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01/08/2014 09:31 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Writing Tips: How To Breathe New Life Into Your Short Stories

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By Writer's Relief staff:

We’ve all been there: You begin to revise your short story, but the more you rewrite, the more unenthused you feel. You were happy with it the first time, but now it seems a bit flat and predictable. You panic as you try to figure out what to do. Rewrite just one page? Cut out a character? Toss the whole thing and start from scratch?

Take a deep breath. There are a few simple steps you can take to revive your short story and make it fresh and unique.

Put On Some Layers

Adding layers or depth to your story doesn’t mean throwing in everything and the kitchen sink. More action and bells and whistles don’t automatically translate into interesting and engaging. Some of the greatest short stories take something simple and portray it in a complex way.

Junot Diaz’s short story, “Fiesta, 1980,” is centered on a party that a young boy is attending with his family. But then the story delves beneath the surface festivities and exposes family secrets: the father’s affair, the boy’s relationship with his cold and distant father, and the mother’s despair in her dismal marriage. Though it’s a seemingly ordinary slice of life (as the title suggests), Diaz captivates the reader with the way he tells the story.

Show, Don’t Tell

It’s important to engage your audience and invite them to become emotionally invested in the story and the characters. Show what your character is going through so readers can interact directly with the character, rather than through the narrator.

Instead of telling readers, “Mary was heartbroken,” show Mary’s slumped shoulders, her tear-filled eyes staring into the distance, and let the reader hear the quiver in her voice as she speaks. Describe the knots in her stomach, her hands clenched at her sides. Do this and you’ll never have to use the words “sad” or “heartbroken.” Your readers will understand Mary’s feelings through the visual you created.

Kick Up The Tension

Even the best wordsmith will have trouble holding readers’ attention without a healthy dose of tension. If your main character is simply going through the paces and tension isn’t introduced until page six, half of your bored audience probably left at page five. Tension doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or life-or-death, but whatever it is should be important to the character(s).

If your first draft already had a good amount of tension, consider adding one more pitfall before the resolution. Have the main character reach near-resolution—then throw in one more plot twist. Taking readers on a bit of a roller coaster ride will keep them even more invested.

Cut It Out

The strongest concept, highest stakes, and most compelling characters can be foiled by wordiness. Don’t use twenty words to explain what can be said in five.

Once you’ve established something in your story, trust that your audience can read between the lines. If your protagonist is throwing dishes at her husband after finding a tell-tale restaurant receipt, you don’t need to explain why dishes are being thrown. Likewise, the dialogue shouldn’t broadcast every emotion or revelation. What’s left unsaid can be even more powerful than what’s obviously stated.

Sometimes, when stories fall flat, they just need a few key changes. Once you’ve revised using these basic steps, your stories are sure to be stronger and more popular with readers.

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