Chapter 6: Creative Writing

6.1 The Short Story

Short stories, like essays, have beginnings, middles, and endings. Sometimes, they play with that structure—starting in the middle, for example, and then using a flashback to the past to explain the beginning of the story to the reader—but let’s begin with their simplest form, especially if writing stories is new to you.

Stories have a protagonist, also called the main character. This person typically wants something. It could be anything: love, a decent night’s rest, to have one last chance to gaze on a particular postage stamp. It’s your job as the writer to make sense of the main character’s desire. Why does she want to look at that particular postage stamp so much? What does it mean to her? The reason behind this desire will help the reader to identify with the main character and to become invested in her story. This is crucial. If we don’t care why she wants to see the stamp, we’re hardly going to stick around to read the rest of the story.

Stories also typically have an antagonist. Many antagonists are human—the mother who forbids the main character to jet off to see the postage stamp, for example. But an antagonist can also be a force: the main character’s lack of money to buy that plane ticket, incipient blindness that will prevent her from seeing the stamp when she gets to it, or debilitating anxiety that means she has practically no prospect of making the journey. Even the repressive regime of the character’s country, the one that prevents her from travelling to see the stamp, could be an antagonistic force.

Table 6.1 Dos and don’ts of short stories
Things to always do Things to never do
  • Show, don’t tell, readers what to think.
  • Use vivid, descriptive language employing the five senses.
  • Include a conflict.
  • Incorporate specific, surprising details.
  • Tell readers what to think about a given topic. (Example: Gurleen’s father was a terrible man …)
  • Use clichés. (Example: Van doesn’t have a care in the world …)
  • Rely on description to carry the story. (Example: It is a beautiful, sunny day. Jonas lives in a house with large windows …)
  • Include clashing imagery (also known as mixed metaphors). (Example: Coco was ready to seize the hilt of this information gushing forth in a fountain …)

Review Questions

  1. Use an object in the classroom—someone’s hat or coat, a particular book or piece of furniture—to write a short story. Where does the object come into the story? What is its significance? Who are the characters? What is the conflict?
  2. Try mind mapping a story. Start with one element: a setting, a situation, a conflict, or a character, for example. Then use the mind map technique described in Chapter 2.2 Mind Maps to draw different aspects of the story that you might write about. (Hint: For ways to make your writing come alive, review Chapter 3.1 Descriptive Paragraphs, which gives you lists of words relating to the five senses and explains how to show, not tell, readers about your subject.)

Points to Consider

  1. See how your story would change if you changed a non-plot element. For example, what if, instead of the story being narrated in the main character’s voice, or first person (“I opened the door”), you changed it to third person (“She opened the door”)? How about if you moved all of the action from past tense (“I opened the door”) to present tense (“I open the door”)? How about if you changed the setting or time period, from, say, a commune in Israel to Soviet Russia, or from the current era to the past?
  2. Trade stories with a classmate. Use the peer review process described in Chapter 7.2 Peer Review to give each other feedback. Revise your story based on the feedback you received. Do substantial revisions first. As a last step, proofread.


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Building Blocks of Academic Writing Copyright © 2020 by Carellin Brooks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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