Taking the Fear Out of Writing Short Stories: For Beginners

By D. K. Hundt

Human Halloween Skeleton at the table with typwriter

Have you ever been asked to write a short story and felt that twinge in the pit of your stomach?

Yep, me too.

That’s just old man anxiety waving his doubt encrusted sign in front of your eyes saying you can’t when you and I both know you can.

I was going to start off this blog post by saying “The biggest mistake I made when trying to write a short story…,” but that wouldn’t be accurate at all.

I honestly don’t view my trial and error process of writing as being a mistake, but rather a continuous learning curve that I’ve navigated, roughly at times, over the years.

Now, I have a B.A. Degree in Creative Writing, but I personally don’t feel that makes me an expert in this art form by any means; however, I share with you what’s worked for me in my prose, that I hope to one day get published.

When I first started writing mini-tales (so many moons ago), I used the plot outline for writing a novel and kept wondering why my word count was so high.

Well, that was the problem. I was using the wrong outline.

Short stories are, by definition, short, so, the traditional novel outline is too much information to cram into a space that is meant to fit around 1,500 to 30,000 words. This is what a book outline normally looks like, though the order may vary depending on the author’s preference:

Introduction to the main character

Initial Challenge

Conflicts and new characters

Reaction or new scenario

Mini Crisis

On the edge of adventure

New goal in play

No going back now

Complications

Hopelessness

Transformation

Climax

Resolution

Last scene

For a short story, you will want to focus on four key points:

Introduction of the main character

Rising tension

Climax

Resolution.

Using Neil Gaiman’s short horror story “Click-clack the Rattlebag” as an example (about 1,400 words), you can see how natural the process really is.

Because the word count I have to work with is so small, I like to begin with an action scene, which would be about the midway point in a novel.

Gaiman keeps his writing simple in that the reader is never given any information about what the characters look like, what their names are, what city or town they live in, what they’re wearing, because that information is not essential to this tale, which takes place entirely on a staircase in a dark, old house.

If specific details are relevant to your narrative, then by all means, leave them in.

“Click-clack the Rattlebag” by Neil Gaiman

Introduction:

The reader is introduced to a young boy (age is not given) who wants his sister’s boyfriend to read him a scary bedtime story before going to bed, so they proceed upstairs:

“Do you actually need me to take you up to bed?” I asked the boy.

“It’s because of, I’ve finished my homework, and so it’s my bedtime, and I am a bit scared. Not very scared. Just a bit… “Do you know any stories about Click-clack the Rattlebag?”

“I don’t think so.”

Rising Tension:

“…I think maybe you should take me up to my bedroom, and then you can tell me a story before I go to sleep, but a very not-scary story because I’ll be up in my bedroom then, and it’s actually a bit dark up there, too.”

I flicked the light-switch, but nothing happened.

Our eyes adjusted to the shadows. The moon was almost full, and blue-white moonlight shone in through the high windows on the staircase, down into the hall.

“We’ll be all right,” I said….

Climax: 

“Click-clacks drink you,” said the boy. “First they bite you, and then you go all ishy inside, and all your meat and all your brains and everything except your bones and your skin turns into a wet, milk-shakey stuff and then the Click-clack sucks it out through the holes where your eyes used to be.”

“That’s disgusting,” I told him. “Did you make it up?”

We’d reached the last flight of stairs, all the way in to the big house.

“No.”

 Resolution:

Sorry, no spoilers. Click on the following link to read the full story “Click-clack-the-Rattlebag”

 See, not hard at all. The resolution is simply what happens at the end of any story, be it an up in the air cliffhanger or a well-defined ending, which may include an internal or external transformation of one or more of the characters.

Check out this link as well for Literary Devices you can use to convey a deeper meaning in your writing.

If you have any thoughts, questions or comments, check out my contact page and send me a message, I’d love to hear from you.

“Once you’re just bones and skin, they hang you up on a hook, and you rattle in the wind.”

– Neil Gaiman


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