On Short Story Development


Jeffrey James Pacres (CC/Flickr)

People keep asking me how I develop a story. Recently, I’ve listened to myself droning on the subject often enough that I feel the need to post a few things here. That’s what writers do with their thoughts, after all.

If you’ve just stumbled on this, you’re probably asking who the hell I think I am, presuming to anything say on the subject at all. A few published stories doesn’t make me Ian Rankin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, John Le Carré, Willam Gibson or any other great writer you’ve ever heard of. It’s a reasonable question that demands a reasonable response.

I’m a guy who has been writing short stories for a few years. I have no formal training in creative writing. Everything I’ve learned has been by making mistakes and discussing them with other writers, most of whom I’ve met through critique groups. I’ve developed an approach to developing a story, from initial idea to publication, which seems to work for me. That’s what I’m going to describe over the next few posts. It’s not a magic formula, it’s not going to work for everyone, and will probably evolve in my own mind in the future. If I read these posts in a couple of years and wonder at the naive and pretentious whelp I was when I wrote them, I’ll know I’ve learned something in the interim.

The more I’ve developed this process, the more work I find myself putting in before I write the first draft. That’s not because I enjoy drawing things out, but because it’s a lot easier to rearrange, add to or cross out a few bullet points than a large chunks of a complete draft. Writing the first draft is the fun part, but I find it’s more fun if it doesn’t get bogged down in the bits I hadn’t thought through.

Writers I know can be divided into instinctives, who start with an idea and see where their writing takes it, and planners like me who outline obsessively. Neither has a monopoly on excellence. However, instinctives usually end up with a lot of unfinished story starts, and their process involves multiple rewrites of their finished draft. That’s not for me so it’s not an approach I’m going to talk about. If you’re an instinctive, this may not be much help. If you’re just starting out, I’d suggest trying both approaches.

Another word of warning is that my experience is with short stories, not novels. My approach may work for novels. It may not. I don’t have the experience to say one way or the other.

So much talking about myself. If you really want to know where I’m coming from, the key is in my stories themselves. I mainly write science fiction and fantasy, partly because I happen to like the genres and partly because they’re where most short fiction is being published at the moment. I also write the occasional crime and historical fiction. Here’s a full list, with four free ones so you can decide if I have anything worth saying on the subject of fiction writing. I am going to refer to those stories repeatedly in the coming posts, not because I believe they are shining examples of the storyteller’s art but because I know the process I followed to get to them so they are convenient examples. I hope you enjoy them.

My aim is to work through the practical process of developing a short story, not to describe how it works. There’s plenty of information covering that out there. I particularly recommend what Robert J Sawyer and Holly Lisle have to say.

Now let’s have fun!

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Posted in Story development, Writing

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