How to Write a Short Story
My notes on the Reedsy write-in with Shaelin Bishop
Whether you want to write a short story or a short screenplay, you'll find out quickly it's a different craft from writing long-form.
I recently attended a live-stream Write-In hosted by Reedsy with up-and-coming author Shaelin Bishop. She demonstrates her ability to be succinct, with detailed instructions on how to develop your short story that get right to the point.
With the upcoming short story competition on Vocal, I want to share the YouTube video and my notes with you.
The grand prize for Vocal's short story competition is $20,000.
Cha-ching! Wouldn't it be great to get paid for your hard work?
The other prizes are pretty great too.
—Such as $5000 for second place.
And, worst-case scenario, if you enter and don't win, you wrote a story.
Writing a Short Story
The key to a successful short story is to pack as much detail, rich information, and subtext as possible into every sentence.
Bishop points out in her workshop that this is also an excellent format to let loose and experiment.
Possibly my favorite example of experimenting with characters in a short story is Ray Bradbury's "August 2026 There Will Come Soft Rains." Bradbury's tale is an excellent example of my favorite thing about writing science fiction (and writing in general) —
We try to answer the simple question
Structure Your Story
First things first. Before you start writing in earnest, take a few minutes to do some structured brainstorming.
Give your character three strong traits that reveal wants vs. needs. Show the contradictions in their personality.
Maybe she wants a ton of money, but she needs a community to feel supported.
Try to keep the location in one place and provide as much rich detail as possible.
In a short story, the conflict or inciting incident should start within the first paragraph. And if you can slip it into the first sentence, that's exciting.
Create Impactful Character Details
Bishop talks about the need to create well-rounded characters within the constraints of the short story.
She suggests focusing on three impactful details or character traits.
And find the crux of who they are because you don't have a lot of time for character development.
What is the most interesting thing about your character?
In Bradbury's story, the location and technology seem alive in a setting that is absent of humans. At the center of who they are, lies in the fact that the characters aren't human. They're automated technology.
What are the three essential things that you know about your character?
Are they prone to shoplifting? Do they have a habit that is always present, like smoking or nail-biting?
Like Bradbury's characters, maybe their performing functions are stuck on automatic.
Are they the kind of person who lives in the moment, or do they dwell in the past?
Do they give a dollar to the homeless person they see on the street? Or do they look the other way?
Each trait enhances the subtext regarding your character.
Where Does the Story Take Place?
While you're brainstorming, consider how your setting can feed the action and drive the plot forward.
For example, what would happen if you dropped your character into a location like an abandoned fun park? What about an abandoned library?
Bishop has a thing for abandoned places. So do I. Anything could happen.
What if your character were trapped on a boat?
The possibilities are endless. But whatever setting you choose, remember your short story's location should feed the plot and help escalate the tension.
What's the Problem?
Bishop cited a screenwriting sentiment that is attributed to Willian Golden.
Enter late, exit early.
Let this be your mantra as you write your short story.
Once you know your character, drop them right smack dab in the middle of the conflict from the beginning. This technique grabs the reader's attention right away and gives you more room for the rest of the story.
Find One Central Conflict
When you have a limit of 600 to 2000 words, there's no time for a b-line. Bishop says to give your character a single goal and only one opportunity to achieve it.
Identify three sources that can lead to that central conflict:
- A deep internal belief or flaw
- An interpersonal problem: The antagonist
- Societal or environmental pressure
Which one is the driving force in your plot?
In Bradbury's sci-fi story, the environment becomes the antagonist as nature wins against technology left behind by humanity.
Form Makes All the Difference
Think about it—
In first-person past-tense your character can reflect on events.
On the other hand, in the third-person present tense, everything is happening right now, and your character is more of an observer. In this case, as Bishop points out, there's no room for reflection.
She says to use a POV that showcases your character's psychology and asks what we can learn about the character from their language.
These considerations add to character development in this space where there's not much wiggle room.
Challenge yourself to see what you can reveal about characters from their word choice and sentence structure.
Milk every scene for as much as you can get out of it.
Escalate the tension with each scene and think about how each scene can build off the last.
Begin with the inciting incident. Your character has a burning desire that seems impossible to attain due to internal and external conflicts.
The character's flaws cause a chain of events, resulting in the climax where they must make choices that reveal something about them.
Bishop includes some great exercises in her workshop that I want to encourage you to do before you dive into your short story. I guarantee you that you'll have a solid story structure ready to go by the time you finish if you take the time t do the exercises.
Good luck if you're entering Vocal's short story contest. I can't wait to read it!
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