craft post by Anne-Marie Strohman
In the past few years, a number of fantastic anthologies of short stories for middle grade and young adult readers have come out, and they continue to be published and find an audience. Black Enough edited by Ibi Zoboi, Flying Lessons edited by Ellen Oh, Rural Voices edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter, The Hero Next Door edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Foreshadow edited by Nova Ren Suma and Emily X.R. Pan, Ab(solutely) Normal edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter and Rocky Callen, and the very recent The Collectors edited by A.S. King feature a diversity of voices and experiences, from debut authors to well-known writers for children. But writing short stories isn’t simply writing a very short version of a novel.
A lot of craft techniques are the same–having a character who yearns for something, including plot, setting, secondary characters, etc., incorporating action, dialogue, and interiority. All these things are necessary. But because of the nature of a short story, typically you’re dealing with one storyline (no B-story or subplots) and the story will often center on one important moment.
Many books have been published on how to write a short story, and I can’t possibly cover everything in one article, but I want to give you a sense of some things to think about as you approach writing a short story.
A powerful opening
Rocky starts us off with an evocative title: “They Call Me Hurricane.” As readers, we may wonder, Who is “they”? Who is “me”? and Why do they call the narrator Hurricane? These are all questions Rocky answers in the story.
Her first line is from her first-person narrator Aida: “I was born during a hurricane in the back of my parents’ faded blue 1997 Camry on the shoulder of the road.” It’s a specific and engaging image, and we lean in to find out more about Aida’s birth. Because the story starts with a literal hurricane, we have an initial clue to the title, and our reader-brains keep reading to see if there’s a greater connection between the title and this literal hurricane.
When I start writing a short story draft, I don’t worry too much about the opening. It’s something that will change in revision. But in revision, focusing attention on the title and the opening, and shaping them to invite readers into the story and compel them to keep reading, is time well spent.
Think about point of view
Rocky’s story has five sections: four first-person sections from Aida’s point of view, and one (the third section) in close third-person focused on her boxing coach.
Putting readers in Aida’s point of view works in this story because the story is mostly about how Aida makes sense of and manages her depression, how she fights emotionally to keep living.
The shift into the coach’s point of view in the middle section is for a mechanical reason–Aida gets knocked out–but it also works for the story in a few other ways. It helps us see Aida from the outside, the view of someone who loves her and wants the best for her, and provides some backstory that might have been cumbersome in Aida’s point of view.
It is unusual to have multiple points of view in a short story, and it pays to have a really good reason to switch points of view.
As you shape a story, consider which point of view makes the most sense and creates the most emotional impact for your character and for your reader.
Character yearning–internal and external desires
Writer and teacher Robert Olen Butler argues that fiction “has at its center a character who yearns” and that yearning is “the essence of plot.”
In “They Call Me Hurricane,” Aida has twin yearnings–first to not fall into depression and suicidality, and second to compete in the Golden Gloves match.
The Golden Gloves serves as the external journey. She expresses the desire to the reader, we see her falter in her training, and finally, Coach tells her she’s in the competition. The final section skips ahead in time and we see Aida at Golden Gloves getting ready to compete.
The internal journey is where Rocky focuses the story. Yes, Aida needs to be in shape mentally in order to compete, but keeping herself from needing to add another thread to her bracelet is a worthy goal in and of itself. (Each thread of a bracelet signifies a suicidal episode, and Aida hasn’t added a thread for over a year. Rocky does a smart thing by using the bracelet–a concrete object–to tell us about Aida’s internal state.)
Just as in novel writing, the external and internal journeys are related. And in a short story, it helps to have them be intricately intertwined. In “They Call Me Hurricane,” the internal and external journeys push and pull against each other creating tension and keeping the story focused.
