How To Write A Short Story In 7 Days
A Needle In The Hay Production
Martin De Biasi
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How To Write A Short Story in 7 Days is an introductory toolkit for novice writers looking to take their first foray into the format. It’s also useful for intermediate writers who want to hone their craft or professionals looking to expand their skillset.
This book was designed inhouse by the Needle In The Hay editorial team as a resource for writers competing in our weekly contests. With about 3000 short stories read, written and edited at Needle In The Hay since 2012, we think we’re in a pretty good position to know what makes a great short story, and we’re excited to share the love. While there’s no one size fits all method for writing stories, these techniques are a great starting point. Like all skills, the more you practice, the better you get.
At Needle In The Hay, we’re all about feedback. So if you like what we’re doing, stop by the website and let us know.
Yours in writing
Martin De Biasi
NiTH Senior Editor
“There’s a bizarre insistence on how a story should be. ‘The protagonist must be sympathetic!’ they say. Whatever that means. I never engage in that discussion. I never use that word, ‘sympathetic.’ I just know ‘interesting.’”
We all know what a protagonist is, right? The main character, the point of view. The guy or girl we’re cheering for from start to finish.
In most short stories it’s not hard to tell who the protagonist is. Harry Potter, Bridget Jones, Offred (The Handmaid’s Tale). Though from all walks of life, protagonists share qualities that make them instantly recognisable as the good guy, even if they’re not so pure of heart.
In Alicia Bruzzone’s award winning story , the protagonist is a magpie by the name of Barry, who also happens to be our narrator (Have a read if you like, it’s a fun story).
Despite being a crotchety old bird, Barry is the one we’re cheering for, rather than the visiting aliens or humans. By making our ‘hero’ a magpie, Alicia has shifted the perspective to someone (or something) outside of our everyday experience, that’s one way of making your protagonist interesting.
Now there’s plenty of rules about writing a successful hero or central character. Joseph Campbell, a respected 20th century mythologist, believed that our greatest stories shared common roots in the tales of our ancestors. Campbell discovered those elements could be charted in what he called The Hero’s Journey.
Like everything you will learn about fiction writing, The Hero’s Journey is good to know, but shouldn’t be viewed as ‘the only way’. In storytelling there’s plenty of room for a diversity of experience, a range of voices, heroes and heroic types. We agree with Alexander Payne’s quote above, the best thing your protagonist can be is ‘interesting’. Infact, we think an interesting central character is half the job done for writing an interesting story.
Day 1 Exercise
Your first exercise for mastering short stories is to create an interesting protagonist. This exercise is a tool that will help you when embarking on any new story, and can form the basis for creating characters in the future. Keep it in your toolkit, practice, and soon it will become second nature. For all our writing exercises you can use a pen and notepad, your laptop, tablet… However feels natural to you.
Here’s what you need to do. At the top of your page write:
1- The protagonist's name, age, gender, sexuality & occupation.
2- Write down what are they wearing, what’s in their pockets, or what they carry in their bag.
3- Who was the last person they spoke with? Write it down.
4- Finally, something unique about them (A special talent, something in their appearance, or something in their history.
Finally, in big capital letters write:
A – A place, situation or state of mind.
B – A different and contrary place, situation or state of mind.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to begin your story.
Write approximately 300 words about your protagonist’s journey from A to B. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to do more than that. In the coming days you’ll learn plenty of exercises to improve your writing. For now, just enjoy this simple task. It will be a great benchmark for measuring your improvement as we continue.
Remember, take your character from A ----> B
OK, away you go!
“Everyone has a creative potential, and from the moment you can express this creative potential, you can start changing the world.”
Today we’re going to learn a great exercise for accessing your natural creative instinct. It’s actually one of my favourite tools, and something I practice all the time, including writing this guide! It’s simple, relatively quick, and a great method for ‘Getting in the mood to write’.
If you hope one day to turn writing into career, then, you’ll need to be able to sit down and write to a deadline. That means conjuring the muse instead of waiting for inspiration to strike.
Similarly, when completing this course there will be days when you just don’t feel like writing. Creating a habit takes time.
Our lives are full of distraction. Work, family, hobbies, relationships… Hey, don’t get me wrong, these are all important, life experience helps you become a better writer! But let’s be real. Between you and me, as an artist and a storyteller, what we really want to do is write.
This practice is a surefire way to get into the creative mindset. The best part about it. The more you do it, the better it gets. After today, you’ll be able to add this practice to every exercise you do.
The Breath Method
First thing’s first. Get your equipment ready:
1- Pen and paper or, laptop or tablet
2- A stopwatch or timer of some kind.
Make sure you’ve got everything in front of you. Turn off your notifications, close any tabs that might distract you. Just be with your story. Then you’re going to follow these steps.
