Introduction

A photograph of a male teacher in s a classroom looking at a student’s laptop or tablet.

Say you are sitting in Mr. Thomas’s third period English class. It’s a Monday morning in early May, but it’s already 85 degrees outside—springtime in Texas. As you fish your notebook out of your desk, you hear your teacher’s voice from the front of the room.

“All right, before we get started on our writing lesson, I need to remind you about the timed writing exercise scheduled for Friday.”

You exchange shocked looks with your friend across the aisle. Swallowing hard, you blurt out, “What exercise? We don’t know about any exercise this week.” Turning to your friend for support, you begin saying, “You didn’t tell us . . .”

Before you can finish, Mr. Thomas answers. “Now I know to some of you this might come as a bit of a shock,” he says. Looking in your direction, he continues. “This is not a surprise,” he says. “In fact, you might say we’ve been preparing for this writing exercise since the holiday break. Besides, this exercise is for practice. Maybe you can have some fun with it.”

“Oh, that,” you say, relaxing a bit. “Now I remember. Short stories, right?”

A photograph of three high school girls talking.

Mr. Thomas nods, smiling benevolently. “That’s right, Robert. Short stories, the things we’ve been reading, studying, and writing since the holidays. Now it’s time to try one on your own. You’ll need to remember everything we have talked about in terms of planning, organization, and writing. But that shouldn’t be a problem. You have all done so well on literary text reading and writing up to now that it’ll be as easy as taking a dip in Barton Springs and twice as satisfying!”

You and your friend roll your eyes.

“He always says something cheesy like that,” your friend says.

You let out a heavy sigh. “Yeah, it makes you wonder if he’s ever been to the Springs!”

Although this story is presented as a piece of fiction (maybe you don’t have English class third period, and you don’t know a Mr. Thomas), what if it the part about having to write an in-class, timed short story was true? Would you be able to complete the task successfully?

If you’re unsure, you can relax because that’s what this lesson is about: how to write a short story within time and writing space limitations using proper organization, believable characters, an engaging plot, proper point of view, and a vivid setting. We will return to the scene above later in this lesson.

A Word about the Reading/Writing Connection

A photograph of a poster that reads: Read & Write. The words are part of an image of a person’s head with butterfly wings under it

You know that reading and writing are connected, and you probably know that you can analyze how authors achieve their purpose, and then use this knowledge to inform your own writing. This connection is one reason writers study literature: to appreciate and imitate it. The same is true when considering short story writing. How does this connection relate to the focus of this lesson?

Simply put, if you have studied the methods of successful writers, you will find it easier to write a short story within time and writing space limitations. Also, when you encounter a writing prompt for a short story, you will be able to access certain elements, methods, and techniques you have studied.

This lesson focuses specifically on how to create a work of fiction within a short period of time and limited writing space. Our consideration of various authors’ texts will be limited to how the authors use elements to achieve their purpose.

Short x 3 (short story, short space, short time)

A photograph of the tile page of the book, “The Oxford Book of English Short Stories.

The literary components of short stories include plot, characters, setting, point of view, and theme. For in depth study on these components you may want to review Writing an Engaging Short Story with Well-Developed Conflict and Resolution, Writing an Engaging Short Story with Interesting and Believable Characters, and Writing an Engaging Story with Literary Strategies Including Dialogue and Suspense to Enhance Plot. This lesson is about how to integrate these elements into an engaging story on the spur of the moment.

Writing a short story is an act of creation. Even though you may take certain elements of your story from real life, you are, in fact, making it up as you go along. As you can imagine, this act of creation takes not only a solid understanding of the elements of a good short story, but also knowledge about how to plan, organize, and write it—all within time and writing space limitations. If this task seems daunting, rest easy; you may find that writing a short story under these circumstances is not only possible, but enjoyable. You only need to do a little preplanning, thinking, and feeling ahead of time.

As Mr. Thomas suggests in the opening scenario, writing a short story can be fun. Watch this video to see how writers in Peru turned writing a short story into a spectator sport.


Images used in this section:

Source: Revere High School Visit, Massachusetts Education, Flickr

Source: High School Science Bowl, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Flickr

Source: Red Write, Imelda, Flickr

Source: The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, dlacrose, Flickr

Before Writing—Brainstorm, Brainstorm, Brainstorm!

A photograph of large white pieces of paper divided into sections under headings with idea post-its stuck on them

Although literary texts vary widely, they also enjoy shared characteristics. This lesson will concentrate on three elements basic to all short stories: setting, character, and plot.

