Dear Aspiring Writer,
When Peter asked me to write an article for the Fever Dreams E-Zine about how to write short stories I was slightly at a loss. There are, I thought, so many better writers in the field who could answer this question. Who am I to tell other people how to write short stories when I have hardly reached the upper levels of the trade myself? On reflection I realised that perhaps that's a good thing. I know when I first started writing that it was very difficult to produce something that even remotely resembled the fiction that I loved but with time, practice and a lot of advice from more experienced writers I am now comfortable in calling myself a "writer".
If you are reading this then you, I assume, are interested in becoming a writer. We all have different reasons for wanting to be a writer and we all want to tell different stories. I am happy to be a horror writer, though I have on occasion written some fantasy or science fiction, you may feel differently. The first thing I'm going to tell you is that the basics of writing a story are the same regardless of genre (so don't be put off by the fact that I am a horror writer).
Where do I start? First you need an idea and sometimes you may need more than one. Don't make the mistake of thinking that your idea is original. I used to think that all the time and then I'd get really down when I discovered that someone else had used my idea. There are so many overused ideas, especially in speculative fiction, that you have to be a genius to come up with something completely original. This idea doesn't have to be anything to do with the genre of the story. You could write a science fiction story about going to the pub or a horror story about walking your dog.
Ok, you have an idea. For the sake of this letter I'm going to assume that you are writing a story about going to the pub (or a bar for our American friends). Now we need a character. Who is going to the pub? The old saying that you should write what you know is important here. I know lots of writers who successfully use the people they see on a day to day basis for their stories but, and this is a big but, you need to ensure that these people are not able to identify themselves. If you write about your teacher, boss or spouse (be very careful with your loved ones) you may end up in the doghouse if they don't like the way you portrayed them. You have been warned. Warning aside, if you want your characters to seem and act believably then, at least initially, you should use real people as templates. If you need to know how they will act then you can just ask "what would so and so do?"
So we have someone going to the pub, now we need to know why and what is going to happen? As exciting as going to the pub may be it is unlikely to provide enough stimulus for a short story unless there are sinister forces attempting to prevent our hero from getting to the pub, and even then I think that just getting to the pub is insufficient motivation. What if he's proposing at the pub and his friends are trying to stop him? We have a choice, something to lose (his girlfriend) , a conflict with his friends (and possibly himself) and lastly an antagonist. The antagonist is the villain of your story. It doesn't have to be human or even real but it should be working against your hero. In this case we are going to assume that our hero's friends doubt he wants to get married and therefore they are going to prevent him from getting to the pub to propose. Our hero on the other hand does have doubts and these doubts are what has caused his friends to act. The doubts become the shadowy villain that he must overcome in the story.
Now we have an idea of the direction that the story is headed and we need to decide how the story will end. There are two choices, success or failure. Our hero will either make it to the pub or not. This means he will either overcome his doubts or not. Initially you may think that there are only two endings:
Any writer will tell you that things are rarely that black and white. I can think of a couple of other ways the story could go:
I could go on but I think you get the idea.
The end of the story is just as important as your first line. Readers will get disappointed if they've read through your story to be shown a groan inducing ending, but give them a twist that they don't expect and you'll gain a fan and they may recommend you to a friend.
I hope you can see that we now have a full storyline for our hero and in working out his journey we have also worked out a cast of characters. In short stories there is a limited amount of space and as such it's difficult (but not impossible) to get to know a lot of characters. To ensure that the reader can get to know all your characters try to keep your cast to a minimum. I mean we don't really need to know all about the landlord if he only serves a drink at the end of the story, I found initially that it helps to think of some characters as walk-on roles. It doesn't matter if someone sees the landlord differently than you had conceived because he's not a big part of the story.
So you should now have a hero, a villain, cast of secondary characters and a plot. There is still a few things to work out before you put pen to paper. The setting is important especially in a fantasy or science-fiction story. The setting will impact on a few of the decisions that we are going to make so have a think about it.
Now that you have some idea of the world in which all this is going to take place you should try answering the following questions :
In a fantasy story, for example, we may have a staunch warrior who is kidnapped by a thug, that his friends hired, and who turns out to be a very attractive woman. Our hero realises that he has given up a life of troll-slaying when he doesn't have to and our two warriors ride off into the sunset to slay more trolls.
If I was to make a science-fiction story then perhaps he would travel by cab, which his friends hack into, and he ends up in the wrong part of town. The people of this district are incredibly poor and die young. Moved by the idea of dying alone our hero's doubts disappear and he races across town to meet his girlfriend.
If I was to write it as horror then I would almost certainly have him walk to the pub. His friends would bundle him into a van and take him to a strip bar where they ply him with drink and take lots of photographs. They pay for a private lap-dance and leave him in the booth. He convinces the stripper to untie him and help him escape but his girlfriend isn't at the pub when he arrives. Dejected he goes back to his flat to find the stripper and his girlfriend sitting on his sofa. His girlfriend is holding a pile of photographs and is crying profusely.
