Creative Short Story Assignment

Jerz > Writing > General Creative Writing Tips [ Poetry | Fiction ]

Writing short stories means beginning as close to the climax as possible — everything else is a distraction. A novel can take a more meandering path, but should still start with a scene that sets the tone for the whole book.

A short story conserves characters and scenes, typically by focusing on just one conflict, and drives towards a sudden, unexpected revelation. Go easy on the exposition and talky backstory — your reader doesn’t need to know everything that you know about your characters.

1. Get Started: Emergency Tips

Do you have a short story assignment due tomorrow morning? The rest of this document covers longer-term strategies, but if you are in a pinch, these emergency tips may help. Good luck!

  • What does your protagonist want?
    (The athlete who wants her team to win the big game and the car crash victim who wants to survive are not unique or interesting enough.)
  • When the story begins, what morally significant action has your protagonist taken towards that goal?
    (Your protagonist should already have made a conscious choice, good or bad, that drives the rest of the story.)
  • What unexpected consequences — directly related to the protagonist’s goal-oriented actions — ramp up the emotional energy of the story?
    (Will the unexpected consequences force your protagonist to make yet another choice, leading to still more consequences?)
  • What details from the setting, dialog, and tone help you tell the story? Things to cut:
    • Travel scenes. (Save words. “Later, at the office, I…”)
    • Character A telling character B about something we just saw happening to character A. (Cut the redundancy.)
    • Facial expressions of a first-person narrator. (We can’t see what our own faces look like, so don’t write “A smile lit my face from ear to ear.”) See Writing Dialogue.
  • What morally significant choice does your protagonist make at the climax of the story?
    (Your reader should care about the protagonist’s decision. Ideally, the reader shouldn’t see it coming.)

An effective short story (or poem) does not simply record or express the author’s feelings; rather, it generates feelings in the reader. (See “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell.”)

Drawing on your own real-life experiences, such as winning the big game, bouncing back after an illness or injury, or dealing with the death of a loved one, are attractive choices for students who are looking for a “personal essay” topic. But simply listing the emotions you experienced (“It was exciting” “I’ve never been so scared in all my life” “I miss her so much”) is not the same thing as generating emotions for your readers to experience.

For those of you who are looking for more long-term writing strategies, here are some additional ideas.

  • Keep a notebook. To R. V. Cassill, notebooks are “incubators,” a place to begin with overheard conversation, expressive phrases, images, ideas, and interpretations on the world around you.
  • Write on a regular, daily basis. Sit down and compose sentences for a couple of hours every day — even if you don’t feel like it.
  • Collect stories from everyone you meet. Keep the amazing, the unusual, the strange, the irrational stories you hear and use them for your own purposes. Study them for the underlying meaning and apply them to your understanding of the human condition.

Read, Read, Read

Read a LOT of Chekhov. Then re-read it. Read Raymond Carver, Earnest Hemingway, Alice Munro, and Tobias Wolff. If you don’t have time to read all of these authors, stick to Chekhov. He will teach you more than any writing teacher or workshop ever could.
-Allyson Goldin, UWEC Asst. Professor of Creative Writing

2. Write a Catchy First Paragraph

In today’s fast-moving world, the first sentence of your narrative should catch your reader’s attention with the unusual, the unexpected, an action, or a conflict. Begin with tension and immediacy. Remember that short stories need to start close to their end.

I heard my neighbor through the wall.
Dry. Nothing sparks the reader’s imagination.
 The neighbor behind us practiced scream therapy in his shower almost every day.
The second sentence catches the reader’s attention. Who is this guy who goes in his shower every day and screams? Why does he do that? What, exactly, is“scream therapy”? Let’s keep reading…
The first time I heard him, I stood in the bathroom listening at our shared wall for ten minutes, debating the wisdom of calling the police. It was very different from living in the duplex over middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. Brown and their two young sons in Duluth.
The rest of the paragraph introduces I and an internal conflict as the protagonist debates a course of action and introduces an intriguing contrast of past and present setting.

