Rules and Tools for Writing Short Stories, Or
Why Good Fiction is Better Than Bad Fiction
You may not wish to follow these rules as you write your own stories, but you should at least be aware of them, and know that if you're not following them, you are not following them by choice. If you do find yourself following them, it won't be by choice. It will be because you are writing well. If you don't believe that art should have rules, then think of what follows as a set of standards, or a collection of common sense. If what follows doesn't make sense to you, then you may be a very good writer, but you are not a short-story writer in any sense I understand.
About style Show 'em, don't tell 'em.
Stay in control: outline your story, and follow your outline.
Stay in control: don't be controlled by your outline. Allow yourself to be surprised by your characters and what they do. Write to find out what happens next.
If those last two items seem to contradict one another, you're right, so find the rule that works best for you, but remember that the desired result is the same: a story that presents an ironic combination of inevitability and surprise. However you get there, you must end with a satisfying, strongly constructed, seamless story.
Be selective. Edgar Allan Poe, one of the principle architects of modern short fiction, insisted that every element, every word even, of a short story must contribute to the harmonious whole. Poe was right. Put into the story only those elements of character, plot, and setting that are relevant to what the story does. Anything else is fat. Be selective, and select no fat. And be sure to edit out anything you put into the story just to show off. As Faulkner said, delete "your darlings."
Being selective is especially important when you're writing autobiographical fiction or even just writing from personal experience (which is inevitable). Remember that what was significant to you may not be relevant to the story. If that's the case, save it for another story where it will fit better.
Watch your step with point of view. A good rule for point of view in short stories is one is enough. Multiple points of view are okay, but the more you have the harder it is to do it right. The hard-and-fast rule is that whenever you're in one point of view, that's the only point of view you're in.
Write strong. Verb constructions are stronger than noun constructions. The active voice is stronger than the passive voice. Every noun does not need an adjective. Reexamine every adverb and throw away at least half of them, especially those that end in "ly," and almost all of the ones that end in "ly" to modify how a character has just said a line of dialogue.
Keep writing strong. Choose strong words: short, Anglo-Saxon words are much stronger than long, Latinate words. Choose the right word, and not, as Mark Twain cautioned us, "its second cousin." Write lean, because extra, unnecessary words get in the way and weaken your story.
Avoid the habitual past, and get right to the direct, moving action. A story has to hit the ground running. The first sentence in the story should be the best sentence in the story.
End the story gloriously. The last sentence in the story should be the best sentence in the story.
Have I just contradicted myself? Can there be more than one best sentence in a story? Maybe not mathematically, but you should try for it, and you should throw in another at the climax, and a few more during the buildup of tension. Let your story be peppered with best sentences.
Irony is a major ingredient of writing at the sentence level. It means surprise. Use surprising, unexpected words and put them together in original ways that mean even more than they say.
Caution: don't overwrite. Don't write fancy. Watch out for five-dollar words. It's a thin line, but don't show off, even when your fingers are dancing on the keys, celebrating the pleasure of words. How do you write with the grace of Fred Astaire without being a showoff? Perhaps the best advice comes from Hemingway: be honest. And be honest more consistently than Hemingway.
Reexamine the last sentence of every paragraph, the last paragraph of every scene, and the last scene of every story. Does it just summarize what's already been shown in the action? If so, dump the summary. End your paragraphs, scenes, and stories with action, not reflection.
About Structure Tell a story. Something has to happen to someone. That may seem to go without saying, but remember that a story without plot is like a meal without food.
The story starts at the beginning. It must hit the ground running. (Have I said that before?) The first sentence in the story must be the best sentence in the story. Don't begin with a weather report unless the weather is essential to the plot. Watch out for one character alone for too many pages at the beginning of the story; you (or your character) may get lost in thought and forget to have something happen.
Remember Chekhov's loaded rifle. Applying that rule to short stories, if there's a loaded rifle in an early scene, it must go off in or before the last scene of the story. Conversely, if a bomb goes off at the end of the story, chances are that bomb is in large measure what the story's about, and it must be planted, ticking, early in the story.
Don't be overly predictable. Surprise. Irony is an essential ingredient of plot construction. Irony at the plot level is the unexpected event that makes perfect sense. Make the reader react with "AHA!"-not with "Duh." or "Huh?"
The beginning of a story has to make the reader want to read the middle of the story. The well-worn phrase that wears well is, "Hook 'em with curiosity, and hold 'em with conflict."
Conflict is an absolute necessity of fiction short or long. Otherwise, what's the difference? The short story assumes there are obstacles to overcome, differences to reconcile, winners vs. losers, good guys vs. bad guys, inner struggles, arguments, fistfights, car chases, or merely difficult decisions. Mild or major, the conflict is at the heart of both character and plot. And somewhere in the plot, this conflict often results in a significant shift in the balance of power.
