How to Become a Short Storyist
By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach
firstwriter.com – Tuesday November 14, 2023
I wanted to become a novelist, but a friend of mine gave me a tip: “Write short stories as credentials you can mention in query letters for your novels.” I decided to follow her advice, plus I could write a short story in a couple of weeks for some quick satisfaction.
Since then, I’ve written and published generous handfuls of short stories, won a couple of short story awards, and made a little money at the game—mostly very little—but all coinage counts.
I want to herein present some revelations as to “how I do it.” But in addition to my having short stories published many times, I also have many worthy pieces not yet published, so don’t follow me there.
I don’t concentrate on just one element in the story when I write and then layer in other aspects—though you can do that. I also rarely restructure. I write and then polish. However, while I certainly think that writing everything at the same time produces a more cohesive piece, I also will suggest that my students (at Writers Digest’s Writers Online Workshops) can deposit in elements later on if they aren’t able to provide them in the initial draft.
The most common essentials that students will miss in their short story writing are emotion, setting, and point-of-view character internals.
The eliciting of emotion is definitely an important fundamental of fiction, but that’s probably the hardest thing for writers to do. So I don’t really mean that exactly, as creating suspense, tension, the onset of romance, or even reader sorrow is extremely difficult. If writers can actually trigger reader feelings—wonderful—they may make a lot of money selling their manuscripts. But if they can’t, then they can at least include the mechanical representation of these sensations. We are always able to write “His heart thudded in his chest, and he thought he would faint.” That will substitute for the real thing in many instances, and a writer does need to have at least elements of emotion to round out any story.
Keep the Setting Going
As for setting, I encourage students to sketch in a few specifics, but also to keep the setting alive throughout a scene. For instance, if the characters are in deep conversation in a school cafeteria, let’s hear a little bit of the noise—the crash of trays, the laughter of the kids—and maybe even report someone sliding on spilt milk. But I say sketch in these details, because the setting shouldn’t take away from the dialogue. It should simply create part of the reality, the background part.
The other most-often-missing element in short fiction by new writers is point-of-view character thought. And some of this can be emotional as well, so I don’t entirely separate the two. The more the writer lets the reader know what’s going on with the character, the fuller the story becomes for the audience. Of course this, too, has to be paced out, and has to be a major focus for the scene and the story. As writers, we don’t want to give stream of consciousness, but we also don’t want readers to be in the dark as to what the character believes in regard to the situation.
I said I mostly don’t restructure, but sometimes I do, and the times when I do, I restructure the opening. The opening of a short story has to be quick and offer the hook as soon as possible. Writers often feel the need to “develop” or to “set up” the story, but less here is more. We can start quickly and then come back, and through internals give further development and setup.
The Story Idea
Now as for the generation of short story ideas, they are everywhere. So instead of talking about how to generate them, I’ll say that once writers have an idea and have started a project, they ought to stick with that piece until they’re done. Worse than not being able to come up with an idea is not being able to carry through the writing to the end. Students complain that’s a chronic difficulty. Trust me, no story idea is significantly better than any other. No idea is “the” idea. The treatment of the idea is what really counts.
With a short story—as opposed to a full-length manuscript—I generally prefer to have a fairly well-formed sense of what I’m writing when I sit down to sketch out the draft. I find that thinking through the logic of the story and knowing where it’s going can make the writing process a whole lot easier than just being vague in starting out to produce a piece.
On the other hand, not everyone works in the same way, and not every story will proceed along the same path, either. Writers do have to learn to trust their own processes. But I’m suggesting that if writers have the short story plot in mind before they sit down, they’ll find the writing flows more easily.
Knowing the whole story when starting is harder with a novel of course. Novels are longer. I don’t say that to be facetious exactly, but people do sometimes ask what the difference is between writing a short story and writing a novel. That novels are longer is pretty much my answer as to the difference. The length of the work affects the pacing of the story arc and may even account for the proverbial “sagging middle” of the novel—the segment of the manuscript where the writers themselves sag and have no idea what to do next with their characters. (The answer is—push through to the end.)
The idea isn’t what brings a story to success, really. What makes a story successful is the execution. And believe me, too, a story can be successful and never be published, much less nominated for anything. Selling a story is the goal, but it’s not the actual hallmark of success. I just this year sold two stories I’d been trying to sell for a number of years. I look at it as having finally found the proper markets. The stories didn’t change, but I found markets that really wanted this exact type of material.