“They Call Me Hurricane” has quite a few secondary characters–mom, dad, Coach, Jese, other fighters in the gym, Aida’s therapist. What matters for all of them is their relationship to Aida. Aida and her mom have similar mental health struggles. Aida’s dad’s absence exacerbates the mental health issues for both of them, and her dad’s boxing career inspires her. Aida’s therapist helps her establish routines that keep her going on difficult days. All three of these secondary characters only show up in moments of backstory or references Aida makes in her internal thoughts.
Coach, her best friend Jese (Coach’s son), and the other boxers feature in the present storyline. The characters are drawn quickly, and they are developed through dialogue and Aida’s responses to and reflections on them.
Here’s how we meet Jese:
Jese is sweeping when I walk in. He’s only a year older than me. His black hair spills over his forehead and the scar that I know cuts through his left eyebrow. He must have a bachata song playing in his mind because his feet move in step with the rhythm. When he looks up and spots me, he raises the broom in salute. I walk over to him, soaked from the rain, and fake a high five, then wrap him up in a hug instead.
This characterisation contrasts with Aida, who’s been grumpy, groggy, and not wanting to move in the world. Jese is movement and action. The moment Aida hugs him we know he’s important to her.
As you’re developing your secondary characters, think about how they relate to your main character. Are they similar? Do they contrast? Go for minimal description, action where possible, and show us the character through action and dialogue.
Endings–epiphanies and ambiguity
James Joyce called a character’s recognition of something about their own humanity or about the world an “epiphany” and determined it was a necessary part of any story. In Aida’s story, her epiphany occurs at the end of the fourth section.
Jese has asked her why she wanted to train to fight in the first place. “Because I wanted to feel strong,” she says. He answers, “Like a hurricane.” He also tells her that she is the strongest person he knows. It’s through the way Jese sees her that she is able to not come apart.
To end “They Call Me Hurricane,” Rocky skips ahead to the Golden Gloves tournament, and she makes sure to resolve both the internal and external storylines separately and then shows how they come together.
I am where I belong. I have five threads on my bracelet because I didn’t need another one that day in the gym closet. I walked out of it and back into the ring for the next round, ready. That was months ago. And now here we are.
This moment confirms our interpretation of what happens at the end of the fourth section–Aida is strong.
It also concludes the external desire. We know she got what she wanted–to compete in Golden Gloves. Here’s where the ambiguity comes in. We aren’t shown or told how the competition goes. Rocky has fulfilled the promise–Aida just wanted to compete, and she gets that. The story ends, though, before the competition itself:
“Aida the Hurricane Maya!” My name booms out of the speakers.
They call me Hurricane.
I roll back my shoulders and smile. I am the storm. And I am ready to strike.
This ending is as powerful as the beginning. And we as readers are invited to imagine the next bit of the story for ourselves. For Aida, it is enough to claim her title Hurricane.
Now It’s YOUR Turn!
There’s a lot that goes into writing a short story, but these elements are great ones to think about as you venture into short story writing. As you draft and revise, consider the following questions:
- How do your title and first sentence draw your reader into the story? What questions do they introduce to the reader? Does the story answer those questions?
- What point of view are you using? Why? Try other points of view to see how they change the story.
- What does your main character yearn for? What external desire do they have? And what internal thing do they need? (In other words, how do they need to grow?) Are their external and internal desire related? If not, can you shift one or the other to make them more connected or conflicting?
- How many secondary characters do you introduce? Look at the moment each enters the story. How fast can you introduce them to readers? Do you rely too much on description, or do you develop the character through dialogue, action, and main character perceptions and reactions?
- How does each secondary character function in relation to the main character? Make sure each secondary character serves a distinct purpose.
- What is your character’s epiphany? How is it connected to their internal need (and/or external desire)?
- Does your ending fulfill the promises you make the reader early in the story? What can you leave to the reader’s imagination?
Speaking of short stories, my latest short story “What You Don’t Know Now” was published by Black Fox Literary Magazine in their Summer 2023 issue. My story starts on page 70.
Find the author on social media:
Check out these other posts about telling stories:
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.