where the writers are
Short Story Fundamentals

Ever since my creative writing class in High School, I have been facinated by the written word as an art form. Masterful art touches the soul. Ms. Flowers (great name for an art teacher, no?) taught me that there are so many methods of expression with art--charcoal, watercolors, oils, acrylics, pencil, ceramics, clay, bronze, stone. This list could go on for a long time.

Ms. Bowzer (awesome teacher) did the same for me in my writing class--novel, essay, metered poem, haiku, free-form, and many more. We spent a lot of time learning about short stories. I suppose it's because short stories are just the right format and length for grading. I also think it's because short stories are fun.

But what makes a short story? How is it the same as a novel? How is it different? I am far from an expert, but let me share a few tips I have learned.

1. LENGTH: Like poetry, a short story needs to get to the point without a bunch of fluff. Words should be chosen carefully. Make every word count. Keep it... short. If you want to practice this skill, try to write a haiku. English haiku contains 17 syllables, metered as 5-7-5, in three lines, with the first and third line typically rhyming. This will get the creative juices flowing!  

2. CHARACTERS and SETTING: As a short story writer, you don't have much time or space to elaborate. Backstory should be as minimal as possible. Don't tell everything! You need just enough description and personality for both the setting and character to interest the reader. Make the reader care. Illicit an emotional response, but don't sell it all. Think of this as more of an advertisement for a character who could be in a novel someday. That will help you to use only the most important words about them and the setting in which you paint them.

3. THEME: A short story typically has a point to it, or a theme. Sometimes the theme is stated or obvious. Sometimes it is very subtle. Stated or not, you need to give the reader a reason to remember the story. If the reader comes away from the experience and says, "What was that all about?", then the writer hasn't done their job.

4. PLOT and ENDING: Just like a novel, there needs to be some kind of conflict, or the reader will be bored. And this is just my personal opinion, but the ending is critical. If you want the reader to remember the story, grab their attention at the very end. Make them fall out of their chair with surprise. One of the best examples I have ever seen of this is Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Star". If you decide to read it, NO CHEATING! Read it slow. Treat the ending with respect without jumping ahead.