The ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ of writing good short stories

Illustrative purpose only

"Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."
Kurt Vonnegut, American writer

The Times of Oman's Literary and Poetry contest is up and running. For those of you who want to participate, but have yet to come up with an idea and who need tips for writing and structuring, we offer you a small training section running over the next couple of months.

Today's article focuses on how to write good short stories.

You have now gone through the first phases of the writing process. You have come up with an idea, gone through your basic research, and you have either created the basic skeleton of your story or just exercised your writing skills. Now, time has come for providing you with some more specific tips on how to write a good short story.

Like any good hunter or fisherman, you need to lure your reader into the trap where he or she is so hooked to your story that he/she simply must finish it. You do that by creating a catchy initial paragraph, the hook, so that the reader is interested in your story from the beginning.

Develop the characters
A suggestion for things you have to think about and describe about your characters are:
• Name
• Age
• Job
• Ethnicity
• Looks
• Residence
• Pets
• Religion
• Hobbies
• Single or married?
• Children?
• Personality
• Friends
• Secrets?
• Strong memories?
• Any illnesses?
• Nervous gestures?

You can decide if you want to describe some or all of the qualities of your characters to your reader. But writing them down in your own notes can be helpful for you to "get to know" your own characters.

Choose a point of view

You also have to decide from which point of view you wish to tell the story. A point of view can be of the following kinds:

First Person, the 'I". You can either be the leading character of the story, or you can choose to describe it from the perspective of one of the minor characters, e.g. the best friend of the main

Third person, "he", "she," or "it". You can either choose a limited form, where you tell the story from one character's point of view or you can choose the omniscient form, where you — as the narrator — know everything about all of your characters.

Write good dialogues
Dialogues are important because they bring life to the story. Dialogues should be used to give the readers an impression of the person behind the words. Dialogue moves the story forward while establishing your character and character relationships. It also reveals conflicts and causes a reaction.

Setting and context
Just like you want to create an image of the characters in your readers' mind, you also want them to be able to imagine the scenario based on your description. So a good and relevant description of time, location, context, and atmosphere where the plot takes place is of utter importance. Just keep in mind that the space of a short story is limited, so do not go on and on with picturesque Tolkien-like descriptions about the landscape or surroundings.

Set up the plot
The plot is the core of your story, because without it, you would not have anything interesting to tell. The plot is the action of the story, the major event, which turns life upside down for your character(s) and ends in a moral ending. Usually there has to be a conflict and some tension, because that is what makes a story interesting. The conflict is the breaking point in the story and the tension is created either among the characters or between the characters and the situation. The climax of the conflict is in literary terms also known as "point of no return."

Find a resolution

Once you — or your characters — have reached a point of no return and the drama has unfolded, you need to find a solution to the conflict. There are different kinds of resolutions:

• Open. You leave your readers with purposely loose ends, so they will have to imagine what happens once the story ends
on paper.
• Resolved. You provide your readers with closure to all the loose ends. Endings can be happy or unhappy.
• Parallel to Beginning. You close the ring by creating a similar situation from the beginning of your story. This can be used as a philosophical thought-provoker for your readers.
•    Monologue or dialogue. The character(s) give the reader a final thought or statement to wrap up the morality of the story.

Kurt Vonnegut's 8 tips  

•    Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
•    Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
•    Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
•    Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
•    Start as close to the end as possible.
•    Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
•    Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
•    Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.


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