Keep in mind, though, that in addition to these three elements, a short story also needs other ingredients (normally considered part of the plot) such as the following:

  • exposition
  • rising action
  • conflict
  • a climax
  • falling action
  • a resolution

You have studied plot diagrams in previous lessons, as well as in your English classes at school. Using your knowledge of the way authors craft the plots of their stories, complete the following plot diagram by dragging each element into the appropriate box on the plot diagram below.

Some of your efforts toward a successfully negotiated, timed writing experience should occur before the writing exercise. This means you need to use the prewriting strategy of brainstorming. For example, you can brainstorm about the three major elements of a short story mentioned above: character, setting, and plot. When brainstorming for ideas, feelings, and thoughts, take the time to write about them.

The next three subsections offer several lists that can help you effectively brainstorm about the major elements of a short story before the actual writing exercise.

Setting

To prepare yourself for the writing exercise, brainstorm ahead of time about different settings you have experienced, heard about, seen in films, or read about in books (e.g., The Wizard of Oz, The Great Kapok Tree, or The Outsiders). Write about how the settings look, feel, and smell. Think about how you felt or would feel if you were there. This will help you choose vivid words to describe the setting and make your writing realistic. Having a specific setting in mind will also invite your readers to feel as if they are right there with you.

A photograph of a leafless tree by a lake at sunset; there is a park bench next to the tree

Is the setting you’re thinking about

  • dark and gloomy?
  • bright and cheery?
  • contemporary or historical?
  • primarily indoors or outdoors?

Does the setting make you feel

  • happy and optimistic?
  • sad and defeated?
  • worried but hopeful?
  • thoughtful and energetic?
  • spiritual?

Jot down something about each of the settings you are conjuring up in your mind. Later in the lesson, you will have an opportunity to use a graphic organizer to develop your thoughts.

Character

A photograph of a person’s hand sketching out a comic book style character

Think about people you know, have heard about, read about, or seen in a movie (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The X-Men: The Last Stand, The Diary of Anne Frank). If you find people you think will help with the creation of your character, you can interview them or simply analyze them on your own to gather the personal attributes you wish to use for your own characters. Do you know or have you seen people who are

  • quirky, strange, or weird?
  • funny or maybe the class clown?
  • nerdy or extremely talented?
  • mean, judgmental, or unfair?
  • keeping a big secret?

Note: You can use a T-Chart similar to the one in the lesson “Write a Literary Text That Develops Interesting Characters” to help you brainstorm about specific attributes for your characters. Remember that an author can develop her characters through action and dialogue. You will want to consider adding dialogue as a way to make your story come alive for your readers.

Plot

A photograph of a plaque on the ground that reads, Plot”

When you are brainstorming for plot ideas, think of stories that have left a lasting impression on you, such as events in your own life, in the lives of those close to you, in books, and in movies (e.g., The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Cinderella). While you’re at it, don’t forget to consider story elements such as exposition, rising action, conflict, climax, and resolution. Here are a few common plots you might consider:

  • Character with a problem or goal
  • Character against nature
  • Lost and found
  • Good guys versus bad guys
  • Mystery gets solved
  • Boy meets girl

With all this information at your fingertips, you will be able to construct the basics of your short story. You may want to keep a notebook of your creative thoughts that contains short story ideas, or you can record everything in a graphic organizer.

Graphic Organizer Icon In a minute, you will use a graphic organizer to record your brainstorming ideas. A graphic organizer is valuable for this process for two reasons. First, it saves time because it helps you think about the specifics that go into writing a short story. Second, you’ll have a document handy that you can readily produce for a prompt and that you can get ideas from on the spur of the moment. Open and download the graphic organizer and follow the instructions. When you’re finished, go to the next section in this lesson. Graphic Organizer Instructions


Images used in this section:

Source: Setting on Rondeau (Explored), John Ryan, Flickr

Source: Character Design, Tom Hoyle, Flickr

Source: Drain, "plot", Gwen Harlow, Flickr

Writing Prompts

A photograph of a student taking a written test

Writing prompts give you a chance to respond to a text or picture. The following are some sample prompts using texts:

  • His feet were already numb. He should have listened.
  • It was the first snowfall of the year.
  • He hadn’t seen her since the day they left high school.
  • The streets were deserted. Where was everyone? Where had they all gone?
  • He’d never noticed a door there before.

Sometimes, an image will be provided, and you will be asked to respond to it in a particular way. Look carefully at the image, and then relate your writing directly to what you see, including any feelings or memories that come to mind. Image prompts can be anything that could be in a picture: kids involved in a singing competition, an open window overlooking the sea, a boy playing basketball, or a picture of a big city landscape.

a collage of four photographs.  1st photograph: A photograph taken of a window that looks out onto the sea; 2nd photo: A photograph of the Houston, Texas downtown skyline; 3rd photo: A photograph of a youth Mariachi band in full mariachi uniform; 4th photo: A photograph of a young man shooting a basketball on an outdoor court

In any event, what you need to do is write. Avoid sitting for long periods of time staring at the blank page. Write whatever comes to mind and keep writing until something grabs your attention. Then, consult your graphic organizer for the elements that will help you tell your story.

