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How to write a short story: our essential guide to getting published

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Whether you’re dreaming of penning your first novel or looking to find your inner voice, Stylist’s guide to the short story is just the writer’s workshop you need

Words: Michelle Davies

We probably all fell in love with short stories as children. Listening to our parents and teachers read to us aloud, we were transported to worlds far beyond our imaginations. But for most of us, that’s where the love affair ended. It’s easy to forget how wonderful short stories can be, yet short form fiction is the perfect solution to book reading in 2016; satisfyingly concise stories that fit perfectly into the brief pockets of time we whittle out while we’re commuting or just before we go to bed. Swap your phone for a short story and you can lose yourself in another land instead of flicking through the photos of someone you last saw at a school prom over a decade ago.

So, it’s no surprise that short stories are rising in popularity, with sales in the UK rising by 21% in 2015 from the previous year, according to the latest Nielsen BookScan records. It is a rare author who hasn’t produced one or two short stories within their body of work. Agatha Christie wrote 153 in total, including the Partners In Crime collection that was adapted into a BBC One drama starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine last year. George Orwell’s brave personal essay Shooting An Elephant is widely regarded as a metaphor for British imperialism, while Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House is considered one of the all-time classics. Now, modern-day bestsellers are following in their footsteps, with Jodi Picoult’s The Color War, Philip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and Rachel Joyce’s A Snow Garden.

While novels can take time to build up to the drama, a good short story delivers instantly; the twists rapid and striking. Generally, short stories can be read in a couple of hours or less and are usually between 2,000 and 20,000 words, although there are always exceptions – Ernest Hemingway is said to have penned the shortest story ever: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. Even the hardest of souls would find it difficult not to be affected by those six words.

Whether you use ten or 2,000 words, a good short story should “take you somewhere else”, says Stella Duffy, author of bestselling collection Everything Is Moving, Everything Is Joined. The form is perfect for anyone who’s ever had dreams of writing a novel: a short story will teach you to be succinct with your words and will allow you to experiment with different voices and styles. Plus, within a couple of weeks (or even hours), you’ll have something tangible to show for your efforts, giving you that much-needed motivation to tackle something bigger.

Here, we ask authors and experts for their tips on how to craft the perfect short story…

Page 1: read as much as you can

It’s a fallacy that you should stop enjoying other authors’ work because it will unduly influence your own – rather, it should inform and inspire you. Don’t feel you must stick to the topic you’re writing about either. It can be far more insightful to read out of your comfort zone: for example, look at the way a fast-paced crime fiction short story is structured compared to a literary one – does your own story need more or less suspense? Compare stories with a single character to those with a number to see what works best for your own piece of work.

Duffy recommends reading Daphne Du Maurier’s The Doll collection, which includes a tale about a young woman obsessed with a mechanical sex toy. “She’s fantastic at darkness, hidden negative feelings and shame,” she says. “It’s quite hard to read an entire novel about shame or pain, but its length gives it a quality that is bearable.” She also cites Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill, first published in 1920, about an English teacher living in France who has a hurtful encounter with a young couple in a park. “I first read it when I was 13 and I was stunned by the world of longing and loss captured in just one story.”

Margaret Atwood’s The Age Of Lead is lecturer Katy Darby’s recommendation, about a woman recalling the life of her friend while watching a TV news report about the exhumation of a man buried in ice 150 years ago. “It’s very persuasive and made me cry,” says Darby, who teaches short story writing at City University in London, and whose own stories have been produced for BBC Radio 4. “If you can produce stories that affect people emotionally, particularly on such a small canvas, you’ve done so much.”

Page 2: start with a fully formed idea

Many novelists prefer not to plot before they start writing and often begin with only a vague idea of where they want the book to go. But with a short story, the opposite is true: plotting is essential to avoid meandering into novella territory. Before you start, write a brief, factual synopsis: include the entire plot outline, the characters and their roles, and how the story will open and conclude.

“You need a proper narrative arc: a beginning, middle and end, just as you do for a good novel,” says author Sophie Hannah, whose short story collection The Visitors Book was published last October. “Make sure your central idea is the right length for a short form. You don’t want to cram it with too much plot, but at the same time you cannot struggle along rudderless.”

