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10 "Easy" Guidelines to Writing the Compelling Short Story

By Kate Robinson


Writers are fortunate there are no word police and that we can pursue the craft in the privacy of our own heads!  We can also take comfort in the knowledge that further revision can always see us through to a polished product. There is nothing written that can't be improved by applying the concepts below:


1. Good writers can make any subject interesting through the use of style. It's not what you say, it's how you say it. Unfortunately, style is about as easy to define as love, truth and beauty. Style also encompasses nearly every other aspect of writing, but can be boiled down into a few basic rules: avoid wordiness, be specific, use active verbs, avoid cliché, provide sensory description, and order events logically. Another very basic rule of style, nearly cliché in itself, is the admonition to show, don't tell. Very important but somewhat tricky until you get the hang of it.


2. Correct grammar is essential. Most writers have a good ear for language and naturally avoid the most common and crucial mistakes. Proper language is important; don't forget to trust your ear. The correct way of saying something is not always the compelling way of writing it.


3. Description enhances the story, but too much serves no purpose. Keep description short and active.  Be specific. Use original imagery, touch on distinctive and vivid characteristics of setting. Avoid confusing imagery such as the mixed metaphor.


4. Good writing creates the illusion that spoken language flows naturally from the narrator or characters.  Good dialogue can provide information, reveal character, drive the story, create a sense of place and summarize events. Good dialogue between characters is believable and creates the

tension that moves the story along.


5. Characters must be specific and idiosyncratic. Avoid flat stereotypes. Ironically, the specifics of character draw out universal emotions in the reader. Readers enjoy identifying with life-like characters. Characters drive the plot in compelling stories. Beginning writers often make the mistake of manipulating character personality and action to fit the plot.


6. Viewpoint is the place from which the reader views the story, and is like a camcorder that records the story through the eyes of a particular character or narrator. Viewpoint is constantly influenced by the psychological nature of the characters.  A viewpoint from a major character in the first or third person is most commonly used in short stories. It is all too easy to switch viewpoint without knowing it, and is something to check closely when revising.  Another error common to beginning writers is inconsistency or awkwardness in the flow of story events. Consistent time frames tie in to consistent viewpoints.


7.  Maintain subtlety in the presentation of your story. "Show, don't tell" is a rule of style that falls under the term. Being subtle also implies not telling if you're already showing, and not describing anything you don't have to. Don't underestimate the readers' participation in the story by hitting them over the head with unnecessary or repetitive information.


8.  Compelling stories contain some sort of conflict, even if the conflict is so subtle it can be defined as tension. Without tension, there is no story. Tension may be manipulated to keep the reader involved in the story.


9.  The form and content of the story must work together. Whenever the form of the story is changed, the content also changes. In this respect, the length of the story must be appropriate for the scope of the material. Don't try to stretch a theme appropriate for a short short into a novella.  Likewise, be sure to fully develop characters and plots to their full capacity.  Don't limit yourself to a short piece when a compelling story requires a longer one.


10.   Everything in the story must look as though it were written by one person in a single sitting. There must be unity of theme, style and viewpoint.


It helps to be aware of all the bits and pieces of language and form that comprise the short story. It is the skillful blending of this host of components that makes the difference between a good story and one that isn't read. 


It is a little scary that there are so many different factors that must be skillfully interwoven within a piece of writing in order for it to be called "good."  At first glance, it's enough to make the novice swear to never mangle words again.


These are steps that can be learned, but I firmly believe there is an inherent creative magic that brings life to a writer's words, the musician's melodies and the artist's images.  Whether this be the touch of the muse, the channeling of Spirit, or the latent talent of the creative individual, I cannot say.  This essence has not yet been extracted, measured, statistically analyzed and bottled, nor is that likely to happen.


The creative state of mind has been thoroughly analyzed to the point that whole books are dedicated to concretely describing how to achieve that state at will. But the actual stuff of it is elusive.  It's like the beauty of a sunset, the charm of love - describable yet intangible. We all hope, pray, or affirm for it and sometimes we do it.  If we give conscious attention to all the concrete details after moving whenever we can in that trance-like world we create from, we are more likely to craft stories that are compelling and satisfying.


10 "Easy" Guidelines to Writing the Compelling Short Story" first appeared in the January 2000 issue of The Fiction Writer Online Literary Magazine at www.thefictionwriter.com


Kate is a published poet, creative nonfiction, feature and fiction writer who resides under the sunny and star-spangled skies of central Arizona. Her work is featured in AZ Tourist News, June Cotner’s prayer and poetry anthologies, Least Loved Beasts of the Really Wild West (Native West Press, 1997), Mediphors, Prescott Courier, South Ash Press, Sandcutters, Sunday Suitor, Threshold, I Love My Job! E-zine, thefictionwriter.com,  writejourney.com and others.




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