Which means: stories are about change. When we say "something happens to someone," we're talking about a change.
Often--perhaps more often than just often--that change is the result of a choice. A character must make a choice, and because of that choice, the character changes.
Built into that last statement is the concept of consequence. Consequence makes all the difference when it comes to plot. Vladimir Nabokov's wonderful, simple example shows the difference between a plot and a mere sequence of events. The latter: "The King died and the Queen died." The former: "The King died, and the Queen died of grief." A plot is not just a sequence of events: A, then B, then C, then D. A plot says B happened as a result of A, and that because of B, C had to happen, which led (surprisingly or inevitably or both) to D, and so on. Until:
Climax! Need I say more?
More: Resolution, or reverberation, or relaxation. Stories usually let the reader relax a bit after the climax. That's kind of them, but the story shouldn't just roll over and go to sleep. Keep the story alive to the end, and make the last sentence the best one in the story.
I've now said all I care to say about the theory of short fiction. These rules that I've just listed, and many more that I haven't, have served the art form for millennia, since stories were first swapped around the primal campfire. They have withstood history, human fads and fashions, and even television (don't get me started), and they will survive far into the future, regardless of how technology may complicate the way stories are distributed from mind to mind.
About truth Be significant. The reason stories are important is because they're about what's important. That doesn't mean that all stories must be about love and death (although the finest stories are about one or the other and the finest of all are about both). But they must be about things that matter. The things that happen to your characters have to be important to the reader, because they're important to you, because they're things that matter in terms of the human condition.
Significance is important for its entertainment value: desire, danger, quest, and change.
Significance is also important for its moral value: we create art in order to make this a better planet for ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our fellow species. If you don't believe that, or if you think it's too grand a challenge, let me go further and say that all we do in life is for that purpose, and art (in this case writing short fiction) is but a concentrated effort in the grand cause.
Lighten up. Have fun with your writing. Art is for play, after all, and for God's sake, don't put your readers to sleep. You should indeed write about matters that are socially significant, but avoid sermons, and remember that fiction is primarily about people, not about ideas.
Speaking of significance, things that are not significant are laundry lists (a generic term not always referring to clothing), weather reports, and stories about writers. Also gratuitous sex. Sex is fine (you better believe it), but it must be important to the story and its plot and its theme and its characters, and not there just for the fun of it. The act itself, in the story, has to have a reason to be there in terms of fiction: it illustrates a character, or better yet, advances the plot by changing a relationship.
Respect your reader's intelligence. Imagine that your reader is at least as intelligent as you. Don't explain your story; if you're afraid your reader won't get it, you need to do some rewriting. Don't tell your reader what to think; persuade your reader to think a certain way by how you write.
ï Avoid gimmicks. Don't overpunctuate!!!!! Don't use phony phonetics (sez I). These aren't just matters of style; they're matters of honesty.
Write with authority; that's why you're called an author. That means, as we've been told forever, write about what you know about. This does not mean you must travel the globe like Richard Halliburton or participate in every sport like George Plimpton before you can write. If you think the things you already know about are not important enough, you're mistaken. Writing about what you know about does not mean you can't set your stories in foreign lands you've never visited, or far-off planets, for that matter. It means that what the story is really about is its emotional content, the part that comes from within you, and that's something you can't lie about. Write what you know, and tell the truth.
Do research so you won't be embarrassed by mistakes, but don't let research turn your lively fiction into a dull catalog of facts.
Use your imagination, and lie. But even then, tell the truth about it. Remember that a story about a struggle between blobs and robots, set on Pluto in 2356, is really about human life on Earth today.
Don't be afraid of the dark. I encourage you to write about troublesome things. That doesn't mean you can't write about love and laughter, but you should also realize that all good stories about relationships are about the problems in relationships, and that all humor comes from pain and suffering.
Respect your characters. Stories are about people, not about symbols. You and your reader must spend time with these characters, so make them individual and interesting. Love these people, even the rotters; they have a lot to tell you. Show (don't tell) what they're like, and let them speak and think for themselves. Let your readers draw their own conclusions about these people; if you've shown the characters in action, you don't have to worry about how the reader will judge them.
Dialogue has to sound like real people talking. They may be outrageous people, and they may say outrageous things, but only the dullest people speak in cliches, and the dullest people are seldom worth writing or reading about. Another thing that real people don't do is pack their conversations full of plot information.
Read your words aloud. Be prepared to be embarrassed, and if you're embarrassed because something sounds phony, you have some rewriting to do.
All writers rewrite. If you're satisfied with your first draft, you're not an artist. That's not writing. As Capote quipped to Kerouac, that's just typing.
You may break the rules. In fact, you should break the rules. And when you break the rules, do so on purpose and out loud, because breaking the rules is part of what your story is about.