Jerz > Writing > General Creative Writing Tips [ Poetry | Fiction ]
Writing short stories means beginning as close to the climax as possible — everything else is a distraction. A novel can take a more meandering path, but should still start with a scene that sets the tone for the whole book.
A short story conserves characters and scenes, typically by focusing on just one conflict, and drives towards a sudden, unexpected revelation. Go easy on the exposition and talky backstory — your reader doesn’t need to know everything that you know about your characters.
1. Get Started: Emergency Tips
Do you have a short story assignment due tomorrow morning? The rest of this document covers longer-term strategies, but if you are in a pinch, these emergency tips may help. Good luck!
- What does your protagonist want?
(The athlete who wants her team to win the big game and the car crash victim who wants to survive are not unique or interesting enough.)
- When the story begins, what morally significant action has your protagonist taken towards that goal?
(Your protagonist should already have made a conscious choice, good or bad, that drives the rest of the story.)
- What unexpected consequences — directly related to the protagonist’s goal-oriented actions — ramp up the emotional energy of the story?
(Will the unexpected consequences force your protagonist to make yet another choice, leading to still more consequences?)
- What details from the setting, dialog, and tone help you tell the story? Things to cut:
- Travel scenes. (Save words. “Later, at the office, I…”)
- Character A telling character B about something we just saw happening to character A. (Cut the redundancy.)
- Facial expressions of a first-person narrator. (We can’t see what our own faces look like, so don’t write “A smile lit my face from ear to ear.”) See Writing Dialogue.
- What morally significant choice does your protagonist make at the climax of the story?
(Your reader should care about the protagonist’s decision. Ideally, the reader shouldn’t see it coming.)
An effective short story (or poem) does not simply record or express the author’s feelings; rather, it generates feelings in the reader. (See “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell.”)
Drawing on your own real-life experiences, such as winning the big game, bouncing back after an illness or injury, or dealing with the death of a loved one, are attractive choices for students who are looking for a “personal essay” topic. But simply listing the emotions you experienced (“It was exciting” “I’ve never been so scared in all my life” “I miss her so much”) is not the same thing as generating emotions for your readers to experience.
For those of you who are looking for more long-term writing strategies, here are some additional ideas.
- Keep a notebook. To R. V. Cassill, notebooks are “incubators,” a place to begin with overheard conversation, expressive phrases, images, ideas, and interpretations on the world around you.
- Write on a regular, daily basis. Sit down and compose sentences for a couple of hours every day — even if you don’t feel like it.
- Collect stories from everyone you meet. Keep the amazing, the unusual, the strange, the irrational stories you hear and use them for your own purposes. Study them for the underlying meaning and apply them to your understanding of the human condition.
Read, Read, Read
Read a LOT of Chekhov. Then re-read it. Read Raymond Carver, Earnest Hemingway, Alice Munro, and Tobias Wolff. If you don’t have time to read all of these authors, stick to Chekhov. He will teach you more than any writing teacher or workshop ever could.
-Allyson Goldin, UWEC Asst. Professor of Creative Writing
2. Write a Catchy First Paragraph
In today’s fast-moving world, the first sentence of your narrative should catch your reader’s attention with the unusual, the unexpected, an action, or a conflict. Begin with tension and immediacy. Remember that short stories need to start close to their end.