Day 2 Exercise
Taking what you’ve learned from Day 1’s exercise, ‘The Protagonist’, complete the exercise again, with a new protagonist, or a slight spin on the original character. Combine the exercise with The Breath Method below. Rather than write a specific word amount, just time yourself. 10 minutes should be enough.
1- Set the timer to 10 minutes.
2- Close your eyes.
3- Take 5 even breaths, focus on your breathing. In, out, in out.
4- Allow the story to come to you, stay with it, eyes closed, just breathing, for as long as you need to.
5- Open your eyes, start the timer and begin writing.
6- The most important step: Whatever you do, keep writing, don't stop for anything. If you can't think what comes next just write gobbledygook, keep that pen writing, those fingers typing. Your story will come back.
“Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.”
Today we are going to learn about three important elements in fiction writing. Scene, setting and dialogue. Intuitively, we already know what these three elements are, but let’s break it down into some tidy definitions.
The place, the world, the time and time periods. A setting refers to the ‘where’ both big and small. For example, the book Game Of Thrones takes part mostly in the fictional country of Westeros, in the city of King’s Landing, as well as the castle Winterfell and Castle Black at ‘The Wall’ (as well as plenty of other places).
Other settings include dining halls, at inns, brothels, and on the battlefield. These are all elements of setting. They also form part of the scene.
A scene is a set of action and dialogue that takes place usually at a discreet setting. In novels, a scene might comprise of a chapter, but often there are several scenes in a chapter. When it comes to short stories, one of the biggest mistakes writers make is to set the whole story as one scene. Change and movement go into making a story great, and scene / setting changes can help build character, tension and drama through the story.
A scene can often dictate the current mood of the story. Read Jeanette Stampone’s Award winning short story ‘ ‘ for a great example of how to blend a number of scenes (and moods) into a story.
Note: There is such thing as a good short story set in one scene. Try [+ The Soul Molecule+] by Steve Almond.
In modern fiction it is as important as ever to have interesting and engaging dialogue. Readers are increasingly impatient with large blocks of prose, and want to be moved by the ‘voice’ of your characters. Dialogue is speech and conversation, and should feel as such, while moving the story forward with momentum. More than just idle banter, dialogue can achieve the following things:
1- Develop the plot and story
2- Give texture to your characters
3- Feel natural and engaging
4- Be appropriate to the mood, (scene) time and place (setting) of the story.
Tip: Steer clear of being ‘just exposition’. I.E. Heavy description as speech.
Day 3 Exercise
This is a two part exercise. We will delve into Part 2 tomorrow, but for now, we’re going to use what we learned on Day 1 and Day 2 and combine them with setting, scene and dialogue.
Using what you have learned create 2-3 characters using The Protagonist Method from Day 1.
Write a paragraph outline on the setting of the story. You may wish to focus on:
1- Where and when is it set?
2- What are some key points of interest?
3- If you were tourist, what would you notice? What about if you were a local?
Create 3-5 scenes for your story. Write a line on each like this:
Where: 11pm, Bowling Alley in LA.
Who: The Dude, Walter, Donny.
Mood: Sombre, they have just lost the briefcase of money.
The Breath Method
Practice the method like you learned on Day 2. While reflecting, think about the ‘voice’ of each of your characters. What do the sound like in everyday conversation. How do they order a cup of coffee? Try to feel it in your bones.
Set your timer and write for 30 minutes. Leave the pen on the page or your fingers on the keyboard. Don’t stop writing no matter what. Also, start the story with dialogue. Just like P.G. said above, get to it as soon as possible.
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
So here’s where the fun starts (or stops, depending on the type of person you are).
Editing is the part most writers hate. It's also the skill that, if practiced, will set you apart from 90% of other authors when it comes to professional writing, be it fiction, copywriting, or nonfiction work.
Editing is where you turn your imagination into sense and structure. You will learn things about yourself that you never knew, and you will destroy some of the best things (you thought) you ever wrote, and feel better for having done it. Ideally, you want to give yourself a bit of a break before editing. For a full length novel, you might want to take a month’s break. A short story, anything from a day to a week should be fine.
We like to think of editing as a two step process:
Step 1: Identify
By now you should have received feedback on your first two exercises from your instructor / mentor. Most likely, they will have highlighted several areas of improvement, anything from spelling and grammar to suggestions for plot, character and flow. This is the first step, identifying where improvements can be made.
Do: Read your story out loud. This is the best way to find out what works. Pretend you are a great orator, or perhaps a parent telling a story to their child (Hey, you might be both of those things).
Do: Highlight the areas you think can be improved and make a comment using the comment tool or equivalent feature in the word processor of your choice. Editing by hand? Circle and write comments in the margin.
Don’t: Change anything in the manuscript just yet. That’s the next step.
