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How to write a short story

How To Write A Short Story – Berlie Doherty With Laptop In Garden

You want to write, but you don’t know where to start. Your head might be empty, and yet you’re itching to write something. Or you’re bubbling with ideas, and you don’t know what to do with them. Maybe you’re a teacher, and you want to help your class to write short stories, but you’ve never written one yourself. In this post I talk about how to find ideas, how to harness them, and how to give them the structure that works in a short story.

Why write short stories?

Many writers begin with the short story. Why?

It’s a manageable length, both to write and to read.

It’s excellent practice for eventually writing a longer piece, a novella or even a novel.

Conversely, for the novelist it’s an excellent way to practice conciseness of language and concentrated events. If the novel is a rambling river, passing through various locations from its source on its journey to the sea, then the short story is a dammed stream.

It’s a brilliant way of trying out simple ideas to see whether you can make them work.

How long is a short story?

Any length from 100 words to 10,000 words. More than that, it will be more of a novella.

My personal preference is between 1,800 and 3,000 words, whether I’m writing or reading it. It’s certainly the best length for radio or classroom. However, if the writer is a child, between 500 and 1,000 words is plenty – otherwise, teachers beware!

The essential elements of a short story

A selection of collections of short stories
A selection of short story collections
  • Original ideas
  • A strong central character
  • Plot
  • Voice
  • Tense
  • Setting, mood, atmosphere
  • Beginning
  • … and ending
  • Dos and don’ts when writing short stories

Let’s look at these in turn:

Original ideas

Where do you get your ideas from?

Well, it’s the question that I’m asked every time I give an author talk or make a school visit. ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’

The answer I usually give is, ‘Where do you get your dreams from?’

To elaborate, everything I write is a mixture of ‘I remember and let’s pretend’.

I remember

Every day something happens that’s worth writing about. It might be a news item, a piece of conversation that you overhear, a moment of anger, laughter, fear, mystery, wonder. Something that you flash past in a car or train or bus. The question you have to keep asking yourself is: What’s going on?

A writer is like like a photographer, contantly observing and recording, and eventually framing what they have have seen. What happened today?

Or your trigger might be a memory from your past, perhaps triggered by a diary entry, a photograph, a painting, music, a piece of clothing. Your mind is like a butterfly; let it rest for moment. What happened then?

A peacock butterfly on a flower
‘Your mind is like a butterfly’

Every one of my stories contains an element of personal observation, experience or memory.

Let’s pretend

A short story is not a list of facts, a review or an article. It’s not a description of an object or an event or a person. It’s a work of the imagination, and whatever the truth of your starting point, it’s what you do with it that makes it a story. Now your butterfly has rested on an idea, let it lift itself away into something that didn’t actually happen at all. Pretend it did. Ask yourself What if…

Elaborate, colour it, and let the truth slip away.

Sometimes your story idea will come from an extraordinary event which led you to discover something in yourself or somebody else that you didn’t think was possible.

Extraordinary events

Sometimes things happen to you or someone you know that is beyond your daily experience. How can you develop it, open up your feelings about it. What made it special? Because it was dangerous? Because it made you proud? Because you survived?

For instance, on holiday in Norway I walked across a glacier high in the mountains. Although I was roped to a group and had the right gear, boots, crampons, sticks, I was afraid. When I reached the other side I was in a state of high elation. I did it!

Half-way across, I paused to look down, deep into the heart of the glacier. I had never seen such depth of blue. I felt as if I was being let into the secret heart of the mountain.

And what did I do with that experience?

On the plane home I wrote a story about it, but the woman who crossed the glacier in the story was not me, her reason for being there was not mine, the home she returned to was not my own. But the emotions, the fear, the extraordinary colour, the elation – they were all my experience. I transferred them to a made-up character. And what’s more, it is another character in the story who makes this revelation possible.

Unknown to me, my agent entered the story into a major competition and it won first prize, more money than I had ever received before for a short story. It was published in the Daily Telegraph Book of Short Stories. Later it was broadcast on Radio 4. You can still hear it from time to time on Radio 4 Xtra.

