• Short Story Challenges

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 6 comments

    Last Saturday I attended a short story workshop. Reading aloud my responses to prompts and getting feedback from near-strangers affected how I feel about my writing. Ironically, I feel more confident in my abilities now, after I read my work aloud. Not out of narcissism, but because I heard what I wrote. I can better judge what my writing needs, particularly syntax- and diction-wise. We often forget that prose derives from oral storytelling and how most well-written prose (in my opinion, at least) sounds good when read aloud. You can gain a broader perspective of writing by regularly sharing it with a group. It’s like group therapy for manuscripts.

    In addition to learning more about my writing style, I picked up a few thought-provoking pointers from the workshop:

    •         Flashbacks should be used sparingly. They’re a step away from the “scene” or story you’re telling. You should have several valid reasons to incorporate a flashback. Personally, I think it’s easy to slip into flashback mode. You know what past trauma your antagonist suffered, etc. However, you have to ask: could I illustrate these critical events without resorting to flashbacks? That takes creativity, especially since many authors (our “examples”) use flashbacks routinely.

    •         Keep your story in a “forward bend.” This doesn’t mean sacrificing everything for a dynamic plot. Your characters’ growth can serve as a forward bend.

    •         Dialogue: less is more. Anyone else have a hard time with that? When I have trouble envisioning what happens next, I tend to make my characters talk until I figure it out.  Dialogue shouldn’t be filler though. Filler is always bad.

    •         Helpful writing exercises: first, make a list of actions for your characters. How do their actions change them and affect the outcome of your story? Second, write letters as your characters to imagine their voices and personalities. (I’ve taken this a step further and created mixed media character collages. It helps me think of metaphors.)

    So far I find writing a short story challenging—not because I don’t have material, but because I struggle with keeping it short. When you read lots of sprawling epics, you tend to want to (try to) write them. I started with a short clip, a written expansion of an image that came to mind recently. Then I just meandered and realized that my story needs to come to a conclusion in a few pages. Describing characters’ backstories tempts me, but I suppose that’s more the stuff of novels. That’s why I’ve been asking myself questions like “Is it important to the story’s outcome to talk about A and B incidents?” or “Why is so-and-so character necessary?” Constantly quizzing myself keeps me focused—a necessary quality for short story writers.


    In addition to writing for WriteByNight’s blog, Jenna Cooper writes for BE Mag and a blog called FemThreads.  Aside from writing, Jenna served as an AmeriCorps Member from 2008-2010 and will start her M.S. in Information Studies in Fall 2012.  She graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas.

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    Jenna- thanks for theses great tips! Loved meeting you at the Loft Party – hope to see you soon.


    Same here, glad the tips helped!


    Great tips, indeed, Jenna. If I may, I’d like to take your point about the importance of reading aloud one step further, beyond the group setting. Read aloud to yourself. All alone. In the mirror. Or to your teddy bear. Doesn’t really matter how. It’s an eye-opening practice. You really get a feel for the rhythm of your language. When you garble a phrase, it’s more often than not an indication that it needs to be rewritten. Awkward out loud (usually) equals awkward on the page. Try it. You’ll probably feel silly, but feeling silly is part of being a… Read more »


    Thanks, Justine!

    Dewey D

    Thank you both for the great tips. I did the re-reading of one of my stories. Wow! I thought how embarrassing. I could not believe it.

    Again thanks


    You’re welcome :) I’m with you on the rereading bit. It can be excruciating; sometimes I wonder what I was thinking when I wrote this or that.

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