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Short story writing: first principles, part 1

First principles

In this article I introduce topics which will help you to become familiar with the technical aspects of fiction writing, and to plan your short stories. I also list the most frequent sources of problems in beginners' stories. All the topics are covered in more depth in other articles on this site.

What is a short story?

We ought to start by considering what a short story is, and the following definition is well worth bearing in mind:

A brief fictional prose narrative that is shorter than a novel and that usually deals with only a few characters. The short story is usually concerned with a single effect conveyed in only one or a few significant episodes or scenes. The form encourages economy of setting and concise narrative; character is disclosed in action and dramatic encounter but is seldom fully developed. [Encyclopaedia Britannica]

Many important points are made in that definition. I think the phrase ‘concerned with a single effect’ says something particularly useful.

Six important points

Here are six important points about what makes a good short story work. Becoming familiar with them should help you to study the stories you read, help you think about why some stories work, or don’t work, and help you to plan your plots.

1. The story is told from the point of view of the central character, with whom the reader identifies.

2. An element of conflict is introduced early on, usually in the first paragraph or two.

3. We are held in suspense as we wonder how the character will resolve his/her conflict.

4. There is a climax at or near the end in which the conflict is resolved.

5. The story focuses on a single event, which is a crisis point in the central character's life.

6. The story is shown through the characters, without the narrator's intrusion.

Those are our first principles, and much of what I have to say the following pages is related to them. The list also represents a skeleton outline for plots.

Point one is covered in the section on Point of view. Points two three and four are covered in the section on Plot. Point five is covered in the sections on Plot and Time, and point six is covered in the section on Dramatisation.

First principles part 2 >

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