A novel has hundreds of pages to get you involved in the characters’ lives and to transform you to another world, all to leave you with a great ending that you’re thinking about weeks—maybe even years—later.
In a short story, you have to do all that in a few pages. It’s no wonder most of the “new” writers I know would rather write novels. Short stories may be small, but they are mighty. (Not to mention they are a great way to keep up a writing habit.)
Chances are your favorite author started their writing career by writing short stories. Big names and favorite writers like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Shirley Jackson, Louisa May Alcott, and Sylvia Plath are all short story writers.
I’ve talked about coming up with ideas, plotting, and some key elements of short stories. Now it’s time to stop dilly-dallying and get to writing. This article covers three successful short story tips and strategies to write a short story.
Evolving My Short Story Writing Process
I’m going to be honest: I do not use the same writing process for every story I write. And I really don’t think my fellow short story writers do either.
Each story feels different. There is a different inspiration. There are different life circumstances. There are different writerly moods.
In the introduction to American Gods, Neil Gaiman quotes Gene Wolfe, who told him,
“You never learn how to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you’re on.”
This goes double for short stories, I think. I’ve never written two the same way. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I fall somewhere in between. Sometimes I don’t have anything but a first line; sometimes nothing but a character.
That said, there are three basic strategies to get those words on the paper. Over time, you’ll develop your favorites, mash up different strategies, and probably invent your own. Everyone’s creative writing process is different.
Whether you’re new to writing short stories, or are a veteran and just want to mix it up, here are three ways to get you started writing a short story:
Not every short story writer’s process will be the same. Here are three writing strategies to help you write a short story.
Writers who consider themselves “pantsters” vs. plotters don’t know much about the direction of their story before they start writing. They like to write by the “seat of their pants” and follow their characters where they go.
Sit down. Write the story. Do not stop writing the story. Do not do research. Do not take a break. Write the story from beginning to end, as fast as you can.
This method seems the easiest, but it can take some work later down the line. This is the most likely to end up lacking structure. It’s also the most likely to make the writer feel like their muse is riding along with them.
When I write this way, it’s because of a random idea that pops into my head, not because of writing prompts or anything like that. These stories are never written during my blocked-out writing time. They’re highly inconvenient little beasts, but oh, so satisfying. This is why pantsers pants—for this feeling.
If you write this way, be prepared for heavy edits. But don’t worry too much if this is your preferred way to write.
Story structure comes more naturally the more you practice it and the editing won’t be as daunting after you’ve got a couple of dozen stories under your belt.
For Plotters: A Mixture of Snowflake and Structure
Plotters know everything that happens in their story before they start the writing process. They have an extensive outline.
The basic idea is to write a few sentences telling the whole story. (Six sentences to be exact, though you could start with eighteen if you wanted to have two sentences for each step.) These six sentences are essentially the story outline. Then you expand those sentences into paragraphs, and then those paragraphs into pages.
There’s a formula for this that will help you identify a series of events that drives the plot:
Sentence 1: The setup. Give the reader a single character and a setting.
Sentence 2: Things get weird. Something happens to the character that’s out of the norm.
Sentence 3: Things get worse. The situation escalates.
Sentence 4: Things get even worse. The situation gets even worse.
Sentences 5: The climax. Your character changes their approach and solves the problem.
Sentence 6: The wrapup. Shows the reader the new “normal” for the character.
Want to see this in action?
Sentence 1: On Christmas Eve in London, an aging miser goes home to an empty house.
Sentence 2: His dead business partner shows up and tells him he will be visited by three ghosts.
Sentence 3: The first ghost shows him his happy past and how his happiness was ruined by selfishness.
Sentence 4: The second ghost shows him the present, and he softens slightly but doesn’t think there’s anything he can do about it.
Sentence 5: The third ghost shows him the future, and he realizes he has to change his ways or he will die alone.
Sentence 6: He wakes up on Christmas Day a changed man, determined to help those around him.
I’m sure you figured out this is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which is a little long (around 30,000 words, I think) to be considered a short story, but it works anyway.
Why? Because these six sentences are the six elements of plot and the basic elements of story structure. You could do this for every type of writing, every book, and every short story (and I encourage you to try it).
The basics are here. The next step is to expand on these sentences and make them into six paragraphs and then six pages.
With each iteration, more information, backstory, description, and dialogue are added until it is a complete story.
Note: If you are looking to be a flash fiction writer, this method, in my experience works best. Since flash is so short, you don’t have much room at all to add anything. Getting that six-sentence outline and expanding it into about six paragraphs will get you a tight piece of flash fiction with all the elements of story in there.
For Plansters: The What If Question
Plantsers are people who do a little outlining, but mainly like to write by the seat of their pants.
I talked extensively about the value of using the “What if?” question when writing in a previous article.
The What If question is my all-time favorite way of producing short stories. It’s got the spontaneity of pantsing, but gives a bit of structure to the writing process so editing isn’t such a mess.
In summary, this method employs a question-and-answer session to solve the story’s problems. What if X happened to this character? Then A would happen. And then B would happen. And ultimately C would happen.
In the case of old Scrooge, it would go something like this:
X: What if a ghost visited this old miser and said he was going to be visited by a whole group of other ghosts to teach him a lesson?
A: He wouldn’t listen to what the first ghost was trying to teach him.
B: He would kind of get the point with the second ghost, but still think he’s not at fault.
C: He would realize he’d better be nicer to people or literally no one is going to care when he dies.
I’ve listed three short story tips to go about the process of physically writing a short story, but one of the most important parts of the process of writing any type of story is to get feedback in writing communities.
As you develop your creative writing skills, you’ll write more compelling stories (and maybe even get some published!). But you can’t develop your skills in a vacuum; you need fellow writers to help you along by giving you feedback and support.
Successful authors rely on writing communities, and you should too.
Find Your Short Story Writing Process
These are just three of the countless ways you can write a short story. Not only is each writer different, but each story is different.
I can guarantee that as you move through your writing career, you’ll hone your own process. And probably come across times where your own process just doesn’t work and you have to develop some other way of doing the same thing.
Short stories are a great way to experiment with the writing process, as well as experiment with structure, voice, style, tone, pretty much anything that goes into writing.
If you have no idea what your writing process is as of yet, I encourage you to try one (or all three!) of the above methods. Let’s get writing!
What short story tips help you write short stories? Let us know in the comments.
When you think about the key elements of storytelling, characters and plot immediately come to mind, but what about the setting? Do you view it as 1) a vital story component, or 2) just the place where story events happen?
If you picked 1, nice job. If you picked 2, no worries. Go here, scroll down, and buckle in. Reading through these setting articles will transform the way you view the setting.
The setting tied to each scene carries a lot of storytelling weight because it had the power to touch and amplify anything to do with characters, events, and emotion. Used correctly, a location can characterize the story’s cast, steer the plot, evoke emotions and mood, create windows to allow for active backstory sharing, provide conflict and challenges, and act as a mirror for what the protagonist needs most, reinforcing his motivation at every step.
When it comes down to it, the setting is storytelling magic. What other element can do so much to enhance a story?
Here are five mistakes with settings that can drain power from your story.
1) Treating The Setting Like Stage Dressing
Each setting holds great power, deepening the action as it unfolds and characterizing the story’s cast during the scene. If we only use a few words to summarize the location, it can really impact the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and what’s happening. Vivid, concrete details not only help readers feel like they’re right there, planting specific description and symbolism within the setting also adds layers to the story itself.
2) Focusing On Only One Sense
Another common struggle for writers is choosing to describe through a single sense, specifically sight. While we rely heavily on this sense in real life, our world is multisensory, and our job as writers is to make our fictional landscape as rich and realistic as the real thing.
We want to make each scene come alive for readers so they feel like they are right there next to the protagonist, experiencing the moment as he or she does. This means including sounds which add realism, smells which trigger the reader’s emotional memories and help create “shared experiences,” tastes that allow for unique exploration, and textures that will shed light on what’s important to the character through their emotional state.
Textures are especially critical to include, as a point of view character must directly interact with the setting to bring it about, and every action in the story should have purpose. What they touch should have a “why” attached to it, revealing the POV character’s mindset, and showing, rather than telling, readers what’s really important in the scene.
3) Over-Describing Or Describing The Wrong Things
Sometimes in our enthusiasm to draw readers into the scene, we go a little crazy when it comes to describing. Trying to convey every feature, every angle, every facet of the setting will not only smash the pace flat, it will likely cause the reader to skim. And, if they skim, they are missing all that great description you’ve worked so hard to include. So, to avoid over-describing or focusing on the wrong details, try to make each bit of description earn the right to be included.
It isn’t just about showing the scene—the weather, the lighting, the colors and shapes—it’s also about offering detail that does double duty somehow. Ask yourself, is the detail I want to include doing something more than showing the reader where the characters are? Is it also characterizing, evoking mood, reminding the POV character of his goal and why he wants it so bad? Is this detail creating a challenge in some way, standing between the character and his goal? Is it helping to convey his emotional state, or does it symbolize something important within the context of the story?
Setting description should always be adding to the scene, revealing more about the characters as it helps to push the story forward.
4) Not taking Advantage of POV & Emotion Filters
Another area that can water down the effect of setting description is a very distanced narrative where every detail is explained, rather than shown through the emotional filter of the POV character. A character who is anxious is going to view the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of any given setting differently than a character who is excited, or disappointed, or even filled with gratitude.
Being able to filter the character’s world through their senses and emotions helps to pull the reader close to the character, and creates a deeper understanding of who they are, laying the groundwork for empathy.
5) Choosing A Setting That Is Convenient Rather Than Meaningful
Because the setting can steer the story, evoke emotion, remind the hero or heroine of missing needs and create a window into past pain, we need to get specific when we choose a location. Three questions to ask ourselves as we hunt for the perfect place is 1) what is the outcome of this scene, 2) how can I use the setting to generate conflict and tension (good or bad) to really amp up what is about to take place, and 3), how can I create an emotional value in this setting?