I’m telling you this because any one of you could simply choose such a moment and write about it.

Why was it so successful?

I think it was because the essential element was true. It was my own experience. I was not afraid to express emotions. Not everybody has crossed a glacier, but many people have. I turned an ‘I remember’ experience into a ‘let’s pretend’. My central character was a stronger person at the end of the story. That gave the story purpose.

If you write it as it is or was, you’re giving yourself too many problems about straying from the truth, or revealing too much about yourself. Invent a character. Take your actual self out of the picture. This will liberate you!

Delve into your own memories and experiences and emotions.

Or you can delve into your dreams, into something bizarre and inexplicable. A tree moves and speaks. A snowman flies. A tiger comes to tea. You don’t think, no, this is daft, things like this don’t happen. You involve yourself in the situation, just as the main character does.

This leads on to the next essential:

A strong central character

Introduce the main character as early as you can, and don’t leave them behind for a minute. You don’t have time or space to include many other characters. This is a short story, not a novel. Having established your character, tell us just enough about them to make us feel we know them, would recognise them in the street, have come across somebody a bit like them. Interest the reader in the person and their situation.

At the start of the story, are they lonely, sad, afraid, lost, happy, needy?

By the end of the story have they achieved something, are they changed, are they able to move on?

Plot

Your central character IS the plot! What happens to them, or what they do, is what drives the story along. So if you want to write about a war, write a novel. If you want to write about a soldier, write a short story. A female soldier, perhaps. A child soldier. A refugee. Your story is an episode of a war as seen tfrom their point of view.

Voice

How are you going to tell your story? Does it matter whether you write the story in the first person or the third? If you’re practising, write it in the third person and then rewrite it in the first person. I sometimes do this with an entire novel!

How different does the story feel when you change the voice? Do you think the voice changes the amount of description you might put into the story? Has your style become more casual and colloquial when you write in the first person? Is it more literary when you write it in the third person?

First person will help the reader identify with character, as if they’re sharing their situation and emotions. But your story has to stay with that character – whatever happens in it must be seen from their point of view.

Third person sets the reader at a distance; they look down at a small person in a big landscape or townscape – it’s almost as if the reader is directing what happens.

Which works best for your particular story?

And what about the second person? This can be immmediately involving, inviting you to put yourself in the character’s place; to be that character: ‘You go upstairs, enter your bedroom, switch on the light, and see a stranger bleeding on the floor.’

Tense

You can write or story in the past tense, the present tense, or the future. Try all three. How different do they feel?

The past tense was reflective, it happened in the past, and it was final: ‘I opened the door and walked into my future.

The present tense is immediate. What happens now?: ‘I open the door and walk into my future.

The future tense will be imaginative. There’ll be a sense of determination: ‘I will open the door and walk into my future.’ It will demand more: ‘I will open the door and I will walk into my future.’

Berlie Doherty with laptop in garden

Setting, mood, atmosphere

The mood or atmosphere is what makes a story interesting to the reader. It must work immediately on the imagination; there isn’t space in a short story to build it up gradually. See how much intrigue and atmosphere Danuta Reah (who now writes as Danuta Kot) infuses into the opening paragraph of her chilling story Out of her Mind:

Words on a page, black oriented on white. Words in a screen, black print on a flickering monitor, safe, contained. He’s the shadow in the night, the soft footsteps that follow in the darkness, sealed away as the book is closed, fragmenting into nothing as the screen shuts down into blackness.

Danuta Reah, Out of Her Mind (Time and Tide – Cybermouse Books)

Which leads to:

Beginning

The beginning of a short story is not really the beginning. It’s half way through. You need to open right into the action, you don’t have time to build up with any kind of explanation. Who? Where? When? should be apparent by the first couple of paragraphs.

When Lexie broke her leg in two places, – in the first hour of the first day of the school skiing trip to France – she was overjoyed.

