Stories are always like mysteries. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a story of love, crime, or the quest for hidden treasure, it starts with an idea that presents a question.
The question comes early in the story, and it must be planted in the reader’s mind right from the start. The first page, the next, and so on must always deepen the question.
A short story doesn’t leave enough room to investigate the question like a novel does.
So when we write short stories, we need to be brief about it. As the protagonist steps out one morning, she is presented with some kind of challenging situation. A difficulty, or a curious situation that requires further investigation.
As writers, we need to know the character’s motivation. What type of person she is, how does she react when she gets into a situation that is emotional?
Emotional is when she is confronted with temptation, love, hate, sadness, loss, sudden happiness, the list of emotions goes on.
Your story will have a some of these emotions in order to make your character come alive. Even boredom is an emotional expression that could be the basis for a short story.
The situation leads her along the way to discovery. But the discovery shouldn’t happen too soon — otherwise that’d be the end of the story.
The discovery answers the question, so the story is the journey towards that answer.
When you write a short story, it’s often based on a simple premise. A short story is seldom a good vehicle for grand themes, or something better suited to a long yarn that winds its way through a dark forest. It helps to have a simple premise.
The premise of any story can be decided on before you begin — or discovered along the way.
A premise for a short story could be “Corruption creates greed”, or, “Money can’t buy love”.
A highly decorated police officer, who is forced into a bribe, could begin to believe that he controls the briber, and make demands for more. This could lead to his self created downfall.
A woman believes she can use her wealth to find true love. She travels, and spends her fortune searching for years, until one day she returns home, broke and disappointed. Then her long time neighbour, who missed her terribly, expresses his undying love for her.
It’s important that if you plan to find out what you are writing about while you write the story, then you should at least have an inkling of where your story is going. I like to write and discover. That’s how my brain works.
A short story should stay short and snappy. So it’s a good idea to stay clear of describing the quest that the woman went on over the years, a few short sentences describing her long journey would be fine.
Quests tend to drag on, and in a short story it’s easy to get sidelined into descriptive passages that belong in a longer work.
Many authors just don’t understand the seat of your pants writing style. They claim that it makes no sense to write without knowing where you are going. The beginner writer then gets in a tangle, and doesn’t start work because they don’t know their premise. They feel they’ve got to follow the rules.
As a great writer once said, “There are only three rules to writing, unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”
The hint in those words is to start writing, and you might find out whether there are, or are not, any rules. It’s the only way we can know.
You have to figure out and experiment for yourself. If you are a planner, and you like to know the details before you begin, then be honest and work that way. Sometimes, planners can get caught up in long form note-taking, so careful as you go.
If you feel that to get down to writing the story with only a smattering of an idea is you, then do it. But be honest and only continue this way if it works for you. Do you finish these stories? Or do you stop mid-point, and scratch your head about how to continue?
Know yourself as a writer, and you’ll begin to develop confidence to go with an idea, and begin to write a story without quite knowing what the meaning in the story is.
The deeper meaning of the whole story, is the premise. The goal, the rough idea of where you’re going, is a part of the map to the end.
If your protagonist walks out one morning, and heads to work. She gets on the underground train, she looks around and sees that everybody else is heading for work, too. Their faces look bored, tired, worn out, they read their digital screens. Her shock, when she sees her own reflection in the dark window — she looks as tired as all the other people. She decides it’s time to break the rules, she quickly leaves the train. She runs up the stairs, already knowing that she isn’t going back to her job, ever again.
She’s taking an enormous risk. Something many people would love to do. The reader’s interest is heightened now.
Her split second decision changes everything about her life.
As she reaches the top of the steps, and looks into the street, she sees a man running towards the steps, he has a bundle under his arm that he’s holding onto tightly. The sweat and fear on his face makes her realise that he’s into something dangerous. She steps back, leans on the railings to let the man run past.
As he passes her, he shoves the bag into her arms, falters for a moment, and looks into her eyes. She shivers.
He runs. A police car skids to halt outside the underground train station, and a crowd gathers. Our protagonist is enveloped in the crowd, the bag tightly pressed to her chest. The cops run down into the train station to catch the robber.
We don’t know if they catch the robber. We stick with our main character, who quickly walks away from the scene. She is intrigued to know what’s in the bag, as we are.
Whatever was in the bag must be valuable for the story to work. The man may be a robber, or he may be a victim being pursued. The story must deepen for us to discover what really happened, then keep going to find out how it develops into its premise.
When she opens the bag, it could contain jewellery, or a pile of old clothes could tumble out onto the ground. The protagonist could act confused, but yet find something of great interest. The name tags on the clothing could mean something to her.
If she finds it full of money, then it might make life hard for you as a writer to raise the stakes again, without immediately going from cliche to cliche, to common trope, to trope. Let’s all go to Hollywood, not.
At this point in the story, your imagination will become taxed. You have to make your mind up and figure out which direction the story takes.
There are lots of possibilities.
We don’t know who the women really is, that could be revealing for the reader.
She must do something object with the contents of the bag. For that to happen, the contents, or the bag, must be connected to something else. A situation, a threat to her, or she may realise that the man’s life is a stake if he never has the bag returned; it could be a dilemma for her. Immediate wealth from illicit gain, or do the right thing for a stranger.
The story, the bag, the woman and the man, develop into a relationship that sparks emotionally. Along the way, the writer must ratchet up the feeling of an unanswered question. A mystery that only gets answered in the last lines.
Sean P. Durham on Medium – dot-com
Short Stories by Sean P. Durham
The Orange Office – Satire
Weirdo – Psychological Horror
The Colombian Brothers – Gangsters
Coffee, Croissants, and Broken Dreams – Short Story Collection