Step 2: Change & Polish
At Needle In The Hay we believe in the old adage ‘Measure twice, cut once.’ Read through your comments one more time. Happy? Now you can begin editing.
Go through each comment and make the changes you suggested. It’s fine to rewrite whole sections. In fact, we recommend it. The laziest form of editing is just changing a couple of words and saying ‘I’m done!’ Think about the scene, setting and dialogue. How does it all work together? Keep all this in mind, or refer back here as you go. Ready? Let’s get started.
Day 4 Exercise
Open up your work from Day 3: Scene, Setting & Dialogue and complete Step 1: Identify. Go through the entire document, reading out loud, and make comments as you go. There’s no need to complete Step 2 just yet, we’ll get to that in part
Spend no more than an hour editing your work. It’s fine if you don’t finish. Just do your best.
Ready… Away you go.
“There is no failure. Only feedback.”
Chances are you’ve probably already received your feedback from your instructor / writing group. What did you think? Was it valuable? Did you learn something?
Feedback from others can often seem scary, and our impulsive reaction is to take constructive criticism as an assault on our good character! But as a writer you must be dispassionate, like the Buddha :)
Seriously though. Feedback is always constructive, even if you don’t end up using it, it’s an opinion from a reader, and that matters. Today, you’re going to find someone to give you feedback on your story, then in Day 6, your going to edit it based on their feedback.
Day 5 The Exercise
This exercise is either the easiest or the hardest of How To Write A Short Story in 7 Days. If you’re lucky enough to have a writing partner, be part of a writing group, then it’s a relatively simple task. Send this person your story from Day 4, asking for honest feedback. If they don’t know how to give feedback, you can suggest the shit sandwich.
The shit sandwich is when you provide criticism between two forms of praise. E.G:
“I loved how the main character responded to the pressure of seeing their parents struggling, but thought that the ending didn’t address the buildup of tension. This could be improved by focusing on what the conflict between the parents was doing to all the kids. I did really love the way you described the house, and used each room as a metaphor for different dysfunctions.”
Feedback is an important step in the program, so if you can’t find someone, drop us a line and we’ll find someone for you.
Day 6: The Rewrite
“You raze the old to raise the new.”
Having fun? Hungry for more?
There’s two days left until the end of the week, and we promised you’d write a great short story in seven days. You’ve practiced key elements in short story writing, from creating an interesting protagonist and taking them from A to B, to understanding the importance of scene, setting and dialogue in a story.
We’ve taught you how to use the Breath Method to access your creative instinct at will, and given you the opportunity to edit your work by reading out loud and highlighting what works and what doesn’t. You’ve also sought out feedback from a reader, gaining valuable insight into how someone else views your work.
Now, you’re going to rewrite the story.
Day 6 Exercise
Taking everything you have learned so far this week, go through your story and rewrite sections based on your own comments and those of your reader. Rewriting is a significant task. If you’re only changing a word here and there, chances are, you’re doing it wrong, so really take your time with it, make it the best rewrite you can. For longer chunks, use the Breath Method to get in the right frame of mind.
Take a deep breath and go. Good luck!
“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”
Congratulations on making it to the end of the How To Write A Short Story in 7 Days. By the end of today, you will have a polished and edited short story to show for your efforts. After you’ve completed the exercise, feel free to publish the story on your website and let us know about it. Or if you’d prefer, drop us a line and we’ll publish it for you.
Day 7: The Exercise
You already know all the techniques, so just apply them as you go, reading your story out loud, target those last few phrases or paragraphs that don’t work, and give your story the polish it deserves. Remember how you created characters using the protagonist method in Day 3. How do they look now? Did you take them from A to B? Does the dialogue feel true to the characters, and what about the setting and scene, are they vivid, intriguing elements in your story?
Consider all this as you apply the finishing touches to your story. Remember, you can always use the Breath Method to court the muse if you are struggling.
Ready, set, go!
Well done on completing How To Write A Short Story in 7 Days. This short course is all about helping you get in touch with your instincts as an author. By using the Breath Method, combined with what you know about scene, setting & dialogue, as well as the protagonist, you should now have to confidence to approach any short story writing assignment.
Just as importantly, you’ve taken first steps in editing, rewriting and receiving feedback. Not only is this an important skill in refining your stories into quality manuscripts, but it also teaches you to seek out other readers, and to have the confidence to let complete strangers engage with your writing. That’s a big deal. At Needle In The Hay, we’ve met dozens of authors who were simply too scared to put their work out there. Don’t hide your stories away. Even if you touch one person with your writing, it is worth it.
As an added bonus, we’ve included some information from two of our senior judges on what they think makes an amazing short story. Both Jeanette and Madeline have read, scored and provided feedback on hundreds of short stories, so take it from me, they know what they are talking about.
