A short story is short enough to be read in one sitting, as opposed to a novel which may take weeks to read. What makes up a good, possibly great, short story?
A short story should have a single storyline. Space is limited, so there just isnít time to investigate the lives of several characters or situations. If you find yourself beginning to explore these areas, then you are on your way to writing a novel.
A short story takes place during a short period of time. It covers only a certain space of time, say a few hours, an afternoon, or a few days. It closely examines how the main character handles a particular moment in his life during an event that throws his life out of balance.
A short story has only one mood, one pace, one style. It should not start as an edge of your seat thriller, then switch to comedic romance. Nor should it begin with verbose sentences that only those with a college education would be able to understand then suddenly switch to short, punchy sentences with a first grade vocabulary.
The descriptions in a short story should be kept brief. A novel is the place for long descriptions, not a short story. You will only succeed in taking the attention of the reader away from the plot. Why spend an entire page getting across the point that Meredith is an elderly lady when the same thing can be pointed out briefly. Meredithís wrinkled hands carefully braided her snow white hair.
A short story gives minimum background information. Only facts that are relevant to your story need to be told. Marilyn is attempting to keep her ex-husband from having any rights to see his children. Marilynís allergy to cats, her unsuccessful attempts to write a book, or the fact that she is still scared of the dark has nothing to do with the main storyline (unless you make it vital to the outcome of the story).
A short story needs a maximum of four characters. Have you ever been to an event where you were introduced to a lot of new people? How hard was it to remember all their names and faces? That is how difficult it will be for your reader to remember a huge cast of characters.
A short story doesnít need any subplots, hidden morals or subtext. Keep your story simple and tell it in the most direct way possible. If many different truths are revealed to the reader through your writing, great. But allow it to happen naturally, without great planning.
A short story needs to start right in with the action. Many short stories are boring and don't succesfully hold the attention of the reader. Why? Many times, the first few paragraphs are wasted setting the scene. The story should begin with a moment of crisis or something extraordinary happening.
How to end your story? When the story is over, it is over. End it quickly when the crisis the main character came up against has been resolved.
Short story dialogue, any dialogue for that matter, needs to grab the readerís attention, not put him to sleep. Dialogue is a great way to build mood, tension and emotion in the story. A story without dialogue is not a crowd pleaser.
A short story should have as few points of view as possible. The main character is facing a conflict or a certain set of events - such as a robbery, an unplanned pregnancy, a murder - and the event should be seen through his eyes. When viewed from a minor characterís eyes, that only succeeds in distancing the reader from the main character and his feelings. Switch viewpoints only if it is absolutely vital to the plot.
What is conflict? It is any event, anything that throws the life of your main character out of whack. The conflict could be minor, such as a storm making him late for an appointment. Or it could be major, such as how he reacts to his child being molested by a neighbor. The conflict should force him to act in ways he normally wouldnít act. The hard decisions he is faced with should put him in a dilemma morally, physically or religiously. In other words, it shouldnít be easy for him to solve.
The character should solve his own conflict. Donít have him rescued by some twist of fate or passerby who takes pity on him.
When you write your first draft, donít worry about length or how correctly it is written. You need to be totally spontaneous the first time around. Once you are done, you can go back and edit for word count and correct grammar. This is where I run into problems. Iím a bit of a perfectionist about writing things correctly, even the first time around. I want to stop and edit, even though I need to wait until Iím done.
Once you have written your story out completely in the first draft, read it aloud. It will be obvious which words and phrases, if any, have been overused.
You can add a twist at the end of your story, just be sure it is a logical twist. Your readers will not be disappointed and will look forward to reading more stories by you. Donít make your ending an anti-climax or so dull that those who read it wonder why they wasted their time. I have read many stories like this. They are exciting right up until the very end, then they go downhill fast. I wonder why the magazine even bought them to publish.
If you plan on trying to sell your short story, you need to find an appropriate market for it. Research magazines that buy the type of story you have written. Before you submit your story, make sure that it doesnít have more words than they will accept. If they are looking for stories that are 4,000 words long or shorter and your story is 4,500 words, it will not be accepted.
If the magazine accepts submissions only through the mail and you send it to them over the internet, it will not be accepted. Following the submission guidelines is just as important to your story being accepted as is writing a good story.