Brevity is the soul of wit.William Shakespeare
Crafting a compelling story, be it a novel, short story, or flash fiction, takes discipline. Great writing isn’t so much about impressing the reader with wit or clever description as brutalising your raw prose until the final product is taut and powerful – until each word becomes a muscle fibre in every strong paragraph. Your story, no matter how many words it takes to deliver, should always strive to be economical.
Writing is a demanding craft and it is the writer’s job, first and foremost, to produce an interesting story, but also to execute it in an original way. There are few things worse than bad art, although derivative art certainly makes the list. We recommend taking a look at our rules for crafting fiction and applying them to your own work.
Creative Writing 101
We have no qualms about parroting someone else’s rules, nor should you worry about following them. Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Galapagos, insisted on the following eight rules in the preface to his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Ironically, Vonnegut goes on to write how Flannery O’Connor “the greatest writer of [his] generation” flouted almost all of these rules but the first. “Great writers tend to do that.”
Writing is like Bowling
Flannery O’Connor’s short stories frequently hold to a single theme, hinted at early on (she was a keen observer of Chekhov’s gun) that, like a prophecy in Greek tragedy, bears down on her protagonists at the story’s end. Your plot should comprise, at the very least, a beginning, middle, and end. In other words, three separate acts, a structure as old as storytelling itself, and the most appropriate for mediums like flash fiction.
Begin with an intriguing dilemma for the characters to deal with, follow through on the premise, and chart a course to the story’s natural conclusion. The aim is to set up the pins and then knock them down.
Plan Your Story Structure
Writers who plan their work are often the most productive and successful. Short stories and novels, especially, require greater forethought, planning, and nuance than, say, a flash fiction, although the challenge of flash fiction is to achieve everything you would in a short story, but in fewer words. The objective is always the same in fiction, but, like any recipe, the volume of ingredients varies. The three-act structure is most common, and certain genres, such as fantasy, have their own archetypal narratives (like the hero’s journey), but not all genres are alike.
For a tightly-constructed piece, we recommend the seven-point story structure. Begin with the hook, where you introduce the reader to your character and theme. Follow the hook with the first plot turn, which introduces a conflict, leading into the first pinch point where the pressure and tension increase for your protagonist. At the midpoint of your story, the protagonist should vow to act, follow through, and fail. The second pinch point, or the dark night of the soul reflects on the protagonist’s failure, before spurring them on to try again. The second plot turn sets in motion the resolution of the story, the climax, where your protagonist finally achieves or fails to achieve their primary goal.
Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis in anthropology, rejected by the University of Chicago for its simplicity, discussed the shapes of a multitude of stories from Cinderella to Great Expectations and The Twilight Zone. Every story adheres to a basic structure, which Vonnegut depicted as diagrams in his lectures. Fundamentally, all stories are the same. They require two basic ingredients: conflict and resolution.
Readers look for logic in fiction, no matter the genre, and all stories should reach a satisfying conclusion. The onus is on fiction writers not to waste words in their description and plotting, but to also be consistent in what can and cannot happen as per the logic of the story. Novelists have a lot of time to iron out the kinks, but short fiction writers, arguably, should be more industrious in their approach to plot logic.
The shorter form makes your mistakes immediately more obvious to the reader, but the snapshot nature of the short story also offers greater opportunity to subvert cliche and turn old tropes on their heads. In medias res writing (beginning in the middle) also aids originality in the structure and progression of your plot. It is the perfect tool to create an engaging puzzle for your readership to solve.
Crime fiction uses the red herring to turn predictable circumstances into intriguing mysteries. The resolution should make perfect sense, yet also be completely unexpected. Ambiguity works best in horror, but there’s a place for it in crime writing too. Make the reader question everything (in a good way). Had the monster really been defeated? Was such-and-such really guilty, or did so-and-so get away with murder? Readers love being fooled; they don’t like being treated as fools.
Complexity and Human Behaviour
Human beings are as simple as we are complex, so be sure to consider how people actually think, behave, and speak in reality. Just as moviegoers can spot the flaws in a CGI character, readers will spot the flaws in your characterisation, which is why it’s so important to ground your work in the real world. No matter the genre or setting, great writing reflects reality.
Horror, despite its Gothic origins and dalliances with melodrama, is naturalistic. Science fiction and high fantasy take great pains with their world-building, but they are still subject to their internal logics and invented systems. Literary fiction demands an even greater focus on character and psychology, but also on innovation, whether by means of a fancy prose style, complex narrative, or experimentalism.
It’s impossible to appeal to every potential reader (art is fundamentally a matter of taste), but so long as you “make it new” (Ezra Pound) and create a convincing character with whom to empathise or be seduced, you will satisfy those that do read your work.
