Do you write and publish fiction? Or even just aspire to be a fiction writer? If so, short stories are still a cornerstone of your writing catalog. And with the renewed emphasis on online publications and audience building, short fiction will help keep your fans excited while they wait for your next novel.
But writing short stories is no simple task. Short stories tax your writing skills to achieve a lot in only a few words. Breaking down short fiction, there are four story elements necessary to write compelling short stories.
What Makes a Good Short Story?
The four elements necessary for your story structure are character, plot, setting, and tension. Balancing these elements is the first step to making your creative writing amazing.
The best short story writers think about these key elements for every story idea and work to incorporate each element in all of their fiction writing.
Why Short Stories Are Worth Writing
If you write and sell fiction, short stories are still valuable kinds of content. You might not go through the process of shopping your story around to literary magazines as writers did in the past (though you definitely can!). Today, it’s easy to simply publish yourself on your own website. If you’re publishing your own work and selling directly to your fans, short stories are great fodder for email or social media marketing efforts.
Turning your short story ideas into published content is a great way to retain your reader’s attention and keep fresh content on your site. Plus each story you publish is a touchpoint for data. Did your story about Pandas having an adventure in space resonate with your fans? Maybe there’s another story there. Or even a full-length novel you can sell to your fans. Or maybe you need to commission some prints or t-shirt art of those wily space Pandas for your fans to buy!
So what makes those stories stand out for readers? Back to the four important elements I mentioned earlier.
Kurt Vonnegut said that your short story should have “at least one character [your reader] can root for.” He also said, “Every character should want something.” Among the plethora of writing advice, Vonnegut has to offer, these two points about character are among my favorites.
First comes crafting a character who wants something. This is the most basic part of character development—they aren’t caricatures, your characters are “real” and they have wants, needs, and desires.
The more you can imagine your character’s life, the better you’ll be able to write about them. Your short fiction should focus on only a few characters, trying to get to the heart of what your protagonist wants.
Here are two simple exercises you can use to better understand your characters:
- Define their point of view – are they conflicted? Do they suffer from experiences that color their perspective?
- Draw their character arc – literally draw an arc and define where they started, things that happen to them, and where they end up.
The better you know your character, the easier it will be to craft a story your readers will love. Readers want characters who grow, change, and ideally redeem themselves.
Consider Flannery O’Connor’s classic, A Good Man is Hard to Find. The Grandmother is a nuisance to her family and ultimately leads them all to a terrible end. Yet it is hard not to root for her as the story unfolds.
Maybe it’s because we know what she wants, but we can’t discount O’Connor’s masterful storytelling. She’s crafted a character with a clear point of view who we can follow despite misgivings about the Grandmother’s intentions.
Regardless, the presence of a character the reader wants to see succeed drives the story forward and gives that character depth and humanity.
Your short story’s plot needs to be tight and focused.
The plot is “the sequence of events inside a story which affect other events through the principle of cause and effect.” What I like about this definition of plot is that it doesn’t demand that you create a plot; rather it simply must be acknowledged.
Your story’s plot describes the events rather than defining them; you’re not writing down events, dialog, or flowery descriptions in a vacuum. Everything you write for your story feeds into the other elements, coming out the other side with a story.
The plot is a byproduct of good storytelling.
That doesn’t mean you can ignore the plot. For a short story though, you can think about the plot a little less than you would for a novel. Let your characters drive the story, and let the plot evolve naturally.
The setting is my favorite part of short fiction. Unlike a longer piece, you won’t be visiting many locations in your story. The settings you do visit really need to shine.
The setting gives your story texture and depth, making the place and time real for the reader through carefully shared details. You have the opportunity to play with form in the setting by creating a sense of place in a variety of interesting ways.
Take, for example, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway. In this story, Hemingway establishes the setting without specifying exactly where we are. By placing a premium on shade, mentioning the “dirty boots” and “baked red” of Macomber’s face, we get a picture of a rustic, hot location. Hemingway puts us on the African plains without telling us that’s where we are; rather he paints a picture that reminds us, whether we’ve been to Africa or not, of what that place should be like.
This masterful use of setting also establishes the tone of the story. Beyond simply telling us where the action of the story is happening, the setting reveals the moods and emotions of the characters.
In my experience reading and creating short fiction, the setting is the most often underutilized element. Don’t miss an opportunity to add important texture to the story with a vibrant setting.
Tension is often referred to as conflict, but essentially what it means is the element of your short story that drives the action. What makes the protagonist do what they do? What forces the actions that lead to the events of the story?
Conflict isn’t the best way to think about the driving action though, as conflict demands there be some confrontation or altercation. Tension is more accurate because there need not be any resolution or winner in the story.
Tension refers to any elements that raise our concerns, that make us wonder what will happen next and how our protagonist will react to those events. Tension can be dangerous, but can also be sad or heartwarming, or even frustrating. The tension will propel the story.
For many short story authors, tension will spark the story and drive the action.
From Elements To Complete Story
Writing any kind of fiction will use these four elements—character, plot, setting, and tension. They aren’t unique to short story writing. But the constraint on word count will force you to be conscious of how you use these elements.
Finally, remember to keep your audience in mind. Short stories are a great way to grab your reader’s attention, so try to give them a story you know they want. That might mean exploring secondary characters from your novels or delving into a world you’ve already created. As a fiction writer, you’re selling entertainment to your fans. Focus on the four elements I outlined here and keep your short stories entertaining; the readers will flock for more.
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.