If you're a natural storyteller, you may want to take the time to learn how to write short stories. Putting your stories down on paper provides an opportunity to capture your unique style and flavor in print. However, writing a short story differs from telling a good story.
Story Telling Vs. Story Writing
At a recent Writer's Guild meeting in Calhoun, Georgia, one of the members admitted, "I'm a storyteller. I'm not sure I'm a writer." What's the difference? Story telling is an interactive and spontaneous process. The teller uses facial expressions, gestures, and changes their tone for effect. Even if the audience doesn't say a word, their attentiveness and body language speaks volumes. The storyteller can see when their listeners are engaged. It's a social experience. The story is told in one sitting and is finished.
A written story has a few things in common with an oral short story. Writing a short story may be spontaneous, if it comes about through a free writing exercise. The content may be similar to that told in the oral version of the story, but other than that, the process is quite different. It's not a social experience. In fact, the craft of writing is one of solitude. You have no audience to interact with as the words unfold. It's between you and the blank page. Instead of using gestures, facial expressions and the like, the writer has to make an emotional impact with words. When you've finished the first written draft, unlike the oral version, this is when the work starts.
More than One Way to Learn How to Write Short Stories
It would be nice to if the rules on how to write short stories could be boiled down to five easy steps, but the truth is that not every writer's creativity can be harnessed in the same way. That's because some writers thrill at filling a blank page from scratch with nothing more than a faint idea, while others believe it best to outline their story and may even follow a formula such as the hero's journey. For the sake of this article, the approach used won't be debated. Instead, let's take a look at what to include in your short story to help it convey the same emotional connection it would receive if the story teller were to deliver it to an audience.
Show Don't Tell
Think about how does the storyteller delivers the story. If they tell about a rotten smell, and back away with nose wrinkled or hold their nose, the audience sees that the smell is bad. In the same way, as you learn how to write short stories, you need to show the smell is bad with your words-words that create an image in the reader's mind. In other words, "rotten smell" doesn't really create an image, whereas, "Rita pulled the container from the refrigerator in her search for something to eat. She lifted the lid and peeked inside. Big mistake. Released air hissed and spewed the stench of moldy cabbage into the air faster than she could seal the container and toss it in the trash." This story could go on with air freshener, allergic reactions, opening the windows…whatever is necessary for moving the story forward.
Components of a Good Story
It doesn't matter whether your short story is fiction or non-fiction, the same components are necessary for a good story.
- Plot: If you don't develop a plot, your story is nothing more than words. Your short story should be made up of a series of events organized for one purpose-your plot. These events should create a type of complication or conflict, which forces your character to make a choice. The choice will lead to a further dilemma and or crisis, which tests the character. The climax of the story comes about at the height of the crisis, and should be followed with resolution.
- Setting: In the case of a short story, you don't have much time to create setting. This is the physical place where the story happens, and is used to make the plot work.
- Characters: The type of characters you choose will depend on genre, and of course on whether or not you're writing fiction or non fiction. The key to making your characters believable is to let the reader see them. What body language do they use? Give them quirks or habits, and of course a few physical characteristics. Mix this information with a small amount of back story and they'll come alive.
- Dialog: Dialog is a great device to move the plot forward while delivering back story information naturally. Note the key word here: naturally. The information must "fit" the conversation. Forced information dumps only draw attention to themselves and are not the mark of a good writer.
Just like the oral counterpart, the key to drawing your reader into the written story is vivid imagery. This doesn't mean blocks of flowery description, but learning to use active voice with specific verbs that involves all the senses. It takes practice. If you are interested in learning more through practical first-hand experience, it's a good idea to join a writing group or take online classes where writers exchange critiques and offer feedback.