Emotional values—settings which mean something to one or more characters– are especially important. For example, imagine a character who is about to be interviewed for an important job. He’s confident because he’s got the skills they need, and the experience this company covets. His potential employer decides on an informal lunch interview, and our character is eager to impress. A restaurant setting makes sense…but why would we choose just any old restaurant for this scene to take place? Instead, let’s pick the very same restaurant where our character proposed to his girlfriend two years earlier and was rejected. By having this interview take place in this particular restaurant, we have created an emotional value—it represents something to the character: rejection.
Choosing this restaurant will put our character off balance, and the echoes of his past failure will be with him during the interview. This will almost certainly affect his behavior, creating tension and conflict. Will he get the job? Will he blow the interview? The outcome is now uncertain. Take the time to choose the best location for each scene, because the storytelling currency will be well worth the effort!
The setting is a powerful component to storytelling, but only if we fully activate it. So when you choose a setting, consider carefully how the right location can amp up the tension and point the reader’s attention to the very things you want them to notice, be it a symbol in your setting, your character’s behavior because the setting is activating their emotions somehow, or a danger or obstacle tied to the setting that’s about to challenge your character and disrupt their progress to their goal.
I’ve been thinking a lot about dialogue lately, because when it’s done poorly, it pulls me right out of the story. There are a lot of issues that contribute to weak dialogue: incorrect mechanics, stilted speech, characters calling each other repeatedly by name (Hi, Bob. Hey, Mary. Could you help me with this, Bob? Sure thing, Mary!)…The list goes on. But instead of talking today about the wrong parts of our characters’ conversations, I want to focus on an important element that’s often missing: tension.
Tension is that gut-curdling, oh-crap feeling you get when you realize trouble’s coming. It’s the rising emotion that emerges at the onset or even the barest hint of conflict. Tension is incredibly important because it stirs the reader’s emotion and builds their interest. It should exist in every scene, and an easy way to add it is through our characters’ verbal interactions.
Think about recent conversations—verbal or written—that have generated tension for you. They probably come to mind pretty quickly. This is because every person is different, and when these differences manifest in our communication, it can result in misunderstandings that lead to heightened emotion. The same should be true for our characters. So if you’re looking for ways to up the tension in a scene, plan any verbal exchanges thoughtfully by incorporating one or more of the following elements.
At her core, who is your character, and how does she communicate? Maybe she’s very efficient—a fixer who quickly and accurately analyzes and applies information. Now suppose she’s talking to someone with a disorganized mind and rambling conversational style. This can cause frustration for your character, who just wants her friend to get to the point already. She responds by cutting him off, or nods her head impatiently while he’s talking. This triggers the friend’s defenses, putting him on edge. When you build your cast with personality and the potential for conflict in mind, those tension landmines are easy to set.
Characters often have conflicting story and scene goals, but what about opposing goals in conversations? We do this all the time in real life—talking to people with a subconscious objective in mind. Your protagonist might be communicating with someone because they want to be heard and appreciated. But what if the other party just wants to prove they’re right? Each character will try and guide the conversation toward what they want, and someone—maybe both parties—will be thwarted. When even our small goals are threatened, our emotions kick in, so this can be a good way to add tension to a scene.
Emotions in Play
We’ve all experienced this situation: you start a conversation with someone who, out of nowhere, bites your head off. Upon closer examination, you realize that the person was upset about something that had nothing to do with you. This universal scenario can be used in our stories. Pile on the emotional baggage just before an interaction, then sit back and watch the sparks fly.
Our insecurities hobble us all the time. We’re sensitive to certain kinds of comments or tones and read unintended meaning into harmless banter. Think about how this might play out with your character. What are his insecurities—in general, but also regarding this particular person or situation? How might they impact him in an upcoming conversation?
How often have you engaged in conversation with an expectation in mind for what the other person will say or how it’s going to go? Sometimes our biases are confirmed, but just as often, they taint our interactions, dooming them to failure before they even begin. We may have a chip on our shoulder that sets a negative tone for the entire exchange. Expecting certain things, we might read into what the other person is saying, misconstruing their true meaning or intent. When it comes to your character, ask yourself: Is there any bias he might bring into this conversation that could result in misunderstanding?
Maybe you’ve heard the old saying about the word assume: it makes an ass out of u and me. How many arguments and mix-ups have come about because of incorrect assumptions? How can we apply this common occurrence in our stories? Think about what knowledge your protagonist may take for granted—something they think the other person knows or doesn’t know. Or maybe they believe that the person shares their opinion about a certain topic when they really think the opposite. How might assumptions like these cause a conversation to go south?
Your protagonist might begin a scene with great intentions, expecting to enjoy a happy chat with one of their favorite people. And everything is fine—until that person starts doing something that grates on your character’s nerves. Frequent interruptions, talking with their mouth full, listening while checking their email, consistently mispronouncing a certain word—it could be literally anything that drives your character bonkers. What might that thing be for your protagonist? What quirks can you give the other party to add an element of tension to the conversation?
A character’s culture is going to impact their communication style, determining what is acceptable and what isn’t, what’s respectful and what’s offensive. Gestures, eye contact, word choices, personal space—these things vary from one locale to another. Your character’s ignorance about these factors could result in all kinds of fallout, from busted business deals and problems at work to the death of a budding romance. This is definitely something to keep in mine in a multi-cultural cast.
I’ve saved this one for last because it plays a very subtle part in most conversations, but it’s so understated, we don’t always pick up on it. Subtext is what you really mean, as opposed to what you say. It’s saying He seems nice when what you really mean is He is a tool of the highest order. We’re not always 100% honest with our words, and the same should be true of our characters. When we take the time to figure out what they really think or want to hide, we end up with interactions that are realistic and nuanced. And the potential for tension and conflict are huge.
These are just some of the elements that can contribute to misunderstandings and tension in our characters’ conversations. Regardless of which you choose to explore, there’s one thing they all have in common: unrealized expectations. The protagonist expects Character B to share her beliefs, want what she wants, have a base of knowledge on which to build or communicate the same way. When these expectations are shattered, it sets her back on her heels and triggers frustration, embarrassment, hurt, and a range of other emotions. So figure out what your character expects out of a conversation, then block her, and tension is sure to follow.
Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental illness, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.
In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.
This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc.
Fear of Certain Kinds of People
Notes: A person who has been traumatized may become fearful of the kind of person who hurt them—men, women, people of a certain race or nationality, members of law enforcement, the government, etc. There can be other causes, such as an irrational fear resulting from a mental illness or being conditioned in their upbringing to be afraid of certain people groups. Regardless of how it arises, this goes beyond a simple trust issue; a fearful mindset toward certain kinds of people will restrict the character’s options and who they’re willing to interact with, limiting them in many ways.
What It Looks Like Avoiding places where the people they fear are likely to be Becoming anxious when an opportunity arises that will bring the character in contact with the people they fear Speaking disparagingly about the people Gravitating toward media that affirms their bias (watching movies with “those kinds of people” as the bad guys, subscribing to podcasts or YouTube channels that affirm their beliefs, etc.) Their demeanor changing when someone from that people group enters their space (falling silent, not making eye contact, watching them furtively, becoming confrontational, leaving the room, etc.) Showing signs of physical distress when faced with the people they fear: going pale, extremities trembling, accelerated breathing, clenched fists, etc. Crossing the street to avoid close proximity to those people Taking a work-from-home job that ensures the character will never run into the people they fear Surrounding themselves with their own kind of people (hanging out with women, the character immersing themselves into their own culture The character worrying so much about running into those people when they go out that they become homebound Feeling endangered when those kind of people are around Others viewing the character as ignorant, biased, or discriminatory Strained relationships with family members because of the character’s ideas about certain people Feeling misunderstood Speaking out against that people group in an effort to protect or inform others
Common Internal Struggles The character being challenged when they meet someone they fear who seems to defy their ideas Wanting to shelter loved ones from certain kinds of people but being unable to do so Recognizing that the fear may be irrational but not being able to change the fear response The character knowing their fear is interfering with their friendships but clinging to it anyway Seeing so clearly that the fear makes sense but not being able to convince others
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life Missing out on social interactions where certain people might be present Being limited to certain professions or work projects Having few friends (because they can’t accept the character’s mindset toward certain people) Other people not being able to relate to the character because their ideas are so “out there” The character constantly having to defend themselves to people who disagree with them Friction with the character’s children when other parents won’t let their kids associate with them because they don’t want them exposed to harmful ideas
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear Having to work with the type of person the character is afraid of A child, sibling, or other loved one dating “those kind of people” A person in this group being promoted to a position of power or influence Being slighted or even marginally disrespected by this kind of person.
I had one of those English Literature teachers who’d bellow ‘To know a word is to define a word!’ This means I always look first at the dictionary. Here’s what it says about mystery:
A novel, play, or film dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder.
“the 1920s murder mystery, The Ghost Train”
This is an okay definition. Whilst mystery typically involves a crime – Agatha Christie is STILL the queen of the genre – it’s the ‘puzzling’ nature that is most important.
Typically there will be a BIG REVEAL at the end when the person BEHIND IT ALL is unveiled. Mysteries tend to be cerebral on this basis.
Here’s what the dictionary says about this one:
A literary or film genre concerned with arousing feelings of horror.
“a horror film”
In other words, we want to be SCARED by Horror. That tracks! So far, so good.
Horrors tend to lay out the potential threat from the beginning: a creature, a serial killer, a haunted house, etc. This means in a Horror we are principally VOYEURS. We sign up to watch terrible things happen to people.
In certain subgenres, this is obvious. So-called ‘torture porn’ movies like the SAW franchise invite us to witness murder and mayhem in ever-increasingly spattering ways.
But even in less grotesquely flamboyant horror, the story will relate to a cultural, base fear most of us have.