Working with a plot prompt using an image

A photograph of a female student writing in a notebook

Let’s use an image to practice writing for a prompt that emphasizes plot. Remember that a good plot will include rising action, conflict, and a climax followed by the resolution to the conflict.

A short story generally involves a character with some sort of problem or situation that causes actions and events and involves another character or two. An event near the end brings the action to a head and produces either a resolution that solves the problem or a change in the character that implies a solution.

 

take notes icon Use your notes to respond to the image prompt below. Again, you may consult the brainstorming graphic organizer you prepared earlier. For purposes of this lesson, only write the first paragraph of your story. It should provide the setup for a character facing a challenge. When you are finished, check your understanding to view a possible response, keeping in mind that responses will vary.

 

A photograph of a highway sign informing drowsy drivers to use the next exit

Working with a setting prompt

A photograph of an isolated viewing place near the ocean, There are three people in the frame

Sometimes writing prompts provide one or more elements for you to consider. You may be asked to write a story in which the historical setting (past or future), the physical setting (a beach or tree house), or the social setting (sitting around a campfire or playing basketball) plays a major role.

Always keep in mind that what you are being asked to do is write a story, not an essay. This means it is not enough to organize your writing efficiently and clearly. You must tell a story that includes the necessary elements (i.e., setting, character, and plot). The following is an example of a prompt focused on setting:

Think of a place that is special to you and, perhaps, that no one else knows about. Write a story about the time you went there, only to find someone else there.

Remember, if you are writing a story in which the setting plays a major role, you will need to include vivid descriptions for your reader.

A painting of a street corner in early 20th century Russia; It shows small shop entrances and people walking in the streets.

Here is an excerpt from the short story “At the Barber” by Anton Chekhov.

The barber's shop is small, narrow, and unclean. The log walls are hung with paper suggestive of a cabman's faded shirt. Between the two dingy, perspiring windows there is a thin, creaking, rickety door, above it, green from the damp, a bell which trembles and gives a sickly ring of itself without provocation . . .

Let’s see how successful Chekhov is at describing the setting in his short story. After reading the passage carefully, answer the following questions.

take notes icon To simulate a prompt having to do with setting, use your notes and ideas you may have gotten from Chekhov’s writing to describe your own setting for a possible story. You can refer to the brainstorming graphic organizer you created in the previous section of this lesson. When you’re finished, check your understanding to view a possible response, keeping in mind that responses will vary.

Working with a character prompt

A photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald taken in the 1920s; he is wearing a suit and tie and is seated at a table with a pen in his hand and paper on the table.

Believable characters are indispensable to a good short story. Sometimes a prompt is geared directly toward a specific character or a particular character trait that a character might possess. You may be asked to write a story about a character who shows unusual courage, kindness, plainness, or even wickedness. Similar to writing with an emphasis on setting and plot, writing an imaginative story with a strong, believable character is easier if you think about people you know or have encountered before it’s time to sit down and write.

The excerpt below is from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald titled “The Rich Boy.” It shows how an author can create a believable character through description. Notice how Fitzgerald hints at a possible conflict in the plot’s rising action.

At eighteen, when he went to New Haven, Anson was tall and thick-set, with a clear complexion and a healthy color from the ordered life he had led in school. His hair was yellow and grew in a funny way on his head, his nose was beaked—these two things kept him from being handsome—but he had a confident charm and a certain brusque style, and the upper-class men who passed him on the street knew without being told that he was a rich boy and had gone to one of the best schools. Nevertheless, his very superiority kept him from being a success in college . . .

Graphic Organizer IconTry it on your own now. Use the brainstorming organizer you prepared earlier to write a response to the prompt below. Use your notes to write your first paragraph. When you are finished, check your understanding to see a possible response, keeping in mind that responses will vary.

A photograph of USA track and field star Lolo Jones

Everyone has his or her moment in the sun. Write a short story about a person who faces a challenge and finds the courage to persevere.