Short story writing

Duffy, who has penned 50 short stories alongside her 13 novels, doesn’t write a word until she knows exactly how her story will begin and end. “I tend to wait until I’ve got the whole idea in my head, then I write it in an afternoon. Start by grabbing the reader’s attention with a brilliant opening. You don’t have the time or the word count to tease your beginning out. “You need to hook the reader fast,” says Hannah. Your opener should make the reader curious and also signal that something has happened or is happening. One example is Canadian writer Elyse Gasco’s prize-winning short story Can You Wave Bye Bye Baby? It starts with the line: “It is surprisingly easy to fall out of love” – immediately you want to know why the narrator has fallen out of love, with whom, and what happened to hasten it.

After you’ve nailed your opener, your short story can be structured using the same five elements that apply to novels:

  • Exposition – where characters and setting are established.
  • Rising action – where the crux of the story is presented.
  • Climax – the big reveal or twist.
  • Falling action – the immediate aftermath of the climax.
  • Resolution – wrapping the story to a conclusion.

The elements do not have to be of equal length – you may, for example, want your climax to be a single, gasp-out-loud line. Make them work for your plot, not the other way around.

Page 3: give your characters depth

One of the most memorable characters ever committed to celluloid is Holly Golightly, yet Breakfast At Tiffany’s started life as a short story intended for publication in Harper’s Bazaar. (Truman Capote would later argue the finished piece was actually a novella, coming in at 26,433 words.) Likewise, George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life first originated in a short story called The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. A succinct word count can encompass multi-layered characters who resonate with the reader.

Short story writing

“For me, character is the most important thing,” says Vanessa Gebbie, editor of Short Circuit: A Guide To The Art Of The Short Story. “An interesting conundrum for that character set out in a terrific opener always grabs my attention,” she says.

But be wary of shoehorning too many characters into one story. “Dozens of different characters across loads of countries become too confusing and the whole thing will read like a plot summary,” warns Darby. Save the Game Of Thrones-sized cast for your novel.

Page 4: find your inner voice

A writer’s voice is unique and the only way to find yours is by practice. The more you write, the more apparent your voice will become – you might find you write as you speak, as if you’re talking to a friend, or perhaps your voice is shaped by a blend of books you like to read. When your writing becomes instinctive and you’re not labouring over every sentence, you’ll know you’ve found it.

Darby, who also founded the acclaimed Liars’ League storytelling events, recently judged more than 100 entries for a competition in conjunction with The National Gallery and says those that stood out were “the ones that had a really strong voice, and that could be the authorial voice or the character voice. They were consistent and they sounded fresh, confident and unique.”

Page 5: finish on a strong ending

No reader likes to be left hanging: you need resolution. Make sure the conflict at the heart of the story has been answered – go back through the narrative and write down every conundrum that has arisen, then tick them off.

Short story writing

Darby also advises referencing the start of your story when you reach the end as a mark of finality. “Try echoing a piece of dialogue, harking back to a theme, scene or setting, or reintroducing an image or a motif – for example, a sunset or someone picking up a phone.”

Page 6: be your own editor

Your first draft should never be the one you submit – every piece of writing can be improved with a thorough edit. Before you do so, however, distance yourself from your work by setting it to one side for a few days, even a week. Reading it again with fresh eyes makes it far easier to notice plot holes or clunky dialogue.

The key is to approach your story as dispassionately as possible. “Read it as though it was written by a stranger and you were considering publishing it,” says Darby. “Actively search for reasons to reject it – editors with a huge slush pile to get through have a very high quality bar and a very low boredom threshold.” Be ruthless about cutting extraneous sentences and characters and check for repetitive words – you’ll be amazed how many times ‘just’ can slip in without you noticing.

Finally, read it aloud to yourself. Nothing highlights room for improvement more than stumbling over your own sentence.

The finale: get published

If you want a traditional book deal with a major publisher, then getting an agent is imperative. But with short stories, there are so many ways to publish your work that it isn’t always necessary, says Darby. “It’s not worth most agents’ while to represent writers who only produce short stories, as their percentage cut is so miniscule. Agents will sometimes take on clients who are short story writers, but they will nearly always want them to write a novel.” If you still want to try for an agent, check out Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2017 (£20, Yearbooks) to find one.

A typical way to get yourself published is to submit your story for inclusion in an anthology through an independent publishing house like Comma Press (commapress.co.uk), or try specialist literary titles like Lighthouse and The Fiction Desk. Amazon now has a growing section dedicated to short form fiction called Kindle Singles – they accept unpublished submissions between 5,000 and 30,000 words. And finally, check out Stylist’s very own short story competition, by following the link below.

Enter Stylist’s short story competition


Additional words: Amy Adams
Photography: Getty Images, Writer Pictures, liarsleague.com, iStock

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