Once upon a time… you may have started a short story like this. Then, you may have concluded with “and they lived happily ever after.” In high school, this won’t get you your fairytale assignment or exam grade.
In this article, I go through the features of a creative short story. I have also provided some tips on how to write a short story exposition and ending with examples to demonstrate.
Features of a Short Story
In Media Res
In media res is Latin for “in the middle of things.” This means that you start your story in the middle of the action. As you keep writing, you can then give more information about the characters, setting and conflict through the subsequent events, or even through flashbacks.
The benefit of the in media res structure is that it makes your story hook more exciting because a crucial, action-packed event is taking place. Think about whether it’s more captivating to start a story with your character getting out of bed or chasing a thief.
Linear or Non-Linear Structure
Often, due to word limits, short stories are written in a linear structure, where the events are told in chronological order with no deviations. That being said, you can add flashbacks or flashforwards.
Flashbacks take the reader back in time to show what occurred in the past. Flashbacks can be an actual scene or just be a character’s thoughts in the form of a memory. Use flashbacks when you want to give more context around what’s happening in the present. Flashforwards are the opposite as they transport the reader into the future to shape their expectations for what is to come.
Flashbacks can be an actual scene or just be a character’s thoughts in the form of a memory.
Events and Backstory
A common mistake in short story writing is trying to pack in too many events or not providing enough backstory to set the scene. This makes it confusing for the reader.
Focus your story on what is important and make it easy enough to follow. Remember, just because the story makes perfect sense to you doesn’t mean it will make sense to others. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has never heard anything about your story before.
Just as you should try to limit the number of events in your story, you should also try to minimise the number of characters. This will also help you to stay within the word limit and avoid reader confusion. Always name your characters.
Point of View
Point of view is the perspective through which your story is told. It shapes how the reader experiences the story, whether it be first person, second person or third person. Here is an outline of each of these points of view:
First Person: The narrator is a character in the story. “I” and “we” are the relevant pronouns.
Second Person: You are brought into the story as a character. “You” is the relevant pronoun.
Third Person: The narrator is describing the action from an outside perspective. “He/him,” “she/her” and “they/them” are the relevant pronouns.
Ensure you keep your pronouns consistent. It is easy to accidentally switch between points of view. In short stories, the best and easiest option is to only include one perspective. Including more than one point of view or jumping between the points of view of different characters complicates your story and makes it confusing.
You can write a story in past, present or future tense, though the latter is rare.
Here is an outline of each of these tenses:
Past: The events already happened. Think of words ending in “ed.”
Present: The events are happening now as the story is being told.
Future: The events have not happened yet. The story outlines what “will” happen.
Whichever tense you choose, ensure you stay consistent. Inconsistent tense is both incorrect and confusing.
Show, Don't Tell
Put simply, “show, don’t tell” means to avoid spelling out everything. If the point you are trying to make is that it was stormy outside, you wouldn’t say this exactly because that would be telling. Instead, you would help the reader discover this for themselves through the actions, dialogue, thoughts and senses you include. Here are some examples:
Showing: It was stormy outside.
Telling: Golf balls pounded the tin roof and blinding flashes lit the inky sky as the children huddled under their bed.
Showing: She was scared about giving the speech.
Telling: Her fingers shook as she stood at the podium, gulping as her eyes flicked between her speech notes and the dark silhouettes below.
I was taught to think of this rule as “show, don’t ONLY tell.” This is because you do need to tell sometimes, especially when you want the story to move along quickly. Your story would become too long-winded and hard to digest if you don’t include any telling.
I was taught to think of this rule as “show, don’t ONLY tell.” This is because you do need to tell sometimes...
It’s always a good idea to include figurative language to make your creative writing more interesting and tick off the assessment criteria requirements. Examples of figurative language include similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, alliteration, onomatopoeia and idioms.
Short Story Example
The short story excerpts in the sections below are part of a short story I wrote in Year 11 English. We had to write a story in the post-apocalyptic genre. I chose to base my story on the Amazon rainforest repossessing land that was previously under the control of humankind. I wrote my story in past tense from the first person perspective of my protagonist.
How to Write a Short Story Exposition
As mentioned previously, try to start your short story in the middle of the action. Give some backstory so the story makes sense, but don’t give all of the backstory at once without any action.
Example Short Story Exposition:
It was as if the world was in fast forward and my body was on pause. The creepers and tree branches were crawling towards me rapidly, but my body was failing to react. Thick vines strangled my neck, while knotted roots swamped my body, chaining me to the Earth. A voice was screaming at me, a barely decipherable roar amid my desperate gasps for air.
In the next moment I was back inside my body again, no longer watching from afar. A face loomed above me, wide-eyed and frantic. He was wrenching at the foliage enveloping me and I was struggling against the force of nature. But nature was intent on fighting back; on seeking revenge. Before I could manage a scream, a moss-covered vine crawled over my entire face, plunging the evergreen world into darkness.
How to Write a Short Story Ending
Make sure you give the reader a sense of satisfaction at the end of the story; this is why it is called a resolution. However, this doesn’t mean your ending can’t be implicit.
Example Short Story Ending:
From my perch two-hundred-feet above ground, I could see that the rainforest extended in every direction as far as the eye could see. Josh sat opposite me, balanced on another horizontal branch stemming from the Kapok. In the distance was the glimmer of the Amazon river, winding through the trees. I hadn’t yet asked Josh how I came to be where I was, rather than a flattened corpse resting at the base of the Kapok’s trunk. I didn’t need to. My focus was on the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of the world, extending towards the horizon in every direction. Hours beforehand I had believed that the end of the world had occurred. In a sense, I guess it had. But with time I taught myself to see that the end of the familiar was not the end of everything. It was simply the beginning of a new normal. And in this new evergreen world, I could see only beauty.
Hopefully, this article has shown you that the possibilities in creative short story writing are endless. Try to think beyond the fairytales from your childhood to create something new.
Get creative, and good luck!