Taking naps is hard.
1. Get Started: Emergency Tips
Is your short story assignment due tomorrow morning? 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 actions has your protagonist taken towards that goal?
(“Morally significant” doesn’t mean conventionally “good”; rather, your protagonist should already have made a conscious choice 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, character A telling character B about something we just saw happening to character A, and phrases like “said happily” — it’s much better to say “bubbled” or “smirked” or “chortled.”)
- 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.)
Drawing on 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 describing powerful emotional experiences (which is one kind of school assignment) is not the same thing as engaging your reader’s emotions. An effective short story does not simply record or express the author’s feelings, but generates feelings in the reader. (See ”
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.