Madeline Pettet – Senior Judge at Needle In The Hay
Whenever I read a fresh short story, I more often or not have made up my mind regarding the story by the time I finish the first paragraph. Short stories are short and you need to get the reader right into the action. Give me dialogue, a clear setting and intrigue, and I’m all yours.
For new writers I recommend writing a pre-story. Write about the events that lead up to your story so you can have a stronger handle on your characters and your world. You’re the one with authority and you should know your characters and setting inside and out. This way you can drop hints to the reader that make sense.
I also suggest for new writers not to leap straight into completely fantastical worlds. High fantasy writers like Tolkien spend chapters on setting and world-building. You’ve got a hundred words at most that you can spend on creating a world. That said, it is possible to have fantasy worlds in short stories but you need to practise inter-lacing those details in more original ways (e.g. through hints in character’s dialogue). Take it one step at a time, start your stories in the ‘real’ world and get familiar with the demands of the short story before you dive into something more complex.
One final note, please read your story out loud from beginning to end! This is the best way to pick up missing/misspelt words. I’ve read far too many stories where the first line contains a spelling error.
Jeanette Stampone – Senior Judge at Needle In The Hay
Here are 7 things I believe make a great short story.
1. Emotional Connection
The most important part of any short story is whether it connects to me, as a reader. I want to feel something. I want to laugh out loud or cry actual proper tears – snot and all.
2. Great Ending
A short story has a number of ways it can end. The author may choose a twist or something very simple and poignant. Above all, the ending should leave a lasting impression. I love stories where I find myself thinking about them long after I have finished reading them. Those are generally the ones which have a strong ending.
3. Great Beginning
Of course, there should be a great beginning too! I often decide by the end of the first paragraph whether I am going to enjoy the story or not. If not, I sometimes just stop right there. The beginning should suck you in. It could be through a humorous scene or something that shocks the reader. Referring back to point 1, I want to feel that emotional connection immediately – there should be something to compel me to continue reading.
4. Strong Characters
Sounds obvious, but any story requires strong characters. With a short story, there is not a lot of time and space to gradually develop the characters so the author needs to quickly show the reader what they desire, what drives them. Spend less time on scene descriptions and more time on what is actually happening. Use their senses as much as possible to allow the reader to connect to them, to feel what they are feeling.
5. Simple language
I like to be able to easily read a story. I am not keen on long fancy words or flowery descriptions. I want to be able to understand what is going on, to be able to visualise it in my mind. I don’t want to have to refer to a dictionary to look up words I don’t understand. The language should flow well and there should be little effort involved in the reading process.
Great short stories contain a problem or something to be resolved. This is what keeps me reading, keeps me hooked until the end. I want to find out whether the problem will be solved. Tension doesn’t have to involve strong physical scenes, it can be something emotional too.
7. Believable Plot
It doesn’t matter whether it is realism, fantasy or sci-fi, I still want to believe what is happening. Everything needs to make sense and follow a pattern. If plots are too over the top, I lose that connection to the characters.
Some good examples
When I talk about connecting to the reader on an emotional level, this story is the perfect example. The first paragraph had me hooked. I knew nothing about the characters or their situation, but those few words already pulled at the heart-strings. The story is real and raw. Most of all, it is believable. After reading it, I felt a genuine sadness. One of my favourite stories on NiTH.
A well-deserved winner of the major comp in 2016. This story showed deep compassion and love. It didn’t mention the love between the father and son but the reader can tell there is a strong bond by the actions. The language is simple and easy to follow. The ending is what makes this story truly special though. A twist that I never saw coming. Beautiful and sad all at the same time. I literally sobbed into my cornflakes!
Congratulations on completing the 7 Day challenge!
Writing short stories is a fantastic way to improve your writing, create interesting stories, and get them read. We’d love for you to leave us a review, send us feedback, or come by and take part in one of our contests.
How to Write a Short Story In 7 Days forms the first week of Needle In The Hay’s . If you’re happy with the results, but hungry for more challenges, you should head over and check it out. In weeks 2 & 3 we provide even more practical exercises and information. Including writing interesting antagonists, completing character arcs, interlinked short stories, understanding markets and more! Regardless of how you continue you on your writer’s journey, we hope this guide went a little way to helping you out.
All the best!
The NiTH Team
How To Write A Short Story in 7 Days is an introductory toolkit for novice writers looking to take their first foray into the format. It's also useful for intermediate writers who want to hone their craft or professionals looking to expand their skill set. This book was designed in house by the Needle In The Hay editorial team as a resource for writers competing in our weekly contests. With about 3000 short stories read, written and edited at Needle In The Hay since 2012, we think we're in a pretty good position to know what makes a great short story, and we're excited to share the love. While there's no one size fits all method for writing stories, these techniques are a great starting point. Like all skills, the more you practice, the better you get.