“It is important to understand the basic elements of fiction writing before you consider how to put everything together. This process is comparable to producing something delectable in the kitchen–any ingredient that you put into your bowl of dough impacts your finished loaf of bread. To create a perfect loaf, you must balance ingredients baked for the correct amount of time and enhanced with the right polishing glaze.” -Laurel Yourke

3. Developing Characters

Your job, as a writer of short fiction–whatever your beliefs–is to put complex personalities on stage and let them strut and fret their brief hour. Perhaps the sound and fury they make will signify something that has more than passing value–that will, in Chekhov’s words, “make [man] see what he is like.” –Rick Demarnus

In order to develop a living, breathing, multi-faceted character, it is important to know way more about the character than you will ever use in the story. Here is a partial list of character details to help you get started.

  • Name
  • Age
  • Job
  • Ethnicity
  • Appearance
  • Residence
  • Pets
  • Religion
  • Hobbies
  • Single or married?
  • Children?
  • Temperament
  • Favorite color
  • Friends
  • Favorite foods
  • Drinking patterns
  • Phobias
  • Faults
  • Something hated?
  • Secrets?
  • Strong memories?
  • Any illnesses?
  • Nervous gestures?
  • Sleep patterns

Imagining all these details will help you get to know your character, but your reader probably won’t need to know much more than the most important things in four areas:

  • Appearance. Gives your reader a visual understanding of the character.
  • Action. Show the reader what kind of person your character is, by describing actions rather than simply listing adjectives.
  • Speech. Develop the character as a person — don’t merely have your character announce important plot details.
  • Thought. Bring the reader into your character’s mind, to show them your character’s unexpressed memories, fears, and hopes.

For example, let’s say I want to develop a college student persona for a short story that I am writing. What do I know about her?

Her name is Jen, short for Jennifer Mary Johnson. She is 21 years old. She is a fair-skinned Norwegian with blue eyes, long, curly red hair, and is 5 feet 6 inches tall. Contrary to the stereotype about redheads, she is actually easygoing and rather shy. She loves cats and has two of them named Bailey and Allie. She is a technical writing major with a minor in biology. Jen plays the piano and is an amateur photographer. She lives in the dorms at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She eats pizza every day for lunch and loves Red Rose tea. She cracks her knuckles when she is nervous. Her mother just committed suicide.

4. Choose a Point of View

Point of view is the narration of the story from the perspective of first, second, or third person. As a writer, you need to determine who is going to tell the story and how much information is available for the narrator to reveal in the short story. The narrator can be directly involved in the action subjectively, or the narrator might only report the action objectively.

  • First Person. The story is told from the view of “I.” The narrator is either the protagonist (main character) and directly affected by unfolding events, or the narrator is a secondary character telling the story revolving around the protagonist.
    I saw a tear roll down his cheek. I had never seen my father cry before. I looked away while he brushed the offending cheek with his hand.
    This is a good choice for beginning writers because it is the easiest to write. (But if your viewpoint character is too much like you, a first-person story might end up being a too-transparent exercise in wish-fulfillment, or score-settling.)
  • Second Person. The story is told directly to “you”, with the reader as a participant in the action.
    You laughed loudly at the antics of the clown. You clapped your hands with joy.
    (See also Jerz on interactive fiction.)
  • Third Person. The story tells what “he”, “she,” or “it” does. The third-person narrator’s perspective can be limited (telling the story from one character’s viewpoint) or omniscient (where the narrator knows everything about all of the characters).
    He ran to the big yellow loader sitting on the other side of the gravel pit shack.
    Your narrator might take sides in the conflict you present, might be as transparent as possible, or might advocate a position that you want your reader to challenge (this is the “unreliable narrator” strategy).

