30 June 2020
The three basic elements of a successful short story are the beginning, middle and end.
Often, an otherwise good story fails because it lacks a conclusive and satisfactory ending.
Sadly, this frequently shows up in competition entries we receive. Writers follow all the rules on length, theme etc., but their story fizzles at the end. Sometimes a story is left with a question for the reader as if it is the reader's job to provide the ending, which is clearly not. It's the writer's job to bring a fully-rounded story to the conclusion that every reader wants to see. Of course, we don't want a predictable ending, but a wishy-washy or contrived ending won't stand a chance of being published.
Take the time to ask yourself if the ending to your story lives up to its beginning. If you began with a few paragraphs of great conflict between a couple, then the ending will resolve that conflict to the satisfaction of both the characters and the readers. If your characters are as appealing to the readers as they should be, then they will have expectations of how they want to see their story resolved. Get to know them by writing a profile of their faults, virtues and hang-ups, their hopes and dreams. It’s never time wasted, and a profile can be as brief or as long as you like. What it does is to give you a guideline to your character’s personality while you are writing their story.
Resolving problems in short stories
In writing any story, you will have given your characters problems to face, and in an ideal world those problems will be resolved by the end of the story. Readers will be anticipating the ending they hope to see. They will have recognised the strengths and weaknesses in the characters and they will want them to come through their problems and solve them through their own intelligence and resolve. There is no satisfaction in telling a story where everything is bland and sweet, and where all the characters are squeaky-clean. In a love story, we want the heroine to make the right choice of husband, lover, friend. In a crime story, we want the villain to get his comeuppance and the canny detective to win through. Readers should feel drawn to the main characters in a story, and to know that they get what they deserve in every way.
All of this is resolved when you reach the ending to your story. The balance between having a too-predictable ending and one that is still satisfying and reaches the reader’s expectations is not always easy. Test your ending by referring back to the beginning of your story. Have you achieved what you wanted to do? Maybe you didn’t give your characters realistic goals to begin with, and so it didn’t contain all the drama, pathos, etc that you intended.
Create believable characters and emotions in your short stories
When you begin your story, you will have one central character, whose story you are telling. This character will still be one-dimensional until he or she starts to react to other characters. Characters need this interaction with other people to show the reader what frame of mind they are in and to engage the reader’s sympathy and understanding.
Emotional reaction is a powerful tool in short story writing. You don’t have the long wordage of a novel where you can afford to expand on every ounce of emotion and description, so you need to get to the heart of the characters and their problems very quickly. Winding up all of this in a way that will satisfy yourself, the editor and the reader will therefore result in a successful and publishable story.
Write a synopsis to ensure your short story structure is right
Too often, the new writer doesn’t think the entire story through. Beginning on a high with a wonderful idea is what draws many of us into short story writing (and any other kind), but every story has to go somewhere. Maybe you are not the sort of writer who can bear to work out a synopsis, or even be bothered with it. But at least have some idea of what you want to do with the characters you create, otherwise you are in danger of writing a fluffy piece with no substance, or a crime story with no logical result. Make your characters intelligent people with the sense and ability to know what their problems are.
Not thinking the story through in the first place can often result in a weak and coincidental ending. So how about writing a synopsis? Don’t be fooled into thinking that working out a synopsis means writing pages of detail and virtually half the story before you start. It can be as simple as a series of one-liners or a couple of short paragraphs. What it will do is to guarantee that you know where your story is going, and that the ending will be as good as you hoped it would be. Giving yourself a framework to write to, however tenuous, means that you won’t be tempted to go off at tangents.
For more writing inspiration, subscribe to our bestselling monthly magazine and receive your first 3 issues for just £3. Claim this offer here