Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Sally Jenkins, Author of Hit or Miss?: 33 Coffee Break Stories - How to Write Short Stories – Six Top Tips

24 February 2023

Special Guest Post by Sally Jenkins, Author of Hit or Miss?: 33 Coffee Break Stories - How to Write Short Stories – Six Top Tips

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Sally Jenkins has brought together 33 of her short stories to give YOU the chance to test your judgement against that of competition judges and women’s magazine editors. Delve into twisted tales, slices of life and touches of history and then determine which stories were hits 
and which missed their target.

How to Write Short Stories – Six Top Tips

Most fiction writers (including me!) start their writing careers creating short stories, with the misconception that the word ‘short’ also means ‘easy’ or ‘easier than writing novels’. It is true that a short story may take ‘only’ weeks to hone to perfection, compared to the years it might take to write a novel, but it still requires a skill with words and story structure plus the willingness to constantly re-write the piece after the first draft is complete.

The following tips will get you started in the short story sphere:

1. Keep the number of characters to a minimum. In a short story there isn’t the room to flesh out several characters and to give the reader the opportunity to get to know and empathise with each of them. Too many shallow sketches of characters will confuse the reader, meaning that he won’t care about any of them or about the story itself. Try to limit the story cast to between one and three characters.

2. Use only one location. Blockbuster movies and doorstep size books have the space to build worlds, journey across continents or travel through space. In a short story keep the action in one place. There are not enough words to believably describe or evoke more than one room/street/shop/field or wherever the action is set.

3. Keep the elapsed time period short. Short stories have the greatest impact when all the action happens within a short time frame. It might be one minute, one hour or one day. The shorter the time period, the more immediate and intense the story becomes. If the action stretches over weeks or months, the reader’s mind starts to relax and wander because the tension of a short time period is missing. I had a story published which took place entirely within the few seconds that it took a learner driver to brake.

4. The protagonist must change within the course of the story. For example, through the course of the story’s events, the main character might discover they are braver/have more confidence/are more lovable than they initially believed. Consider the cowardly lion becoming brave in The Wizard of Oz or the way that Eleanor blossoms in Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine.
5. The ending must be satisfying. Avoid characters waking up and discovering that it was all a dream. Twist endings can work well but not those that deliberately hoodwink the reader, for example where the narrator turns out to be an animal rather than a person. Satisfying stories generally start with the protagonist hitting a problem or crisis and end with the character overcoming this obstacle through their own endeavours, i.e., the solution is not provided by another character. In so doing, the character becomes a better person (see point 4 above).

6. Understand your target market. If you want to see your work published, it is imperative that you study your target market, be that a magazine or a competition, and write specifically for that market rather than for yourself. Take note of the required word counts, themes and style. For those aiming at the UK women’s magazine market, the Womag blog is a good place to start when researching fiction guidelines.

If you would like to test your judgement of what works within a short story, take a look at my short story collection Hit or Miss? This comprises 33 short stories, some of which have found magazine or competition success and some of which were rejected. Rejections don’t necessarily mean a story is ‘bad’, just that it wasn’t right for that particular market at that time. Can you identify which stories were spot on and which missed their target?

Sally Jenkins 
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About the Author

Sally Jenkins writes novels, short stories and articles. At the end of 2022 she signed a three book contract with Ruby Fiction, the first of these, Little Museum of Hope, will be published in April 2023. Sally is based in Birmingham, UK and enjoys walking, church bell ringing and talking about writing. Connect or follow her on Twitter @sallyjenkinsuk, Facebook or via her website and blog

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