Story Writing 101

story writingSince prehistoric times, when tales were told around fires and painted on cave walls, stories have been an essential part of our human experience. But what exactly is a story – and how can you write a great one?

A story is simply a tale of events that are linked by cause and effect. It can be true or it can be a work of fiction. We expect stories to have a beginning, middle and end; they involve at least two characters, and some events take place.

In this article, I’ll take you through three major contemporary types of written story:

  • The short story
  • The novel
  • The life story (biography or autobiography)

For each, I’ll explain what it is, and how to write it successfully. I’ll end with tips about story writing which will help you improve your writing, whether you’re a beginner or a published author.

Three Types of Story

1. Short Stories

A short story is a piece of fiction under 20,000 words. More typically, a short story will be 1,000 – 5,000 words. (Pieces under 1,000 words are “short short stories” or “flash fiction”, over 20,000 and they’re novellas.)

Short stories are published in magazines, newspapers and book anthologies. Short stories need:

  • A small cast of characters, with one main character
  • A compact time frame, with the story taking place over the course of a few days or weeks
  • A single plot without subplots, though longer short stories may have a subplot

The majority of writing competitions are for complete short stories, rather than novels or novel excerpts. If you do enter competitions, don’t be put off writing if you don’t win – judges have different likes and dislikes.

How to Write a Great Short Story

Like any story, your short story needs to have a beginning, middle and end:

  • The beginning is where we’re introduced to the characters, especially the main character and his/her problem
  • The middle is where the action and plot develops. The main character will face difficulties such as opposition from other people or a challenging environment.
  • The end is where the main character triumphs over his/her biggest challenge (or fails, in the case of a tragedy). The resolution should be satisfying and conclusive for the reader.

Even in literary and experimental short stories, it’s important that something should happen. Much of the action might take place inside the characters’ heads, but there should be a real change as a result.

By the end of your short story, your main character should have experienced an internal change. This means that they’ve grown and developed as a person – perhaps overcoming a fear, or recognizing an unacknowledged truth about himself or herself.

2. Novels

A novel is a piece of fiction that’s 60,000 words or longer (shorter books are novellas). The typical novel is around 80,000 – 150,000 words, depending on genre.

Novels and short stories share similar structural features, but novels give the author a much wider scope. A novel might have:

  • More than one main character (though attempt this with caution!)
  • A large cast of characters
  • A long time frame – potentially covering several centuries and several generations
  • Multiple subplots

Novels tend to be much more popular than short stories with the reading public, and almost all full-time authors are novelists rather than short story writers.

How To Write A Novel

A novel is a much bigger undertaking than a short story. Even if you are able to write short stories without much planning, you’ll need to plan out your novel in advance. There are a number of ways to do this, but whichever you choose, ensure:

  • You have enough plot to meet your word count target
  • Your main character (protagonist) is sympathetic – readers of short stories will put up with a dull or unlikeable character, but novel readers are stuck with the character’s viewpoint for much longer. As the writer, you’ll need to be able to become your characters.
  • You have an escalation of events throughout the plot. Things need to get worse and worse for your characters, until they finally overcome their problems or enemies.

3. Life Stories

A life story is a true story – though it shares features with fictional stories. Life stories are either “biography” (when you write about someone else) or “autobiography” (when you write about yourself).

Most biographies and autobiographies are book length, similar to a novel. Many writers draw on their own life experiences for newspaper columns and magazine articles, though. There is also a market for “true life” stories in magazines, which are told in a story-like way: writing about your own life is a simple way to write about what you know.

How To Write A Life Story

A life story needs to be engaging and interesting for the reader. Don’t include boring details just because they’re “true” – the reader doesn’t need to know everything that happened. In many cases, details of childhood or dull years can be summarized – or told through a few vividly-drawn incidents.

You will need to be careful when writing a biography or autobiography to:

  • Structure your piece as a story, focusing on interesting events and incidents.
  • Show the personality of the subject (yourself or the person you’re writing about), and making sure the reader will find them at least partly likeable.
  • Be conscious of the other people involved – try to be sensitive to how they might feel (and avoid getting sued for libel – make sure you’re certain of your facts).

There is often a fine line between life writing and fiction. If you are writing the story of your life, you will need to make decisions about whether you will alter or make up lines of dialogue, for instance.