Some of the stories I’ve sold immediately, however, were stories I completely geared to a specific market with very exact requirements. In that case, I sat down and generated the idea and the story based on what the publication or anthology wanted. For instance, I did have a story nominated for an award, and that story appeared quite a long time ago in an anthology entitled DIME. Obviously the editor wanted something a little bit on the pulp side. What I did in writing “The Girl in Apartment 2A” was to take an idea and a character I had for a novel and turn it into a story. In this case I already had the character and her particulars, and the story was sort of a prequel to what I felt would work for a novel.
I think, in other words, that writers can use short stories to test out characters they might want to write more about. Writers might also want to test a few themes that interest them, such as a period of history or a setting. Or a continuing protagonist.
But let me backtrack a little in explaining the execution side. What I mean here is that the writer must add something to the story that makes it stand out. What will make a story rise above the rest might be the complexity of the background. Maybe the writer can charge the story up with a Wall Street setting that seems to jump from the pages of The Wall Street Journal. The story is timely and adds a chilling depth of financial detail in describing a multibillion dollar, even deadly, fraud.
Or maybe the story replicates the plot of a well-known novel from another era—but in the end adds an exciting twist. Or the story may bring in rich historical detail, which is something I myself like to do. I had a story published a while back that was set in 1826, during the building of Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. …That was inspired, actually, by a visit I made with some mystery folks to the real-life Big House, also known as “the slammer” due to the noise made by the iron gates that slam when closing.
While I have read some stories about the spouse buried in the back garden that encourages a tree to flourish, or about a rival writer tricked into eating certain foods that kill the rival—and the tales have gone on to win a prize, this is the exception rather than the rule. Trite and tried may conquer in the end, but not very often. Generally speaking, we should attempt to present a finely etched, well-developed, different sort of story if we want to compete in a market as crowded as the one for short stories is.
In addition to writing mystery, also known as crime fiction (because all the stories in this genre aren’t mysteries), I write science fiction. In writing science fiction, unless the setting is a known one into which I introduce changes, I probably do much less research while writing. What I’ve done with a lot of my science fiction stories, however, has been to write them as mysteries. The beauty of the mystery story is that with a high-stakes, well-focused situation, the format of the yarn is in some sense a given and has an automatic power.
Here, instead of researching the setting, I may think one up. However, research can actually apply in science fiction in many instances. For instance, an alien species can be based on earthly reptiles or types of insects. Or the intergalactic society we write about might have its counterpart in the culture of a South American Indian tribe. Or we may need to research the latest in particle physics to find a way to explain our multiverses.
The actual construction of the story, however, will be pretty much the same in science fiction or in mystery or even in romance—plotted around a central aim of the protagonist, or a central conflict. The protagonist makes progress, is stymied, makes progress, is blocked, overcomes, and eventually wins the day. How many conflicts then depends on the length of the story plus twists. Yes, really.
Inspiration From Other Writers?
Offhand I can think of three short stories that have really inspired me. One was by Dostoevsky and it simply overwhelmed me with the reality of the character and the protagonist’s situation. The story is “White Nights,” and obviously it’s placed in a thematically dark Russian winter. Another story, and I recall neither the author nor the story’s title, was set in the not-too-distant future in which the earth is stunningly overcrowded with people. This story featured each of the points of view of all the roommates (several) in one small apartment. I’ve never read a short story before or since with so many protagonists or one that gave such a strong feeling of a realistic, possible future for mankind.
The third story that influenced me I remember exactly nothing about except my impression. This story ran in a major magazine, a market that paid a lot for the story. And reading that story, I understood why it had been chosen—because in the end my emotions were profoundly affected. The story delved much more deeply than most stories do. The author made more extreme choices in the details than we typically do as writers. And thus the story had real impact and was published in a significant magazine.
I’ll add my impressions of a fourth story, one by a well-thought-of mystery writer. The writing was exceptionally skilled, and the story very different. It was, in fact, written in second person, and how often is that done? However, I found the story despicable and pointless. It had no moral, ethical center, and thus was merely, to me, an exercise in inhumanity.
Writing that doesn’t do something to raise up us all (even writing about crime from a psychopath’s point of view can fly the flag of the radiant)—writing that doesn’t contribute to the betterment of our common situation on this earth, either through pure entertainment or illumination—is to me without purpose. We writers create as well as reflect our civilization; we thus have a responsibility. Even for writers (as with physicians), the motto must be “first do no harm.”
About the Author
G. Miki Hayden is author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers. (Her other writers' instructional is her award-nominated Writing the Mystery.) Miki also has a new class starting on November 30, 2023, at Writers Online Workshops (Writer's Digest): "The Novel Opening." The class will offer plenty of feedback for your novel opening. Miki's two new traditionally published novels, Rescued and Re-Live, books 1 and 2 of the Rebirth series, can be found at Amazon or in ebook format nearly everywhere.