be part of a bigger project, but that bigger project can come later with more exploration and development. You are not telling the entire story here, just part of it. When you first start a short story, it is best to understand your limits. Understanding the parameters of the story at the outset will keep your focus and goals where they need to be.
A Short Story Is a Short Moment in Time
Sometimes stories are best told in script format, poems, or longer formats. As your ideas and characters develop, it is important to ensure that your short story does not sprawl into something bigger. If it does, that is great—start outlining a novel.
Remember, when you set out to write a short story, it is best to keep your idea contained to a simple incident or moment in time that will reveal something. It might be part of a bigger story, but the short story should be self-sufficient to tell a story on its own.
Adding many details to your short story might overwhelm or frustrate your reader. It is best to give your readers a moment to connect the dots and discover the ideas that your story is meant to share. This ensures that your story remains short and keeps your reader thinking and engaged.
Now that you are confident that your idea is well-suited to a short story format, it is time for you to make decisions. The first is deciding how to present the idea from someone else’s perspective, from a narrator’s perspective. Who is telling the story, how does that affect the perspective of the story, and what is the expected outcome?
No rule is absolute, and some readers may disagree. However, it is best to know where your short story will end. This helps ensure that you do not waste time and have a well-defined ending. Understanding the story’s outcome empowers the author to set the pace and actions, approach characterization, and even lay in some foreshadowing throughout the story. The benefits of knowing your outcome are that you can better strategize your short story presentation.
Pantsers vs. Planners
If you disagree with what is written above, you might be a “pantser.” That is short story writers who fly by the seat of their pants and prefer to make it up as they go without a real plan. They might not have any idea of the complete story yet. This approach works for some, and experienced writers will find a way to hone their stories later. But inexperienced “pantsers” must be aware that it might be a treacherous path and that they may never reach their desired destination.
“Planners”, on the other hand, are those who plan their short story to some degree before they begin writing. It could be as essential as knowing the outcome, taking it from there, or writing out a list of actions, characters, or structure before beginning the drafting stage. For “planners”, having a plan guides them on how to deliver their short story effectively.
Do Not Overdo It
It is also best not to over-plan. Once you have established your direction, do not wait too long to set sail. If you go over the plan, you might never set out on the journey.
But Do It
Planning will inevitably save you more time in the long run, but everyone will have to find their preferred workflow and the process that works best for them. Writing a short story with even the vaguest plan will give you an overview of what you are doing and help keep your writing focused. Writing short stories is not the same as writing a novel. Any plan will help you keep your story structure tight as it needs to be.
Will it be written in the first, second, or third person? From which perspective will the story be told? This can mean many different things for the story you will write, such as what the reader will learn and how they will learn it.
Sinclair Ross’s The Painted Door is written in the third-person narrative but is mostly limited to the wife’s perspective, Ann. As a result, the ending comes as a complete surprise because all of the story’s information is limited to Ann’s experiences. Had the author included her husband’s perspective, it would have changed the tone and outcome of the story altogether.
When starting a short story, you might not have every detail set up yet, which is normal and expected. However, you will need some conflict to arise at some point in the story. Without conflict, you probably will not have much to do with your story.
As you start your story, do you know what sort of conflict the story or main character might encounter or explore? If not, what is a conflict that might help engage readers? Internal and emotional conflicts are perfectly valid, and that might be a starting point to cause a bigger, external conflict.
6. The Hook
Everything is ready, and you are prepared to put your fingers on the keyboard (or pen to the page, or thumbs to the keypad) to start the story.
What short story opening will hook readers in and keep them there? The first or opening lines will need to make your reader’s mind cross a threshold that will keep them enticed. It does not need to be as gimmicky as it sounds—it is just a first line that will keep your reader’s attention and make them continue reading.
Make Them Want to Know What Happens Next
Imagine if the first or opening line of your short story is like this: “As the young woman walked through the door, she knew at once that she was making a mistake.” We have a person, probably the main character, crossing over some line and suddenly regrets something. It is an instant conflict, making the reader want to continue.
Great hooks are what draw your reader into your short story and pull them closer to the place you wish to take them. They can come in all forms of writing, but they are highly effective at the outset of a short story. If your reader is not hooked at the beginning of your story, it might be easy for them to move on to something else.
Other Factors to Consider When Starting a Short Story
Short stories tend to capture a moment or brief period in time, and so as you begin your story, keep the timeframe in mind. Be aware of using time as a framework in your story.
2. Sensory Details
Starting a short story with a hook or sensory details is also an engaging tool to engage your reader’s imagination. Describing how something smells (the most powerful sense of all) or how it tastes in the air is a visceral hook that can entice your reader when they experience a sensory reaction to your words.
However, do not overdo it. Your reader might not find it special since you use it too often. A hook should be short and punchy, creating a powerful start for your reader and giving them a sensory experience.
3. Character Arc
An arc takes place throughout the story. In short stories, they are usually reasonably short arcs. If it captures a moment in time, it might not show a whole arc of character development but a revelation of some sort. When starting your short story, it is best to know where you might want a character to go or their starting point before they conclude. What, if any, character growth will you chart, and where will that start?
Starting a short story is a bold step into telling an engaging story with limited words. It is also the easiest way to commit to telling a story without plotting an entire novel and following any or no structure whatsoever. The creation is entirely in the hands of its creator.
Understanding how to begin a short story means considering a few things when writing the first line. Suppose you are a “pantser,” knowing what a short story will need as you start at least some kind of overview of what will be written. If you are a “planner,” you will want to know what you are doing before starting it.
Most importantly, start writing your story ideas. Understanding the creative writing tools available to you as you begin will help you create a strong first draft. An idea of what you wish to accomplish before you begin will help you better execute your vision. However, every writer has an approach that works for them.