Fears for our children (especially them dying); fears of being taken away/sent into a hell-like place; fears of being out of control; about sex, rape, pregnancy or other violations; of being eaten alive, being dismembered, or burned alive.
What’s more, these types of story feel unstable and make us worry FOR the characters in it … And yes, maybe even freak out when said characters are attacked and/or killed. This is why groups of characters picked off one by one can be so popular in horror stories.
A novel, play, or film with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage.
“a tense thriller about a diamond heist that goes badly wrong”
This is less illuminating. After all, mystery can involve crime or espionage too … Plus there’s lots of thrillers that do neither of these things. Now what??
Wait! The keyword in this definition is ‘exciting’. As the name ‘thriller’ suggests, our story just needs to THRILL. This usually happens with some kind of deadline as a ‘race against time’: a chase, if you will.
In contrast to Horror, the Thriller invites the viewer to put themselves in the protagonist’s place. The story will ask, ‘What would YOU do?’.
*Something* is happening – but the characters in the center often don’t know exactly what and/or why. They will chase after this mystery in order to solve it – whether it’s a conspiracy, a supernatural occurrence, an abduction, or something else.
Thrillers typically relate to a more intellectual fear most of us have, such as our children being kidnapped; of abduction/being held hostage; of living in an unsafe home; having our identities stolen; being watched or persecuted in some way; of authorities who cannot be trusted, such as governments, teachers, or medical staff. This is why the lone protagonist in a Thriller is so popular.
So what’s the breakdown here?
A Mystery needs a BIG REVEAL of whom is BEHIND IT ALL (usually at the ending, but not always)
Mysteries tend to be puzzles that need to be solved
Horrors often focus on groups of people, picked off one by one
Thrillers don’t tend to be Horrors (since Horrors lay out the threat from the beginning)
In a Thriller, we sign up for the CHASE
Thrillers often focus on lone protagonists who are ‘up against it’
Thrillers tend to be ‘races against time’
Mysteries may be Thrillers as well, or they may not
A Big Question
I believe we can decide what our novels are by asking one BIG question …
‘… Do I want to keep my antagonist hidden until the ending or not?’
If you don’t want to keep the antagonist hidden, you’re probably writing a horror. This is because you need to establish the threat from the outset.
If you DO want to keep your antagonist hidden for that BIG REVEAL, then you’re probably writing a mystery or thriller.
(Of course this will depend on the story, we’re talking generalizations here … but from my work with writers, it’s surprising how often this question works!).
Learn the Conventions
So, if you’re writing a Horror, obviously your novel needs to be scary. A good way of studying the conventions of Horror is by considering why your favorite Horror novels scared *you*.
In my case, Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill scared me so much it took me a whopping three weeks to read it because I kept getting creeped out!
The story of a washed-up rock star who buys a ghost on the internet he then can’t get rid of, the threat in Heart-Shaped Box is established early on. Hill piles of dread by the ton, making even the smallest moments seem frightening. As the chapters build towards a bloody, crescendo ending, we can’t be sure anyone will get out alive.
If you’re writing a thriller or mystery, it’s slightly different. Personally, I favor mystery elements in Thriller (if not a full-blown mystery) because I love twists. This may – or may not – feed your BIG REVEAL, it’s up to you.
But if you’re hiding your antagonist’s true intentions, you need to be careful. One of the biggest issues B2W sees when writers try this is they hold the antagonist back BUT don’t replace that role function with another. This then means there’s a big fat hole where ‘nothing happens’.
Devices such as red herrings, misdirection, working theories, a stooge antagonist, etc. will help you write a satisfying plot AND compelling characters in your thriller or mystery.
In other words, stuff that **stands in for the perp** … ’til we get to the actual perp.
You can do this no matter what genre or type of story you are writing. Immerse yourself in the mystery genre via mystery novels, movies, & police procedurals to guide you.
Readers love the ending of stories, but do you feel like you don’t know how to write a really good ending?
It may seem a little odd to talk about story endings when you haven’t even started writing. Deciding on the type of ending you want, however, is an important part of planning a book.
You usually wouldn’t drive somewhere without a destination in mind. Knowing how your story ends will help you work out the important plot points in between, all the plot twists that eventually lead to that climatic moment.
But how exactly can you write a great ending before the story is even written? Let’s take a look at the essentials an ending must accomplish in order to write a satisfying ending to a great story.
Knowing these common types of endings, and how to decide what endings work best for your story, will bring your character arcs and story full circle.
This post shares writing tips to help you accomplish just that.
How to End Your Story Coaching Video
Want to know how to write an ending for a story? There are two thing you need to think about: how to come up with an ending that’s GOOD, and how to finish a story practically.
In this coaching video, Joe helps one author figure out how to write the end of a story, something she has always struggled to do.
3 Criteria for the End of the Story
There are a few things an ending must accomplish. Keep in mind that I speak about endings from the perspective of commercial fiction_fiction that moves the reader along, is entertaining to read, and puts plot and character above philosophy and literary prose.
Endings in literary and interpretive fiction may vary a little more in style. But if you’re looking to write a good story that sells, you will want your ending to meet the following criteria.
1. Your Book’s Ending Should be Logical
Have you heard the phrase Deus Ex Machina? It’s defined as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation.” In fiction terms, this means everything is suddenly and abruptly resolved by a previously unknown force.
A Deus Ex Machina is not a good way to end your book. It’s convenient. And convenient conclusions end in bad reviews written by disappointed readers.
Instead, the ending to your book should come about logically.
While this doesn’t mean it should be 100% predictable, it does mean that you wrap up your story in a way that is surprising but inevitable. In other words, your reader can reason through and understand how the events of the story led to the final conclusion.
Here is an example of a predictable vs. unpredictable vs. Deus Ex Machina ending:
Predictable: A detective is trying to solve a murder. He finds all the clues that point to person A with the help of person B, and it turns out to be person A in the end.
Unpredictable: A detective is trying to solve a murder. He finds all the clues that point to person A with the help of person B. Murderer turns out to be person B, who has been planting the evidence.
Deus Ex Machina: A detective is trying to solve a murder. He finds all the clues that point to person A with the help of person B. The murderer turns out to be person C, someone completely unrelated and who shows up at the last minute—with no warning to reveal themselves.
Notice that the unpredictable ending enables the reader to look back at the story and think, “Ah, now that makes sense,” whereas the Deus Ex Machina ending elicits the “Where did that come from?” response.
When your ending isn’t logical and doesn’t follow the reason, you risk leaving your readers feeling cheated for having read a whole book that has little to do with the final result.
2. Your Book’s Ending Should be Satisfying
The simplest way to write a satisfying ending is to resolve a secret or question that remained a mystery throughout the plot. This means that whatever questions are raised during the story—the ones that left the reader wondering something important—should be answered.
Better yet, these answers should tie back to clues or plot elements that were set up earlier in the story.
Take another look at the detective in our mystery novel example.
The main character is trying to solve a murder, so obviously the reader expects the murder to be solved at some point. The “whodunit” needs to be answered at the end. The kinds of answers may vary, but the ending needs to identify the murderer in order to have a resolved ending.
Here are a few ways the ending can go:
Satisfying/Predictable: The detective finds the murderer successfully.
Satisfying/Twist Ending: The detective solves the mystery, but it turns out the murderer has committed an elaborate suicide to frame someone.
Unsatisfying: The detective chases the clues to a dead end and at the end still doesn’t know who killed the victim. This might come in the form of a cliffhanger that doesn’t tie up important questions in the book, or an ambiguous ending that doesn’t resolve major plot points.
Note: You can include cliffhangers or ambiguous endings in a book, but only if you resolve the major questions driving the hook for the story. If you write these types of endings in a way that requires readers to read the next book, you’ll probably annoy them more than intrigue them. Readers need the answers to the big questions in the book they’re reading.
You need to write stand-alone books with series potential, not books dependent on their sequels.
While there is definitely literature out there with “unsatisfying” endings, you’re more likely to alienate readers in commercial fiction if you don’t give them an answer to the big question.
No one wants to read a whole book and be left feeling like nothing was resolved, even if that last line is unforgettable.
3. Your Book’s Ending Should Have a Sense of Finality
The end of your book should feel like, well, something ended.
The major crisis is averted. The princess is saved. The quest is over. The battle is won. Something that started at the beginning of the book is now over.
While this might seem pretty obvious for standalone books, you may find yourself asking “What about a series? What if my story goes on?”
The global story for a series doesn’t need to end for a book to have a sense of finality. However, each book does need to reach its own climax: we need to see a protagonist get or not get what they want (their story goal) in the end. Each book needs its own ending.
For example, every book in Harry Potter series ended with a climatic event that occurred at the end of the school year. Each book of the Lord of the Rings contains its own battle for survival, even if Frodo and Sam hadn’t reached Mount Doom yet.
Tying up a book in a series is much like tying up a scene—the story goes on, but whatever happened in this part of the story is over and done with.
5 Types of Endings for Stories
There are numerous books, articles, and schools of thought out there on the many types of endings. And there are comedic vs. tragic endings, resolved vs. unresolved endings, ambiguous vs. tight endings, to name a few.
There are no wrong ways to categorize endings, but for the purposes of this article, I prefer to speak from the point of view of planning. To do this, I want you to consider five types of endings for your book before you start writing.
You may end up with an ending that encompasses traits from more than one of these, but they are a good starting point for planning.
If you want to write faster, it helps to know how your story ends. Choose one of these five-story endings to decide this.
Also known as a happy ending. However, I dislike that name because the Complete Resolution isn’t always “happy.”
In Complete Resolution, all questions are answered, all loose ends are tied up, and all subplots are resolved. This type of ending is commonly used for standalone novels of all ages and genres.
When planning for a Complete Resolution ending, it’s important to keep track of all your subplots and plot elements to ensure that nothing is left hanging at the end. If a question is raised, it must be answered.
