How to Write Short Stories Overnight
How to research, plot and structure a story then write it overnight. Let us have more short stories in this world.
Remember the caffeine fuelled nights of frenzy before an academic deadline when you were driven to looking up how to write essay assignments overnight? Well, if you’re sat bored through the holidays or your schooldays are far behind you, here’s a much more fun way to keep your brain sharp. We’re not going to write our A Level coursework overnight, we’re going to write a short story.
Writing short stories doesn’t have to be like this. Art: Dario Garcia. Inspiration: La Fee Verte.
What are you writing about?
You have an idea for a short story about… the Tudors. Get looking for inspiration. Don’t copy and paste the entire history of the period and save it for later, thinking you’ll read it all. You probably won’t.
Focus primarily on the five senses:
- Sight: Architecture and costumes.
- Sound: Contemporary music, dialect and slang words.
- Smell: Fashionable perfumes, food, the… organic aroma of the city streets.
- Taste: Contemporary recipes.
- Touch: Popular fabrics and the area you’re setting your story in.
Don’t get bogged down by little things. And certainly don’t restrict yourself to reading here. The worst thing you could do is paraphrase a Renaissance music expert when a character describes My Lady Carey’s Dompe. Listen to it yourself and write down the real feelings it evokes. Look at pictures of costumes, get to a museum and see them in the flesh (uh, in the fabric?). Quickly immerse yourself in your world, then get out of the pool and start writing. If you start the research element in the morning and make a day of it (go to the library, explore a museum, wander in a park) you can get on with the serious business when the sun goes down.
Remember: the best writing you can do will be about what you know. Set your story in your local area, or a similar place, and get the flavour of your location down. People watch from a café. Become a flaneur. Even if you’re using my example of Tudor times, you can still get a lot from a wander in your town. The way people interact hasn’t changed much. Take note of the discussions. Wouldn’t a pair of Tudor women meandering around a marketplace be gossiping about the reproductive efforts of some famous name? Wouldn’t a couple be arguing about the behaviour of their children?
Break it down.
All that beginning-middle-end stuff you were told to do in primary school? It still works here. Know where you want your story to begin chronologically. Know where it ends. Know what you want to do in between. What you don’t have to do now is put them all in the right order. Write it backwards. Start in the middle. Look back at your five senses research and turn each of them into a paragraph. Write a brief timeline of main events and then pick an interesting way to present them.
Example breakdown of short story:
- 1. Mary is told she’s got to marry Lord So-And-So
- 2. Mary goes for a walk (and smells first the rose garden of her house and then the less pleasant smell of London)
- 3. Mary comes home and talks with her mother
- 4. Mary is given a new dress as a present (and meditates on the softness of the velvet over the firmness of her young body, oooh…)
- 5. A party. Mary’s brother points out her husband-to-be in a crowd of people. Mary sees an old fat man standing at the centre of the group laughing jovially.
- 6. A dance. Mary sits it out, daydreaming and thinking about the music.
- 7. Mary’s sister asks her to point out her future husband and teases her about the old man’s smell and habits.
- 8. The feast. Wine, meats, bread, the gluttony of the era dances across her delicate little taste buds.
- 9. Late that night, Mary tries to talk to her exhausted sister about her wedding, but her sister shrugs her off and goes to sleep.
- 10. Looking up into the darkness, she thinks about her home and the place she will have to leave as well as the man she’s going to marry.
- 11. The next morning, her intended has sent flowers and is waiting downstairs for her. She begrudgingly dresses with the aid of her sister and servants and heads down the stairs to the sound of that horrible laughter
- 12. She discovers that Lord So-And-So is not the aging clown she dreaded, but his son. She’s perfectly happy with the match, can’t wait for the post-nuptial romp, everyone lives happily ever after. Woo! It would be wonderfully easy, and perfectly acceptable, to write it as that. But if you picked out the thematic elements you could begin with 11, flashback to 5, 6 then have Mary’s thoughts wander from music to her dress and back to 4, and so on until we return to 11 as she enters the room her husband-to-be is waiting in. You can really write it any way you like, picking the numbers at random if you so choose, until you have the combination that’s right for you. If you have ideas for some sections but not others, focus on the ones you have and develop as you go on. Write your new plotlines, leaving space for a few more items.
Putting it all together.
There isn’t really a way to start writing something other than to just START WRITING. Pick a tense and stick to it (a short story isn’t the place for jumping in and out of tenses). Choose what kind of narration style you’d like. First person: Mary? Is she writing a letter to a friend, a diary, talking to her sister, talking to her confessor? First person: her sister? Is she reporting back to her father about Mary’s thoughts on the match? Lord So-And-So, telling the story he was told after the wedding to his children?
Write a paragraph for a couple of different perspectives to different audiences and see which you like best. Hell, pick a couple of different voices and tell the story through all their eyes. Of course, you could do third person narration (or second person, if you’re feeling adventurous and can get around the usual difficulties that come up with that).
Tidy up time.
Press that spellcheck button. Don’t just accept or ignore anything: read it carefully. Check your settings; make sure it’s checking your grammar too. Make sure everything says what you want it to. Now, tart up your language.
Count up how many times you’ve said ‘said’ and try not to do it more than once every five utterances. Don’t do it on every fifth either, just use your judgement.
The thesaurus is your friend. Pick words that evoke the same theme and develop and extended metaphor if you want to add layers to your story.
Experiment with sentence structure. Don’t forget pace. Erratic thoughts are better as short sentences. But long, languid thoughts that ramble through the relaxed mind as Mary reclines by a window taking in the light of the morning sun and feeling it warm her the tantalising exposed flesh above her tight stomacher… please feel free to evoke all the passions and feelings of the moment in the length and complexity of a single sentence.
Please do it again.
You don’t have to keep writing short stories every night (well, you can if you like). But if you like the experience, why not expand it? Without much effort you could be writing a chapter in a night. Do that once a month and on any odd nights off when you’re bored and within a year at most you could be looking over a finished novel (or collection of short stories). And then, even if you don’t want to get published and never show your masterpiece to anyone else, you get the smug feeling of listening to all those old school friends who ‘always meant to write a novel’ and think that you actually have.