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Creative Exercises for Short Story Writing
Creative Exercises for Short Story Writing

Running from 1,000 to perhaps 20,000 words, a short story often focuses on one, or a few, characters in a single situation. Once the situation is resolved, the story ends.


What if?
Most fictional stories begin with an author asking himself "What if?" What if a man who was having an affair with a married woman went on a safari with the husband and wife? (Ernest Hemingway) What if a traveler in the Arctic Circle needs to build a fire to avoid freezing to death, but his matches get soaked? (Jack London) What if a young married couple pawned their most prized possessions to afford Christmas gifts for one another? (O. Henry) 

Remember as you write, that fiction -- just because it is made up -- is not a lie: It can be based upon the truth.
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The fiction writer creates a dramatic situation and a set of characters, then sets out to tell the story of how such a situation would come to be resolved. As always, the best way to learn is to read as many stories as you can, and begin to emulate the work of writers you admire. As you do so, consider the following elements of any good work of fiction



The critical element in any story is conflict. There must be a struggle of some kind, in order to capture the reader's interest. If a story is merely a sequence of events, such as a day in the life of some character, most readers will become bored and put it down quickly. If a story contains conflict, drama, a problem to be solved, the reader will stay with the story to learn out how it turns out.


To create conflict, begin with a character who wants or needs something. This can be a physical thing, like a lost or desired object, or a more abstract thing, like friendship or acceptance. It can be a life or death desire, such as safety in a hurricane, or a more emotional one, such as the love of another character. Once you have established what your character wants or needs, create obstacles that stand in the character's way of achieving his goals. The character's attempts to overcome these obstacles form the backbone of the story. Romeo and Juliet, for example, want to marry and live happily ever after. The obstacle is that their families are sworn enemies, and their interest in one another is forbidden.


The obstacle that tries to thwart your character's achievement of his goal can be another character, something else external, such as a mountain (standing between him and the place he needs to go); weather (rain soaking his matches when he needs to light a fire); or any other natural or unnatural phenomenon that stands in his way. Conflict can also arise from within a character's own personality. He may struggle against flaws in his make-up that are standing in the way of the things he wants to achieve. Aristotle is credited with first defining these sources of conflict as man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself.


Exercise: Learn to identify the conflict in the stories you read. With each short story, jot down the main character's principal need or desire, and the person or force that stands in her way. Keep a list in your notebook of the various sorts of conflict situations that arise in the stories you read.



At its core, fiction is about people and the things that happen to them. Although your characters may not be real people, they should seem real. The more individual traits and characteristics you give your characters, the more memorable they will be to the reader, and the more the reader will come to feel he knows them.


Exercise: Create a character. Write out a description of an imaginary person. You can base some of the character's traits on a real person you know, but make sure some elements are different and out of your own mind. Include the character's looks, age, profession, hobbies, marital status, any details you can think of. Sketch out his background. Did he have a good childhood or a bad one? Was he well off or poor? What are this character's greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses? What does this character want more than anything else in the world?


Many authors create detailed sketches like this for each character prior to writing a story. Others create their characters as they go along, discovering things about them as the story unfolds. As a beginning writer, consider writing character sketches as a way of getting to know the people in your stories. Having an idea of what makes them tick will help you avoid stock personalities and "cardboard" characters.



Readers often stay with a story because they identify with one or more of its characters. When a reader sees herself, or the kind of person she would like to be, in your character, she comes to care about what happens in the story. She imagines herself going through the same struggles the character is facing. Although not always, the main character of a story should usually be a good person who is trying to do the right thing. Readers will identify more with someone like this than with someone who is just out to please himself. It is also important to give a character weaknesses. The chance must exist that the character will fail at whatever she's striving for, or the reader will cease to be concerned about the story's outcome. If Superman could not be brought to his knees by Kryptonite, he would have been invincible, and there would be no drama left in his actions. Make sure your characters have a Kryptonite of their own. If there's no chance of failure, no reader will perceive your character as real.



Plot is, quite simply, the things that happen in a story, and the order in which they happen. If you have the elements we have discussed above, namely a character or characters striving to achieve something and facing obstacles in the process, you have a dramatic plot. The next step is to determine whether the characters will succeed, and how the story ends. A plot is like a backbone, a structure that you can hang your narrative on, a floor plan that you can decorate as you wish.


Some writers prefer to outline their plots ahead of time. Others feel that this takes the element of surprise away, resulting in a predictable, and therefore boring, story. Try writing both ways and see what works for you.


Exercise: Practice synopsizing the plots of stories you have read. Try to distill what happens in a story in two to four sentences. What obstacles do the characters face, and how do they overcome them? When you've accumulated a page or two of synopses, compare them to one another. What, if anything, do the plots of your favorite stories have in common?



