I am a short-story novice, I will admit that straight up. Until last year, the only short stories I had any success with, were memoir or history based. None had any of the typical short story conventions you would expect, like character… or plot.
There are a wealth of courses about how to write short stories, how to perfect the form, nail the opening and I’m not going to go over any of that here, because – and I repeat – I am a short-story novice. But one thing I find lacking is information about the content of short stories. What you can write about, the plot, the story itself.
I grew up reading my dad’s collection of Jeffrey Archer, so naturally I returned to some of his short stories. Older style stories like Archer tend to feel heavy handed by comparison to today’s more lyrical prose, but they almost always have a twist or reveal. At the very least they have a definite and neat ending, something which many current short stories seem to deliberately avoid. Today’s literary short stories often have ambiguous endings, which can feel unfinished but not necessarily incomplete.
Here are some plot devices that you might consider using when writing short stories:
Ask a question within the opening paragraphs of your story from your protagonist or narrator’s point of view. Will I get the girl? Who stole the gold? Why did he disappear? What is in the box? Where did I leave my briefcase with my manuscript? Now both your character and reader are curious to find an answer.
Historical periphery where your story takes place on the margins of a well-known, historical event, giving it a different perspective.
The snapshot Your story is a short, slice of life, almost a memory of recollection of an extraordinary event (or an ordinary event made beautiful by capturing it in words).
Invert assumptions Switch the identity or value of something in the final lines of the story, make the reader realise they have made (incorrect) assumptions while reading. One of the best examples of this is Jeffrey Archer’s The Perfect Murder, which you can read for free here.
The running gag Choose a joke, image or motif that is repeated throughout the story.
The rivals Set up two characters who are in competition with each other, a great way to build tension. Naturally, they will become friends/lovers/partners by the end of the story. Or will they?
Getting away with it A lie, a murder, a robbery, an affair set up in the opening – the reader wants to know what happens – will they get away with it?
The situation Put a character in an unusual or uncommon situation and use the story to explore how they got there. A boy wakes up in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. A woman has a bleeding head and a bag of fish. A famous movie star has only fifty cents left and a sold gold statuette.
Every story has two sides Tell the same story from the point of view of two different characters.
The Parallel Where an event (or character) makes the protagonist recall a similar event (or character) and both are written about in parallel.
Sleight of hand When a single element that you slip by the reader, has the power to subvert the entire story. It might be that the narrator/protagonist is an animal or potplant, that they are dead, that they are the villain all along.
Sliding Doors Where the story can go two completely different ways as a consequence of a seemingly small detail.
First line set up Where the clue, answer or conclusion to the story is set up in the very first line/paragraph and repeated at the conclusion at which point it finally becomes clear/obvious.
If you’re still looking for an idea for a short story, you can use Reedsy’s short story plot generator. Even if you stumble on their character suggestions (when I generated a plot it gave me a college student who loves owls and a prosecutor who speaks Wookie) it does offer some great themes and twists which might inspire something.
What is your favourite short story?