(Lauren St John, The Room with the Mountain View (Winter Magic – Simon and Schuster)

… and ending

Here’s fun for the writer! You could have a twist at the end, so what happens is not all what the reader expects. Roald Dahl loved this device – but of course I’m not going to spoil a good story by quoting its ending!

Or you can delight the reader with exactly the ending they hoped for, but create first a sense that it might not happen at all by making things go wrong first – weather, late train, broken ankle, bumping into ex-boyfriend, angst, self-doubt – any of these and a hundred more might get in the way!

There could be a sense of justice – the central character got what they deserved!

The possibilities are numerous, so make sure the ending you choose is right for that character.

But look at the next golden rule:

Dos and don’ts when writing short stories

Please don’t finish with ‘And then I woke up.’ What a lame cop-out that is!

Don’t have too many characters. There’s no room for walk-on parts.

Don’t take up too much space with a back story. Your character is in this moment. Fill in any essential information, but no more.

Don’t confuse the issue with a sub-plot, unless it’s essential to the story.

Don’t leave your story in mid-air, especially if you’re a new writer. The reader will want to see some kind of resolution, or a sense that the character has changed.

For example, if your story is about a homeless person, the ending could be:

  • They die
  • They unexpectedly find somewhere to live
  • They manage to get a job
  • They decide to patch up their differences and go back home
  • They turn to crime
  • A stranger gives them enough money to find shelter
  • A family member traces them
  • They were just pretending to be a street sleeper to see what it felt like etc etc

Which of these endings, if any, would you rule out, and why?

An extra observation

I’m sitting in a cafe as I write this blog. There’s someone I know at another table. We acknowledge each other, but don’t speak. Why?

At another table there are two men. One has learning difficulties. He’s telling the waitress that he’s on his way to a drama class. He’s really excited about it.

It’s only a small café, but I’m sitting next to a knight in full armour. He has two union jacks stuck in his helmet.

Berlie Doherty writing on laptop in a cafe

A group of cyclists come in. They’re boisterous and cheerful and full of fresh air and noisy anecdotes about the ride.

All this is true, as I sit here. How could I use any of these observations about my surroundings and carry them into a story?

Look around you. Observe at least three things or people and make notes about them for later.

Children writing short stories

In the classroom, children are often asked to write a story. Teachers, I always maintain that if you’re going to expect your class to write stories you must be able to write them yourselves!

Is it enough to say a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end????

My school memory is of the termly subjects: A day in the holidays. A day in the life of a penny. The seasons. How I used to sigh with impatience when these subjects cropped up again and again. I just repeated myself. It was safe and easy for me as well as for the teacher. But children have wonderful imaginations, play is natural to them, and they love writing! Give them loads of space to write.

Physical space – do they always have to work sitting at the same table as three other children? I’m one of them.

Temporal space – do they have to write it immediately? Some children can settle down and write immediately. Others need to stare into space or out of the window or walk round the yard while they think. I’m definiteley one of those!

Imaginative space – some children like a plan, an outline, a lot of prescriptive input. Others hate it – they just want to float with their ideas and shape them up later. That’s me!

Be imaginative in your choice of topic.

Keep reminding them to use their senses, particularly of sight, sound, touch, smell in their stories.

Tell them about sixth sense – awareness, premonition.

Encourage them to use strong verbs to move the action along and give it energy.

Show them how to colour their writing with interesting vocabulary and imagery.

Writing short stories in the classroom – some ideas

An unexpected and mysterious present arrives, but you can’t use it until you’ve followed certain rules. What is it? Who’s it from? What are the rules – is there going to be an adventure?

A visitor from the sea. Who or what? Where do you see it or find it? Is it strange? How? Does it belong to the sea? Why has it come?

A galleon from long ago floats across the fields. Is it a ghost ship? Why is it there?

An invasion of ladybirds. The whole town is covered in them, the cars, the pavements, the people. Why are they there? Who can get rid of them? Are they really ladybirds, or something more sinister?

You open a door. What’s on the other side? Outside or inside? Is it familiar? Has it changed? Is it totally unexpected, frightening, welcoming, mysterious? Must you go through that door?