Where and when does your story take place? As a creative writer, your goal is to give your reader a world to lose himself in. Along with believable characters in compelling situations, vivid description goes a long way toward capturing a reader's interest in your work. As you imagine the events in your story, imagine the place where they are happening. Think of the actual space the characters occupy, be it a room or someplace outside. Have an idea what their greater surroundings are. Are they in a city or the country? Your own nation or somewhere else in the world? A sense of place grounds a story. Even if your place is imaginary, or your own version of someplace real, describe it vividly. Readers like to go somewhere when they read. Your goal should always be to give them somewhere to go.


We have discussed the importance of incorporating all five senses into your descriptive writing. What does the place you are describing look like? What sounds can be heard? Is there a noticeable smell? Is it warm or cold? Are your characters touching something? What does it feel like? Using all five senses helps your reader get a more complete experience of the place you are describing.


While vivid, sensory description is crucial in fiction, do not feel that you have to describe every last detail of a setting, or appeal to all five senses every time. As you practice writing, you will develop an ability to pick and choose details that give readers a sense of place, without bogging them down in description. Study examples by your favorite authors. Often, a place will be described with only one or two crucial details that give the reader enough information to flesh out the rest of the setting.


Exercise: Write out a description of the place where you are right now, or someplace you know well. Go for 200 words or so. Use as many specific details as you can. When you are finished, try to cut this description in half while still giving the sense of the place you are describing. Then cut back to 50 words. What details give the strongest overall sense of this place? When you write a whole story, you will have many elements going at once, including character, action, dialogue, and setting. Your skill in describing a place effectively, in as few words as possible, will help you keep your story moving, and keep the reader's attention focused.


Point of View

Whose eyes does the reader see the story through? Is the story's narrator a character in the story, or an unseen third person describing events as they happened? The answer to this question determines the story's point of view. In first person point of view, the narrator is a character in the story, and refers to herself in the first person: "I was sitting in my office drinking a shot of Jack Daniels when the lady walked in."


Second person narration is never used, except in avante-garde and experimental stories. In second person point of view, the reader is a character in the story, and the story is narrated as if it is happening, or has happened, to the reader: "You were sitting in your office drinking a shot of Jack Daniels when the lady walked in."  For obvious reasons, this style of narration tends to confuse and annoy any reader, and should be left alone by most writers looking to write readable fiction.


In third person point of view, the story is told by a narrator who is not a character in the story. The characters are referred to as "he" and "she" instead of "I". There are several variations of third person point of view, which vary in how intimately the narrator interacts with the character's thoughts. In omniscient point of view, the narrator is able to see the world through all of the characters' eyes, and switches from perspective to perspective, depending on the needs of the story, as in the following example:


Bob knew the rain would fall soon, so he brought a raincoat to Sylvia. She was touched by his thoughtfulness and thanked him profusely.


Here, we get a sense of what both characters are thinking. In non-omniscient third person, the narrator looks through only one character's eyes, and what the other character is thinking can only be guessed at:


Bob knew the rain would fall soon, so he brought a raincoat to Sylvia. She seemed touched by his thoughtfulness, as she thanked him profusely.


Choosing a viewpoint character helps the reader to identify with that character. If the story is told through Bob's eyes, then the reader gets to know Bob and comes to identify with him. If the narration constantly switches from character to character, the reader will not know which character to identify with, and will not become as emotionally involved with the story.


Third person point of view can also be more intimate, with the narrator speaking in the character's voice. By giving a lot more of a character's inner voice, the writer gives the reader a better chance to know the character. This style is close to first person narration:


The clouds were darkening over the Western sky, and you didn't need a meteorologist to know the rain was about to fall. Bob stepped inside the dark walls of the cottage and found Sylvia's raincoat. When he brought it to her, she thanked him so profusely that you would have thought she was starving and he'd just brought her a whole turkey dinner.


As a writer, you may find yourself gravitating toward using one point of view or another. Some writers are particularly comfortable with first person, and others are not. Some genres of writing, notably mystery writing, are often told in first person. The disadvantage of first person narration, is that no event can be described that the narrating character is not present to see. While third person narration is also best done through the eyes of a particular character, the writer can switch point of view characters periodically, such as at the beginning of a new chapter. If the author wants to show an event that happened outside of the main character's awareness he can do so from the perspective of another character, then switch viewpoints back to the main character when he has finished. Third person narration is also more effective if there is suspense and danger in a story. If there is a chance that the main character will be killed during a story, yet the main character is narrating the story, then the reader knows that the narrator will survive the story to tell about it. If a close third person point of view is used, then the reader has no way of knowing if the character will survive or not, thus heightening the suspense.


Exercise: Write a narrative of about 200 hundred words, either fictional, or describing a true event in your experience. Narrate it in first person, as if it happened to you. Feel free to include your thoughts and feelings about the event. When you have finished, rewrite the passage in third person. Read over both passages when you've completed them, and note how the feel of a narrative changes depending on the narrator's point of view.
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