For example: Pride and Prejudice has a Complete Resolution. All loose ends are tied up, all couples are together, and all questions answered. The readers are left feeling satisfied that every problem has been resolved.
2. Incomplete Resolution
This is the kind of ending that’s usually more fitting for a series. As stated above, endings for individual books in a series usually leave something open in order to lead into the next step of the bigger story.
When planning for an Incomplete Resolution, it’s important to know what threads you want to tie up and what you want to keep open.
A good rule to keep in mind is to tie up subplots while leaving the main plot open to lead into the next book.
For example: Every Harry Potter book except the final one has an Incomplete Resolution. The school year is tied up and there’s usually some kind of conflict resolved or a mystery solved, but the question of what will happen with the looming return of Voldemort remains unasnwered.
3. Changed World
In this kind of ending, the external world/environment/life that the main characters start out with is no more. This is usually due to factors outside of the characters’ control. A few examples are natural disasters, being uprooted to a different city or country, or entering a new family.
The main focus of a Changed World ending is how your main character responds to their new situation. Their response could be a good one (acceptance, excitement, looking toward the future) or a bad one (denial, anger, mourning the past), but no matter how they react, the ending emphasizes that the past isn’t coming back, and the main character must decide how to move forward in their new situation.
When planning for a Changed World ending, consider your character’s personality and how they should respond to each step of the change their world is undergoing. Think about how you’re going to tie their actions early in the story to their ultimate reaction to the new state of their world.
For example: Star Wars, specifically Return of the Jedi, has a Changed World Ending. Luke and the rebels have defeated the empire and redeemed Darth Vader, and the galaxy has been irreversibly changed by these events. As the end, we see a scene of celebration, showing that the main cast is happy about this development, but there is still a sense of much to be done ahead to adjust to this new reality.
4. Changed Self
The Changed Self ending can be considered the counterpart to the Changed World ending. In this type of ending, your character goes through more internal than external change. Their environment or life in general more or less returns to its “normal” state at the end of the book, but they now see everything with fresh eyes because they are no longer the same person they started out as.
This type of ending can also be referred to as the Circular ending. But I prefer to focus on the change in self because I feel that places emphasize on the more important aspect of the story, which is character transformation.
When planning for a Changed Self ending, make sure to consider the impact the events in the book have on your character. Focus on the “how” and “why” of the character’s internal transformation and make sure that their thoughts and decisions ultimately point toward that change.
For example: My book Headspace has a Changed Self ending. In it, the main character, Astra, returns to her home after the events of the book. She finds that her house still looks the same as she left it several months ago, except now the daily, minute things of life seem unimportant because her perspective has changed.
5. Slice of the Future Ending—or Epilogue
Slice of the Future endings give the reader a peek into the life of your hero (or those your hero left behind) further down the road. It’s common for this to be done as an epilogue. The reason I single out this type of ending is because planning for this kind of ending is a little different from the others.
Slice of the Future gives perspective on the events that took place in the book. When you end a story after the main conflict, your main character is still very much fresh from what they’ve just gone through.
In most commercial fiction, what takes place within the book is a relatively short event that encompasses anywhere from a few hours to a few years. When you fast forward in time, you are telling your readers “this is how this event fits into the grand scheme of things.”
Knowing your book’s type of mood can help you pick your story’s ending.
This type of ending can be quite tricky because your character’s future may not match the future your readers want for them. Some readers very much enjoy Slice of the Future, while others prefer for it to be left up to the imagination. It’s not uncommon for books that use this kind of ending to be criticized heavily for writing a future that “doesn’t fit the character/story at all.”
Not only that, epilogues are often viewed as undesirable for commercial fiction by agents and publishers, so you may want to consider how essential this peek into the future really is for the story.
If you want to plan for a Slice of the Future ending, try to consider the overall mood of your book. While you can’t please everyone, it’s worth taking time to ensure that the future establish is at least consistent in tone with the rest of the the story.
A comedy would be better served with a happy, bright future, while a tragedy would fit better with a future that is melancholy and perhaps bittersweet. By matching the mood, you can at least give your readers a consistent experience.
For example: Mockingjay (the Hunger Games finale) and The Handmaid’s Tale have this type of ending/epilogue. Fan reactions to these endings have been mixed, ranging from very positive to terribly negative. It’s worth reading these series, considering how the peek in the future fits into the story as a whole, and think about whether you want to follow their example.
How to Find Your Perfect Ending
Now we turn our attention to your book.
Deciding on the type of ending you want helps give your book an overarching direction to follow. It’s much like drawing a rough sketch of what you want the final product to look like before you start adding details.
Keep in mind that rarely does an ending fit only one of the four categories listed above. The goal is not to pick one type of ending and force your story into the box, but rather decide on what it is you want to emphasize as the most important element of your book.
To determine what type of ending your book should have, ask yourself the following questions:
What is my genre? Different genres may suit different endings. For example, comedy tends to have changed self endings, whereas epics tend to have changed world endings.
What do I want my readers to feel at the end of the book? Determining what you ultimately want to communicate to your readers to write the perfect ending.
Which is more important in the book: the internal struggle or the external struggle? An externally focused book would benefit more from a Changed World ending, whereas an internally focused book would benefit more from a Changed Self ending.
Do I want to end the book with a sense of immediacy or a sense of wistfulness? Think of this as whether you want to end the story with your hero still standing on the battlefield or telling the story to their grandchildren. The first leaves more room for interpretation, whereas the latter gives a greater sense of finality. If you want that greater sense of finality, a Slice of the Future (Maybe call this Reveal instead?) ending might be what you want.
By deciding on your ending early, you not only have an overall direction for the plot of your book, but the tone and mood as well. Every step your story takes should lead your reader closer to the ending and the change that your character or story world takes.
Plan Your Ending If You Want to Write Faster
While some writers enjoy not knowing the ending of their book before writing, writers who want to write faster will benefit from knowing how their plot ends, and how their characters have changed because of their journey.
To help you plan your ending, call back on the five types of endings covered in this article. Ask yourself which one accomplishes the emotion you want your readers to feel in the end, and then write that ending.
Jot down the last line.
It’s likely that if you feel good about your story’s ending—and it provides answers to all your story’s main questions—you’ll have written an ending that will satisfy your readers.
What kind of story endings do you like? Let us know in the comments.
After my first couple years as a fiction editor, I realized that all of my developmental feedback for clients fit into one of two categories. The first is immersion: the quality of a narrative that transports readers to another time and place. The second is emotional draw: that which maintains readers’ interest in a character and thus keeps them turning pages.
Immersion is achieved with scene-based writing, which means a focus on the protagonist’s moment-to-moment experience of setting and conflict. A reader’s sense of immediacy grows out of sensory details, movement, action, and dialogue.
Emotional draw is more complicated. Readers are diverse, and each one brings a slightly different reason for turning the page. But the main components are:
Trajectory—the momentum of a character struggling toward a goal
Anticipation—a desire to know what happens next
Stakes—a looming consequence should the character fail
The author’s first job, whether they are writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, is to transport readers into their characters’ world. Context is important in any story, but sensory details are paramount since they are key to a reader’s imaginative experience of the text.
Comb through your scenes with this principle in mind. On every page, ask yourself what your readers might be seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling. Do they know within a few sentences where a scene is taking place? Can they picture the surroundings? Do they have a physical sense of the characters moving through and occupying space in this locale?
Judge each sentence by the following criteria: does it convey the focal character’s moment-to-moment experience of the scene? Or does it instead provide context?
The more scene you have on each page, the deeper your readers’ potential immersion. As soon as you showcase context, your readers’ imaginative experience diminishes. That’s not to say there isn’t room for snippets of context. It’s a question of balance.
Context includes setting, world-building, backstory, and even interiority—your protagonist’s analysis and reflections. Again, context is important, but it works best when it surfaces in hints rather than explanations.
Treat your readers like detectives—give them clues and let them come to their own conclusions about context.
Chapter Arcs and Consequence
Here’s another reason scene-based writing is so important: it’s where both plot and character come to life.
When characters make decisions and take risks, readers see them for who they really are. Witty asides and snippets of narrative context can give a story much depth, but the true essence of character is contained in what they are willing to do—or not—to get what they want.
Therein lies the nugget of a chapter arc: a character either takes action toward a goal or reacts to a new obstacle. The result is a consequence—their path forward has changed. In most cases, the scene will have some bearing on the overarching narrative trajectory (more on trajectory in a moment), but the action/reaction and consequence might also develop a subplot.
Take a close look at each scene in your manuscript and ask yourself:
Does the focal character make a choice or take action in pursuit of a goal?
Does this choice or action result in a consequence that leads into the next scene?
If the answer is no or if you aren’t sure, flag the scene for reconsideration: either bring it into the story’s chain of consequence or send it to the chopping block!
Plot is a Chain of Consequence
A large part of emotional draw flows out of trajectory: a character struggling toward a goal. As the protagonist makes decisions and takes risks in pursuit of their goal, they court failure of some kind. If nothing is at stake, it’s extremely difficult to hold readers’ interest, and without a specific goal, the story becomes aimless.
In terms of structure, the beginning of a narrative is the point when a character’s underlying motivation crystallizes into this clear, relatable, and specific goal—the first link in the story’s chain of consequence. Keep in mind, many novels open sometime after this point. For example, in Moby Dick, Ahab’s inciting incident is implied.
In genre fiction, the narrative goal is often in sharp focus: it’s a quest to save the world or a mission to stop a killer. While emotional draw in literary fiction is usually connected to deeper thematic elements, the narrative goal is still a major component, even if the quest is subtler.
A protagonist’s goal is sometimes referred to as a narrative bridge—a question asked in the beginning of the novel that is answered by the end. The protagonist’s goal is the question, and whether or not they achieve it is the answer. This answer also forms the final link in the story’s chain of consequence.
