I’m writing a collection of short stories to be published as a book, and I found a post on the Writer’s Digest website written by Lisa Cupolo which is interesting.
Lisa Cupolo is the author of Have Mercy on Us (January, 2023; Regal House), which won the W.S. Porter Prize for a short story collection. Born in Niagara Falls, Canada, she has lived and worked all over the world but currently resided in Southern California, where she has taught fiction writing at Chapman University.
She says, “When writing my short story collection Have Mercy on Us, my biggest challenge was not getting too lost in my character’s backstory and presenting the trouble of the story right from the start.
“A novel tells us everything while the short story only tells us one thing,” V.S. Pritchard said. This is a great premise to hold onto while writing a short story; stories are a window into a life, not the whole enchilada.
These five tips for making sure you’re creating enough conflict to keep your reader turning the pages may seem like basics, but I still use them as good reminders about what’s crucial to writing an engaging short story. Often, I’ll write an entire draft and forget about a few of these necessary elements. But always, they show themselves through many revisions, as they are always necessary to make a story really sing.
1. Have your character want something.
Your character needs to be presented in a way that they desire something, but they do not have it yet. It can be a possession, a person, even a trip to somewhere. In the title story of my book, Alina is stalking her daughter’s boyfriend in a creepy way. In the first paragraph we learn she is outside the boyfriend’s apartment every morning, in the afternoons she’s at the coffee shop when he gets his cup of joe, she’s hoping he’ll be haunted by her presence.
He is the reason her daughter is in trouble, the story declares. I wrote this line after many revisions as I knew I had to be upfront about the conflict in the story. In this way, the reader wants to find out what the guy did to her daughter, and feels empathy for the mother in the situation.
2. Create a situation that involves danger.
Any kind of danger, from seeing a suspicious text on a spouse’s phone to being caught in a bank robbery. The tension of that situation is what carries the story forward and becomes its anchor. Unlike novels, every sentence in a short story has to involve developing the plot or revealing more about the character.
In revision, I tend to move paragraphs and reshape the way a story unfolds, not unlike rearranging furniture in a room. I cut big chunks that don’t need to be there, like taking out that old sofa you love, but in the end, it has to go.
In my story, “How I Became A Banker,” the first line is, When I was twelve I made a promise to myself, that I’d make a shitload of money. The reader immediately wants to know why the narrator made such a promise and at such a young age. Again, I didn’t come to this line until after many revisions.
3. Conjure up complications.
Whatever the situation you create, add some complication to it: Nicola is tempted to flirt with the tattoo artist, and does so, and then discovers that the tattoo artist’s assistant is an old school buddy of her boyfriend. She flirts because she is determined to ruin her life, her goal is self-destruction, not messing up her relationship.
It’s complicated and sorrowful and the reader is hooked. Be on the lookout for plots that surprise you. It’s usually a good thing.
4. Hide the real problem.
“It’s not the mud on the floor,” my mother used to say. She meant it as a metaphor for when things go wrong and it seems it’s one thing that’s bothering a person, but it’s usually something else.
For example, in my story “You’re Here Now,” Sylvie has never met her father but she’s on the way to his funeral. The story seems to be about the loss of ever having a relationship with her father, but the reader soon realizes the story is about the resentment she has toward her mother, who never let her see her father or his large family. It’s the hidden thing, the complication behind what is initially presented that can make stories so rich.
5. Make sure the readers know the trouble early, like a few paragraphs in.
It’s almost a cliché to say write a story and then delete the first two pages to get to the “heat” or “pulse” of it.
In Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the first line gives trouble that seems minor, though it will lead to the catastrophe at the end: The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. It can be as simple as that, to start.”
I would add that there is almost no space for backstory in a short story. For this reason, any essential history about a character (and it really has to be essential – not nice to know) has to be inserted cleverly into dialogue or into brief descriptions of the character.