Writing Short Stories: A Mini Course by Kate Thornton Part I

Kate Thornton is a retired US Army officer who enjoys writing both mysteries and science fiction. With over 100 short stories in print, she teaches a short story class and is currently working on a series of romantic suspense novels. She divides her time between Southern California and Tucson, Arizona.

Today, Kate presents the first part of a mini course, in a question and answer format, on writing short fiction.


How long is a short story?

Here are the official lengths from the Short Mystery Fiction Society (the folks who award the Derringer prizes each year)

Flash Story Up to 500 words
Short-short Story 501 to 2000 words
Mid-length Short Story 2001 to 6000 words
Longer Short Story 6001 to 15,000 words

Remember: every venue in which you wish to publish will have their own idea of what lengths they will accept.

What makes it different from a chapter of a novel?

A short story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is limited to one main plot point and the cast of characters is of necessity short. It tells a complete story with a resolution or revelation of some sort at the end.

A written scene without these completing elements is a snapshot or vignette, not a short story.

You may certainly use characters, settings, chapters or scenes from your novel in a short story, but your short story must stand alone as a complete story all by itself. It must have an ending, even if you – or the reader! – do not agree with the denouement or ending.

What’s more important, setting, plot or characters?

They are all important. But while you may have the luxury of exploring settings in great detail in a novel, using multiple plot twists and turns, and an array of characters right out of Cecil B. DeMille, in a short story you must narrow your focus. The shorter your story, the more important it is to write concisely and to keep the telling of your tale simple while retaining its color, premise, style and voice.

First person? Third person? Omniscient Narrator?

Whatever works for your story. I have read beautifully-written short stories comprised entirely of dialogue. Beware when using a narration technique that you do not just dump the story on the reader by telling, not showing. Even a very short story must be interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention. I like the way first person makes the reader an immediate part of the story. But I like the way third person omniscient can make the reader privy to every secret, every action as it unfolds.

I want to write a short story. Where do I get ideas?

Good – let’s try writing a short story. Ideas come from everywhere, but I find that themed contests and exercises (“Write a story based on this picture!” or “Write a story about sheep!” or “Write a story with a lemon, a goat and an alien princess in it!”) can be very good jump-starters.

Other ideas can be a childhood incident or other real-life event. Remember you are writing a piece of fiction, not a memoir, so make sure you have that old beginning, middle and end.

One of the best exercises you can do if you want to write short stories is read them. Read in the genres in which you want to write – and the ones you don’t. Read the masters: O. Henry, Saki, Sommerset Maugham, Edgar Allen Poe. Read Guy de Maupassant, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson. Go here for some great classics

You will not only get ideas, you will get a feel for the short story form. You will also see how language has changed over the last hundred years or so.

Now read some contemporary shorts: Ed Hoch, Stephen King, Raymond Carver, (here’s a link to one of his, “Vitamins” in Granta) Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Chabon, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore.

Look at the differences, but more importantly, look at what is the same. Look at the “bones” of the story, the structure as well as the sheer reader’s delight of total immersion in a good story.

Now, try to write a short story of your own. Don’t hesitate – start writing now. Write until you have all three elements (beginning, middle, end.)

Tinker with that first sentence until it makes you want to read more. This is your “hook” – hook those readers up front. Remember those classic stories?

Help! I wrote a story, but…

Congratulations on writing a story – now let’s tighten it up. Every first draft of a story can use some improvement. Take your newly-finished work and put it away for a few days. Write something else in the meantime. Remember – there is no limit to what you can write.

Some time later, take it out and read it aloud. You’ll probably find a few things you need to fix right away.

Here’s how I tighten a story – I have been known to successfully reduce a rambling 2,000 word story to a succinct 500 word short-short – without losing the essence of the story. I go through it and take out all the -ly words first. Adverbs are not your friends. (Okay, maybe I leave in one or two. But what do they contribute to the story?) Next, I look at the dialogue tags – the “he said, she saids.” Do they make sense? Are they monotonous? Too colorful? Confusing?

Next, I read for extraneous phrases which do not advance the story. They may be beautifully-written pieces of deathless prose, but if they do not advance the story, out they go.

Finally, I read for pacing and continuity. Does the story unfold smoothly and at the right pace? Does stuff happen in the right order? Did I forget a name, change a hair color by mistake, forget that it was night in one part and day in the other? Do I need to change a few sentences around to make them clearer, smoother, more readable? Do I need to ditch a sentence or two entirely? And why did I name the heroine Gypsophylla when Lisa is a better fit? (Yippee for find-and-replace!)

With any luck, skill & effort, your story is now a better one.

Tune in on February 10 for the rest of the Mini Course, beginning with Marketing!

21 thoughts on “Writing Short Stories: A Mini Course by Kate Thornton Part I”

  1. WOW! Thanks for that mini course. You jammed so much into your… peanut butter and jam sandwich (wink) article that I feel I need several meals to eat it all.
    Story-chapter-vignette, that's always my problem. I will try harder to get that begining, middle & end, and a “complete story” into my next effort.
    And I love your “ideas” paragraph. It just so happens my next post on WinR will be on that subject too. For me, ideas are not the problem, it's the fleshing it out and forming it into a complete story. You've helped me with this post. Thanks!


  2. Writing a short story is very different from writing a novel, as your insightful post points out. You taught me how to turn a vignette into a short story many years ago and I'm still grateful. Thanks again for the lesson.


