Short Story Formula

I like to break things down so I can do them more efficiently. So it seemed to me there must be a formula for short story writing, particularly really short stories. I’ve written enough other forms that I didn’t see why this should elude me. I’ve also been writing in the Clarion West Write-a-thon:

Haha. Funny story. So I was poking around in my email, and I hit some button. It looks like I hit the sign-up button for the Clarion West Write-a-thon! Okay, so whatever. If it’s writing, I can kick its ass, right? I mean, I beat nanowrimo in 12 days last year or something. That’s 50 thousand words in 12 days. So all I do is set some outrageous writing goal–and you know damn straight I can do it–then I pester all of you to sponsor me.

Here’s the link where you do the sponsoring:

It looks like they’ll take any amount! (This really is a worthy organization you guys.)

I’m about 1/3rd of the way down, on the left, looking kinda spooky and washed out.

It’s a six-week deal, and I think I’ll write six short stories, at 3-4 k per week. That’s a big thing for me because to be honest, it’s easier for me to write a book in a week than a short story. I’m really a distance writer. I’m trying to learn to pare it down.

Well, I don’t know how I got into this, but what the hey. Sponsor me for Clarion West!


As a result of this challenge, I’ve had to find a method. It’s not that different from writing a chapter of a novel, I discovered. And if this works, I can be like Chekhov and write billions and billions of these little suckers, just for fun. Here’s what I discovered.

Start with an element. Some kind of premise or situation. It does not matter what! Just pick any kind of stupid thing. Write about that for a few, doing a mini-scene with some dialogue and scene setting. Don’t try to make it too BIG or IMPORTANT. No big concepts or jeremiads. Just mess around.

You can introduce your main character here, do the voice, or tell some about the POV character. Keep it loose.

I also suggest doing what I call “form breaking” which is to put a form in there that is not of the short story. That is, it’s not narration, dialogue, scene setting, or action. That is, it’s something other, like a letter, a song, a legal document, a newspaper article, a piece of folklore, a script… get the idea?

The form break allows you to set it up quicker, like they do in comic books. Think visual. You want to collage the story, kind of surround the wagons with images and ideas type of thing.

This should have quickly set up the first part. Now you add element number two. Again, does not matter what it is. Pick something at random. Something about the main character that sets them apart, is a special skill, burden, power, or problem. Pro tip: just like in Chinese where danger also means opportunity, so in the short story, the character’s special burden is also the character’s secret weapon or hidden strength. And note how efficient that is, too! I do appreciate efficiency.

Do some illustrate-y stuff next about how the POV character relates to the world or other characters. This is a great place for dialogue, a mini-scene between two characters. Of course in the dialogue, you do all the usual stuff like character development, plot movement, and you’re amping up the problem of the story. But I figure you know to do that.

OK, action. Generally right here, I move the POV character to a new location to find out new information and possibly meet a new character. The previous scene probably gave them good reasons to move. The character they meet may be the antagonist, or turn out to be an ally. Sometimes I will use two characters here so it keeps the reader guessing.

This is a good place to showcase (again) the POV character’s hidden strength. It may be just a hint or more obvious. You don’t go “This was her hidden strength.” You just show it, how cool it is, or make it noticeable. Sort of developing the strength, making it grow through the story, by repetition and change. Sometimes this is known as resonance.

Pro tip: while internal monologue is neat, it’s more efficient to have characters for the POV character to talk to. POV characters develop faster with other characters to bump up against. Just as in real life, the stress of dealing with other people causes them to grow.

Action: shocking information is gleaned by the POV character! A bad scene! Also, around this point, POV character might be re-evaluating their life choices, realizing they didn’t know all they thought, realizing they are more like someone else than they knew, or making a decision or choice to be strong. Don’t make this too overt. Show it by facial gestures, body language, little remarks they make. If they have some kind of key phrase they say, you can rework it to mean something different to show how their mentality is changing.

Now you can work on the wrap-up, because this is two-thirds done. You can either finish in one scene or you can also have a denouement on the end. Remember we are keeping this at 3 to 4 k. (3,000 to 4,000 words)

The wrap-up is the hardest part, because it’s like tying off knitting that is all tight and everything pulls on everything else. You have to work hard to get it. Just muscle through and get it done, is my advice.

Climax scene: action. The antagonist will now threaten POV character with the special burden or the problem they had in the beginning. All the fit is now going to hit the proverbial shan. Things look bad for POV character. You know, do scene, dialogue, make sure to throw in cool setting that gives poignant hints of mood. I like to have things glitter in the air a lot.

You can use one of your secondary characters for surprise help here, or as someone for the POV character to protect. Resonate your POV character’s hidden strength again. Cast doubt on whether the POV character can do it. The POV character must re-realize their change of mentality from above, which now comes to fruition and pushes them to take action!

Then have the POV character pull the wild card out of the pocket!

This wild card is generally two of the previous elements combined. That is, hidden strength + something else. Sometimes it’s even three elements combined, but the combo is important because it’s both surprising and not surprising, which is what readers expect. Therefore satisfying. (Don’t forget that hidden strength is often the flip side of special burden. Very important.)

Pro tip: do not use a deus ex machina! That’s what this whole method is set up to avoid. Use combined elements from earlier in the story, developed or applied in surprising ways.

Denouement: the quickest is a form break. I.e. a newspaper article or outside convo that tells what happened. It has an aura of authority to it, too. But you could also slap on a little commentary at the end, a true denouement, that re-states just for clarity and resolution, what the situation is NOW. As opposed to when the story started.

The end!

Finally, there is a element of magic to this, I don’t deny. Sometimes it works because you’ve done so much practicing, you’ve basically tried it all, and so you instinctively know how to line the elements up and execute them effectively. So I always advocate the “writing until your eyeballs nearly fall out, for around two hours a day for ten years” approach. It’s extremely effective, and surprisingly efficient, compared to the alternative, “writing once every six months, and half finishing a story.” I’ve tried both methods. Guess which one got results?

Happy short story writing! I’ll gladly answer any questions anyone may have. I could talk craft for a week and never be done.







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