March 17th, 2014

Ten Tips for Writing a Short Story

By Lyn Horner

I’m a regular follower of the Western Romance Writers Please Post Here #2 discussion on Amazon’s Meet Our Authors forum. In late 2013, fifteen authors, including myself, agreed to put together an anthology of short stories intended to give readers a sample of each one’s writing style.

R&R 2nd revise.smRawhide ʼn Roses.(A Western Romance Anthology) is the result. Released a few days ago, the ebook is available on several sites, with a print version soon to follow.

I thought this project would be fun and it probably wouldn’t take much time since our stories were to be very short, from two to three thousand words. Right.

The only problem was I’d previously written only a couple short stories, flash fiction pieces that are actually part of bigger plot lines. How was I going to tell a complete romance in so few words? What had I gotten myself into?

After brooding over the problem for a couple weeks, I grabbed a notebook and pen and settled into a nice hot bath. No, I’m not kidding. The wet heat seems to stimulate my brain. Or maybe it’s just that there’s nothing to distract me, a big plus since I’m easily distracted.

I had absolutely no story idea in mind, but the moment pen touched paper this guy leapt out of my head, insisting his story be told. What story, I asked? He promptly informed me he was a lawman in a small Colorado town. After some discussion, we decided his name would be Trace Balfour. Then he dictated the opening scene, a run-in with a snooty schoolmarm and a pair of wildcat saloon girls trying to tear each other apart.

Okay, but then what? Who was the lawman going to get romantic with, one of the feisty fillies rolling around in the dirt or the stiff-necked teacher who sets his teeth on edge? More importantly, how was he supposed to win the mystery woman’s heart in the allotted word length?

My logical, outline-loving brain said no way. I’d need at least a hundred pages to get them cozy enough to hop in bed, wouldn’t I? My characters never engage in full blown love scenes until they’ve known each other a while. After that, things get steamy, but not in 2,000 words, for gosh sakes!

Let me tell you, this short story business had me stumped. It required more brooding, reading up on short story techniques, and several false starts before I figured out how to bring the marshal and his sweetheart together in The Lawman’s Lady.

The Lawman's Lady in black 2Here are the guidelines for writing short stories I learned along the way:

  • Settings must be bare-bones; no flowery descriptions.
  • Don’t dilly-dally. Jump quickly into the action. Your opening must grab the reader and make them want to read on.
  • Avoid passive voice and choose strong verbs. Use adverbs sparingly, especially ones that end in “ly.”
  • In most cases, stay in one point of view. If you must use two POVs as I did in mine, stick to one per scene; NEVER head hop.
  • Forget delving deep into your characters’ thoughts, memories and motivation. There’s no room for much introspection. If backstory is important, make it concise.
  • Every word should move the story along; sentences are like paragraphs, paragraphs are like pages in a book.
  • Don’t show off; fancy words can be a turnoff. Write in a way readers can relate to and easily understand. If someone is reading your short story on their lunch break, they don’t want to hunt for words in a dictionary.
  • Actions speak louder than words. Show emotions through body language, facial expressions and dialogue.
  • Catch your characters off guard. An unexpected event, whether good or bad, gives the reader a jolt of surprise.
  • Conclude paragraphs and scenes with action; don’t summarize what’s happened. Save the best for last. End your story with a dramatic punch that sticks in a reader’s mind.

Short stories are a whole different kettle of fish for an author who normally writes historical novels in the 100,000-word range. After this exercise I have newfound respect for short story writers.

How about you? Have you tried writing short shorties? What kinds of problems did you run into?

Cover for InD'Tale adLyn’s latest novel, Dearest Irish (Texas Devlins III), stars a colleen with a healing touch and a half-breed cowboy torn by loyalty to two worlds. This Native American/paranormal romance won a Reviewers Choice award from the Paranormal Romance Guild and a 2014 Reader’s Choice Award nomination from BigAl’s Books and Pals. This book was is also nominated for a Rone Award.

