24 Rules for Writing Short Stories
Based on my years of experience in the writing game, I’ve come up with a list of 24 essential rules for creating short stories that will engage, entertain and enthral. Feel free to use them when inventing your own stories!
1. A good short story should not contain a single wasted word. The reader should feel confident that the writer is in complete control of the story at all times. There should be no mystery, no element of chance in the writing of a short story. A short story is not a journey of discovery.
2. In the short story, setting is everything. Appropriate settings for short stories include mountain tops, haunted council estates, low Earth orbit, enchanted forests, 1980s job centres, France, protest marches, swingers’ parties, alternate dimensions, a summer evening in the writer’s youth, The American West, radio newsrooms, and World War 2.
3. Avoid boring your reader. Consider breaking up long paragraphs with dialogue, or descriptions of the weather. If the scene you are writing doesn’t contain dialogue or weather, think about changing the location and adding extra characters. Or have someone go outside and start talking to themselves.
4. Always start a scene in the middle of the action. Or better yet, after the action has already finished.
5. Dogs and birds are not good subjects for short stories. If you are determined to write about dogs or birds, consider poetry or the novella format. Horses, on the other hand, almost always improve a short story.
6. If in doubt, describe things. Furniture. Clothes. A building. Someone’s hair. The consistency of a sandwich. Extensive descriptions will distract all but the smartest readers, allowing you to get away with poor characterisation, clunky plotting and weak prose. They can also help to bulk out that all-important word count.
7. Remember the four rules of action: action, action, action and more action.
8. The following are inappropriate settings for short stories: nuclear submarines, grant-maintained schools, The Vast Russian Interior, jungles, Indonesia, abandoned arctic research stations, football matches, the Argentinean Pampas, the Reformation, yoga retreats, pre-war Vienna, Belgium in the 1970s, motorways, hot air balloons, graduation parties, conservatories, brutalist carparks, redbrick universities and Leicester.
9. All short stories should be 3,000 words long.
10. People love experts. Have an expert in your story. A former bank-robber or mathematician, for example. Have them explain things, at length. Give your reader something they can take away and impress people with at parties.
11. There is no such thing as an experimental short story. The short story exists. There is nothing left to prove.
12. All women in short stories should be either angry, sexually attractive or geniuses. Or a combination of all three. And the same goes for men.
13. As a rule of thumb, the first 40% of your short story should be description-based and should give us an insight into what the main character is good at. This should be followed by an argument between your leads and – ideally – a scene involving travel. The remaining 35% of the story should be concerned with tying up loose ends.
14. When writing love scenes, try to find new and interesting metaphors for the sexual act. Think about borrowing from geology, the shipping industry, or choose-your-own-adventure books.
15. Aphorism: plot is the engine that drives your short story, character is the oil that knocks the nail in.
16. Remember that certain objects have more symbolic weight in fiction than they do in real life. The list includes fruit, chairs, briefcases, women, snow, helicopters and precocious children. Where possible these objects should be replaced with safer alternatives. For example, fruit can be substituted with vegetables, precocious children with sassy older ladies etc.
17. A story should never contain more than one sunset, blizzard or thunderstorm. Persistent rain, however, may feature throughout.
18. In essence, a short story should be about a moment of change. Or a moment of everything staying the same.
19. Think about what your main character wants, and then find a way to stop them getting it. If you don’t know what your main character wants, make sure you can describe their clothes and/or job at length.
20. If you find yourself stuck while writing your story, have someone light a cigarette. Or have a stranger walk into the room and light someone’s cigarette for them. But remember: if you introduce a vacuum cleaner early on in a story, at some point someone must use that vacuum cleaner.
21. Don’t show, don’t tell.
22. Think of your short story as a high-wire act. Balance is everything. If a particular word, sentence, image, metaphor, line of dialogue, plot point, character or transcendent moment stands out from all the others, remove it. There is no room for random beauty or magic in the short story.
23. A short story should never contain more than three scenes or more than four characters, and should not cover a time period of more than two days.
24. Remember the template for all successful dramas: everyone goes home unhappy, and nobody gets what they want.