I feel like any writer can relate when I say that there is always that one thing they are afraid of when it comes to writing. For some people, it could be writing dialogue, and for others, it could be writing descriptions. I struggle with both of those things, but there is one thing that I have been wanting to do for the longest time, but I have just been too afraid of doing it incorrectly. What is that thing, you ask?
Writing a short story.
I have only written novels, so the whole concept of a short story frightens me. How am I supposed to write fleshed-out characters if I don’t have that many pages? What kind of plot can I fit into so few pages? I’ve let these questions stop me from even trying to write a short story, but I’ve been learning that I can’t let fear stop me from doing most of the things I want to do. A lot of the things that have brought me joy in life only happened because I didn’t listen to the fearful voice in my mind. So, I’m going to write a short story and bring you guys along with me!
If you are anything like me, my anxiety over something only really lessens when I have more information about it. My friends usually tease me about this, especially when I do it in video games. Like when I played Final Fantasy XIV, I used to search the mechanics of a boss before even trying it. My friends would tell me it’s so much better to go in blind, but the absolute anxiety I would feel from the idea of doing that always stops me. What if I did something wrong and everyone yelled at me for it? I’d rather not even let that possibly happen. I feel a lot more comfortable knowing at least something about what I am getting myself into. So, to start this off, I am going to do research on short stories.
What is a Short Story?
This might seem like a really obvious question, but I always like starting my research with a good definition of what I am searching for. Merriam-Webster defines a short story as “an invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot.” What surprises me is the idea that a short story focuses more on the mood rather than the plot, but it does seem to make sense. With a limited word count, you may not be able to have the most elaborate plot, but you can definitely set up a mood.
Now that I have seen a definition, another thing I tend to Google is: “How to ___.”Obviously, I am not going to learn how to write a short story just from reading some tips on a website, but I think reading these tips does help me get a better idea of what a short story is supposed to look like.
One of the posts that I saw when I searched “How to write a short story” was one from Reedsy. One tip that stuck out to me was focusing on either a single character, setting, or event. As someone who usually works on novels, it is a strange concept having to focus on one of those because a novel usually has multiple of those things. Maybe by trying out a short story, I can learn how to master those things in a smaller scope. Another tip that I found was to start with the rising action. Most short stories don’t tend to have a backstory. They drop the reader directly into the action.
I also read another post on Blurb.com that goes into more detail about the elements of a short story. To start out with, it says that most short stories are read in one sitting with an average word count of 1,000 to 7,500 words, but some short stories have definitely been longer than that. Another thing that I found interesting is that most short stories nowadays have ambiguous endings and are left to reader interpretation, which is something I have definitely wanted to try in a story.
Examples of Short Stories
“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
When I think of a short story, what first comes to mind is the short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe starts out this short story by establishing the setting. By doing so, Poe makes it clear that this is a spooky tale. If you haven’t read the beginning of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” then here is an excerpt:
And from there, the story gets increasingly more mysterious and terrifying as readers are left to wonder what exactly is going on in this seemingly haunted house. I think one important thing to note about this short story—and this was also something mentioned in one of the posts I read—is that each scene increases the tension in some way. There is absolutely no room to rest and leaving no room to rest is something you want to do when working with a short story. Since you are limited to fewer words, it is best to make sure that every sentence, even every word, is adding something important to the story.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Similar to Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson immediately establishes the setting of “The Lottery,” and what amazes me is that she can do this with word choice alone. Here is an example of what I mean:
The use of the word “village” instantly makes me think that this is set in the past or at least in a world that is not as advanced as our world today. Even with smaller towns in the United States today, we never call them villages, which is why I think this is set in the past.
Another thing to note about this story is that Jackson knows how to keep the readers on their toes. From the beginning, this mysterious lottery is mentioned, but we are never clued in to what it is exactly until the very end, making the ending much more shocking for me. There was also this sense of uneasiness I had while reading this story, like there wasn’t something entirely right about this village, and it isn’t clear why until I reached the ending. I think one of the reasons for the feeling of uneasiness is at the beginning of the story, it states, “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones.” I’m not sure if it’s just me, but when I read that sentence I was left thinking, What the heck are those stones for? But Jackson does not immediately answer that question. She just leaves it to fester in your brain as the story continues explaining the whole process of this mysterious lottery. Then, when the ending came around, everything made sense, and I was left with my mouth wide open.
“The Landlady” by Roald Dahl
The last short story I decided to read and analyze was “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl. What I really enjoyed about this story was that from the beginning, it’s obvious to the reader that there is something wrong with this bed & breakfast that our main character goes into, and it almost hints that there’s something supernatural about it. Here is an example of what I mean:
See what I mean when I say something is not entirely right about this place? When our main character enters, he meets an old landlady who comes across as very sweet, but the reader knows not to trust her. From then on out, I just wanted to know what was up with this granny, like what was the deal with her? Is she some sort of witch? What does she want with our main character? As things go on, this landlady gets increasingly weird, but the thing about the ending is that we don’t get to find out what she plans to do. There are some hints, but nothing is explicitly stated and that is what got the story to stick in my brain for me.
If you haven’t noticed, the examples of short stories I chose were rather spooky or unsettling. I love most anything to do with horrors or thrillers, but what’s surprising is that I have never tried to create a terrifying story of my own. Since I’m already trying out something new, why not add even more new things to that? I’m not expecting perfection, especially for my first time doing this. The only way to really get better at something is to do it, and that’s all I’m hoping to do during this entire process.
Now that I know a general idea of how to write a short story and have seen examples of really well-done short stories, the next part is to start writing (probably). There’s just one problem with that:
I have no ideas when it comes to what I want to write about. And that’s when the brainstorming process comes in. Usually, I just stare at my laptop screen, hoping for some ideas to fly into my brain. But I would prefer to write this short story in my lifetime, so I’m going to look at some prompts/questions to get some ideas flowing. Look out for my next Writer’s Corner post where I will go more in-depth on my brainstorming process!
About the Author
Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, Loraine Garcia is currently a blog editor and writer intern for The Love Yourself Foundation. She is also studying English with a concentration in creative writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She spends a lot of her time either crying over books, writing, or playing video games.