Also available in print at Barnes and Noble

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62 comments to Ten Tips for Writing a Short Story

  • I love that ‘every word should move the story along’, Lyn. I never thought about it that way. We say that about scenes in a novel of course, but when you have so little room, this makes sense. I’ve always said I’d write novellas or short stories…when I have time. Sigh. Someday I’ll have time.

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Great tips 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  • When I’m working on a first draft and don’t know what to do next, I set something on fire and see how the characters react 🙂

  • I’ve been playing around with the idea of short stories as my next project, so your tips are timely, Lyn. I’ve found some of your tips – avoid adverbs, partly -ly adverbs, and avoid flowery words – apply to long fiction as well. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Carol, I hope the list of tips helps you get started with your short story project. You’re absolutely right, some of them apply to long fiction as well.

  • Lyn, you have a knack for boiling things down to the essentials. All of your “how-to” posts are well worth reading, and this one is no exception. These are excellent tips for short story writing.

    I’m looking forward to reading RAWHIDE AND ROSES. That y’all managed to keep your stories to 2K words just astounds me. I love the short story form, but I struggle to keep mine in the 10K range! 😀

    HUGS, sweetie!

    • Hey Kathleen, great to see you here on WITS! Since you write short stories, I treasure your approval of the Ten Tips. Yes, it was a trial keeping our stories sooo short, and believe me, we “discussed” that at length. Still, everyone of the fifteen authors managed to pull it off. Amazing what one can do when there’s a deadline looming!

  • It seems many who write novels are using short short stories as nice in-betweens of late when writing a series. But I have to say writing a short story has always seemed scary to me. Thanks for taking some of the scary out of it. 🙂

    • Hi Shar, thank you for inviting me to write this article. I had fun with it, and if it takes a little of the “scary” out of writing shorts, that’s the name of the game.

  • Alison Bruce

    A lot of the tips you distilled are the same ones award winning short story writer (and good friend), Melodie Campbell, has shared with me. Thank heaven I have her because writing short but complete short stories are a challenge for me too.

    I especially like “Every word should move the story along; sentences are like paragraphs, paragraphs are like pages in a book.” Excellent advice.

  • patyjag

    Lyn, Great tips! I’ve written enough short stories that I’m starting to enjoy having to be so concise and keep the story moving. It was a fun adventure!

    • Paty, we made it through the Barn Dance! Thanks for making it here this morning. I agree, writing shorts is fun once you get used to it.

      For those who don’t know, Paty is in our group of fifteen. Her story and mine both feature town marshals, but that’s where the similarity ends. Our imaginations followed very different trails. Come see for yourself. Wink, wink!

  • I have the opposite problem. I have written many short stories and my first novel seems dauntingly complex. Short stories, by nature, are pretty straight forward, at least for me. You follow the most important line of plot with bits and hints added in for spice. A novel has plots and subplots and backstory and hidden motives not to mention far more characters all of whom have their own story. I am still learning the trick to bring it all into one smooth tale that begs to be told.

    • Alison Bruce

      My friend Melodie would agree with you, Kate. Short stories are her forte. Novellas a close second. Novels are more challenging. Being great at one type of writing doesn’t guarantee you’ll be great at both.

    • Kate (may I call you Kate?) I have a suggestion. Grab a pad of stickum notes, find an empty wall or board of some kind, and let your imagination loose. Jot down plot ideas, characters, anything tha tcomes to mind, and stick them on your “story board”. Move them around as new ideas occur. I just finished plotting the second half of my WIP using this method. It took me a couple hours, then I transferred the rough plot to computer, breaking it up into chapters as I went. Of course I’ll make changes and move things around as I write, but now I have a guide to keep me on track to my final HEA goal.

