Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Conquering the Short Story

By D.M. Bonanno
2004, D.M. Bonanno

Mountain?  No Problem.  Molehill?  Run!

Many writers can come up with a novel idea, plot out a basic outline or background and develop a cast of life-like characters without tearing out their hair.  They're ready and eager to get the novel going. When it comes to short story writing, though, some of these same writers choke.  

I know because I choked. I spent years struggling to write short stories because my ideas were either novels in disguise or incomplete stories.  I frequently said, "I'm not good at writing short stories," when in fact I just hadn't figured out the method that worked best for me. 

There are many sources of help for the person who wants to write short stories.  Handbook of Short Story Writing, written by a conglomerate of writers, focuses on various aspects of short story telling.  Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction covers the entire process from writing exercises to idea construction to writing and revision.  Finding the Elusive Short Story, written by Lazette Gifford and located on, focuses on the point of the short story: story is event. 

Each of these sources brought me to an understanding of forming sensible goals for short story telling.  I reached a point where I finished stories instead of abandoning them as failures, but I didn't like them.  I didn't even show them to my trusted first readers.  How could I when the stories didn't live up to my own expectations?

I scoured these sources again, highlighted critical points, and devised my own method.  So far, it's working.  Prior to developing this method, I could complete one to two short stories a year, with half a dozen failed efforts in between.  In three months, I started and completed five short stories using this method. 

Method of Short Story Planning

What does a short story require in order to be told as it deserves?  Several components should be readily accessible at every stage of the short story, from the spark of the idea all the way through revision.  I created a template in Microsoft Word containing these components.  When I'm ready to work on an idea, I open my template and save it as a "Story Title Notes" file.  I plug what I know of the story into the template and complete the rest of the information as I work it out in my head.  This exercise can take as much as a few hours, but when I've completed the template, I can clearly see my goals for the story.  The strong points will shine and the weak points will be gaping holes on the page.  At this point, I know what requires fixing before I attempt the first draft.

An annotated version of my template is included below.

* * *

Components of the Notes File

Idea: Simplified description of the story idea. 

Theme: The focus of the story; the point it makes.

Plot: Usually several sentences long, this component is the key.  If it needs more than a paragraph, that's the first clue that it's too complicated for a short story.  I either scale it back to accommodate the Idea more realistically or drop the idea into my novel ideas file for future development.

Setting: General feel or mood of the surroundings.  Identifying where and how the mood will change keeps me on track from beginning to end.  It's easy to forget this in the excitement of writing and the resulting short stories are the primary culprits, who aren't worthy of occupying my trash bin.

Scene Location: Physical description of the story location.  Knowing what exists around the characters, I can maintain consistency with symbolic objects and places.  If there's more than one location, I write a paragraph (or bulleted list) about each.  This can be especially helpful in echoing the opening in the closing, a powerful tool in short story writing.

Conflict: Conflict can be internal or external, though most of the time I document both kinds.  I bold it or type it in color.  I refer to this when writing character actions and dialogue.  Without conflict driving the characters onward, the story will be lifeless.

Event: I try to describe the event in one or two sentences, but here is where I must exercise control.  The event is the whole point of the short story and what sets it apart from a novel.  A novel or novella tells a story of several events often leading up to one enormously critical event.  If I can't focus on one event here, then this isn't meant to be a short story.   However, I try to flesh it out some more before I discard it.  Sometimes I find that the story I wanted to write isn't quite the event I thought it was.

Characters: For each character in the story, I define personality, unusual behaviors, drives, and emotional state. I include additional information that pertains to the character's role in the story as well.  Deciding on these basics ahead of the first draft clearly illustrates the changes the characters experience so that I can write them better the first time.

Background: The most terrifying thing about a short story is that there isn't much room to tell it.   It doesn't exist in a hole, though, so I need to know what has happened to create this event I want to write.  Summarization is enough, but I bullet or highlight the points I need to work into the story naturally.  Using this information as secrets that are revealed at various points increases suspense and strengthens the story. 

Outline: Bulleting this section guides me through the story from point to point.   Generally, I use ten points to identify the flow of the story, breaking it into action and dialogue that need to be included for the story to work.  When writing the first draft, these events can change drastically, but this is the map that directs me from the beginning to a definite end.

* * *

Nothing in this Notes file ever nails my characters to one path.  I keep this file open while I write the first draft and update it as I explore the changes I am compelled to make.  This document is a guide and its purpose is to show me the story I intend to write.  I can identify potential problems before writing in order to deal with them before I become frustrated.  If I wait for these problems to arise during the writing phase, chances are I won't finish the story. 

Using this method, I use my creative energy to develop the story's full potential, breaking through problems and filtering through unnecessary information.  All it takes is about two single-spaced pages.  I can now enjoy writing a short story and no longer have to wait for inspiration to complete one.  I don't agonize over a ruined first draft anymore.  I write to my full expectations.   


This method has also served me well in revising weak stories.  In the past month alone, I have salvaged two such projects and wrote them to completion. 

This method is my salvation, but it may not be yours.  Use what you can take from it.  Remove what doesn't help you and add what you need to truly understand what you're about to write.  If my method doesn't work for you, I urge you to devise your own.  Analyze your weaknesses and break them down into manageable chunks.  Climb your molehill. 

Conquer that short story. 



1. Creating Short Fiction, by Damon Knight (St. Martin's Griffon) ISBN 0-312-15094-6

2. Handbook of Short Story Writing, Edited by Frank A. Dickson and Sandra Smythe (Writer's Digest Books) ISBN 0-89879-049-2

3. "Finding the Elusive Short Story" by Lazette Gifford,  (Site log-in necessary to view class)