|I heard my neighbor through the wall.|
|Dry. Nothing sparks the reader’s imagination.|
|The neighbor behind us practiced scream therapy in his shower almost every day.|
|The second sentence catches the reader’s attention. Who is this guy who goes in his shower every day and screams? Why does he do that? What, exactly, is“scream therapy”? Let’s keep reading…|
|The first time I heard him, I stood in the bathroom listening at our shared wall for ten minutes, debating the wisdom of calling the police. It was very different from living in the duplex over middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. Brown and their two young sons in Duluth.|
|The rest of the paragraph introduces I and an internal conflict as the protagonist debates a course of action and introduces an intriguing contrast of past and present setting.|
“It is important to understand the basic elements of fiction writing before you consider how to put everything together. This process is comparable to producing something delectable in the kitchen–any ingredient that you put into your bowl of dough impacts your finished loaf of bread. To create a perfect loaf, you must balance ingredients baked for the correct amount of time and enhanced with the right polishing glaze.” -Laurel Yourke
3. Developing Characters
Your job, as a writer of short fiction–whatever your beliefs–is to put complex personalities on stage and let them strut and fret their brief hour. Perhaps the sound and fury they make will signify something that has more than passing value–that will, in Chekhov’s words, “make [man] see what he is like.” –Rick Demarnus
In order to develop a living, breathing, multi-faceted character, it is important to know way more about the character than you will ever use in the story. Here is a partial list of character details to help you get started.
- Single or married?
- Favorite color
- Favorite foods
- Drinking patterns
- Something hated?
- Strong memories?
- Any illnesses?
- Nervous gestures?
- Sleep patterns
Imagining all these details will help you get to know your character, but your reader probably won’t need to know much more than the most important things in four areas:
- Appearance. Gives your reader a visual understanding of the character.
- Action. Show the reader what kind of person your character is, by describing actions rather than simply listing adjectives.
- Speech. Develop the character as a person — don’t merely have your character announce important plot details.
- Thought. Bring the reader into your character’s mind, to show them your character’s unexpressed memories, fears, and hopes.
For example, let’s say I want to develop a college student persona for a short story that I am writing. What do I know about her?
Her name is Jen, short for Jennifer Mary Johnson. She is 21 years old. She is a fair-skinned Norwegian with blue eyes, long, curly red hair, and is 5 feet 6 inches tall. Contrary to the stereotype about redheads, she is actually easygoing and rather shy. She loves cats and has two of them named Bailey and Allie. She is a technical writing major with a minor in biology. Jen plays the piano and is an amateur photographer. She lives in the dorms at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She eats pizza every day for lunch and loves Red Rose tea. She cracks her knuckles when she is nervous. Her mother just committed suicide.
4. Choose a Point of View
Point of view is the narration of the story from the perspective of first, second, or third person. As a writer, you need to determine who is going to tell the story and how much information is available for the narrator to reveal in the short story. The narrator can be directly involved in the action subjectively, or the narrator might only report the action objectively.
- First Person. The story is told from the view of “I.” The narrator is either the protagonist (main character) and directly affected by unfolding events, or the narrator is a secondary character telling the story revolving around the protagonist.
I saw a tear roll down his cheek. I had never seen my father cry before. I looked away while he brushed the offending cheek with his hand. This is a good choice for beginning writers because it is the easiest to write. (But if your viewpoint character is too much like you, a first-person story might end up being a too-transparent exercise in wish-fulfillment, or score-settling.)
- Second Person. The story is told directly to “you”, with the reader as a participant in the action.
You laughed loudly at the antics of the clown. You clapped your hands with joy. (See also Jerz on interactive fiction.)
- Third Person. The story tells what “he”, “she,” or “it” does. The third-person narrator’s perspective can be limited (telling the story from one character’s viewpoint) or omniscient (where the narrator knows everything about all of the characters).
He ran to the big yellow loader sitting on the other side of the gravel pit shack. Your narrator might take sides in the conflict you present, might be as transparent as possible, or might advocate a position that you want your reader to challenge (this is the “unreliable narrator” strategy).
Yourke on point of view:
- First Person. “Unites narrator and reader through a series of secrets” when they enter one character’s perceptions. However, it can “lead to telling” and limits readers connections to other characters in the short story.
- Second Person. “Puts readers within the actual scene so that readers confront possibilities directly.” However, it is important to place your characters “in a tangible environment” so you don’t “omit the details readers need for clarity.”
- Third Person Omniscient. Allows you to explore all of the characters’ thoughts and motivations. Transitions are extremely important as you move from character to character.