  • Right away, it struck me that these same hints should be used in writing longer novels. Sure, we do add more, but trust me–we often add completely useless words and phrases (I have an old post titled-The Avoids III–Avoid Useless Words.) I learned to write 1500 word stories under an editor at The Wild Rose Press. My story was 3000 words and she said, nope, it’s gotta be 1500. We argued back and forth and I begged her to do it for me. You can imagine where that got me.
    But I did it, and was so proud of the story–The Wedding Auction–I wrote two more for TWRP as their Free Reads. I now have the rights back and wonder what to do with them. Since then, I’ve written two more.
    Great tips, Lyn–thanks for the reminders.

    • Celia, write a couple more shorts, add the ones you have the right back to, and put all of them together as a collection. That’s what I would do. thanks for stopping by!

  • Morning everyone. Y’all are up and moving early compared to me. Yesterday was a long day. I helped host the Rawhide ‘n Roses Barn Dance (launch party) on Facebook, a new experience, fun but a bit nerve-wracking since I’ve never done one of these before.

    I’m glad to know you find my tips for writing short stories helpful. Shorts are tricky to compose at first, but once I got the hang of it, I really enjoyed the experience. Might even try writing a few more as time allows.

  • Laura and Alison, I’m glad you like my reference to every word needing to move the story along, etc. That bit just popped into my head while writing the article. Maybe Marshal Balfour gave it to me.:)

  • vicki

    Hi, there! I write a lot of short fiction and your tips are spot on.

    • Hi Vicki. Glad to hear that! Do you publish your short stories as collections, or in magazines perhaps? Just wondering how to get them out to the public if I write more shorts.

  • Your advise is perfect! Honestly, most of what you said also applies to writing longer stories. When I started writing short stories, I had all the same fears you did, but discovered that the most unique part of short stories or novellas is to keep the plot simple and to have the hero and heroine to meet within the first page or two. Short stories are a great way to jump start a sleeping muse as well as keep releases coming in between full length novel releases. Short stories are also a good way for new readers to find me because their investment is so little–most people are willing to spend $.99 on a new author and some of them like my style enough to buy my full-length novels. Some of my short stories are part of an anthology and some are available all on their own. Some were published through a publisher and I self-pubbed a few. As you can see, I’ve tried to cover a wide range of venues in an attempt to reach the larges possible audience. Good luck to you and thanks again for the great reminders.

  • Reblogged this on jbiggarblog and commented:
    Helpful hints by Lyn Horner on writing short stories

  • I want to explain my strange handle, “texasdruids.” When I first published my Texas Devlins series, it was called Texas Druids. Being totally inexperienced, I foolishly set up my WordPress blog under that same title. Now I’m stuck with it. I did manage to get rid of the domain name and set up a new one: http://lynhorner.com I need to find out if there’s a way to change my WP handle.

  • rainnnn

    Those were good tips, Lyn. I had to do some research to figure out what was required. Trying to stay true to our own writing style was another challenge in this. If we write one kind of thing, doing a short story in a totally different mode would not be helpful to readers. I found it fun when I got into it. It is the same thing i like about writing novellas– the challenge to get there without the frills a romance writer enjoys so much. Rain Trueax (I have yet to figure out how to get WordPress to let me use my name

    • Rain, you’re right, it is hard to stick to your writing style when changing from long to short format, but I think we all did an admirable job. I love your short story, Connie’s Gift, especially because of the heroine’s psychic talent. You know I believe in such gifts, having experience clairvoyant dreams myself.

  • Lyn, good advice and I will save your tips in case I’m ever crazy enough to write another. Writing short is too hard for me. I’m trying to write shorter novels and have moved from 100K to 60-70K. I hope you can change your WP handle to your pen name.

    • Caroline, I’m trying to write shorter novels too. My new one will be much shorter than mu western romances. Of course it is the first in a continuing series, sort of a serial actually, but the books will be longer than novellas.

      By the way, your short story is excellent!