The rest of the narrative chain lies between the inciting incident and the climax. That means each scene causes the next. In other words, if you map out your story scene by scene, there should be a causal transition between each segment: this happens, therefore this happens, but then this happens, therefore… The alternative lacks momentum; it’s anecdotal: this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens.
Here’s a simple example: Rumpelstiltskin.
The miller’s daughter is the protagonist. Her inciting incident comes when her father brags to the king that she can spin gold from straw. She is therefore locked in a room where she is expected to perform her magical feat.
Father and daughter are in deep trouble, but then Rumpelstiltskin appears and offers to do the deed in exchange for her necklace. She agrees and therefore presents the king with his gold the next morning. But then the king wants even more gold; therefore the miller’s daughter needs Rumpelstiltskin’s services again and must make greater and greater sacrifices to pay for them.
The chain of consequence wraps up at the climax: eventually, when Rumpelstiltskin comes to collect on his final demand (her first-born child), the miller’s daughter tries to renegotiate. He gives her an unlikely escape clause: she must guess his name. She therefore follows him into the forest, finds his home, and overhears him singing his secret.
A novel is much more complex, especially given subplots like interpersonal arcs and side quests. For this reason, it’s a good idea to create separate causal maps for your story’s main trajectory as well as the secondary storylines. However, when you look at the big picture, each scene should fit into one of these chains of consequence.
Bringing It All Together
Though this article first touches on the importance of your readers’ story-world immersion, you are better off to focus your initial self-editing efforts on your manuscript’s chain of consequence. You might find that entire scenes aren’t pulling their (causal) weight, which means they either need to be cut or substantially changed to align with the protagonist’s trajectory. For this reason, it’s best to nail down the structure before you start fleshing out and polishing scenes.
To conclude, here are a few more tips for your next self-editing adventure:
Take time away from your project. Work on something else for a month or two!
On your next read through, pretend your worst enemy is following along over your shoulder. What would they say? What would they roll their eyes at?
Between each draft, consider your story from wildly different angles—what if the protagonist and antagonist traded places? What if you switched genres? How would the conflicts play out in a different time and place?
Don’t be afraid to tear down walls and install a new front door. In fact, sometimes we need to burn down the house altogether to find the best way forward.
Do you want to write but just need a great story idea? Or perhaps you have too many ideas and can’t choose the best one? Well, good news. We’ve got you covered.
Below are one hundred short story ideas for all your favorite genres. You can use them as a book idea, as writing prompts for writing contests, for stories to publish in literary magazines, or just for fun!
Use these 100 story ideas to get your creative writing started now.
Editor’s note: This is a recurring guide, regularly updated with ideas and information.
If you’re in a hurry, here’s my 10 best story ideas in brief, or scroll down for the full version.
Top 10 Story Ideas
Tell the story of a scar.
A group of children discover a dead body.
A young prodigy becomes orphaned.
A middle-aged woman discovers a ghost.
A woman who is deeply in love is crushed when her fiancé breaks up with her.
A talented young man’s deepest fear is holding his life back.
A poor young boy or girl comes into an unexpected fortune.
A shy, young woman unexpectedly bumps into her soulmate.
A long journey is interrupted by a disaster.
A young couple run into the path of a psychopath.
Why Creative Writing Prompts Are Helpful
Below, you’ll find our best creative writing prompts and plot ideas for every genre, but first, why do we use prompts? Is it just a waste of time, or can they actually help you? Here are three reasons we love writing prompts at The Write Practice:
1. Practice the Language!
Even for those of us who are native English speakers, we’re all on a language journey to go from beginners to skilled writers. To make progress on this language journey, you have to practice, and at The Write Practice, believe it or not, we’re really into practice! Creative writing prompts are easy, fun ways to practice.
Use the prompts below to practice your storytelling and use of language. The more you practice, the better of a writer you’ll become.
2. When you have no ideas and are stuck.
Sometimes, you want to write, but you can’t think up any ideas. You could either just sit there, staring at a blank page, or you could find a few ideas to help you get started. Even better if the list of ideas is curated from our best plot ideas over the last decade that we’ve been publishing lessons, writing exercises, and prompts.
Use the story ideas below to get your writing started. Then when your creativity is warmed up, you’ll start to come up with your own ideas!
3. To develop your own ideas.
Maybe you do have an idea already, but you’re not sure it’s good. Or maybe you feel like it’s just missing some small piece to make it better. By reading other ideas, and incorporating your favorites into yourstory, you can fill your plot holes and generate creative ideas of your own.
Use the story ideas below to develop your own ideas.
4. They’re fun!
Thousands of writers use the prompts below every month, some at home, some in classrooms, and even a few pros at their writing “office.” Why? Because writing prompts can be fun. They get your creativity started, help you come up with new ideas of your own, and often take your writing in new, unexpected directions.
Use the plot ideas to have more fun with writing!
How to Write a Story
One last thing before we get to the 100 story ideas, let’s talk about how to write a great short story. (Already know how to write a great story? No problem. Just skip down to the ideas below.)
First, read stories. If you’ve never read a story, you’re going to have a hard time writing one. Where do you find great stories? There are a lot of places, but check out our list of 46 Literary Magazines we’ve curated over here.
Write your story in a single sitting. Write the first draft of your story in as short a time as possible, and if you’re writing a short story, try to write it in one sitting. Trust me, this works. Everyone hates being interrupted when they’re telling compelling stories. Use that to your advantage and don’t stop writing until you’ve finished telling yours.
Read your draft. Read your story through once, without changing anything. This will give you a sense of what work it needs going forward.
Write a premise. After reading your first draft, get your head around the main idea behind your story by summarizing your story in a one sentence premise. Your premise should contain four things: a character, a goal, a situation, and a special sauce. Not sure what that means or how to actually do that? Here’s a full premise writing guide.
Write, edit, write, and edit. Good writing is rewriting. Use your second draft to fill in the plot holes and cut out the extraneous scenes and characters you discovered when you read the first draft in step #2. Then, polish up your final draft on the next round of edits.
Submit! Real writers don’t keep their writing all to themselves. They share it. Submit your story to a literary magazine, an anthology series, enter it into a writing contest, or even share it with a small group of friends. And if it gets rejected, don’t feel bad. You’ll be in good company.
Our 100 Best Short Story Ideas, Plot Ideas, and Creative Writing Prompts
Ready to get writing? Here are our 100 best short story ideas to kickstart your writing. Enjoy!
10 Best General Short Story Ideas
Our first batch of plot ideas are for any kind of story, whether a spy thriller or a memoir of your personal life story. Here are the best story ideas:
Tell the story of a scar, whether a physical scar or emotional one. To be a writer, said Stephen King, “The only requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
A group of children discover a dead body. Good writers don’t turn away from death, which is, after all, the universal human experience. Instead, they look it directly into its dark face and describe what they see on the page.
A young prodigy becomes orphaned. Orphans are uniquely vulnerable, and as such, they have the most potential for growth.
A middle-aged woman discovers a ghost. What do Edgar Allen Poe, Ron Weasley, King Saul from the Bible, Odysseus, and Ebenezer Scrooge have in common? They all encountered ghosts!
A woman who is deeply in love is crushed when her fiancé breaks up with her. “In life every ending is just a new beginning,” says Dakota Fanning’s character in Uptown Girls.
A talented young man’s deepest fear is holding his life back. Your character’s biggest fear is your story’s secret weapon. Don’t run from it, write about it.
A poor young boy or girl comes into an unexpected fortune. Not all fortunes are good. Sometimes discovering a fortune will destroy your life.
A shy, young woman unexpectedly bumps into her soulmate (literally bumps into him). In film, this is called the “meet cute,” when the hero bumps into the heroine in the coffee shop or the department store or the hallway, knocking her books to the floor, and forcing them into conversation.
A long journey is interrupted by a disaster. Who hasn’t been longing to get to a destination only to be delayed by something unexpected? This is the plot of Gravity, The Odyssey, and even Lord of the Rings.
A young couple run into the path of a psychopath. Monsters, whether people who do monstrous things or scaly beasts or a monster of a natural disaster, reveal what’s really inside a person. Let your character fall into the path of a monster and see how they handle themselves.
Need more ideas? Here are ideas based on whichever literary genre you write. Use them as character inspiration, to start your own story, or borrow pieces to generate your own ideas. The only rule is, have fun writing!
Rosa Rivera-Ortiz is an up-and-coming lawyer in a San Diego firm. Held back by her ethnicity and her gender, she works twice as hard as her colleagues, and she’s as surprised as anyone when she’s requested specifically for a high-profile case. Bron Welty, an A-list actor and action star, has been arrested for the murder of his live-in housekeeper. The cop heading the case is older, ex-military, a veteran of more than one war, and an occasional sufferer of PTSD. Rosa’s hired to defend the movie star; and it seems like an easy win until she uncovers some secrets that not only make her believe her client is guilty, but may be one of the worst serial killers in the past two decades… and he knows she found out.
It’s the Cold War. Sergei, a double-agent for the CIA working in Berlin, is about to retire when he’s given one final mission: he’s been asked to “defect” to the USSR to help find and assassinate a suspected double-agent for the Kremlin. Sergei is highly trusted, and he’s given to understand that this mission is need-to-know only between him and very few superior officers. But as he falls deeper into the folds of the Iron Curtain, he begins to suspect that his superior officer might just be the mole, and the mark Sergei’s been sent to kill is on the cusp of exposing the leak.
It is 1800. A lighthouse on a barren cliff in Canada. Two lighthouse keepers, German immigrants, are alone for the winter and effectively cut off from the rest of the world until the ice thaws. Both Wilhelm and Matthias are settled in for the long haul with warm clothes, canned goods, and matches a-plenty. Then Wilhelm starts hearing voices. His personal belongings disappear from where he’d placed them, only to reappear in strange spots—like the catwalk, or dangling beneath the spiral stair knotted in brown twine. Matthias begs innocence. Little by little, Wilhelm grows convinced that Matthias is trying to convince him (Wilhelm) to kill himself. Is the insanity real, or is this really Matthias’ doing? And if it is real, what will he do to defend himself? There are so many months until the thaw.