- Third Person Limited. “Offers the intimacy of one character’s perceptions.” However, the writer must “deal with character absence from particular scenes.”
5. Write Meaningful Dialogue
Make your readers hear the pauses between the sentences. Let them see characters lean forward, fidget with their cuticles, avert their eyes, uncross their legs. –Jerome Stern
Dialogue is what your characters say to each other (or to themselves).
Each speaker gets his/her own paragraph, and the paragraph includes whatever you wish to say about what the character is doing when speaking. (See: “Quotation Marks: Using Them in Dialogue“.)
|Where are you going?” John cracked his knuckles while he looked at the floor. “To the racetrack.” Mary edged toward the door, keeping her eyes on John’s bent head. “Not again,” John stood up, flexing his fingers. “We are already maxed out on our credit cards.”|
|The above paragraph is confusing, because it is not clear when one speech stops and the other starts.|
| “Where are you going?” John asked nervously.|
“To the racetrack,” Mary said, trying to figure out whether John was too upset to let her get away with it this time.
“Not again,” said John, wondering how they would make that month’s rent. “We are already maxed out on our credit cards.”
|The second example is mechanically correct, since it uses a separate paragraph to present each speaker’s turn advancing the conversation. But the narrative material between the direct quotes is mostly useless.|
Write Meaningful Dialogue Labels
“John asked nervously” is an example of “telling.” The author could write “John asked very nervously” or “John asked so nervously that his voice was shaking,” and it still wouldn’t make the story any more effective.
How can the author convey John’s state of mind, without coming right out and telling the reader about it? By inference. That is, mention a detail that conjures up in the reader’s mind the image of a nervous person.
6. Use Setting and Context
Setting moves readers most when it contributes to an organic whole. So close your eyes and picture your characters within desert, jungle, or suburb–whichever setting shaped them. Imagining this helps balance location and characterization. Right from the start, view your characters inhabiting a distinct place. –– Laurel Yourke
Setting includes the time, location, context, and atmosphere where the plot takes place.
- Remember to combine setting with characterization and plot.
- Include enough detail to let your readers picture the scene but only details that actually add something to the story. (For example, do not describe Mary locking the front door, walking across the yard, opening the garage door, putting air in her bicycle tires, getting on her bicycle–none of these details matter except that she rode out of the driveway without looking down the street.)
- Use two or more senses in your descriptions of setting.
- Rather than feed your readers information about the weather, population statistics, or how far it is to the grocery store, substitute descriptive details so your reader can experience the location the way your characters do.
Our sojourn in the desert was an educational contrast with its parched heat, dust storms, and cloudless blue sky filled with the blinding hot sun. The rare thunderstorm was a cause for celebration as the dry cement tunnels of the aqueducts filled rapidly with rushing water. Great rivers of sand flowed around and through the metropolitan inroads of man’s progress in the greater Phoenix area, forcefully moved aside for concrete and steel structures. Palm trees hovered over our heads and saguaro cactuses saluted us with their thorny arms.
7. Set Up the Plot
Plot is what happens, the storyline, the action. Jerome Stern says it is how you set up the situation, where the turning points of the story are, and what the characters do at the end of the story.
A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. –Janet Burroway
Understanding these story elements for developing actions and their end results will help you plot your next short story.
- Explosion or “Hook.” A thrilling, gripping, stirring event or problem that grabs the reader’s attention right away.
- Conflict. A character versus the internal self or an external something or someone.
- Exposition. Background information required for seeing the characters in context.
- Complication. One or more problems that keep a character from their intended goal.
- Transition. Image, symbol, dialogue, that joins paragraphs and scenes together.
- Flashback. Remembering something that happened before the short story takes place.
- Climax.When the rising action of the story reaches the peak.
- Falling Action. Releasing the action of the story after the climax.
- Resolution. When the internal or external conflict is resolve.
