Writing: Tips and Tricks

A Guide to Writing Short Stories

Don't make the mistake of seeing a short story as a novel that ran out of steam after a thousand words or so. The best short stories are designed to be short. Their impact is heightened by their length.

Another common mistake is to try and force a story to be short by cutting out character and world development and leaving out description. Although a short story should never have too much description (or there's no room for the story!) good characterisation is vital. The reader should feel as if they've been dropped into a complete world, where the characters are real and the history is rich; they can feel as though they've been given a short glimpse into another world.

There are no real length guidelines associated with a short story. You can have one which is one hundred words long or even less. Or they can be 7,000 words long. Don't pad your story, though. It's a sure sign of a beginner. A short story is lean, cut down as far as it can go. Each sentence should move the story forward. For more information, find yourself a good compilation of short stories and settle down to read it!

Sections covered

NOTE: Since TBD is a Science Fiction and Fantasy publication, these guidelines were written for those genres. Many of the ideas within can, and indeed should, also be applied to other short stories. There are some references provided.


Ideas can come from anywhere. Writers find inspiration from practically everywhere. Bubbles in the bath lead to wondering about a civilisation unknowingly trapped in a single bubble in an ocean. Passing a woman in a train station wheeling her luggage behind her might provide a character so vivid that the rest of the story just falls into place. If you're stuck for ideas, there are a few things you can try.

  • Think about an old story or a normal situation in a new way - Neil Gaiman's take on "Snow White" from the short story compilation "Smoke and Mirrors" is a good example of this.
  • Brainstorm. In its loosest form, this is simply a word association game, but it can be an effective way of generating ideas.
  • Read. Pick up a new book or a favourite book, and see what other people are up to. It need not even be related to the kind of story you want to write, since you're looking for new ideas, not ones that have been done.
  • Doodle. It's a fantastic way of keeping your creativity flowing. As much as possible keep away from drawing specific shapes, which are fun to do, but difficult to find patterns and stories in. Try simple cartoon faces, squiggly lines, odd costumes, or simple scenery. Don't worry if it's no good, just bin it!

An idea is not a story. However, without an idea, you have no story. It's always hard to tell which ideas are good and which are bad before the story itself is written, so try not to judge ideas too harshly, or you'll despair of ever finding good ideas!

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Developing your Ideas

A story is a simple thing, and well understood. We meet some people, something happens to them, and it's all somehow resolved at the end, for good or bad. This is a good place to start.

When writing science fiction stories, it is an easy thing to get caught up in the creation of the world, the universe where the story takes place. This is an important consideration, but should come second to the story itself. If in doubt about your story, try to summarise it; what actually happens? The world is the setting, but to form a true story there has to be some action.

For a while now I've wanted to write a story about a world in which there is no risk, and all the citizens regard any sort of risk as fool-hardy. While this is a fair idea, the story never got started. Why? Because there is no story there, just a setting. To make it a story, you need someone who chooses to take a risk, and follow the consequences.

A good place to start when planning your story is with the characters. Authors often say in interviews that the characters formed the story, and they simply wrote down what happened. (This method doesn't really work for me since characters don't tend to jump into my head fully-formed. If it works for you, use it!) Perhaps you start off with a disgruntled housewife who's husband ignores her. Or perhaps it's an old-fashioned American detective who drinks too much and makes a poor living from finding missing people. Play with different characters until you find one that sparks your interest.

You then need a plot. J. Michael Straczynski, creator of TV show Babylon 5, moves the story by creating conflict for his characters. This is a difficult method for short stories, however, since it requires some solid groundwork in allowing the reader to get to know your character. Another idea is to introduce an action to your character. So your housewife turns to drugs to escape her mundane life. The detective battles with suicidal feelings only resolved when he finally finds the victim in his last case. These are not plots by themselves, but they are the seeds from which stories grow.

Science fiction tends to be plot-driven; the stories are carefully planned to explore the repercussions of a certain theory or technology taken to the extreme. This is where your setting becomes important. The character and the plot provide the story. The setting provides the science fiction and often introduces a plot-twist that could never happen in the real world. In a SF universe, your drug-addicted housewife can develop psychic powers and use them against her husband. Your suicidal detective can be a robot. Perhaps he only discovers this after he's tried to kill himself and been repaired.

So one important rule of thumb is never to forget the story in a short story!

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Writing Fantasy

Fantasy stories tend to be either extremely stereotyped or extremely clever. This makes them quite difficult to write. Originality is key, and this is difficult to find in a fantasy story.

This is when writing old or tired stories from a new perspective can be useful. The mutiny on a pirate ship as observed by the parrot. The barbarian hero who is afraid of the dark. The wizard who has a stammer which makes all his spells go wrong.

In my observation, there are two types of fantasy story, which I'll call light and dark for the pleasing symmetry.

  • In "light" fantasy, the story follows the heroes on their adventure or quest. The characters tend to fall into certain categories: wizards, heroes, scribes, warriors, priests, or perhaps normal-people-in-an-unusual-situation. Together they use their skills to defeat the monsters and win the prize.
  • In "dark" fantasy (which is a recognised genre), the stories tend to be broader and have more depth. The defining point of dark fantasy is not the story or the characters, but the reaction of the reader. The reader is presented with a world at ninety degrees to reality, where all the night creatures that inhabit the shadows of our minds are let loose. While dark fantasy can be equally stereotypical as its light counterpart - consider, for example, many vampire stories - it has more flexibility, since most everyday experiences, however mundane, can become disturbing with just a small change.

