Anatomy of a short story

Anatomy of a short story

Anatomy of a short story

Want to write a story but don’t know where to start? Love writing stories but want to make them better? JCU’s Ariella van Luyn explains some important steps to getting your idea out there and how to make it shine.

Ever since Edgar Allan Poe wrote the now-famous ‘Tell-Tale Heart’, short stories have been a source of condensed passion, finely-wrought characterisation and prose, and deep unease.

In ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, the narrator speaks to the reader directly. He tries to convince us that he was perfectly sane when he killed his neighbour and hid his body under the floor, and he was absolutely in his right mind when he gave himself away to the police after hearing the beating of his dead neighbour’s heart beneath the floorboards.

Like in Poe’s story, character is at the heart of the short story form. Characters in short fiction are often outsiders, on the margins, or isolated. But the short story invites us into their — often unreliable — point of view.

If you’re stuck with where to start writing a short story, begin with inventing a main character. Writers need to know their characters well, even if, in the short story, we only see the tip of the iceberg of their memories, experiences, conscious and unconscious mind, loves, hates, desires and fears. A useful exercise is to interview your character about these and other aspects of their identity.

A man sits at his desk typing.

Creative writers have the ability to change their readers and themselves through their craft. Photo: Shutterstock

Next, something should to happen to your character: invent a central conflict around which to build a narrative. Conflict can often come from the character themselves. Ask yourself, what does the character want or need? Conflict happens when something — either outside the character or within their own mind — stops them from getting it. You can brainstorm a narrative by asking: what is stopping my character from getting what they want or need?

Short stories, unlike novels, usually only have one main conflict.

As the character experiences conflict, they change. This transformation is called a character arc. Your story will have a sense of momentum if the reader feels like the narrative is building up to this moment of change.

Once you know your character, and have thought about the central conflict, it’s time to write a draft. The first draft will always be messy and imperfect. The important thing is to get it down! You can always fix things later.

When writing your story, show the reader what happens in scenes. Like a scene in a movie, your reader should be able to clearly see what is going on at each moment in the story. Not only that, they should be able to feel, smell and taste what is happening. Vivid imagery and metaphorical language allow you to immerse your reader in your story.

Fiction is one of the only forms of writing where the reader gets access to another person’s mind and body, so use this strength to develop character too.

Once you have finished a draft, put the story away for a while.

When you return to it, think about theme. All stories explore a bigger idea and comment on some aspect of the world or the human condition.

Creative writers often use their writing to think through ideas and their own place in the world. Good writing is most powerful when it changes both the writer and the reader in some way.

Published 14 Jul 2020