I’ve written a reasonable number of short stories (most recently a paranormal tale for The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel). Last year I wrote 14 stories of 1,000-1,500 words for Kraxon magazine, and I thought some tips for those writing their first couple of stories might be helpful.
Beginning, middle and end. Bit of a cliché, but I found this very useful when first writing short stories of around 5,000 words.
If we’re talking flash fiction (say, 1,000 words or less) then that’s not enough for three parts. You need one central hook because you’re writing more of a scene than a full-blown story.
But for something around 5,000-10,000 words, the beginning/middle/end approach works pretty nicely. It’s enough of a word count to sink your teeth into, without being so much you have time for flimflam and padding.
In the beginning, you need to quickly sketch the protagonist and outline the situation. Keep it simple. Major characters should be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Premise set up, the middle should see it develop. Trials and tribulations, woe encountered, setbacks for the hero (or anti-hero, a protagonist doesn’t have to be nice). The course of true adventuring never did run smooth, after all. All this leads towards the conclusion of the plot.
An end doesn’t have to be a twist or a sudden revelation (NB avoid the word ‘suddenly’. It tells the reader you’re about to tell them something that might have been surprising or interesting, if you hadn’t immediately foreshadowed it).
If the ending’s a twist, it’s best if it’s something that’s cunningly foreshadowed ahead of time (easier said than done, though. Twists are hard to get right, because if they’re too left-field they come across as deus ex machina, and if they’re too obvious they’re not twists, just an obvious plot development).
Always a good idea, if possible, to send it off to a beta reader or two. Fresh eyes can more easily spot errors, and let you know if it flows nicely.
Don’t stress too much about the word count as you write it. Just get it written. You can lop bits off or write extra once it’s finished.
Most importantly, if you’re writing specifically for a publisher or competition, read the guidelines, and follow them. Any contest/publisher will get more submissions than they have prizes/slots. If you don’t follow the guidelines then your work will almost certainly be immediately filed in the bin.
Three free short stories by me are up here on my website.