Ever hear the phrase, “It is not who fired the shot but who paid for the bullet?” This is a philosophy Tomoe Gozen lives by. Brave and clever, Tomoe follows clues until she learns who ordered the murder: Emperor Antoku himself. But why would the emperor of Japan want to kill a lowly soldier?
Mystery writer Dan Rodriguez takes the subway every day. Every day, nothing happens. He wears earbuds and a hoodie; he’s ignored, and he ignores. Then one evening, on his way home from a stressful meeting with his publisher, Dan is startled out of his funk when a frantic Middle-Eastern man knocks him over at a dead run, then races up the stairs—pursued by several other thugs. The Middle-Eastern man is shot; and Dan discovers a mysterious package in the front pocket of his hoodie. What’s inside, and what does he need to do to survive the answer?
A headless corpse is found in a freshly-dug grave in Arkansas. The local police chief, Arley Socket, has never had to deal with more than missing gas cans and treed cats. His exploration of this weird murder digs up a mystery older than the 100-year-old town of Jericho that harkens all the way back to a European blood-feud.
Ready to write a love story? Or perhaps you want to create a subplot with a secondary character? We’ve got ideas for you!
Hint: When it comes to romance, a sense of humor is always a good idea. Have fun! Here are a few of my favorite love story ideas:
She’s a cop. He’s the owner of a jewelry store. A sudden rash of break-ins brings her to his store over and over and over again, until it becomes obvious that he might be tripping the alarm on purpose—just to see her. That’s illegal—but she’s kind of falling for him, too. Write the moment she realizes she has to do something about this crazy illicit courtship.
Colorado Animal Rescue has never been more challenging than after that zoo caught on fire. Sally Cougar (no jokes on the name, or she’ll kill you) tracks down three missing tiger cubs, only to find they’ve been adopted by millionaire Bryce Champion. Thanks to an antiquated law on the books, he legally has the right to keep them. It’s going to take everything Sally has to get those tiger cubs back.
He’s a museum curator with a fetish for perfection. No one’s ever gotten close to him; how could they? They’re never as perfect as the portraits, the sculptures, the art that never changes. Then one day, an intern is hired on—a young, messy, disorganized intern, whose hair and desk are in a constant state of disarray. The curator is going half-mad with this walking embodiment of chaos; so why can’t the he stand the thought of the intern leaving at the end of their assistantship?
In a future society, neural implants translate music into physical pleasure, and earphones (“jacking in”) are now the drug of choice. Write either from the perspective of a music addict, OR the Sonforce agent (sonance + enforcer) who has the job of cracking down.
It’s the year 5000. Our planet was wrecked in the great Crisis of 3500, and remaining human civilization survives only in a half dozen giant domed cities. There are two unbreakable rules: strict adherence to Life Quality (recycling doesn’t even begin to cover these laws), and a complete ban on reproduction (only the “worthy” are permitted to create new humans). Write from the perspective of a young woman who just discovered she’s been chosen to reproduce—but she has no interest in being a mother.
So yeah, ancient Egypt really was “all that” after all, and the pyramids turn out to be fully functional spaceships (the limestone was to preserve the electronics hidden inside). Write from the perspective of the tourist exploring the ancient society who accidentally turns one on.
Stories, more than any other artistic expression, have the power to make people care. Stories have the ability to change people’s lives.
But to write a great story, a life-changing story, don’t just write about what your characters did, said, and saw. Ask yourself, “Where do I fit in to this story? What is my personal connection to this story?”
Robert Frost said this:
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. Robert Frost
If you can connect your personal story to the story you’re writing, you will not only be more motivated to finish your story, you might just be able to change the lives of your readers.
Next Step: Write Your Best Story
No matter how good your idea, writing a story or a book can be a long difficult process. How do you create an outline, come up with a great plot, and then actually finish it?
My new book The Write Structure will help. You’ll learn how to take your idea and structure a strong plot around it. Then you’ll be guided through the exact process I’ve used to write dozens of short stories and over fifteen books.
Do you want to write a short story, but are unsure about how to develop a short story plot?
Short stories rarely require extensive plotting. They’re short, after all. But a bit of an outline, just to get the basic idea down, can help you craft a strong plot.
Plotting your short stories will give you an end story goal and will help you avoid getting stuck in the middle, or accidentally creating plot holes. You’ll have fewer unfinished stories if you learn to do a little planning before you start writing.
And in this article, you can learn how to take your short story’s primary conflict, and build a plot around it.
Definition of Plot and Structure
I see the terms “plot” and “structure” thrown around interchangeably quite a bit, so I’d like to correct that before we move on.
Plot is a series of events that make up your story.
Plot is (most likely) unique to your story, but there are a handful of basic structures that are universal and used over and over again. (We’ll get into the basic three act structure in a later post.) Structure is the bones and plot is what fills it out.
When I first started out writing short stories, I had no idea where I was going with any of them. Absolutely none. I see this time and time again with newer writers. I think it’s because we’re conditioned to think any kind of art is only driven by that infamous and often elusive muse rather than hard work. I felt the same way.
And then I started getting more stories under my belt. Some I finished. Some I didn’t.
You know what the difference was? The stories I finished, I plotted before I wrote. “ If you want to finish writing a story, try plotting it first. Learn how to plot your short stories in this article.
Now I know a lot of writers loathe plotting or outlining stories—of any length, but especially short stories. They have various reasons for this dislike, but the most common one I hear is planning or outlining takes all the “magic” out of writing. “Creative writing is about being creative!”
I won’t get into the idea that writing is actually a job here—it is. That’s not what this article is about.
Instead, I’m going to propose a different reason for planning a short story with one important question: Is your idea even a story?
Planning out your story, even if it’s short, can give you an answer to this question. It will determine whether or not your central character can work towards achieving a goal (and simultaneously the plot moves towards a climax), or if your idea ends there—at the idea.
Writer’s tip: If you’re feeling stuck on coming up with an idea that could withstand a story’s length, try looking at the types of plots discussed in this article.
Is It a Story or Just a Story Idea?
Don’t panic. I don’t plan extensively. But what I’ve found was absolutely no planning whatsoever more often than not leads to wasted time. Nobody has time to waste.
If I don’t plot at all, I’ll get maybe a third of the way through the story and get stuck. I’ll have no idea where it was going, and without that goal in mind, I’ll flounder. I might tinker around with the idea a little longer, but most of the time I’ll end up abandoning the story.
A few weeks ago, I had the infamous muse visit me. I grabbed my notebook and started writing. It was great writing. The prose was good, the main character was crazy interesting, ditto for the secondary character, and I’d set up a mystery that made you want to turn the page. The problem was I had no idea what the mystery was. I had set up and no payoff. This story idea fizzled out at the start of the second act.
Now, to be clear, I do indulge my muse every once in a while. It does feel good to be taken over by an idea, even if you don’t know where it’s going. It’s all very “artisty.”
But the fact is I’ve sold one story that I finished without plotting it beforehand. One. Out of dozens I’ve started. That one took me about a week to write and it was torture for me, for my characters, and, I’m sure, for the backspace on my keyboard. Everything about the story reads as forced. It’s uninspired. And you know what?
That’s the one my muse started me on! Inspiration is supposed to be the point of the muse, right? But a muse can only get you started; it can’t keep you going.
When your muse starts poking at you and you don’t know if your idea is a story, ask yourself a couple of questions:
Am I going to remember this idea tomorrow? Yes, it’s nice to be taken over by inspiration. Feel free to indulge that every so often. But also be prepared to have an unfinished story on your hands. You don’t necessarily have to wait until tomorrow to write the thing (especially when we’re talking about shorts), but you do need to know if your enthusiasm is going to wan a few minutes down the road when your muse decides to go take a nap, leaving you with nothing but frustration. (That story I mentioned a moment ago? I haven’t completely forgotten about it, but it does not sit at the top of my mind.)
Do I have a “What if?” question and an answer to that question? If you’re thinking about beautiful sentences where nothing is happening, that’s probably not a story. If you can’t think of an end goal for your character, that’s probably not a story. See the next section for more on “What if?” and the answer. (The story I didn’t finish did not have a goal in mind.)
Do you have a character? This one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often I used to start “stories” and just ramble on with purple prose. No people, no action, no story.
If the answer to all these questions is “yes,” then you most likely have a finishable story. If it’s “no” tell your muse to go back to its hole until it can come up with something better.
If you must, explore the idea a little more and see if you can’t plot a little something. (Do not write yet!)
Enter the “What if?” question.
What If? How Asking This Question Can Plot a Short Story
In the last post, I told you my favorite way to think of a short story idea is the “What If?” question. This question can help you think about various ways to put your central character into a conflict, like: What if X happened? It’s your own mind giving itself creative writing prompts.
Let’s expand on that method a bit. Notice it’s a question. And questions often have answers, do they not? Knowing the answer to your “What If?” question is the most basic outline of a story.
Let’s start with a basic question.
Q: What if someone knocked on my door?
A: I’d probably ignore it.
That’s it. That’s the story. It’s kind of crappy, right?
Notice that answer is my immediate reaction to the knock. It’s not something that happens down the road. That’s part of what makes this scenario NOT a story.
The other issue here is there is no conflict. I don’t answer the door, the person goes away, and I’m left to my own devices. There are no consequences for my decisions, so nothing happens—and nobody reading about this incident cares.
Remember conflict can come in many forms and doesn’t have to be a shoot ’em up kind of situation. Internal conflict can also make a short story. But there MUST be conflict.
So, on multiple levels, this question and answer session is a loser.