Yourke on point of view:

  • First Person. “Unites narrator and reader through a series of secrets” when they enter one character’s perceptions. However, it can “lead to telling” and limits readers connections to other characters in the short story.
  • Second Person. “Puts readers within the actual scene so that readers confront possibilities directly.” However, it is important to place your characters “in a tangible environment” so you don’t “omit the details readers need for clarity.”
  • Third Person Omniscient. Allows you to explore all of the characters’ thoughts and motivations. Transitions are extremely important as you move from character to character.
  • Third Person Limited. “Offers the intimacy of one character’s perceptions.” However, the writer must “deal with character absence from particular scenes.”

5. Write Meaningful Dialogue

Make your readers hear the pauses between the sentences. Let them see characters lean forward, fidget with their cuticles, avert their eyes, uncross their legs.Jerome Stern

Dialogue is what your characters say to each other (or to themselves).

Each speaker gets his/her own paragraph, and the paragraph includes whatever you wish to say about what the character is doing when speaking. (See: “Quotation Marks: Using Them in Dialogue“.)

Where are you going?” John cracked his knuckles while he looked at the floor. “To the racetrack.” Mary edged toward the door, keeping her eyes on John’s bent head. “Not again,” John stood up, flexing his fingers. “We are already maxed out on our credit cards.”
The above paragraph is confusing, because it is not clear when one speech stops and the other starts.
     “Where are you going?” John asked nervously.
“To the racetrack,” Mary said, trying to figure out whether John was too upset to let her get away with it this time.
“Not again,” said John, wondering how they would make that month’s rent. “We are already maxed out on our credit cards.”
The second example is mechanically correct, since it uses a separate paragraph to present each speaker’s turn advancing the conversation. But the narrative material between the direct quotes is mostly useless.

Write Meaningful Dialogue Labels

“John asked nervously” is an example of “telling.” The author could write “John asked very nervously” or “John asked so nervously that his voice was shaking,” and it still wouldn’t make the story any more effective.

How can the author convey John’s state of mind, without coming right out and telling the reader about it? By inference. That is, mention a detail that conjures up in the reader’s mind the image of a nervous person.

6. Use Setting and Context

Setting moves readers most when it contributes to an organic whole. So close your eyes and picture your characters within desert, jungle, or suburb–whichever setting shaped them. Imagining this helps balance location and characterization. Right from the start, view your characters inhabiting a distinct place. –– Laurel Yourke

Setting includes the time, location, context, and atmosphere where the plot takes place.

  • Remember to combine setting with characterization and plot.
  • Include enough detail to let your readers picture the scene but only details that actually add something to the story. (For example, do not describe Mary locking the front door, walking across the yard, opening the garage door, putting air in her bicycle tires, getting on her bicycle–none of these details matter except that she rode out of the driveway without looking down the street.)
  • Use two or more senses in your descriptions of setting.
  • Rather than feed your readers information about the weather, population statistics, or how far it is to the grocery store, substitute descriptive details so your reader can experience the location the way your characters do.
    Our sojourn in the desert was an educational contrast with its parched heat, dust storms, and cloudless blue sky filled with the blinding hot sun. The rare thunderstorm was a cause for celebration as the dry cement tunnels of the aqueducts filled rapidly with rushing water. Great rivers of sand flowed around and through the metropolitan inroads of man’s progress in the greater Phoenix area, forcefully moved aside for concrete and steel structures. Palm trees hovered over our heads and saguaro cactuses saluted us with their thorny arms.

7. Set Up the Plot

Plot is what happens, the storyline, the action. Jerome Stern says it is how you set up the situation, where the turning points of the story are, and what the characters do at the end of the story.

A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. –Janet Burroway

Understanding these story elements for developing actions and their end results will help you plot your next short story.

  • Explosion or “Hook.” A thrilling, gripping, stirring event or problem that grabs the reader’s attention right away.
  • Conflict. A character versus the internal self or an external something or someone.
  • Exposition. Background information required for seeing the characters in context.
  • Complication. One or more problems that keep a character from their intended goal.
  • Transition. Image, symbol, dialogue, that joins paragraphs and scenes together.
  • Flashback. Remembering something that happened before the short story takes place.
  • Climax.When the rising action of the story reaches the peak.
  • Falling Action. Releasing the action of the story after the climax.
  • Resolution. When the internal or external conflict is resolve.