Brainstorming. If you are having trouble deciding on a plot, try brainstorming. Suppose you have a protagonist whose husband comes home one day and says he doesn’t love her any more and he is leaving. What are actions that can result from this situation?
- She becomes a workaholic.
- Their children are unhappy.
- Their children want to live with their dad.
- She moves to another city.
- She gets a new job.
- They sell the house.
- She meets a psychiatrist and falls in love.
- He comes back and she accepts him.
- He comes back and she doesn’t accept him.
- She commits suicide.
- He commits suicide.
- She moves in with her parents.
The next step is to select one action from the list and brainstorm another list from that particular action.
8. Create Conflict and Tension
Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story: birth, love, sex, work, and death. –Janet Burroway
Conflict produces tension that makes the story begin. Tension is created by opposition between the character or characters and internal or external forces or conditions. By balancing the opposing forces of the conflict, you keep readers glued to the pages wondering how the story will end.
Possible Conflicts Include:
- The protagonist against another individual
- The protagonist against nature (or technology)
- The protagonist against society
- The protagonist against God
- The protagonist against himself or herself.
Yourke’s Conflict Checklist
- Mystery. Explain just enough to tease readers. Never give everything away.
- Empowerment. Give both sides options.
- Progression. Keep intensifying the number and type of obstacles the protagonist faces.
- Causality. Hold fictional characters more accountable than real people. Characters who make mistakes frequently pay, and, at least in fiction, commendable folks often reap rewards.
- Surprise. Provide sufficient complexity to prevent readers predicting events too far in advance.
- Empathy. Encourage reader identification with characters and scenarios that pleasantly or (unpleasantly) resonate with their own sweet dreams (or night sweats).
- Insight. Reveal something about human nature.
- Universality. Present a struggle that most readers find meaningful, even if the details of that struggle reflect a unique place and time.
- High Stakes. Convince readers that the outcome matters because someone they care about could lose something precious. Trivial clashes often produce trivial fiction.
9. Build to a Crisis or Climax
This is the turning point of the story–the most exciting or dramatic moment.
The crisis may be a recognition, a decision, or a resolution. The character understands what hasn’t been seen before, or realizes what must be done, or finally decides to do it. It’s when the worm turns. Timing is crucial. If the crisis occurs too early, readers will expect still another turning point. If it occurs too late, readers will get impatient–the character will seem rather thick.-Jerome Stern
Jane Burroway says that the crisis “must always be presented as a scene. It is “the moment” the reader has been waiting for. In Cinderella’s case, “the payoff is when the slipper fits.”
While a good story needs a crisis, a random event such as a car crash or a sudden illness is simply an emergency –unless it somehow involves a conflict that makes the reader care about the characters (see: “Crisis vs. Conflict“).
10. Find a Resolution
The solution to the conflict. In short fiction, it is difficult to provide a complete resolution and you often need to just show that characters are beginning to change in some way or starting to see things differently.
Yourke examines some of the options for ending a story.
- Open. Readers determine the meaning.
Brendan’s eyes looked away from the priest and up to the mountains.
- Resolved. Clear-cut outcome.
While John watched in despair, Helen loaded up the car with her belongings and drove away.
- Parallel to Beginning. Similar to beginning situation or image.
- They were driving their 1964 Chevrolet Impala down the highway while the wind blew through their hair.
- Her father drove up in a new 1964 Chevrolet Impala, a replacement for the one that burned up.
- Monologue. Character comments.
I wish Tom could have known Sister Dalbec’s prickly guidance before the dust devils of Sin City battered his soul.
- Dialogue. Characters converse.
- Literal Image. Setting or aspect of setting resolves the plot.
The aqueducts were empty now and the sun was shining once more.
- Symbolic Image. Details represent a meaning beyond the literal one.
Looking up at the sky, I saw a cloud cross the shimmering blue sky above us as we stood in the morning heat of Sin City.
Got Writer’s Block?