Now, let’s say I don’t answer the door. (I’m a millennial. I’d rather not talk to people if I can help it, so this really is the most likely thing to happen.) The person assumes I’m not home. But wait! They’re a burglar. They now try to break into my house. The “What If?’ question has now changed to “What if someone tried to break into my house while I was home?”
See how the central character has to do something now? Even if they don’t, there will be consequences.
Because the story idea establishes stakes, I know I’ve got something. How do I know? There are myriad possibilities here. I could call the cops. I could run out and confront them myself. I could freeze and run upstairs and hide. I could sic my dog on them. I could wait for them to get inside and invite them to join me in having a cup of tea.
Whatever I choose to do, there will be a cause and effect trajectory of events. Which means more stakes, and more opportunities that force my protagonist to face their conflict. They have to make decisions, which will lead to a whole slew of other “What If?” questions:
What if they get in before the cops get here?
What if they break a window?
What if my dog was outside and they hurt him?
What if a neighbor sees them and comes running over?
What if they “break in” but it’s really just my sister needing in my house for something?
What if I’m hiding under the bed and they find me?
What if they hate tea?
What if … and the list goes on.
These are all more interesting scenarios than just ignoring the door and the person going away. But we’re still looking for the answer to the initial “What If?” question. The answer solves the question and puts it to bed. It doesn’t lead to other questions.
Don’t Forget to Answer Your What If Questions
A short story only has one to three scenes normally, so your answer needs to come in a short span of time. It can’t come years down the road. Any span of time longer than a few hours, maybe a day or two, is probably too long.
Q: What if someone tried to break into my house while I was home?
A: I would call the cops, but also grab my bat and be ready to use it.
But wait. That still doesn’t answer the question, not in a final way. There’s still an open ending there, still questions. (Did I use the bat? What happened if I did?) Let’s try again.
A: I would decide not to use my bat and would talk to them until the police got there.
That’s better. With this scenario, I can think of a couple of things that would happen after the police got there, but at that point the situation is over. I’ve done it. I’ve defeated the burglar. Anything afterwards is a conclusion to the story.
The best part is, I’ve actually done it in a way that means change for me as a central character. I didn’t want to talk to anyone to begin with, which is what led to the whole situation. But I have to overcome that aversion by talking to someone in order to solve the problem.
Short Story Structure
We’ve got two important elements of the story narrowed down now: the “What If?” question and its ultimate answer.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might have come across the many posts we have about plot structure. In a story you need six things:
Need a refresher on these plot elements? Dive further into story structure here.
A short story is often only one to three scenes. That means this structure, these six elements, stretch over the entire story to form the framework. (The scenario I’ve presented would most likely be a one-scene story.) Notice I’m talking about framework here. These six elements are your story structure.
So what do we have here after all this thinking about questions and answers?
The “What If?” question is your Inciting Incident.
The ultimate answer is your Climax.
Boom. Two elements down. And these two elements happen to be the bulk of what your readers will remember from your story.
We’ve planned a story, believe it or not. And it didn’t even hurt that much. “ Asking “What if?” can determine if your story idea can last the length of a story, however short. How your story’s climax plays out determines the answer to that question.
But wait! There’s more. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
In the process of coming up with these two elements, we’ve inadvertently come up with a couple of others.
Choosing not to use the bat and talking to the burglar instead? That’s the Crisis. All those streams of “What if?” questions? Those are progressive complications.
Whoops. We’ve outlined basically the whole thing, haven’t we? I sort of tricked you there. Sorry, not sorry.
Plotting Doesn’t Hurt—Too Much
Plotting a short story doesn’t have to be a meticulous thing that requires hours of work and a running spreadsheet. It also doesn’t have to take the magic out of writing.
Your plan for your short story can be a simple, loose outline. (By the way, outlines can change if you think of something better! They’re not set in stone.) Really, you just need two elements to get to writing a short story:
A “What If?” question (identifies the Inciting Incident)
The answer (shows the Climax)
And then you’re ready to write!
In future articles, we’ll dive more into writing structure and the essentials and plot elements of a short story. For now, use this “shortcut” to plan out a few short stories of your own! Have fun with it!
Do you like planning or are you more of a pantser? Let me know in the comments.
As a writer of fiction, you want readers to open your book and become so absorbed they can’t put it down. It helps to be aware that so much of what happens when a reader picks up a book takes place in the subconscious mind. Readers don’t realize that it’s happening, and many writers don’t pay attention to it either.
One of those largely subconscious mechanisms is story pacing.
Story pacing is often ignored as an aspect of learning how to craft a really great story. A lot of writers don’t give it much thought, yet it’s a critically important writing technique and quite exciting to learn about.
In this post, we’ll cover story pacing in detail, and I’ll provide some crucial areas for you to work on in your books—to open up some doors you didn’t even know existed.
Story Pacing Opened My Eyes
One of the primary ways we learn how to craft story is from reading a ton of books, especially in our target genre. I’ve been an avid reader of suspense fiction for as long as I can remember, and it’s been a huge boost to my writing abilities.
So when I started writing thrillers, I felt fairly confident about my skills. I knew I had an exciting storyline, with intriguing plot points supported by well-developed characters and plenty of action.
That’s why I was so surprised when my mentor took a look at one of my stories and said: “It’s not a thriller.”
He told me I had all the right stuff for a thriller, but the pacing was off. After he showed me the same techniques that I’ll share with you in this article, I was able to give the story a better sense of urgency, shaping it into a solid thriller.
With the help of this post, you can do the same with your stories.
What is Story Pacing?
You may be thinking that story pacing is simply the tempo at which your story unfolds. True enough, on the surface. But the deeper reality is that pacing is the art of keeping readers engaged in your story and not letting them out. It’s what pulls them through to the end.
Here’s another way to think about it. In a ThrillerFest panel discussion on the topic of pacing, Lee Child said:
“Every book you’ve ever read has a timeline; it starts somewhere and finishes somewhere. Pacing is how you manage that timeline.”
He goes on to talk about how he writes the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow. Meaning he operates like a photo editor reporting on a tidal wave. The editor shows the wave coming in at a tremendous pace and then slows down the tape as it crashes into the seawall to intensify the impact and examine it in greater detail.
As writers, we have the ability to speed and slow the rate at which our readers consume a story. You can learn those techniques and master the art of pacing by structuring your story according to genre.
Pacing is Inextricably Connected With Genre
Being clear about genre is really critical to the reader’s enjoyment of your story.
To make my point, I’ll tell you about this little trick my husband likes to pull on me. Sometimes when we stop at a gas station, he’ll disappear inside and come out with a large cup and offer me the straw. Though I never know what to expect, I can’t help but form some kind of preconceived anticipation.
So maybe I’m thinking root beer or Dr. Pepper. I take a drink and—Yuck! That’s awful! What is it? And he might say it’s Squirt. Well, I like Squirt, but since it’s not what my taste buds were expecting, it disappointed.
It’s the same with genre.
Readers start a story with certain expectations, they want a particular type of reading experience. That’s why genres exist. To help readers make good choices about what they want to read.
Pacing is dependent on genre and genre springs from pacing. Like the chicken and the egg, you can’t really separate them. The genre you choose to write will dictate the story pacing and the way you pace your book will determine the genre.
If a reader picks up a thriller and the story doesn’t have fast pacing like a thriller should, they’ll put the book down or finish it in disgust and never go back to that writer’s work. Same with a cozy mystery or a slow-burn psychological suspense.
And the reader won’t even consciously register what was wrong with it. They’ll just know it disappointed.
Pacing in Mysteries, Thrillers, and Suspense
Let’s think of a story’s pacing like a theme park ride. When you visit a theme park, you know the kind of rides you want to experience. The ferris wheel is fun and so is the Tilt-a-Whirl, but they move at different paces. Story pacing is like that, too.
Use this analogy to take a closer look at how the pacing differs in thrillers, suspense stories, and mysteries. Each genre is a joy to read, but the experience each provides is unique.
Thrillers are roller coaster rides. You get in and strap down and then the coaster pulls slowly out of the station and starts chugging up that first hill. This is like character development, grounding the reader in the setting, and building the suspense.
By the time your reader is solidly inside the viewpoint character’s head and has learned to care about that character, we’ve reached the top of that first big drop and we plummet ahead on a wild ride of twists and turns with an occasional breather while the story builds to another thrilling drop.
Thrillers are made of fast-paced scenes.
Mysteries are more like the funhouse. They’re designed to surprise, challenge, and amuse with puzzles to solve and riddles to unravel. They’re more interactive than a thrill ride, inviting readers to participate in working out the clues.
We may have to work our way through a revolving tunnel or cross a crazy obstacle course. And there may be spurts of fast-paced activity, but the overall tone of the ride doesn’t have the frenetic qualities of a roller coaster.
Mysteries move at a moderate pace.
We might liken suspense stories to the spooky rides where you ride on a track through a series of dark and mysterious passages, accompanied by scary music and lots of atmosphere.
Some of these rides are slow, drawing out the suspense, giving you time to worry and wonder about what’s coming next. Other rides move more quickly, giving you less time to recover from the unexpected each time you turn the corner.
Suspense stories vary in pace and run the gamut.
Pacing Influences the Reader’s Experience
As with most aspects of good fiction writing, intentional story pacing provides a quality reading experience. Proper pacing allows us to control what the reader thinks and feels. We do that in obvious ways, not so obvious ways, and some really subconscious ways. As I mentioned before, a lot of pacing is effectively a subconscious control system.
We’re going to look at the nuts and bolts of pacing, but unless you realize their purpose and understand the end goal, you won’t get full value from using these tools.
The way the page looks—sentence and paragraph structure, punctuation, amount of white space—sends signals to the reader about how to consume the story. Page appearance is important in pacing a book correctly.
So, before we dig into the specifics, we need to cover an absolutely key component of successful pacing.