Brainstorming. If you are having trouble deciding on a plot, try brainstorming. Suppose you have a protagonist whose husband comes home one day and says he doesn’t love her any more and he is leaving. What are actions that can result from this situation?

  1. She becomes a workaholic.
  2. Their children are unhappy.
  3. Their children want to live with their dad.
  4. She moves to another city.
  5. She gets a new job.
  6. They sell the house.
  7. She meets a psychiatrist and falls in love.
  8. He comes back and she accepts him.
  9. He comes back and she doesn’t accept him.
  10. She commits suicide.
  11. He commits suicide.
  12. She moves in with her parents.

The next step is to select one action from the list and brainstorm another list from that particular action.

8. Create Conflict and Tension

Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story: birth, love, sex, work, and death. –Janet Burroway

Conflict produces tension that makes the story begin. Tension is created by opposition between the character or characters and internal or external forces or conditions. By balancing the opposing forces of the conflict, you keep readers glued to the pages wondering how the story will end.

Possible Conflicts Include:

  • The protagonist against another individual
  • The protagonist against nature (or technology)
  • The protagonist against society
  • The protagonist against God
  • The protagonist against himself or herself.

Yourke’s Conflict Checklist

  • Mystery. Explain just enough to tease readers. Never give everything away.
  • Empowerment. Give both sides options.
  • Progression. Keep intensifying the number and type of obstacles the protagonist faces.
  • Causality. Hold fictional characters more accountable than real people. Characters who make mistakes frequently pay, and, at least in fiction, commendable folks often reap rewards.
  • Surprise. Provide sufficient complexity to prevent readers predicting events too far in advance.
  • Empathy. Encourage reader identification with characters and scenarios that pleasantly or (unpleasantly) resonate with their own sweet dreams (or night sweats).
  • Insight. Reveal something about human nature.
  • Universality. Present a struggle that most readers find meaningful, even if the details of that struggle reflect a unique place and time.
  • High Stakes. Convince readers that the outcome matters because someone they care about could lose something precious. Trivial clashes often produce trivial fiction.

9. Build to a Crisis or Climax

This is the turning point of the story–the most exciting or dramatic moment.

The crisis may be a recognition, a decision, or a resolution. The character understands what hasn’t been seen before, or realizes what must be done, or finally decides to do it. It’s when the worm turns. Timing is crucial. If the crisis occurs too early, readers will expect still another turning point. If it occurs too late, readers will get impatient–the character will seem rather thick.-Jerome Stern

Jane Burroway says that the crisis “must always be presented as a scene. It is “the moment” the reader has been waiting for. In Cinderella’s case, “the payoff is when the slipper fits.”

While a good story needs a crisis, a random event such as a car crash or a sudden illness is simply an emergency –unless it somehow involves a conflict that makes the reader care about the characters (see: “Crisis vs. Conflict“).

10. Find a Resolution

The solution to the conflict. In short fiction, it is difficult to provide a complete resolution and you often need to just show that characters are beginning to change in some way or starting to see things differently.

Yourke examines some of the options for ending a story.

  • Open. Readers determine the meaning.
    Brendan’s eyes looked away from the priest and up to the mountains.
  • Resolved. Clear-cut outcome.
    While John watched in despair, Helen loaded up the car with her belongings and drove away.
  • Parallel to Beginning. Similar to beginning situation or image.
    • They were driving their 1964 Chevrolet Impala down the highway while the wind blew through their hair.
    • Her father drove up in a new 1964 Chevrolet Impala, a replacement for the one that burned up.
  • Monologue. Character comments.
    I wish Tom could have known Sister Dalbec’s prickly guidance before the dust devils of Sin City battered his soul.
  • Dialogue. Characters converse.
  • Literal Image. Setting or aspect of setting resolves the plot.
    The aqueducts were empty now and the sun was shining once more.
  • Symbolic Image. Details represent a meaning beyond the literal one.
    Looking up at the sky, I saw a cloud cross the shimmering blue sky above us as we stood in the morning heat of Sin City.

