Short stories that win all the prizes might at first seem like any ordinary short story but there is one thing all the winners share and it’s a secret weapon called deep structure.
In this post you’ll learn all of the tiny details and all of the techniques authors use when they write winning short stories.
These winners use a few seemingly unimportant narrative tricks which make all the difference. And, the judges and journals will notice the difference.
Ordinary Short Stories
First off, don’t mistake ordinary for not good. An ordinary story is a good thing. Write them as much as you can and as often as you can. Short stories are a terrific way to earn money if you’re publishing them as singles and even a better way to practice writing.
It’s not easy to write a story.
A novelist can quite often find writing them very hard. This is the art of telling a lot in very little space. At times it can be easier to write a novella or a novel.
Novels give you a lot of space to work with, you can put back stories in and you can develop various characters. Shorts don’t let you do that.
An ordinary story gives you space to develop one or two main characters in one defined time period and in one space.
An ordinary short story is a story that you write, proofread, edit, rewrite, get notes and rewrite again.
Freedom with Short Stories
This is a variation to the above rule and it’s specific for shorts. These is much more freedom in writing shorts just because of their length. This is the writing category that allows you to experiment.
You don’t need the hero’s journey story arc to have a story. A story about a leaf on a windy day might grab readers’ attention far more.
Short stories are a platform for developing styles and breaking the rules.
Experiment with this format as much as you’d like.
Editing Tips for Short Stories
Shorts don’t seek as much attention as novellas and novels – obviously. But, a few thing you can do to improve the readers’ experience will make a lot of difference.
Check your grammar. It’s very annoying to read and find an error. The author and the publisher loose credibility immediately.
Check for typos. It’s often possible to read a hundred times and still not see a typo. That is because you wrote the piece and you expect to see what you wrote. So, if you wrote ‘write’ instead of ‘wrote’ you will easily miss it. But, you can always ask someone to take a look.
As long as someone is taking a look, you should ask them to underline every word they think doesn’t fit the tone. You don’t need to change every word but rethink those words.
Also, avoid too menu gerunds and adverbs. They put readers to sleep. I’m fond of adverbs but the fact is they bore readers and you can show in a most interesting way that someone yelled angrily.
And one tip from a professional editor to improve an ordinary story: don’t let all your sentences and paragraphs be the same length. Split them, have a variety. This will give micro-pace to your story.
Aiming for Deep Structure in Short Stories
There are three major things I’ll introduce here with some ideas on how to achieve them.
- Having a Subplot
- Introducing an Emblem
- Creating Unity
Having a Subplot in Short Stories
This is a bit odd. Having a subplot in shorts is just the thing we said the amount of space doesn’t allow. Yet, having a little story aside will improve the quality.
This subplot will be nothing like a subplot in a novel or a novella. In a novella you have space for one real subplot but that’s about it. Two at the most.
In short stories, your subplot will be a scene that is only partially related to the main plot and it won’t include much action that contributes to the story progression.
This usually serves as a reason for something or as a window in character’s soul.
Write a scene that has your protagonist in a situation that isn’t very much story-related but that shows what the character is.
In Killing the Immortal I wrote a scene that ultimately triggers the events but is a complete opposite of what the story actually is. This small subplot is a more grounded scene than the rest of the story where characters deal with something that is far more divine or unearthly. The protagonist visits a rooster fight where he made a bet and afterwards chats with an annoying rich man.
Introducing an Emblem in Short Stories
Emblem should appear in every short story. It’s a strong image or statement that ultimately defines your story. When readers think of the story, they think of the emblem.
But a trick to use an emblem well is to echo it at the end. This gives your story a nice narrative arc.
You can do it in two popular ways.
Echo an Image
Have your protagonist see an object in one state (e.g. shiny cross on top of a church) and the emblem mirror their inner state.
Let’s say the things go downhill for your protagonist and by the end of the story in the mist of events the cross on the church is crooked.
This is a strong image explaining the state of mind of your protagonist. It’s also a good way to use symbols without letting them become a cliche.
Using symbols can be dangerous because if you’re not careful you’ll realize you wrote a Dan Brown novel, and not a short story polished for competitions.
Echo a Statement
It usually is that a statement from the beginning of your story is repeated in an ironic tone at the end.
This is to show your protagonist’s change after the events took place.
If you have someone who is a lucky gambler completely sure of their fortunes, they loose everything by the end, they would ironically tell someone of their good relationship with the lady fortune. It goes to show they realized how uncertain life is and how they progress as a person.
It’s a neat way to show the character arc wrap up.
Create Unity in Short Stories
There are three ways to achieve this easily. The sense of unity in a story is a winner for judges. It’s best done at the end of the story.
Your story needs to have a strong opener and a strong closing line. These two lines are the most important lines because they serve as a hook and as a lasting impression.
To create it do one of the things listed below.
Repeat a Theme
The theme you set up in your first paragraph should be repeated in the last. By doing so, you’ll create a strong sense of closure.
This can also be an ironic phrase showing the change or it can be a strong statement repeated with a new meaning.
You can use a setting to achieve the same effect. In the first scene the spring winds are slowly melting the ice and snow while the last scene sees the first green leaves of spring.
Repeating a theme shows how much you know your story. And it shows how much you know the meaning of your story. This is a winner by itself.
Fading Out with Elegance
A character walking away in the fog of Victorian London is somewhat a cliche but it’s only the case because it’s good and it gets used.
Having such a closure and leaving that image in reader’s head is a strong notion. Have that last paragraph leave a good impression.
The best way to do it is the elegant fade-out.
The last line doesn’t have to add to the plot. It only needs to leave a lasting effect – no pressure.
Finish with a Question
This is a common way to end a story with a strong sense of unity. This is a device that makes readers rewind the whole story upon reading it, so they can answer your question.
Once the storm turns into calm, have the protagonist be unsure of the results and tell the readers the protagonist did not know if there was anything achieved (for example).
Readers will then try to figure it out.
Or, better yet, end with a few lines of dialogue where someone asks a rhetorical question and it throws the protagonist back into the story to rethink it. Again, we are left unsure.
Uncertainty is a strong concept for ending a story and it can be pulled off if you spend enough time about all the things readers might think of. At times, it’s not a smart move and the story can only seem vague.
Be careful with this tool.
These were the best devices you can use to create a lasting effect on readers and get more attention from judges. Use them well and practice them.
I can’t stress enough the importance of practicing.
Have a pile of shorts that are waiting for your attention. Have a pile of short stories that can’t be pulled off. Just write them all.
This is a magnificent platform which I am very fond of so I praise it immensely. It will allow you to bend the rules and discover your voice.
Author: Mladen Reljanović
Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.