The Writer’s Block
Comprehensive Web site that offers solutions to beating writer’s block such as various exercises (not necessarily physical), advice from prolific writers, and how to know if you really have writer’s block.
Overcoming Writer’s Block
Precise, short list of ways to start writing again.
Learn through Schooling
Some online colleges and universities offer creative writing courses. Look for ones that offer creative writing courses that cover the plot and structure of short stories.
- Regular access to an instructor who is a published author, and a peer group that is motivated to read your drafts, might just be the extra motivation you need to develop your own skills.
- If you are counting on the credits transferring to help you complete an academic program, check with your university registrar.
Dec. 2002 — submitted by Kathy Kennedy, UWEC Senior
(for Jerz’s Advanced Technical Writing class)
Jan 2003 — edited by Jamie Dalbesio, UWEC Senior
(for an independent study project with Jerz)
May 2003 — edited by Jerz and posted at Seton Hill University
Jan 2007 — ongoing edits by Jerz
May 2008 — reformatted
Sep 2010 — tweaked Writer’s Block section
Mar 2011 — reformatted and further tweaked
Jun 2017 — minor editing. Are “Keds” still a recognizable brand of kids shoes?
- Show, Don’t (Just) Tell
Don’t just tell me your brother is funny… show me what he says and does, and let me decide whether I want to laugh. To convince your readers, show, don’t just tell them what you want them to know. There. I’ve just told you something. Pretty boring, huh? Now, let me show you…
- Short Stories: Developing Ideas for Short Fiction
A short story is tight — there is no room for long exposition, there are no subplots to explore, and by the end of the story there should be no loose ends to tie up. End right at the climax, so that the reader has to imagine how a life-changing event will affect the protagonist.
- Creative Writing Forum
Have a story you’d like to share? Looking for feedback? Feel free to post in this creative writing forum.
- Technical Writing: What is It?
Technical writing is the presentation of information that helps the reader solve a particular problem. Scientific and technical communicators write, design, and/or edit proposals, reports, instruction manuals, web pages, lab reports, newsletters, and many other kinds of professional documents.
- Usability Testing: 8 Quick Tips for Designing Tests
If you already have a prototype and you want to conduct a usability test, and you’re eager to learn how to make the most of your opportunity to learn from your users, then this document is for you. Keep…
- Quotations: Integrating them in MLA-Style Papers
The MLA-style in-text citation is a highly compressed format, designed to preserve the smooth flow of your own ideas (without letting the outside material take over your whole paper). A proper MLA inline citation uses just the author’s last name and the page number (or line number), separated by a space (not a comma).
- Titles for Web Pages: In-Context and Out-of-Context
Most writers know the value of an informative title, but many beginning web authors don’t know that each web page needs two kinds of titles. The in-context (IC) title always sits at the top of a page, with the rest…
- Active and Passive Verbs
Active verbs form more efficient and more powerful sentences than passive verbs. This document will teach you why and how to prefer active verbs. * The subject of an active sentence performs the action of the verb: “I throw the ball.” * The subject of a passive sentence is still the main character of the sentence, but something else performs the action: “The ball is thrown by me.”
- Blurbs: Writing Previews of Web Pages
On the Web, blurbs are compressed summaries of what the user will find on the other end of a hyperlink. Good blurbs don’t harangue (“Click here!”) or tease (“Learn ten great tips!”). You’re reading a blurb now. If it helps you decide whether to click the link, it’s done its job.
- MLA Style: Step-By-Step Instructions for Formatting MLA Papers
Need to write a paper in MLA format? This step-by-step includes images showing how to use MS-Word to create the title block, page layout, and works cited list.
- Writing Effective E-Mail: Top 10 Tips
People decide to read or trash e-mails in seconds. From the subject line to the closing, offer a focused, scannable message that puts your reader’s needs first.