So why write fantasy? It's a very popular and pleasing genre. In "light" fantasy, the journey to defeat the monsters and win the prize is pleasant to read if we care for the characters. It takes a special sort of skill to take a formulated tale and twist it into something that reads well and is non-formulaic. As to dark fantasy, well, there are those of us who enjoy exploring the darker side of the human psyche, whether reading it or writing it ourselves, and there's a fascination in taking the world we know and twisting it, then sitting back (metaphorically speaking) and watching the results!

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Spelling and Grammar

It has to be mentioned. It's my firm belief that grammar is an essential tool which is all too often misunderstood. A reader who has to stop to try and figure out what the writer meant will have much less patience than with a writer who uses grammar correctly. Good grammar and spelling improves the readability of any story.

If you're in doubt about how readable your document is, re-read it, or get someone else to read it. And read up on basic punctuation if you're not sure (I recommend learning the differences between your and you're and between there, their and they're. See References).

The most important thing about spelling is consistancy. By all means, use American spelling for your cowboy story. If you need to emphasise accents, then use dialect words which often have no standard spelling, or miss out letters (like g in -ing, for example). These steps will effect the tone of your story (see Tone). There is a difference between using poor spelling as part of your poetic license and plain sloppiness. Trust me, readers can spot the difference.

There's a book called "Feersum Endjinn" by Iain M. Banks in which wun uv the karicturs spels ivryfing foneticaly. You have to make an extra effort to understand what the character is saying. If you want to do that, you must be sure that the story is worth it for the reader.

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Believe it or not, stories don't always, or indeed usually, come together first time. The first time you write something, you get little more than the bare bones of the story and characters. Don't be afraid to make changes. In fact, if you're worried, you can always save it as a new file and go back to the original if necessary.

Re-writing gives you an opportunity to take a fresh look at your story. How does it read? Do you use, for example, flashback effectively? Does the whole thing hang together and make sense? Now is your chance to take a good short story and turn it into something special.

The other positive effect of re-writing is that, having written the story, you're now acquainted with your characters. So does the beginning of the story still work?

If it makes you feel any better about it, everyone rewrites, professional authors included. If you don't find something to improve, either you're a genius or you should read some more to find out what makes a good story. Most of us aren't geniuses.

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An important point, particularly in short stories. Short stories, like poems, rely heavily on the particular words chosen to convey their content. Film makers use lighting effects and mood music to put their viewer into the correct frame of mind. A short-story-writer has only their words.

At its most basic, the tone of a story is set by, for example, whether it is written in first person or third person, and how formal the language is. The best stories take the tone deeper than that, into the imagery they use, into the adjectives chosen. Consider:

The day was foggy, and Kevin was having trouble driving on the narrow road. Trees were narrowly missed as they appeared out of the mist. 'OK, I accept it, I'll have to stop. I can't drive under these conditions!' he remarked to Julie, who breathed a sigh of relief. When, a few minutes later, they arrived at a large building, Kevin pulled over.


The narrow road weaved through the mist. Kevin peered through the windscreen, swerving around trees and unnamed objects as they loomed into his vision. 'OK, I accept it, I'll have to stop. I can't drive under these conditions!' His teeth were clenched as he narrowly avoided another dark shape. Julie let out the breath she'd been holding in a relieved sigh. Long moments passed, both watching anxiously for an opportunity to stop. That was when the dark shape of an old, abandoned house became apparent through the haze.

The first paragraph contains the bare essentials - what happened, what it looked like and who was there. But in the second paragraph, containing the same details, the reader is drawn into the action. This is done by the careful use of description and phrasing.

Tips for finding the right tone? Again, re-write if it doesn't work. Cut down your words to the bare bones of what is needed. Consider the words you've used - is angry or furious more appropriate? Sometimes whole sentences can be re-worded. For stronger images, use metaphor instead of simile - cutting out the excess words like and as speeds up the text. For fast, tense sequences, use minimum punctuation, which slows down the pace. To build tension, use emotion-heavy words.

One final thing which affects the tone of your writing is the dialogue. People don't always speak pristine English, and it can make all the difference in the world if your characters don't. Characters are made by the things they say and the way they say them, and the reader gets to know them more intimately through dialogue than any amount of description. Be careful with accents, though, because it can be easy to get them wrong.

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Some Final Notes

Writing, good writing in particular, can be hard work. If you're finding it frustrating then you are beginning to appreciate this. It can also be very satisfying, so don't give up at the first obstacle.

No-one gets it right first time. So just write! If you want to get better, you just have to keep writing, evaluating, re-writing, moving on and going back when necessary. You'll learn fronm your past mistakes. This is a process everyone goes through. (In a comment in a compilation of Asimov's early fiction, he writes that a fan once complained that he introduced characters at the beginning of his story that were never heard from again. He notes that he always checked for that mistake later on.) As with everything else in life, no-one is born a good writer. They develop good writing skills.

So take heart, pick up your pen or turn on your computer, and try it! What do you have to lose?

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"The Early Asimov: Volume three" by Isaac Asimov
This contains many helpful comments by the author. There are similar compilations available, with comments, from other prominent authors.
"Smoke and Mirrors" by Neil Gaiman
A compilation containing short stories in many forms - a good indicator of the flexibility of both the short story and the genre of Dark Fantasy.
For tips about writing and getting published from Neil Gaiman, go to neilgaiman.com. See, for example, the FAQ section.
"Babylon 5": DVD Special features
J Michael Straczynski provides lots of information about how he writes Babylon 5.


The Aries guide to punctuation
Information about using punctuation correctly.
A free online dictionary. Be sure you're using the right word in the right place!
Guide to English Grammar
This is a variety of links to pages which contain information about English grammar.

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