Short fiction follows the same rules as novel writing, but condensed. Flash fiction (sometimes described as the short short story) encompasses an array of increasingly concise forms that weigh in anywhere under a thousand words.
Calum Kerr suggests that the flash fiction genre draws on the brevity of the prose poem and the plot of the short story. Prose poems evoke mood and emotion, but stories require conflict, tension, and character development to engage the reader. There’s no use writing like Hemingway or Faulkner if nothing happens. Then again, in the preface to a students’ edition of his selected short stories, Hemingway insists that nothing need happen in your story at all. Better to write around the theme rather than confront it directly. “Yes, the unfireable gun may be a symbol.”
One example he gives is his story ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ in which a boy returns home from war, but the war is never mentioned. This is the Iceberg Technique at work, in which the central theme is only alluded to and never overly explored. Hemingway also liked to leave background details such as setting, tertiary characters and description, etc. out of focus, dedicating his time more to the main action going on in the story, e.g. fishing, sailing, big game hunting, and so on.
But Hemingway is an outlier. Prose alone cannot captivate us, unless like Hemingway the writer is very skilled, because the plot in most cases makes a story. Most readers read for plot rather than for literary merit.
Novels have the benefit of many chapters in which to elaborate on their central theme or conflict, but short stories must adhere to a stricter regimen, and beyond that, flash fiction takes brevity in storytelling to its extreme. Smaller word counts demand greater sacrifices. Kill your darlings is a rule to live by, especially when you cannot afford to embellish and every word counts.
Be brutal. Kill your darlings. Separate the core components of each sentence to identify which words are pulling their weight. Watch out for fatiguing sentences replete with telling adverbs and vague description. With time and practice, you will learn to recognise the redundant, superfluous words that cause your story to sag. Once you’ve spotted the affected lines, either delete the offending words or replace them.
Great writing comes from economy of words, yet it must also be sumptuous and energising for the reader. Just as overwriting makes for poor description, brevity for brevity’s sake is the death of good prose. Consider whether each line could be written differently or more effectively. Does it show the reader a well-realised image or does it merely tell them about it? If it adds something to the line, then, by all means, leave it be. If not, show no mercy.
Only through self-discipline and self-criticism can we improve our work. Editors are too expensive when you’re a poor working-class writer with two jobs. Sadly, nobody cares about the masterpiece in your sock drawer. It’s up to you to convince those who read your work that doing so wasn’t a complete waste of their time.
Plotting, Description, and Character
Things need to happen in a story. Ask your protagonist about their fundamental needs/wants. Does the plot affect the character or does the character influence the plot? How does the ensuing tug-of-war between need and want affect them?
Should the protagonist give up on their desires or pursue them in spite of what is good for them? What will the consequences be if they do? How will your protagonist have changed by the story’s end? What will the reader learn about them?
Readers demand specificity, but only as much as is necessary. By evoking the five senses, your description will seduce the reader and keep them lingering in your fictional world. Moreover, writing in the active voice creates clear, concise action for the reader to conjure up in their mental play. This is imperative because stories are products of imagination and if the reader cannot imagine what’s happening, they won’t wish to read on.
Tension and tempo should wax and wane throughout the story, but increase as the protagonist approaches their primary objective. Build the conflict and drama until you reach a climax (or anticlimax). Character arcs are great, but not every story requires one. Sometimes a simple mystery or exploration of theme will suffice, but a proactive protagonist is essential. They don’t have to be moral or virtuous (it helps to give them flaws), but we have to be interested enough in their activities to keep reading.
Patricia Highsmith said of her sociopathic Tom Ripley: “Tom is a likeable character because […] he does what he wants–and gets away with it.” So long as your protagonist remains proactive throughout the story (passive protagonists make for boring reads), then the reader won’t be able to help themselves but read on.
Voice and Style
Writing is as much about the words on the page as it is about the voice(s) they conjure in the reader’s mind. Look no further than James Ellroy’s writing, in which he employs a short, staccato, no-nonsense style, stripping away every superfluous word and crafting a singular narrative style of which he is the only master.
Stephen King suggests that the writer’s voice is integral to winning the reader over in the first line (the hook), while John Gardner writes (in his book The Art of Fiction) that a writer’s style should not be used to show their cleverness, but to demonstrate “the tone and intention of [their] writing.” Write the book that only you could have written.
King also writes (in On Writing) that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” a rule all writers should take to heart, lest your prose fall prey to a lack of imagination. Rather than settling for a cliche or a lazy descriptor, press yourself to rewrite it more effectively. Redundant adverbs tell the reader what to think, and detract from all your storytelling efforts, which is why we need to show through description, action, and dialogue. Your writer’s voice should utilise these three tools to drive the story. Your voice is unique to you. It’s part of your brand, the key ingredient that makes your writing stand out, and a big selling point for readers and publishers.
Written by Michael Conroy.
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