Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How to Write a Short Story

This isn’t an essay on craft. No conflict, rising action, denouement; no Freitag’s triangle; no character, setting, plot. This is about process. More or less.

1. Have an idea. Brilliant, huh? Where do ideas come from, anyway? I frequently have ideas for stories while I’m writing other stories, plots or characters or predicaments that don’t fit in what I’m working on at the moment. Sometimes I see someone who, I imagine, is interesting (often after I fabricate an identity for them, and don’t ask me where that idea comes from). Or I read a story in the paper that seems odd or drama-filled. I try to write all this stuff down. I have a file on my computer called “Story Ideas” and it has about a hundred documents, all stories waiting to be written.

2. Start Writing. Unlike some writers, I don’t always know where a story is going. I don’t even know where the proper starting point is but you have start somewhere, right? So I start and keep writing until I have a sense of who the characters are and what the conflict is. I then usually stop and make some notes about what I know about these things that hasn’t made into what I’ve written so far.

3. Think. This is the hard part. This might involve looking at what I’ve got so far and imagining scenes—five or six of them—into which the story could be broken. I’ve probably written a couple of them already at this point, but a few more are needed. You might jot down a summary of the scenes on note cards (I don’t, but I think about doing it) so that you could rearrange the scenes if that seems like a good thing to do. This is also a good time to figure out how the story might end, which is a whole other discussion.

4. Finish writing. Having identified what the scenes are and the order in which they should appear, I go back to my beginning and finish the story, writing through to the end I’ve envisioned. Done? Not quite.

5. Revise. This might actually involve a few interim drafts, possibly with input from a few trusted friends whom you allow to read your story. You’ll get a sense as you read it yourself or hear others read it whether you are starting and ending in the right place, whether your protagonist is someone whom anyone should care about, and whether your dialogue makes any sense at all. This is all important information.

6. Write the final draft. After thinking about it, getting input, and rereading your own work, do to the story what you think needs to be done. Possibly rewriting the whole thing. (This might be a good time to retype the whole thing so that you can think about each sentence for real instead of using inertia to carry sentences from one draft to the next.)

7. Read it aloud. I’m a bit of a ham, especially when no one can see or hear me and I like to read a story as if I’m performing it before an audience. You get a great sense of your language’s rhythm this way, repeated words that you didn’t intend to repeat, commas that you don’t need or commas that you do, and other mechanical elements that you overlooked in the actual writing. If you can give yourself chills with your ending, you’ve got a hot story.

8. Write the final, final draft. Input the changes you made while writing. Proof read. Proof read again. You’re done! Pick the perfect magazine and submit.

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