If you are writing a short story, you need two main ingredients: characters and plot. You must have people*, and they must be doing something.
[*Animal stories succeed because of anthropomorphism, which is when human shapes or characteristics are given to a god, animal or inanimate thing. The old stories of the Greek gods employed this means of enlivening their subjects. Children’s stories use it often.]
Most writers advise starting with the characters. Create powerful and interesting characters, and then put them into situations involving conflict and/or difficulty of some kind which they have to work through – and that becomes your plot.
Here are some guidelines for your characters:
• The short story should have only two or maybe three main characters.
• These main characters will only deal with a few relevant aspects of their character, and may be scarcely described, leaving that to the reader’s imagination, unless it is crucial to the story. In a short story, you don’t have room for extensive descriptions
• Any other characters involved need not even be named, let alone described – they’re the supporting cast only.
Since short stories can range from about 500 – 5000 words long, obviously the plot should only be as complicated as the word count allows. This requires focus. No words can be wasted describing any character or event that doesn’t actually add to the story in some way. Most of the shortest stories rely on a very simple plot with an unexpected twist at the end to provide more interest. In fact, some magazines only want stories with a very specific ‘recipe’, such as a dark twist to the end of the story.
Why is conflict so important to a story? Ask yourself: have you ever persevered with reading a story in which everything is easy for the character? The sun is always shining, people are always happy and getting along nicely. No, you probably wouldn’t bother with such a story – because there’s nothing happening.
While people may complain about the excessive ‘bad news’ always filling our newspapers, the fact is, conflict sells. If you don’t see any newspapers specializing in selling good news only, it is because people don’t buy enough of them.
Even in a ‘good’ story, we like to read about the difficulties other people have, because we like to see them overcome, and thus we feel we too can overcome our trials.
Viewpoint, dialogue, setting, flashbacks if used, titles and so on, are the supporting structures of a good story, no matter how long it is.
Draw readers in with an enticing beginning, keep them interested by what your characters are doing, and wrap it up with a satisfying conclusion.