Images used in this section:

Source: Eraser, ccarlstead, Flickr

Source: Window to the Sea, Grant potter, Flickr

Source: Houston Skyline Reflected, joelwillis, Flickr

Source: Frank Tellez, Flickr

Source: Untitled, youdontknowanythingatall, Flickr

Source: P1040500 Nabila, Chiew Pang, Flickr

Source: UtahSignByPhilKonstantin, Phil Konstantin, Wikimedia

Source: you be my witness how red were the skies, Martin Sharrman, Flickr

Source: F Scott Fitzgerald 1921, The World’s Work, Wikimedia

Source: LoloJones2008, KD Sanders, Wikipedia

Point of View

A close up photograph of a man’s eye

Writing a good short story involves planning and organization. For this reason, you may want to spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to tell your story in terms of perspective, or point of view. To help you think about point of view, let’s go back to the short scene in this lesson’s introduction. In particular, let’s look at the somewhat unusual point of view from which the scene is written: second-person singular.

As you probably know, a story written from this point of view uses the pronoun “you,” thereby giving the reader the feeling of being a character in the story. When choosing the point of view of your story, keep in mind that the plot generally centers on one character’s personal journey. First-person point of view will allow you to show the reader how the character thinks and feels without relying on the plot’s events to bring the character to life.

Watch this short video about point of view.

Use your knowledge of point of view to answer the following question having to do with second-person narratives.

A Word about Conventions

A close up photograph of sentences written in a notebook

When writing in response to a prompt, one thing to keep in mind is how your point of view affects other English conventions such as verb tense and subject/verb agreement. In your writing, you need to observe these rules and other usage conventions (e.g., logical sentence connections, correct punctuation, and vivid word choice). This alone will go a long way in ensuring that your readers can easily follow the action in your story. Remember that adding believable dialogue, as in the opening scene in this lesson, is also a powerful tool that you can use to help make your characters come alive for your reader. Now let's turn our focus back to point of view.

take notes icon A story written in first-person point of view places the narrator at the center of the story and uses pronouns such as I, we, and my. Use your notes to create a different version of the scene from this lesson’s introduction by changing the point of view from second person to first person. As you revise, remember to be mindful of the English conventions mentioned above. When you’re finished, check your understanding to see a possible response. You can copy and paste the text from the introduction into your notes.

Say you are sitting in Mr. Thomas’s third period English class. It’s a Monday morning in early May, but it’s already 85 degrees outside—springtime in Texas. As you fish your notebook out of your desk, you hear your teacher’s voice from the front of the room.

“All right, before we get started on our writing lesson, I need to remind you about the timed writing exercise scheduled for Friday.”

You exchange shocked looks with your friend across the aisle. Swallowing hard, you blurt out, “What exercise? We don’t know about any exercise this week.” Turning to your friend for support, you begin saying, “You didn’t tell us . . .”

Before you can finish, Mr. Thomas answers. “Now I know to some of you this might come as a bit of a shock,” he says. Looking in your direction, he continues. “This is not a surprise,” he says. “In fact, you might say that in one way or another, we’ve been preparing for this writing exercise since the holiday break.”

“Oh, that,” you say, relaxing a bit. “Now I remember. Short stories, right?”

Mr. Thomas nods, smiling benevolently. “That’s right, Robert. Short stories, the things we’ve been reading, studying, and writing since the holidays. Now it’s time to try one on your own in one period and in a space of less than 30 lines. You’ll need to remember everything we have talked about in terms of planning, organization, and writing. But that shouldn’t be a problem. You have all done so well on literary text reading and writing up to now that it’ll be as easy as taking a dip in Barton Springs and twice as satisfying!”

You and your friend roll your eyes.

“He always says something cheesy like that,” your friend says.

You let out a heavy sigh. “Yeah, it makes you wonder if he’s ever been to the Springs!”


Images used in this section:

Source: Eye, Firas, Flickr

Source: the written word, palo, Flickr

Quick Tips for Writing a Timed Response

A sign that reads “Good Advice”

There are some things you can do to help to write a successful short story, given time and writing space limitations.

Before writing

  • Read fiction written by your favorite authors.
  • Brainstorm character, setting, and plot ideas.
  • Practice writing for both written and image prompts.

During writing

  • Read and reflect on the prompt.
  • Refer to “before writing” brainstorming ideas.
  • Avoid using the wrong organizational patterns (e.g., don’t write a personal narrative).
  • Don’t wander off topic; make your plot flow logically.
  • Use vivid details, the appropriate point of view, and believable dialogue.
  • Follow English writing conventions.

Images used in this section:

Source: good advice, jen collins, Flickr

Resources

bladeusa09. “third person point of view.” YouTube video, 1:07. Posted October 29, 2011. //youtu.be/cuk2-r2et6U.

Chekhov, Anton. “At the Barber.” Project Gutenberg. September 9, 2004. //www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13412/pg13412.html.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Rich Boy.” Project Gutenberg, Australia. //gutenberg.net.au/fsf/THE-RICH-BOY.html.

University of Texas System/Texas Education Agency. Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills: English Language Arts and Reading. Austin, TX: 2009.