Form Follows Content
If you’re wondering how to structure your sentences and paragraphs, look at your content. What’s going on in the story?
What is the character thinking or feeling in that moment? What should the reader be experiencing? These are what will tell you how long or short to make your sentences, paragraphs, and scenes.
In general, longer sentences promote slow-burn suspense while shorter sentences can create a frantic feeling of panic. But the number one rule to remember in story pacing is this: form must follow content.
This means that what’s happening in the story should be reflected in the way it looks on the page.
If there’s a fight scene, or some kind of fast-paced action going on, the sentences and paragraphs should be short, clipped, and surrounded by white space. If your character is arriving in a new setting and taking it in, these descriptive passages will be slower, with longer sentences and paragraphs.
Flashbacks also slow the pace as you pull the reader from the active voice of the story into a more introspective vein.
Ask yourself what’s happening, and make your form fit your content.
Some people, when they hear the term pacing, think it means fast. And in suspense fiction, that’s often what readers want. But there’s nothing wrong with an occasional slow-paced scene if that’s what the content calls for.
Good pacing is about choosing the appropriate speed to advance your reader through the plot. And that’s dictated by the genre, tone, and events of the story. “ Story pacing is about choosing the appropriate speed to advance your reader through the plot. And that’s dictated by the genre, tone, and events of the story. Tweet thisTweet
Feel free to throw out the rules of grammar if they get in the way of pacing and presenting the story. Fiction writing doesn’t always require full, grammatically correct sentences. Those rules exist to serve the story, and the story exists to serve the reader. Our job, as writers, is to serve the reader in the best way we know how. And sometimes that means breaking the rules.
Now let’s dive into the specific techniques used in pacing. We’ll look at four big ideas:
Scene and chapter structure
The way you structure a scene’s sentences sends a message to the reader, usually on a subconscious level, about how fast to read. And the content of the scene will dictate the form.
Longer sentences, with lots of detail, tend to slow the pace and that’s perfect, if that’s what the content requires. Short, staccato sentences—even sentence fragments or single-word sentences with lots of white space in between—convey a fast pace. Machine gun dialogue—those terse conversations say, during a car chase—does the same thing. It speeds the pace.
Often, when there is physical movement in the story, the sentences will be shorter and when things are stationary, they’ll be longer. But that’s a generalization. Always base form on content. That’s really the only rule. Your job is to tell a story, and all the little pieces you use to do so should follow that story.
How pacing works in sentence structure
The energy of a sentence is in its kernel, subject + verb:
The woman screamed.
Sometimes you’ll need to include an object and indirect object:
The woman screamed obscenities at the burglar.
But keep in mind that any clauses you add will drain some of the energy:
The woman screamed obscenities at the burglar, cursing him for tracking mud on her Persian carpet, berating him for breaking the window.
Remember, that’s okay if it’s called for by the content. What’s going on, and how do you want the reader to feel about it? Also, be aware of rhythm. In your sentence lengths and structure, you’re setting up a cadence which conveys a certain kind of tone.
The best way to learn the structures, rhythms, and cadences of well-written scenes is to read a lot and seriously study those who have mastered your genre’s story pacing.
Action is content. If you’re writing an action scene, you can often get away with less detail and shorter sentences. Content calls for them.
But two people sitting and talking doesn’t usually qualify as action. For moments like this, to keep the reader tucked into the story, you need to use more rich, sensory details that spark emotions and opinions. Which means longer sentences.
This doesn’t mean that if the pace of the story is fast you need to leave details out. Remember, you must tell the story—everything the reader needs to get the full experience. But if the pace is fast, you must deliver the information in a more clear, concise fashion.
Are you picking up on the major theme of pacing? Content drives everything. “ Content drives the pace of your story—content drives everything. Tweet thisTweet
When a reader opens a book and sees a lot of black on the page—long blocks of text—that sends a message that it should be consumed at a leisurely pace. Short paragraphs with lots of white space around them signals a fast-moving page-turner.
It encourages fast reading.
The way you structure sentences and paragraphs will influence your reader’s breathing and physical state to some extent. Even when not reading out loud, we tend to breathe in conjunction with the words on the page, and faster breathing leads to a faster heart rate.
Lots of short, punchy paragraphs literally make your book a page-turner because your reader’s eye devours them and quickly moves on. Yet, in some cases, a long, run-on sentence can leave your reader breathless, since there’s no place to pause and take a breath.
Normally-paced text varies in paragraph length. It might go from a four-line paragraph to a three-line paragraph, then five lines followed by two, and so on. About ninety percent of most books, except for climactic scenes, run along in this sort of pattern. It’s interesting to the eye and doesn’t contain lengthy, intimidating paragraphs.
This will vary by genre. Literary works will tend toward longer paragraphs, while genres such as action adventure and thrillers contain only sixty to sixty-five percent “normal” story pacing. This utilizes a lot more white space and shorter sentences and paragraphs.
Use the power of the paragraph. Especially with faster-paced fiction. Hit the return key as often as necessary. Set short, punchy sentences apart for greater impact when the situation calls for it. This is a powerful technique.
How pacing works in paragraph structure
To further explore how paragraph structure affects reader experience, let’s take an excerpt from the thriller-paced short story Kowalski’s In Love by James Rollins. In this first example, I took the liberty of restructuring the paragraphs to reflect normal pacing:
Now, see how it appeared in the published version:
Do you see how the shorter paragraphs facilitate a faster pace? Notice how they give more impact to the short sentences, which stand alone in their own paragraphs.
Scene and Chapter Structure
When you write, your scenes and chapters should drive the story forward and accomplish story objectives. Where you break them should not be random, but based on content.
You should be aware, however, that readers can bog down if the chapters are too long. Most readers are comfortable with chapter lengths between 2,000 and 2,500 words. Shawn Coyne, editor and author of The Story Grid, calls these “potato chip” chapters because they’re short enough to encourage readers to indulge in just one more before turning out the light.
And then, just one more…
It’s also useful to vary the lengths of your sentences, paragraphs, and scenes to avoid falling into a monotonous pattern. It’s important to realize that readers have an instinctive sense of story pacing, and when the pacing is congruent with the content, it feels right. If something is out of sync, they’ll sense that, too.
For example, years ago, when I read Connie Willis’s WWII time travel book, Blackout, I grew increasingly uncomfortable as I neared the end. Something was wrong. The pacing was off, and I realized my instincts were on target as the book came to an abrupt end—in the middle of the story.
The publishers had decided the book was too long and their solution was to chop it into two parts without any warning to the reader. I, along with thousands of other readers, was not pleased.
You want to do all you can to give readers confidence in your storytelling abilities. When they feel like they’re in good hands, readers will settle into a story and stick with it. Putting in the effort to get the pacing right will pay dividends in gaining reader trust.
Remember, the function of pacing is to pull the reader through the book to the very end. Cliffhangers are a vital part of that process and consist of scene and chapter endings and the openings that follow.
Cliffhangers don’t just occur at the end of a chapter where you decide to stop writing. They happen when you make the effort to build something compelling into that ending. Effective cliffhangers keep readers from putting the book down, bridge the gaps between chapters and scenes, and provide momentum.
Like links in a chain, the cliffhanger doesn’t stand alone. It connects to the next opening and incorporates techniques used in deep POV to ground the reader in the new setting and character, creating a seamless progression through the story.
Lots of factors enter into your reader’s experience with your book. Some of them are out of your control. Is she tired? Hungry? Just a had a fight with her husband? There’s nothing you can do about any of those things.
But you should do your best to take control of the things you can. Like the way your story looks on the page. This has a tremendous influence on your reader, though most of it happens on a subconscious level.
To get a better idea of what I mean, let’s look at an example from Dean Koontz’s thriller The Whispering Room:
Do you see how these terse, tight paragraphs of dialogue convey tension and move quickly like machine gun fire? This makes for a fast pace and the form follows what’s happening in the scene, a rapid back-and-forth conflict.
Now let’s examine another example, this one from Bloodline by James Rollins:
The concise sentences and paragraphs communicate tension to the reader and encourage a rapid reading, eating up the page, leading to faster page flips. They are direct and sparse, hiding nothing of the bleakness of the scene.
Here’s a contrasting example from Jeffery Deaver’s novel The Blue Nowhere:
Deaver could easily have broken this block into multiple paragraphs. Why didn’t he?
I think he did it this way because the long, unbroken paragraph mimics the droning on and on of the little girl. It also reflects the viewpoint character’s blasé attitude about murder, burying it in a pile of words as if it’s something of little significance, highlighting its trivial aspect as just part of a game.
Remember to think about what’s happening in the story and how you can use all your skills to communicate that to the reader. It’s not just the words you use, but how you arrange them on the page that affects the way your reader will experience the story.
Improving Your Story Pacing Skills
The first step in mastering pacing is awareness. Once you become aware of the subconscious signals you’re sending your readers, you can practice and improve.
However, the best way to control the pace of a story is from your own subconscious, the back brain, the creative part. Not from the critical front brain. So how does that happen?
It’s important to keep learning, studying, practicing, and polishing your skills as a writer. But to make those skills really useful, they need to be internalized and become a natural part of your writing process.
Musicians practice scales and fingering exercises. Basketball players run drills on passing, dribbling, and shooting. Dancers spend hours at the barre, practicing the basic moves. They do these things so that the techniques are available to them in concert, in the middle of a championship game, or on the stage.
We make muscle memory by repeating the proper movements until they become automatic.
For writers, this involves reading first for pleasure. And then, when you’ve found a book that grabbed you and pulled you all the way to the end, go back and study it.
Analyze and practice until you’ve internalized the skill and it becomes second nature. The first step is awareness, then comes practice. Do these things on a regular basis and eventually, the techniques and information will pass from the front of your brain into the back of your brain and become automatic.
How about you? Did you learn something new you can apply right now to your writing? Tell us about it in the comments.