What else can you do with short stories?

Write a series of short stories linked by character or family. My books How Green You Are, Jeannie of White Peak Farm and Granny was a Buffer Girl were all written in this way. You could do this in a classroom, with each child writing about a different member of a household. It could be a particular day – someone’s wedding day, or the day the family has to move house and the special objects they really can’t bear to leave behind; or the roof falls in etc.

Weave short stories into the main text of the novel. I used this device myself in Rose Doran Dreams (for adults) where the main character is a dreamer and fantasist, and The Famous Adventures of Jack (children) where in search of the giant the main character Jack experiences many Jack stories.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury is a very famous example of this idea of linked short stories, which are all told on the skin of one man.

How Green You Are! by Berlie Doherty
Jeannie of White Peak Farm by Berlie Doherty, 2009 edition
Granny Was a Buffer Girl by Berlie Doherty, 2007 edition
Rose Doran Dreams by Berlie Doherty
The Famous Adventures of Jack by Berlie Doherty, 2012 edition

My own short stories

As well as my use of the short stories as chapters, or woven into novels, as I have mentioned in the previous section, I have written many short stories, for radio, anthologies and collections.

See my short stories page for more details.

The history of the short story

From the earliest time, people have been telling short stories. Some, like Beowolf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Old Testament stories, the Arthurian legends and the Middle Eastern stories One Thousand and One Nights were all written down hundreds of years ago.

Some, like fairy stories, myths and folk tales, were passed on by travelling storytellers and tinkers and repeated round fires for hundreds of years before they were collected and published.

Perhaps the best-loved collection of all is The Canterbury Tales, 24 short stories written by Jeffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. Here we have a motley collection of stories told by pilgrims. With this brilliant idea, Chaucer gives us the need for and love of stories to help the pilgrims along on their long journey, as well as an historical sense of the people of that period and the things that made them fearful, amused, scornful and tender-hearted. And the stories work brilliantly today!

Short story recommendations

‘Through the Tunnel’ by Doris Lessing

This is a very famous story, and definitely my favourite. It has stayed in my head for years and years. It’s a rite-of-passage story about an 11 year old boy who sets himself the challenge of finding and then swimming through an underwater tunnel. You can watch a video reading of it on YouTube.

‘The Ghost Drum’ by Susan Price

A cat is tethered to an old oak tree by a golden chain. As it walks one way, it sings songs. As it walks the other way, it tells stories, and each story will help reveal the secret of the ghost drum. It’s a wonderful book, and it won the Carnegie medal. See Susan Price’s website for more information about it.

‘The Harp of Fishbones and other stories’ by Joan Aiken

Could a pig really be a princess? Where is the ghost puppy from? What happened when a car full of little chaps with glasses came to the village?

‘Look Both Ways’ by Jason Reynolds

‘This story is going to begin like all the best stories. When the school bus fell from the sky?’

This is a very lively collection about a group of kids on their way home from school. (My review of Look Both Ways.)

Some more recommended short stories

  • Bill Naughton: Spit Nolan, The Goalkeeper’s Revenge
  • Joan Aiken: The Last Slice of Rainbow
  • Jan Mark: Hairs on the Back of Your Hand
  • Kevin Crossley-Holland: The Outsiders
  • Janni Howker: Badger on the Barge
  • Anthony Horowitz: Burnt and recommended by 11 year old Tess as the best short story ever!

Get writing!

People love stories. We are still telling each other personal or family stories, or overheard accounts of someone else’s stories. Stories enrich our lives and help us to make sense of things or to see things differently. They help us to laugh and to wonder.

I think you will love writing short stories too. Look around you. Get writing!

You may also be interested in my posts on writing haikus, ghost stories, fairy tales and riddle rhymes and puzzle poems.

Over to you

My list of recommendations is, of course, far from complete! What‘s your favourite short story? Please put your recommendations in the comments box below.

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her brand new novel for ages 10–14, The Haunted Hills, is out now, as is her novel for adults, Rose Doran Dreams. See the About me page for more information.

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