Got Writer’s Block?

The Writer’s Block
Comprehensive Web site that offers solutions to beating writer’s block such as various exercises (not necessarily physical), advice from prolific writers, and how to know if you really have writer’s block.

Overcoming Writer’s Block
Precise, short list of ways to start writing again.

Learn through Schooling
Some online colleges and universities offer creative writing courses. Look for ones that offer creative writing courses that cover the plot and structure of short stories.

  • Regular access to an instructor who is a published author, and a peer group that is motivated to read your drafts, might just be the extra motivation you need to develop your own skills.
  • If you are counting on the credits transferring to help you complete an academic program, check with your university registrar.

Dec. 2002 — submitted by Kathy Kennedy, UWEC Senior
(for Jerz’s Advanced Technical Writing class)
Jan 2003 — edited by Jamie Dalbesio, UWEC Senior
(for an independent study project with Jerz)
May 2003 — edited by Jerz and posted at Seton Hill University
Jan 2007 — ongoing edits by Jerz
May 2008 — reformatted
Sep 2010 — tweaked Writer’s Block section
Mar 2011 — reformatted and further tweaked
Jun 2017 — minor editing. Are “Keds” still a recognizable brand of kids shoes?

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Archived discussion of “Short Stories: 10 Tips for Creative Writers”

Most writers have too many short story ideas, not too few. However, therein lies the problem, because the more ideas you have, the harder it can be to choose the best one.

Here’s my advice: If you’re in the mood to begin a new short story, stop trying to find the best short story idea. In an interview with Rolling Stone, George R.R. Martin said, “Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.”

The best short story idea in the world won’t help you if you don’t write it, and a mediocre idea can be made into an award winning story if it’s written well. Stop worrying about finding the best idea and choose one that’s good enough (or even an idea you’ve already started). Your goal isn’t to have the best ideas, it’s to have the best short stories.

That’s why this list is so short. Some websites give 44 story ideas, 100 ideas, or even 1,000, and while that can be fun, it kind of defeats the purpose. More ideas won’t help you if you don’t write them, and they might just distract you from your true purpose.

Short Story Ideas

With that in mind, why not use these ten short story ideas to write your first ten stories, one per week, over the next ten weeks? I promise you, your life will look totally different if you do it.

Here are the short story ideas:

1. 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.”

Good writers don’t cover up their wounds, they glorify them. Think for a few moments about a moment in your life when you were wounded, whether physically or emotionally. Then, write a story, true or fictional, involving that wound.

2. Your character discovers a dead body OR witnesses a death.

In 2011, 20 short stories were published in Best American Short Stories. Half of them involved a character dying. That same year, all 13 of the novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize involved the theme of death.

Think about your favorite films or novels. How many of them either show a character die or have the character’s dealing with the death of another.

Good writers don’t turn away from death, which is, after all, the universal human experience. Instead, they look it directly into it’s dark face and describe what they see on the page.

3. Your character is orphaned.

Pop quiz: What do Harry Potter, Superman, Cosette from Les Miserables, Bambi, David Copperfield, Frodo Baggins, Tom Sawyer, Santiago from The Alchemist, Arya Stark, and Ram Mohammed Thomas from Slumdog Millionaire have in common? Beside the fact that they are characters in some of the bestselling stories of all time?

They’re all orphans.

Writers love orphans, and statistically they appear in stories far more often than in the world. Orphans are uniquely vulnerable, and as such, they have the most potential for growth. It’s time for you to write a story about one.

Read more about why you should be writing stories about orphans here.

4. Your character discovers a ghost.

One more pop quiz: What do Edgar Allen Poe, Ron Weasley, King Saul from the Bible, Odysseus, and Ebeneezer Scrooge have in common?

Each of these characters* from literary classics saw ghosts!

Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, they make great stories. Have your character find one.

Need more reasons to write about ghosts? Check out our article, 3 reasons to write about ghosts.

