Editor Betsy and I recently taught a workshop on how to write short stories. I'm not sure I said everything I meant to say, so I thought I'd compile the list of bullet points here, in, well, bullet points.
Short Story Cheat Sheet:
- Inspiration:How should you start? Write what you're passionate about. Notice this initial concept could be a person/character or an idea/plot topic.
- Protagonist:Every short story must have a protagonist. Your protagonist needs to be a sentient being with something to lose. Your protagonist needs to have a problem in the beginning (ideally, the first 250 words) of the story.
- Conflict:Every short story must have conflict. When your protagonist acts to solve his/her/its problem something or someone needs to oppose him/her/it.
- Plot: Thus, the simplest possible story plot is: A protagonist has a problem and acts to solve said problem. Something/one opposes the protagonist--causing conflict. The protagonist thinks he/she/it will fail--dark moment. The protagonist tries again and either succeeds (hurray!) or fails (aw!).
This is also called the external story arc.
- Emotion:A good story needs to impact the reader's emotions. How do you do this? The reader needs to empathize with, essentially become, the protagonist. This is achieved through your characterization of the protagonist. Do not describe the physical characteristics of your protagonist (you want the readers to imagine themselves). Instead, show the protagonist through his/her/its thoughts, feelings, words and deeds and through the words and deeds of other characters in the story as they react to the protagonist.
It's hard to evoke emotion in the reader unless you really torture your protagonist, i.e. give them a significant problem and make it seem like they truly won't succeed. The dark moment is when the protagonist and the reader thinks the protagonist will fail.
Make sure to resolve your story. The reader needs to know if the protagonist has succeeded or failed in his/her/its actions.
- Change: Something about the protagonist him/her/itself needs to have changed as a result of the events of the story. This is the internal story arc.
- So what?When you finish your story, you need to ask: So what was the point of this story? What happened? If there was no point, if nothing happened, you need to work on it some more.
Honestly, it can be difficult to get the distance from your work to ask this question effectively. Consider asking your friends, family, critique partners, "What happened?" If they can't answer you...back to work.