I’ve been studying up on what makes a good short story lately, as I work on my own short fiction and submit it for publication. During this time I’ve learned a few things along the way that I wanted to share with you. I have listened to several podcasts, watch youtube videos and read articles about what makes a good short story and there was one thing that came up in most of them:
Your beginning needs to match your end.
What does this mean exactly? It means that if you read your beginning and your ending one after the other, that some of the same elements should flow through each of them. For example, if your beginning is all about saving the planet from aliens, your ending should not be about how your hero has decided to be a chicken farmer. They don’t match thematically. Your protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be fully triumphant, she can fail, but it still needs to match your beginning in terms of theme.
In this video about short stories, David M. Harris discusses how to get ideas for short stories, but he also discusses how the protagonist can fail. You simply need to make sure the failure is still a satisfying end for the story. Going back to my previous example, maybe our protagonist fails at saving the planet from aliens, but she manages to steal a ship, save a portion of the human population, and plot a course for a different planet where the human race can start over.
She failed, but it’s a satisfying end for your reader, if you do it right. It can leave them thinking of what the planet is like, what the possibilities are for this new version of the human race.
All parts of the story must contribute to the story as a whole.
“Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action”
– Kurt Vonnegut.
Because short fiction is condensed, you cannot have fluff or parts that are not doing the work of moving the plot forward in some way. Kurt Vonnegut has great advice about this (As well as some great guidelines to short fiction, here), “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.”
If a sentence or paragraph is not showing us something about the characters or moving the plot forward, that you may want to consider either revising or cutting that section of the story.
The way I write characters drive the plot. Plot drives the theme. This is why both of these elements are things you should carefully consider as you craft your story. If your theme does not match the story you’ve written, it may be time to reconsider the theme and do revisions with your new theme in mind.
Look to what the characters do and the plot to determine what themes would work for you. As for the alien story, the themes we could play with could be something like “Woman faces her fear of her alien overlords and rebels.” If we boil that down a bit more, it might look like “Woman rebels against corrupt system.”
What are your favorite tips about writing short stories? What are you favorite short stories? I would love to hear them.