Planning short stories- they aren’t just short books!

Guys, its about time I started back on the writing advice, I know it has been lacking over the last few weeks mainly due to the intense reading I have been doing. I think my brain has decided that writing for fun and writing for uni should not be mixed as I seem to be dichotomous and find it very hard to switch between the two. However, I have been trying desperately to get back into the swing of it, especially as a few deadlines for short stories are appearing on the horizon.

I am currently working towards two separate contributions to anthologies, the first are fairytale retellings in a facebook writing group I am part of; and although the deadline isn’t until August, I have three short stories to fully prepare. Secondly is one that anyone can contribute towards (if it meets the requirements of course- and I am in no way affiliated to this anthology, in case anyone was wondering) and that is the Crimson Edge Press anthology ‘Maidens and Magic‘, I urge anyone who is interested to check it out. I know many view such opportunities as a competition, but I think we don’t hear enough about opportunities like these and we need to spread the word to budding writers!

Firstly, why should we plan short stories any different?

I spent a long time believing that a short story was literally just a story told with fewer words. That was, until I began reading short stories, yes they have a beginning, middle, and end, but they are different. The approach to key elements are different:

  • You don’t have 50,000 words to explore a character arc
  • You cant afford to introduce a cast of 20 characters and expect to have them all tidily completed at the end
  • You don’t have the words to have huge numbers of plot twists, you can afford as many as the word limit but you cant add twists for the sake of twists
  • Every word becomes precious, there is little time for flouncy language
  • You have to deliver high impact stories, that pack the same level punch as a full novel, in much fewer words

Seems like shorts are just harder, you’re expected to do the work of a novel with tighter restraints. But, they are also extremely beneficial, you learn where you struggle, where you excel. You learn to hone your skills and decide on what is important to tell the story you want to tell and not just the one that develops over time.

Short stories are not only meant to be written with fewer words, but in my personal opinion (and I am sure there will be many that would disagree) they should also be written during considerable less time. By that I don’t mean speeding through to submit rubbish, I mean I tend to have a first draft ready in 1-2 weeks and then edits, a few Beta readers and then submit. The longer I look at a short story, the more I meddle, and soon I am not telling the same story I wanted to.

So how do I plan my short stories?

For this, I think I should share a few examples of a short story that I was developing for the anthology above until another took it’s place. I am sure it will find a nice home once fully developed but for now, it shall remaining an aid.

  1. Develop a general idea (if there are spec’s use those to guide this)
    I was watching TV and an advert showed excavations of Pompeii, and a story idea developed within those few seconds. What if a maiden was chosen to attempt to stop the eruption? What if she held a power that altered the chain of events? What if they she only made it worse? I love ‘what if’ questions for this stage because you still don’t have the answers, but it points a story out.
  2. Basic research
    So firstly, I watched the programme, it was boring (being honest here guys, not the most riveting show I’ve watched on Pompeii) but it did show some of the layout of the city, how far away the volcano was and discussed a few of the pre-eruption beliefs. All extremely helpful, especially alongside a simple google search.
  3. Consider the length
    So, the length of the short story for the anthology is between 12,000 and 25,000 words. Many would argue that this is a novella and not a short story, but the competition states it as a short story and therefore so do I. If you have a specific entry required make sure you understand the length before you start developing a plot- there is nothing worse than working on a wonderous plot and then discovering that it is either too complicated or not developed enough to meet your word goal.
  4. Decide on how many plot twists/ points the word count allows
    I have a general rule, there has to be a minimum of 5 plot points for me at least. But then I look at word allowance and say I want one point per ### words. For my Pompeii example, I said one key plot point/ twist for every 1000 words, approximately.
  5. Basic development of characters
    I look at the plot points and any key points from the specifications, and develop a few characters surrounding these. Firstly, I do the general stuff… we’ve all heard it before. But then I reign in my character development and decide on a short ensemble of quirks or traits that are going to be important for both the plot development and for character development.
    So for Pompeii, my main character was the daughter of a successful mason who cared deeply for the development of medicine but was also fiercely religious. Two important points as her love for stopping suffering clashes with her deep religious beliefs when she comes to the realisation that her religion is false and there are different forces at play in the world. She is also dependent on her father’s approval but she falls in love- obviously.
    These characteristics start to build the layers of tension and conflict in the story. Now you don’t have words for hundreds, so I chose about 4/5 key and a few minor ones and work them into the story, or the story around the quirks, total flexibility.
  6. Mapping everything together
    This is where you start fit those broken parts of the story together, you marry the characters to the plot, do they work? Does one need to bend to let the other work? Remember, nothing is set in stone and now is the chance to make alterations that make the story shine. With Pompeii, I hadn’t taken her rebellious love interest into account when first developing plot points, so I had to go back and weave it in so that it added something meaningful to the story and not just added for the sake of being added.
  7. First draft

And remember, you still need:

  • An inciting incident- something that causes action
  • A struggle- no one wants to read a story that is plain sailing
  • A realisation- again, if the character doesn’t learn anything what is the point?
  • A hardship- again, authors are here to torture your characters!
  • A climax- the story has to go somewhere
  • A resolution- don’t just end on a climax, something always comes next!

 So now you know how I plot out my short stories, and this has really motivated me to work on my short stories which I am really happy about! Do you have any hints and tips? What do you do differently to full length novels?

Until next time my friends,

Helen x


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