I would like to start writing short stories, if for no other reason that it would be nice to actually finish something without having to commit several years of my life to it (and maybe also to have some content I can build an audience with while I’m working on my novel). But this would be a whole new format for me. I’m having a hard time coming up with ideas that I like.
I think what I really want to know is… what is a short story premise? What do I need before I start to make a short story? (especially as opposed to a novel, which is what I’m used to)
Also, if anyone would like to share their own short story process – from brainstorming to revising – I would love to hear it. Maybe what works for you could be helpful for me too.
(P.S. sorry if my edits to this question threw anyone off – I just realized that was a much more specific and useful way to ask)
That’s a great question!
Donald Miller said something like “a story is a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it.” I think that’s a pretty good definition and a good place to start.
A short story premise is usually a character who wants something, but there are obstacles or challenges between them and the thing they want. Unlike Miller’s definition, I think the character can achieve the goal or not (as in a tragedy).
Essentially, short stories have four elements:
When you have an “idea” it usually doesn’t include all four of those elements, usually just one or two. Maybe you have an idea for an interesting character, maybe it’s a cool plot twist, maybe it’s a really interesting setting. Whatever you have, start with that, and then just literally make up the rest. If you have a character, plop them somewhere (setting). If you have a plot twist, well then create a protagonist who will experience it.
When I write a short story but I don’t have a specific inspired idea I’m pursuing, I tend to start with a character who is facing some challenge, the more outlandish the better. A man who wants to murder his mother, a trash man who finds a whole dead deer at the curb, whatever… The challenge (or conflict) can be external, internal/emotional, or philosophical (a character choosing between two ways to understand the world). I begin describing the situation and go from there.
Sometimes I have a specific end in mind, other times I’m just exploring and letting situation unfold itself. The cool thing about writing short stories is that it’s not a massive time commitment, so it’s OK to just play. Unlike a novel where you might invest hundreds of hours (so you better have a plan to make sure it works), with a short story you can write for an hour and see what happens. Oftentimes, even if I have an end in mind, a short story will change by the time I actually get there.
When a short story seems to wander in the first draft, a great question to ask is, “what’s the moment that changed everything?” When you can identify that, focus in on that part of the story and tell it from there.
I have some resources that I use with the full-time apprentices at The Company for short story development which I hope to share here soon. In the meantime, I hope this helps!