General Story Writing Tips

Whatever type of story or stories you’re writing, and however experienced you are, there’s always room for improvement…

Share Your Story Writing Efforts

It’s hard to write in isolation, and sharing your work with other writers is a great way to get feedback and suggestions. Look for a local writers’ circle, or join an online forum. You want to find somewhere that’s supportive but where people aren’t afraid to offer advice about things that aren’t working in your story.

Keep Learning

Writing is a craft that you can learn, like any other. There are hundreds of books on all aspects of writing, from the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation to writing in specific genres. You can also find free advice on the Internet (on blogs like this one). You can even take a degree or post-graduate course in creative writing.

Keep Practicing

As well as learning about writing, you need to practice. That means writing regularly – ideally daily. As you write more, your stories will get better – your characters are more “real”, your plots are convincing, and your endings are deeply satisfying to readers. You’ll also find that writing itself becomes easier: you’ll spend less time struggling to find the right words, and more time enjoying seeing the story spill from your fingers.

Always Revise

All authors need to revise their work. Your first draft might have a lot of problems – inconsistent characterization, scenes which don’t really fit, holes in the plot, incorrect pacing or tension. Don’t worry if this is the case: most published authors have to extensively rewrite their first drafts too. Always allow time to revise your story, and if possible, do several rewrites. Most authors recommend letting your story sit unread for a few days or weeks when you complete a draft, so that you can come to it with fresh eyes.

Good luck with your story writing!

Check Out Other Articles from The “Writing 101” Series:

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20 thoughts on “Story Writing 101”

  1. Another type of life story is the memoir. How is a memoir different from an autobiography? Compare and contrast, as our English exams used to say.

  2. Awesome advice. I recently finished a short story and had intended to leave it at what I had, plot wise. But as I edited it more and thought about the characters and story, I realized that I had much more to tell. My only advice to add to this great set of tips would be to listen to your characters. If you feel that they have more to say or do, don’t stifle them just because it wasn’t what you originally intended. Sometimes stories have a mind of their own and there is nothing you can do to stop them from traversing the boundries you’ve set for them.

  3. I like this words “stories have been an essential part of our human experience”. human experience” – that’s the key part of a story. thanks

  4. Cortazar used to say that in a short history the writer should ‘own’ the reader by KO – rather than by points, like in a novel. I think that’s a great definition.

  5. Cortazar used to say that in a short story the writer should ‘own’ the reader by KO – rather than by points, like in a novel. I think that’s a great definition.

  6. Quote: “Even if you are able to write short stories without much planning, you’ll need to plan out your novel in advance.”

    WHILE this is true, I would like to point out people like JK Rowling, and Stephany Meyer, did not plan the BEGINNING of their plots-just the middle/end. They wrote these books first, then wrote the others. It’s like Star Wars. True, you do need to plan ahead, but some people must plan behind. I’m just saying…

  7. I like the idea of “planning behind.” However, it really depends on the story you’re writing. Most of Harry Potter’s plot was based around facts that are only told at the end of the book series. However, they were still occurring first in the story’s time line. If you’re writing a novel, I would recommend starting at the beginning of the story, but not the book itself. Having a background history to your story is important, and definitely very helpful.

  8. Great advice. Often when I want to submit a story to a publishing agent, I need to read the criteria because what I think is a short story, might not necessarily be.

    Thanks for sharing your advice.

  9. Its great to know all these things. Writing is not only an expression of emotions. One always need to know the technical aspect of it. Its only our words which will transfer our feelings to others. So its very important to put it in such a way that others can not only read it but feel it. Thank you so much for your advice. It will help us a lot.

  10. These are good story writing tips. However, I’m always astonished how many people overlook collaborative writing as a method to generate creative ideas. Collaborative writing is an essential step in critique and exploration. The internet is a great place to write with others. Check out Write in the Clouds to write stories with people from all over the world.

  11. Very nice and informative work. It looks really helpful for me, I even do not know how to start. Althoug short definitions need further briefing.

  12. These view points and tips are most certainly very helpful and may lead me to planning out what i had in my head onto paper. I have trawled the internet for many tips and hint’s however there is one problem that people do not grasp, and that is critisism.

    we need it to see what other people may think but most people get offended when someone makes a bad comment on our work.

    thanks for the tips and i hope there there will be more in the future.

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