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Short story writing: making a story work

There are ingredients of a good short story which we sense intuitively which are less tangible than those principles we can set down as 'rules' but ought to be picked up as we develop as writers. I should like to consider a few of them here. The following points are not in any way intended as 'rules', they are rather intended to highlight aspects of writing which affect the quality of the experience the reader has while reading our work.

Creating an alternative reality

To capture and hold a reader's attention a story has to take him or her into a reality other than everyday life, and that reality has to be convincing. It we do our job well it will feel as convincing to him when he reads it as it felt to us while we wrote it, and for this to happen we must believe in what we write. Our story must be, for us, a convincing recreation of reality refracted thorough our imagination and feelings.

We could liken the state of mind we need to achieve while we are writing to the mind of a child seriously absorbed in play; so engrossed in his game that it temporarily takes over from the real world. Just as the child lives in the world of his game, so we live in the world of our story. And just as the joy of play for a child is that he can invent a reality which is a mixture of the world as he knows it and the world as he would like it to be, so can we in our stories.


When we look at why any particular story has made an impact on us we nearly always find it has aroused our feelings in one way or another. We have related to the central character and been affected by the events which befell him or her and the way he / she felt about them, perhaps in an intensely moving way, or perhaps in a subtle, clever, or humorous way.

A credible emotional dimension to characters prevents them from being cardboard cut-outs. So our story must be engaging for the reader on the emotional level, and this means that we have to be engaged on the emotional level while writing it.

Integrity of structure

A story needs cohesion and wholeness. If we try to construct a story by fixing a number of bits together rather than letting it evolve according to its own internal logic this will show, and the story will be stuck at the level of being the sum of a number of parts without being able to evoke a whole which is greater.

In this respect we can think of a short story as being like a song. When a singer gets up to sing a song we expect the tune and the words to flow seamlessly together with no sudden jumps into different songs, no discordant notes, and no flat passages where the tune disappears. The flow must keep going and all the parts must work together as a harmonious whole. If the flow stops, or any parts don't fit, the song will be spoiled.

It is of course unthinkable that the singer should stop the song part way through to explain what it means, or to fill us in with a bit of background information. The meaning and whatever information is necessary to understand it must be integral to the song itself.


We will also expect our singer to be confident in his singing. Even if he is inwardly panicking we expect him to project an image of confidence. If he is hesitant and unsure of himself the song will be spoiled for us.

The writer must project a feeling of confidence. If the reader has doubts about whether the writer knows what he wants to say, or whether the writer has mastered words sufficiently for to be able to make them say what he wants them to say, he may well look for another author who does.

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