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Short story writing: first principles, part 2

Danger areas

Here are a few of the areas which I found most frequently needed attention in beginners' first stories:

Aim to hold the reader's attention

The points below are all ways of trying to achieve the general aim of holding the reader’s attention, the central importance of which is highlighted in this quote from the American writer John Irving. He has some good advice for us all:

I always try to think when I am writing of someone I do not know. The age of this unknown person is always either elderly and impatient in the way that elderly people can be impatient, or quite young, maybe too young to drive a car, 15, a difficult age, and impatient in the sense that the attention is always hopping to something else. I like to think that my principle task is to get that person's attention and not lose it, and the person has a million other things that they could be doing. If you turn your back on that reader and just amuse yourself, when you look back the reader will be reading another book or watching television or gone to the movies or fallen asleep.' [The Times Magazine 23/3/96]


Try to establish a specific time and place in the opening paragraph. Don't open with generalisations, but with a particular event at a particular time. Begin with the central character involved in some aspect of the main theme of the story. Avoid using the first paragraph to fill in background information.

Point ov view

This is perhaps the main area in which problems occur. My recommendation is that you stick with your central character's experience of the action all the time. Don't jump away from his/her immediate experience by showing him/her from someone else's point of view, such as another character's or the narrator's.

Whether you use the central character’s point of view, or one of the other options, the important thing is that the point of view should be controlled and consistent, and not haphazard.


Interaction between characters is the life-blood of short stories, so keep your characters in the spotlight all the time and only show us as much of their background as is necessary for the plot. Try to open each paragraph with action. Remember it is better to appeal to the readers senses, rather than their reason.

Never simply 'pass on information' to the reader

The reader wants to witness the action for himself, and nothing will put him off more than the author passing on background information which is supposedly for his benefit, but which slows down the action. Necessary information can nearly always be woven into the action smoothly and unobtrusively.

Revise the first draft

The first draft of a story is never going to be as good as it can be, so do revise it at least once before offering it to anyone to read. Go through it cutting out anything superfluous, generally tightening it up, taking out the slack. It can be helpful to let a little time, at least a couple of days, go by between finishing the first draft and starting the second.

Give your story a title

It is surprising how often students omitted this. A story is incomplete without a title. If you haven't yet made a final decision about the title, at least give it a provisional title.

Count the number of words

Be aware of the number of words, rounded up or down to the nearest 100, in your story, and indicate the number when sending work to an editor. Professional writers always measure the length of a piece of writing by the number of words, and an editor will always expect to be told the number of words. Of course there is no need to actually count every one. If you are using a word processor it should have a menu item which tells you the number of words. If you are writing a first draft by hand count the number of words in the first ten lines, divide by ten to find the average number of words per line, and multiply it by the number of lines.

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