Short Story Tips
Plan and practice.
Finding which genre (short story, argumentative speech, personal essay, etc.) in the ‘Composition’/’Personal Writing’ part of the exam works best for you takes time and a lot of practice. When you have found which one you are most comfortable with, work on it.
If you choose the short story question in the exam, make sure you’ve written many of them until you’ve found a ‘pattern’ that works best for you.
Remember: short stories do not ‘tell’ us what is happening. They ‘show’ us.
It can be useful to keep a record of good descriptive phrases and descriptions that you like and have used, as well as some ‘connecting’ or ‘transition’ words and phrases that you have practices – remember, your story must flow naturally!
Imagine your story in stages – again, just ensure that the plot flows naturally. Be sure that you understand your characters and their world before you begin planning.
If you ‘hit a wall’ in the plot, ask yourself “What if…?” to explore some possibilities. Don’t be afraid to draw inspiration from the texts in the exam paper, or from something in the news or in a book, a short story, film, TV series, fairy tale, etc. – never copy it, get inspiration from it!
Always draw/write plan in your answer booklet. Some may also find it useful to make a short list of ‘techniques’ to use.
In your plan and in your answer, make sure you are answering the question. Do not ignore the details of the task you are being set.
You’ll find that if you have written a few very good stories you can adapt them to suit almost any question. This will take practice!
Capture the reader’s attention from the first sentence, and keep them in suspense.
You want to get the reader’s attention straight away and make them eager to continue reading.
Start the story in ‘the middle’ of a specific event/situation and keep the reader guessing about what is happening; instead of starting with what happened just before the ‘big moment’, start with the big moment or just after it.
Opening paragraph may be started with a detailed description – a vivid image of a place, thing or person (e.g. “A battered black bowler hat sat snugly above the stout man’s large ears and unkempt beard as he paced restlessly by the windows – gnarled hands clasped tightly behind his back.”).
Instead, you might start with a series of short sentences, rhetorical questions, dialogue or a shocking/abrupt statement to create tension or an air of mystery, (e.g. “She dropped the gun. He was dead. The silence was deafening.”).
Economise: one setting, one event, one/two characters.
Create an appropriate mood and atmosphere. This can be achieved by appealing to the senses – what is heard/seen/felt/smelt?
By keeping the number of characters to one or two, you can focus on revealing more about them and the situation they are in. These details are revealed through actions, thoughts, dialogue, physical appearance, and interaction with others’ and their surroundings. Don’t reveal it all in one paragraph – that’s overkill. Tease it out so that the reader becomes gradually familiar with the character.
The ‘middle’ or ‘development’ part of the story should draw the reader in – arouse their curiosity and draw them in closer to the story. The development may involve a challenge/complication for the character.
Be specific when using detailed descriptions and vivid imagery to help the reader visualise – show don’t tell, and vary your vocabulary!
Keep the reader guessing.
Delay revealing an important detail, such as the setting, who the character is, what is happening, etc.
End with a bang: leave the story on a cliffhanger and the reader in suspense. For example, you may revisit where the story started – raise or answer a question which emerged, reveal an important detail, have your character (about to) make a difficult decision or experience a revelation, etc.
Alternatively, you may reach a ‘resolution’ and ‘tie up the knots’ to the story. This does not mean you summarise everything that happens next!
Endings can be tricky to do well (avoid the expected!), so try out a few ways. Just remember that a short story is a brief insight to a person/situation – not the character’s life story or the complete story to an event.
Always ask your teacher for feedback on short story questions that you answer.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a bit more detail or ideas on how to develop/improve your story – we’re here to help!