Just about everyone I know wants to be a novelist. But let’s be honest. Writing a book is a long and tedious process that can take years to finish. To that end, almost every wannabe novelist I know never even comes close to finishing that elusive manuscript. Even writing that first chapter can be a daunting task!
But writing a short story is an attainable endeavor with many benefits to the aspiring writer. At 1,000 – 4,000 words, there is power in the short story. It’s lean and mean, and can be read in one sitting. The short story allows the writer the opportunity to explore the uncharted territory of a plot, character, or setting and make it pop! In addition, one can experiment with other genres, develop their style, and use their short story to expand their platform as a marketing tool. But most importantly, crafting a short story teaches the writer a vital skill: word economy. To paraphrase my idol Stephen King, writing is “refined thinking.” Nothing could be truer than when writing a short story, where the prose must be clean, compact, and concise. If you are prone to a producing a bloated manuscript, trim the fat and turn it into a short story. It’s quicker to write and if you’re lucky, quicker to sell.
SWBS – Somebody Wanted But So…
Okay, so the benefits of writing a short story are clear, but the question still plagues most spinners of words. How do I write a compelling story in a condensed timeframe, i.e. one sitting? One word – conflict! Conflict creates the need for story in the first place. It is what adds tension and moves the story forward. Without conflict, there is no story!
You need proof? Think back in school when you first learned about story structure through Freytag’s Triangle. Do you recall what’s on top? Climax! It is the decision-making, sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat moment of the conflict-ridden protagonist that determines the story’s outcome.
When I teach my middle school students about conflict, we use the following SWBS Statement:
Somebody ___________________________ Wanted ___________________________ But_______________________ So __________________________________. (It is the “but” that is the heart of the conflict in the story).
Let’s look at a few examples of conflict in three classic short stories: “The Necklace,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” and “The Lottery,” paying particular attention to the “but” element. Note: Major Spoiler Alerts!
“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
Somebody Madame Loisel wanted to appear rich at a party BUT lost the fake necklace she borrowed so she spent years paying it off.
“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
Somebody The White family wanted to wish for money on a cursed monkey’s paw BUT their son Herbert got killed so they unwisely wished him back to life.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Somebody The Hutchinsons wanted to uphold the town’s traditions BUT Tessie won the lottery so she’s stoned to death.
The Thrilling Threesome
Okay, conflict rules. But how do I actually get started? It’s literally as easy as 1-2-3. Think of a thrilling threesome story prompt consisting of 1) character, 2) setting, and 3) a compelling conflict.
Here are ten short story prompts just begging to be penned into a story:
Ten Thrilling Threesome Short Story Prompts
1) A C.E.O. (character) gives a keynote address at a convention (setting) when overtaken by a panic attack (conflict).
2) A passenger (character) discovers an unattended carryon (conflict) when flying over the ocean (setting).
3) A book club hostess (character) receives a threatening anonymous note (conflict) at her own home (setting).
4) A disgruntled claustrophobe (character) finds himself locked in an elevator (conflict) at work overnight (setting).
5) A weary taxi driver (character) picks up a sinister stranger contemplating suicide (conflict) who wants to drive around town first (setting).
6) A couple (character) celebrates their anniversary at a cozy restaurant (setting) when a mysterious bouquet of flowers is brought to the table (conflict).
7) A daughter (character) cleans out her parents’ attic (setting) and discovers an urn of ashes (conflict).
8) A valedictorian (character) gets arrested for shoplifting (conflict) right before graduation (setting).
9) An unappreciated secretary (character) calls in sick and goes shopping (setting) where she runs into her boss’s wife with another man (conflict).
10) A first-day-on-the-job nanny (character) takes the children to the park (setting) where she loses the master key only to have a burglar find it (conflict).
Need Suspense? Implement G.E.M.
GOTHICISM: All suspense stories can benefit from an element of the gothic genre, such as the supernatural; an eerie, mysterious setting; emotion over passion; or distinctive characters who are lonely, isolated, and/or oppressed. Throw in a tyrannical villain, a vendetta, or an illicit love affair - you've got Goth gold! Why Gothicism? It explores the tragic themes of life and the darker side of human nature. What’s more, readers are innately attracted to it. No one wants to read about someone’s perfectly wonderful life. It’s boring. Remember – conflict rules!
EXPANDING TIME: Next, I introduce the art of expanding time using foreshadowing, flashback, and implementing "well, um ...maybe…let me see” dialogue." Expanding time allows the writer to twist, turn, and tangle up the plot. “Tease your audience,” I tell my students. “Pile on the problems and trap your protagonist with a ticking clock. Every second counts with suspense!” There is an old writing adage that says to write slow scenes fast and fast scenes slow. By delaying the big reveal, we build tension and punch up the plot but with one caveat. Expanding time demands a fine-tuned craftiness when writing a short story because of course, your time is limited. Remember, every word counts!
MAGIC OF THREE: Finally, the Magic of Three comes into play. The Magic of Three is a writer's trick where a series of three hints lead to a major discovery. During the first hint, the protagonist detects something is amiss. The second hint sparks a more intense reaction but nothing is discovered - yet. And then - BANG! The third hint leads to a discovery or revelation. During the big reveal, I teach my students to use and manipulate red flags and phrases, such as Suddenly, Without warning, In a blink of an eye, Instantly, A moment later, Like a shot, To my shock, and To my horror.
Adding suspense to your short story tantalizes your readers and breeds amazing results. It’s what makes a perfectly adequate story “un-put-downable.” So go ahead, and write a short story that explodes with tension! 1) Start with a thrilling threesome. 2) Punch up the plot with conflict. 3) And, sprinkle it with suspense. Not only will you hone your craft and have your readers begging for more, it could morph into something bigger - like that elusive novel that no longer seems so impossibly unattainable. Write on!
(As featured in Killer Nashville's "From the Classroom")