  3. Miko, you are so very welcome! One of the truly rewarding things about teaching the short story class was watching my students go on to publish beautiful and award-winning stories.


  4. Just recently read In the Canyon of Madness: A Lovecraftian Tale of the Old West, loved it, and your wonderful story reminded me how important short stories are in the reading/writing world. It was perfect for the time I chose to read, and the immediacy of the emotion and resolution were just what I needed on a chilly afternoon. The first story I ever had published was a short story way-back-way-back, so your post today brought back fond memories! Great post, excellent information.


  5. I had been reading short stories for years. The Readers' Digest and Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley. I figured they were only written by ultra famous people. Then I read one of Jan Burke's collections of short stories and I know Jan. Maybe I could write one. I wrote my first Johnny Casino story and it got in a Sisters-in-Crime anthology. I garnered good reviews and wrote more and wanted to put them into a book of short stories. Could that be done? Then I heard Ray Bradbury say how his publisher said if he put his collection of science fiction tales in one book, connecting them somehow, they would be published. The Martian Chronicles was the result. My Johnny Casino Casebooks 1,2 & 3 were my results. Yeah, short stories, just like you said, Kate, are a great way to tell a story or two.


  6. Great post, Kate. I like writing short stories but always struggle with getting them right. I'm pasting a sign over my laptop: Beginning-Middle-End.
    PS Would love to see what you'd do with the lemon, goat, and alien princess!


  7. Thanks again, Kate. I think I got a version of this once, not quite so detailed. But lack of detail was made up for by the fact that we were sailing to Mexico at the time 😉 Can't wait for the marketing tips!


  8. I nearly lost my appetite watching Estelle, Princess of the Seventy Moons, gorging on her dinner. It wasn't the food, goat seasoned with fresh lemons and a delicate hint of thyme, as much as the way Her Highness' mandibles slopped into the bowl and dragged dripping pieces of the raw creature into her pulsating maw. After all, I was eating from the same bowl, the result of losing a bet at Stinky Puffer's, my favorite drinking establishment. But the Princess had a distinct advantage in the goat-eating contest. I grabbed another piece of the aromatic meat with my chopsticks just as Her Highness touched the same piece of meat with the tentacles swirling around her face.
    Now you've done it, I thought. By sharing the meat, the Princess had inadvertently signaled her wish for a mating ritual. I sighed. The Princess wasn't my cup of tea, what with looking like a demented cross between a lizard and a grasshopper, but a bet was a bet, especially in Stinky's, with about half the pilots in that sector cheering me on.
    I stood up and removed my gloves. It wasn't my first encounter with alien mating, or even with a princess, but it was my first time eating raw goat. I burped.
    The Princess switched her tail back and forth and dropped the meat. She made a loud gurgling noise and chafed her front legs together until they produced a scaly rasping noise.
    “Captain Sullivan,” the translator droid wheeled to my side. “Her Highness indicates a willingness to suspend the contest, if you will agree. She concedes the victory to you, and begs your indulgence.”
    I didn't want anyone to see my relief at this bit of news. And I especially didn't want to mate with this particular lizard, what with all that goat's blood and lemon in my belly. Instead, I feigned disappointment. “Well, okay, but I think we were just getting started.” I burped again.
    “Perhaps a rematch could be arranged,” the droid said in that smooth diplomat's voice as it slipped a flash drive into my pocket.
    “Perhaps indeed,” I agreed, wanting very much to get back to my ship and vomit, the ladies room in Stinky Puffer's being too dirty for any human activity. “My compliments to Her Highness,” I said, gathering my gloves, a few gold credits and my co-pilot, N'Doro. “C'mon, N'Doro, let's get outta here.”
    I dragged my gorgeous but not-too-swift co-pilot out into the street and hailed a hovercab. Once onboard the Linda Rae I went directly to the head, lost all that lovely raw goat, and rinsed the blood out of my mouth with the last of some really good Rigelian liquor.
    We were out of there and half-way to Toshiba Station before I remembered the flash drive. I stuck it into the console and pulled up the display.
    I have to admit that being found too unattractive for a lizard bug thing – even a royal one – was sort of a blow to my vanity. After all, I was still a reasonably attractive woman by prevailing human standards. I resolved to confirm that once we got to Toshiba where there was plenty of humanoid company.
    The message from the translator droid was a pictorial instruction manual for mating with a lizardy grasshopper princess if you happened to be humanoid of any gender. I was surprised to find out what would have been expected of me and dismayed that we hadn't continued the encounter. In addition to being the first time I had ever mated with that particular species, it would have been the first time that a mating ritual had involved my partner cooking food with their own fire-breathing apparatus. My little dragon princess would have cooked the goat for me. I've never had barbecued goat. With lemon, even.


  9. Kate, this is a terrific post. Loved it. Thanks for the link to the short stories. Lots of good ones there. Carver's are tops and I love Hemingway's. Especially Hills Like White Elephants. We're always told to show and not tell. Elephants is a great example of just that. All dialogue, some action, and description and the interpretation left to the reader. Love the different ways you revise, passing thru each time and looking for specific things. I have a weasel word list–words I overuse. Always do a pass thru a story to make sure those are at a minimum. There's so much to like about this post I'm going to share it on FB with my pals. Wonderful. Thank you. Paul


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