*Edgar Allen Poe was not exactly a character, but he was the narrator of “The Raven.”

5. Your character’s relationship ends.

Whether it’s a friendship or a romantic relationship or even the relationship between a parent and his or her child, write about the end of a character’s relationship.

As you write, be sure to keep this in mind:

“Every story has an end, but in life every ending is just a new beginning,” says Dakota Fanning’s character in Uptown Girls.

While it might feel like you’re writing an ending, remember that this end is the opportunity for a new beginning, both for your character and your story.

More Short Story Ideas

Ready to get writing? Get our workbook 15 Days to Write and Submit a Short Story for a step-by-step guide through the process.

6. Your character’s deepest fear is holding his or her relationship OR career back.

“Why bats, Master Wayne?” asks Alfred in Batman Begins.

“Bats frighten me,” Bruce answers. “It’s time my enemies shared my dread.”

We all have pieces of ourselves we’re trying to hide. You do, and so do the characters in your short stories. However, your characters’ secret fears and insecurities are actually the source of their power. Dive into them and you’ll unlock a captivating story.

For more, read our article When You Don’t Know What to Write, Write About Your Insecurities.

7. A character living in poverty comes into an unexpected fortune.

This storyline is one of the seven basic plots, and it describes the plot of some of our favorites stories, including Cinderella, AladdinGreat Expectations, several of the parables of Jesus, and even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

However, not all fortunes are good. As Tolstoy’s short story How Much Land Does a Man Need?and John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl illustrate, sometimes discovering a fortune will destroy your life.

8. A character unexpectedly bumps into his or her soulmate, literally.

In film, it’s called the meet cute, when the hero bumps into the heroine in the hallway, knocking her books to the floor, and forcing them into conversation. In another story, they meet on a bus and her broach gets stuck on his coat. In another, they both reach for the last pair of gloves at the department store.

What happens next is an awkward, endearing conversation between the future lovers.

First, setup the collision. Then, let us see how they handle it.

9. Your character is on a journey. However, they are interrupted by a natural disaster OR an accident.

This is the plot of Gravity, The Odyssey, and Lord of the Rings. It’s fun because who hasn’t been longing to get to a destination only to be delayed by something unexpected.

10. Your character runs into the path of a monster.

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a family is on a road trip to Florida when they get into an accident beside the hideout of a murderer who had just escaped from prison. What happens next is one of the most famous encounters with a monstrous criminal in short fiction.

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.

Want more story ideas? Want to learn how to execute those ideas better, and get your short stories published? Check out this book Let’s Write a Short Story, a guide that will get you started writing and publishing short stories. Get it here.

Testing Your Short Story Ideas

Spend a few minutes today thinking about these 10 story ideas and coming up with a few of your own.

But before you start writing, try testing out your idea by sharing it with a friend, your writer’s group, or even our online community Becoming Writer.

If the people you share it with aren’t very excited about your idea, consider reworking it or even starting over. If they start getting visibly excited about the story, on the other hand, then you know you’re onto something.

I recently combined idea #7, the unexpected fortune, along with idea #5, end of a relationship, to create this idea:

A writer who is inexperienced with women suddenly gets the courage to date not one but two women—the old friend who had twice rejected him and a barista he’s long been attracted to—but after several months of balancing them, both relationships end leaving him alone.

I then posted the idea for feedback in Becoming Writer. And the feedback I got not only helped me see I had a promising idea, I got more ideas from members of the community about how to make the story even better.

As I wrote the story, I was more confident because of the feedback I had gotten, and when I finished, the story turned great.

Once you have your idea, join Becoming Writer to test them out. Oh, and if you join, here’s the link to mine if you want to share your feedback! I’ll be there ready to check it out.

How about you? Do you have any short story ideas?  Share them with us in the comments section!

Your character’s biggest fear is your your story’s secret weapon. Don’t run from it, write about it.

About Joe Bunting

Joe is a ghostwriter, editor, and author. He writes and edits books that change lives. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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