A well-written short story has become an underappreciated art form in a society chock full of blogs and fan fiction. Writing a detailed story with strong characters, a developed plot, believable dialogue, a valid conflict and a resolution to the conflict in just a few pages takes patience and practice. If you’re motivated and truly love to write, though, you can handle the challenge.
How to Write an Outline
Writing a short story outline can be an invaluable pre-writing tool to help you map out the sequence of events in your story, detail the most important plot elements and even start drafting individual scenes. Outlines can also be of help if you get easily distracted, find yourself getting lost in your words or end up wandering off and forgetting what story you set out to tell.
Before you can write anything, you need an idea for a great short story. If you're having trouble thinking of one that hasn’t already been done over and over, try looking up unusual news stories online. You may be able to take a real-life news story that is indeed stranger than fiction and make it your own.
Keep the Outline Short
Avoid complete sentences. Instead use short phrases and ideas or terms. Long outlines with complete sentences end up being unnecessarily wordy, sometimes looking like full paragraphs rather than brief outlines. Spending too much time and putting too much detail into your outline is effort you could be putting into writing the story itself.
The plot is not simply the sequence of events in the story, but how those events are presented to the reader. The most essential element of the plot is the conflict, the struggle or source of tension that moves the story along. It is this conflict that you, the writer, ultimately strives to resolve at or before the story’s end.
You may find you will have more than one setting in your story, so list all settings on your outline and give relevant details about each. To better keep track of important plot elements, indicate what happens in each setting. For example, if the main character loses her necklace near the beginning of the story, write Sundance Beach: Maggie loses gold necklace.
Although an outline is a useful guide to keep you focused on your plot and character development, don’t feel as if the elements are carved in stone. Sometimes letting the story tell itself, so to speak, makes for the most interesting tales.
Choose a Point of View
Once you've written your outline and thought about the story you want to tell, decide at what point the reader enters the story. When is the last time you read a story, started a novel or watched a movie and were neatly introduced at the precise moment the actual story began? It's not likely to have happened recently, if at all. For you, and especially for the reader, the experience is a more intriguing one if the reader begins the story in the middle of the action. Begin your story in an interesting or unusual way to get your reader’s attention immediately, so he wants to continue reading. A boring opening means a bored reader who has no interest in moving on.
As the writer, you need to decide if you are going to write your short story from the first-person point of view, using the pronouns: I, me, my and mine. If you prefer the third-person point of view, which uses the pronouns: he, she, they, his, her, theirs, him or them. Often, this decision is based upon personal preference as well as the topic of the short story. Using first-person point of view puts the narrator in the middle of the action which makes the connection with the reader more personal. On the other hand, third-person perspective allows for the narrator to be omniscient, so there’s no limitation to one character’s experiences the way a first-person story is. Whichever you choose, make sure you are consistent.
Develop the Characters
Avoid giving everything away about the character in the first few paragraphs. Instead, consider different ways you can reveal different facets of the characters to your readers without stating them in an obvious way, such as through dialogue, actions and how the character interacts with other characters. Limit the number of main characters you include in your story. If you take on too many, you’ll find you won’t be able to develop each of them fully in only a few pages.
Details and vivid description are much more interesting to read than a story that simply denotes the actions of the main characters without painting a picture of the setting or characters for the reader. Try to write the kind of fiction you enjoy reading, and most readers enjoy description that involves rich sensory details.
Make sure the dialogue is realistic. You are more likely to hear, from the average American character, “Hey, wanna get pizza for dinner?” rather than the more formal “Hey, would you like to get a pizza for dinner?”
How to Write a Short Story Lesson Plan
There are numerous approaches to creating a lesson plan involving writing a short story. For a slightly different approach, try integrating visual arts into the lesson and see where the students’ imaginations take them. Read and discuss multiple short stories, and discuss with your class the essential elements that make a story a great one, like plot, conflict, setting, character development and dialogue.
For example, choose two paintings and display them so the whole class is able to view both pieces of artwork. Each piece should have at least one person and enough details that a proposed setting can be discussed as a class. Give the students time to examine the artwork and write down any impressions they may have about the subjects of the paintings, the background or setting, the action that’s taking place, and the mood of the paintings. Lead a class discussion in which the students can share some of these impressions and what clues they picked up on to come to their conclusions.
Then, each student should pick one of the paintings and write a short story that includes all of the elements you have discussed over the course of the unit on short fiction. They should use at least two of the people in the painting as characters in their stories and the backdrop of the painting for at least one scene. Beyond that, the students have the freedom to do what they want with the story.
Jess Jones has been teaching college-level courses in English and Communications for the past 10 years. In addition to creating and facilitating peer-to-peer tutoring programs, she worked to develop new curriculum for classes designed to teach skills for success to incoming students. Jones holds a B.A. in English as well as an M.A. in English Language and Literature.