Archived discussion of “Short Stories: 10 Tips for Creative Writers”
Custom creative essay are some of the first lessons that students are taught how to do and tend to be much easier to learn. This is relative to the fact that creative essays are associated with the art of combining ones experience and imagination in one coherent flow of information to the reader. It is crucial to note that, as the name suggests, creative essays require the writer to come up with connective ideas. This means that the essay requires the writer to use critical thinking skills on the topic that they would want to bring out to readers. As such, this can easily be defined as text that is written in a manner that reflects non-fiction aspect of a topic, with special emphasis on the views of the author. It is crucial that the content of the essay embraces the element of truth with respect to the topic of choice. Some of the most common creative writing factions are memoirs and bibliographies. This is relative to the fact that these are essays that describe a topic, explain the different aspects of the same and explore further into its dynamics. The term non-fiction is crucial in understanding what is expected of the author. This simply means that the content as mentioned earlier has to be true and not created. They are account of a moment, event or an aspect that is true, but told in the view of the author.
Creative Essay Outline
This is the most liberal part of the essay, relative to the freedom that the author has writing a creative essay. Ideally, there is no standard format that the creative writer should follow after introducing the topic. The flow of the information within the easy is subject to the writer’s approach. This is to mean that, a single topic can be approached from a number of ways relative to what the writer wants to achieve, Academic reports that most of the students are used to, are designed to have some very strict structure; relative to the fact that they designed to inform and persuade. Thus the content has to be easy to follow and have some logical flow. In the case of the creative essay structure, the writer has to understand beforehand what it is that they want to bring out. As such, the outlines is basically going to embody the general creative essay outline of an introduction, body and conclusion. Given that the essay mostly relates to the emotions relayed, the author may jump back and forth as they try to bring out their ideas. They will then end with a conclusion that largely affirms their point of view on the topic.
Introduction and Thesis Statement
The introduction of the paper is crucial as it lays out the ground work for the rest of the paper. In the section, the author highlights what it is that they are going to be discussing in the paper. As such, the section is not detailed and only gives the limelight of the topic and the argument. This is then followed by a thesis statement at the end. The thesis statement is crucial to the rest of the paper as it is the augment in place. Ideally, this is the backbone of the paper as it gives the readers the limelight of what the author is going to be discussing in the paper. As such, it should be clearly brought to better represent the author’s point of view and approach. It is important that the introduction is short and precise mentioning only the important bits of information in the paper. It is also crucial that the introduction is creatively written to get the attention of the readers. This is due to the fact that, it is a section that used to create interest in the readers to go on to the main body and follow the argument.
In the main body as laid out in the introduction of the paper, the ideas are first introduced from a general point of view. This helps the readers to better understand what it is that is being discussed and why it is important. The organization of the body is based on the ideas that the author wants to bring out. As mentioned earlier, this part of the essay can bounce around the ideas in the topic. As the author tries to make their argument, they are free to bring together different approaches that do not basically conform to the basic structures of a report. This is why it is important that the writer first premise of the paper and how best to bring out their ideas before they start writing. It is also crucial to note that, due to the dynamicity of the creative essays it is easy for the format to change right in the middle of the article. As the content develops, the writer may feel that a different approach will better bring out some of the ideas that they want to get to the readers compared to the previous approaches. As such, the body of the paper is quite dynamic and takes on a rather liberal approach.
The conclusion of the paper is rather a summary of the topic ideas along with the argument of the author. In this section the author brings to a close the argument and it’s important the readers are able to connect with the idea and the author’s point of view.
Examples Creative Essay Topics
- Why college education is crucial to career growth
- How cultural competence improves patient outcomes
- Why health insurance is still struggling
- The elderly in the society are not benefiting from the new medical care systems
- The poor in the society still struggling with Medicaid
- Conflict at the workplace is an opportunity for growth
- Globalization as the main driver for cultural integration
- The refugee crisis is an opportunity in disguise
- Ethical policies in nursing set the quality standards
The EMR systems render significant risks to patient data