  • Lyn, I started with short stories and prose, did two collections and regularly write Flash Fiction on my blog. It’s fun and it’s a great exercise for writers. You are using different muscles, different perspectives and the challenge is to get all the elements in the shortest possible way without compromising the story. Love this post. I think all WITS readers should give this a try 🙂

    • Ramblings, too right, we should all give short stories a try now and then. I like your analogy about using different muscles. It truly is an exercise in flexibility.

  • Hi Lyn, by the time I jumped on here, most of what I had to say has already been well stated! I too think many of your points are good rules to follow when writing any length story, especially to avoid passive voice. Often we should remember the adage, “less is more” even in full novels.

  • Great tips and wonderful reminders to even the most experienced among us.

  • Hi Cheri, I like that old adage! It took me years, make that decades, to learn. Flowery prose may be pretty but it can slow a story down to the point of putting a reader to sleep, or make them quit reading the book. Don’t want that to happen!

  • Great tips, Lyn! I agree writing shorts is a great exercise to train us to write more concisely. It should benefit anything we write.

  • Lyn, as long as we’re talking about length of stories, what constitutes the difference between novellas and novels? I’ve seen 40,000 words for novellas from some editors, more than that considered a novel. What do you consider the minimum count for a novel?

  • Cheri, I don’t wish to argue with editors, but for me a novel needs to be more like 60,000 words, at least. Just my opinion of course. I’ve written one novella. Titled White Witch, it’s only about 23,000 words if I recall correctly, but I wrote it as a prequel to my Texas Devlins series, so it didn’t need to be a complete romance.

  • Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden and commented:
    The guidelines listed here will be posted above my desk. Great advice!

  • Hi Lyn,
    Great post, some good advice there. I guess it is good to get out of your writing comfort zone once in a while.

    Regards

    Margaret

  • As someone whose main writing is short stories I agree with every word of that advice. As Celia said above, a lot of it’s good advice for longer stories too, but it’s absolutely essential when writing short stories.

    In a short story you really have to trust your readers to read a lot into the small hints at setting and character you have time for. I think that’s a good thing to get practised at, and one that probably improves many readers’ view of the author.

    • Thank you, Andrew, that’s very nice to hear from a short story pro. I agree, writing tight in any format is good for us, and we do need to trust our readers to fill in the blanks. Most are pretty smart cookies!

  • Thanks, Jenna, for the post on word count. Very interesting and true that the genres have a bearing on typical lengths of books too.

  • Ooops, Jenny, didn’t mean to misspell your name ;-(

  • Some great tips here! I teach short story writing, and one that I often hear is the “getting busy” in such a short amount of time. It can be done!

    • Glad to hear from someone who teaches the subject. It’s not the easiest type of writing to learn but well worth the effort. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Louisa.

  • Short stories are a nice break from longer works and fun to boot. 🙂 Printed for my writing board. Thanks!

  • […] Whether you are a pantser or a plotter, James Scott Bell’s method of writing from the middle of your novel can work for you. Meanwhile, Philip Overby discusses how to decide if you should write a fantasy trilogy. Or you can go the other way and write short, with Lyn Horner’s 10 tips for writing a short story. […]

  • Hi Robyn. I hope you find it helpful.

  • Very good advice, thank you!

  • Hi Lyn. Thank you for the insightful piece. I’m a romance writer (mini interracial romance novels are my specialty). It can, indeed, be a challenge to “get it all in” in a short. I love describing settings: houses, towns, restaurants, rooms, etc. That comes from my screenwriting classes. You know, you want readers to feel like they are there, in the scene, right next to the characters. Curbing that tendency has proven somewhat difficult when writing shorts .. but editorials like yours are a great help. THANK YOU! And I agree with Alison Bruce (above) about your statement, “Every word should move the story along; sentences are like paragraphs, paragraphs are like pages in a book.” I will print that tidbit and look at it often as I trudge ahead with my next short: Heart’s Desire Under the Taribou Moon. Fingers crossed, and again, thank you for sharing! Cassandra Black