Now you have a complete concept for your story. At this point some writers, myself included, would sit and start writing, relying on editing to sort out any issues that arise. I feel confident enough to do this now but when I first started I had to map out each scene and work out how these scenes would work together.
A story needs a beginning. This doesn't necessarily have to be the start of the events but you will still need to know what happened before the story. In this case you could start the story with your character having been kidnapped already (or being kidnapped). The first paragraph will make or break your story. If someone doesn't like it then they may not finish the story. I know some people who believe they can tell the quality of a writer by his first line, I disagree with them frequently.
When I first started writing I was frequently told that the beginning of a story is for showing the character in his world, that means that you show who he was before the story. In our case we need to show our hero and convey to our reader that he is planning on getting engaged and has doubts. We also need to establish tone, mood and time. These three things are especially important in speculative fiction because it also means describing the rules of the world in which the story takes place. This part of the story should also contain the hook. The hook is what makes us care about the story. In this case our inciting incident (the kidnap) relies upon the hook - our hero's girlfriend is waiting at the pub for him to propose. It seems like a lot to pack into the early part of the story but it isn't that difficult. Just try to avoid some overused methods like the "looking in the mirror back story," where someone describes their life whilst looking at their reflection in the mirror, and never overload this area with flashbacks or dreams. If information is important find a way to put it into the story. Having the hero wear a tie he was given by his girlfriend four years ago will indicate that they've been together a while. The engagement ring could be used to make comments about the relationship too. If she picked it, and kept showing it to him whenever they passed the window, then we get the impression that she has been thinking about marriage a lot longer than our hero. The style of the ring will say something about his girlfriend's tastes and allow you to get in some of her character early. Deft touches like these are always preferable to lengthy flashbacks and huge chunks of back story.
In the middle of the story we want to build the tension up by making the hero's problems intensify. Our hero's doubts are going to run him through the ringer and he's going to be sorely tempted to give up on his plan to propose. You should really lay it on the line for your hero. What are the consequences? You could give your hero a temporary triumph by letting him almost escape but you should always have a reversal and by the end of this part of the story your hero should be in worse state than when he started. This is the proverbial darkness before the dawn when the hero will either sink or swim. Whenever you have a scene in the middle of your story ask yourself how it progresses the story and if it doesn't then consider cutting it or mix it with another scene. A gratuitous sword fight, exciting car crash or sultry sex scene may be well written but if that's the only reason that you've included it then its taking up valuable word count.
The end of your story should begin with the hero and his antagonist in conflict. In our example our hero goes head-to-head with his doubts. Win or lose? Sink or swim? It's up to you to decide. Then tie up your loose ends and show the consequences for your hero. If she's not at the pub when he arrives then he can at least get a beer. This is not a time for more action though so don't add anything to the story. This is not the time for his girlfriend to be exposed as a shape shifter, or for the hero to make a decision based on new information. You could, for example, have our warrior leave his Amazonian in the forest and make his way to town only to realise that he made a mistake but you can't have him suddenly realise that his girlfriend is a werewolf. Don't cheat your reader. If you want him to realise that she's a werewolf then leave little clues throughout the story . When he arrives at the pub and finds it torn apart by a crazed beast your reader will feel like they are discovering something along with the character. Using this idea your hero could lose on both fronts, having given up his Amazonian only to realise his girlfriend is a werewolf. We follow him through his panic as he thinks his girlfriend is dead or injured and onto the slow realisation that his girlfriend destroyed the pub because he was late and that she's a werewolf. Unless he really likes dogs, it's a tragic ending.
Now you have a complete plan for your story and all you have to do is put the words on the page. This is my favourite part of writing. I hate the planning but during your first forays into the world of fiction I heartily recommend that you plan everything in as much detail as possible. I'm not going to talk about grammar and punctuation because these are things that you should already know and most word processors can do for you. I will say a quick word on vocabulary though. Words are the tools that we use to create our magic. If you have a limited vocabulary then your magic is going to be less powerful, so buy a thesaurus. If you take one piece of advice from me about using a thesaurus it should be to always look up the words before using them. Some words you find may sound good and look good on the page but if the meaning is slightly different to the word you intended then you may not realise till too late.
I hope that this letter proves useful to you. There are plenty of guides online and books available to help with writing but the only guaranteed way to improve is to practice. See every story through to its conclusion, even if it's terrible, so that you get into the habit. There's nothing worse than becoming a serial quitter or letting your inner critic win. Even if a story never sees the light of day it will provide you with useful experience and valuable practice. Keep all your stories, especially the bad ones, and compare them so that you can see how much you have progressed.