BE MY GUEST: How to write a Short Story: Deborah Batterman

On my blog, in previous guest posts, authors have talked about various aspects of novel-writing, marketing and publishing issues. But this post is different because it does not talk about any aspect of a “novel”, rather it takes a look at another form of writing - a “short story”. 

Let’s find out if it is just the length of a “short story” which sets it apart from a “novel” or there are other things to consider too, while developing a “short story”. Deborah, an experienced writer, tells all wanna-be short-story writers what it is about and how to get started on this creative pursuit.

Guest Post:

How to write a Short Story 

By Author: Deborah Batterman 

Every couple of years, it seems, an article appears confirming that the short story is alive and well, possibly in a state of resurgence – a “heartening development,” said the New York Times when it counted twelve collections in its 100 Notable Books of 2009. Whether or not that was a watershed year, the Wall St. Journal took note, When Brevity Is a Virtue. Yes, it’s true that the marketing powers remind us, again and again, that short story collections do not sell as well as novels. Subsumed within that conventional wisdom is the suggestion that the short story, as an art form, takes second place to the novel. On the contrary, an argument can be made that the short story, contained as it is, can come closer to something of artistic perfection than its sprawling cousin. Think Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, William Trevor, not to mention Edna O’Brien, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Charles Baxter, Stuart Dybek, T. C Boyle. Chekhov.

And yet, there’s no arguing with the day-to-day immersion in another reality that is part and parcel of the novel’s pull. A short story is a one-sitting affair. Before the written word, there was the oral tradition of storytelling – folk tales and fairy tales, myths and legends passed down from generation to generation. With the written word came a new paradigm for conveying stories. Reading became a new form of listening. Today, with the ever-shifting ways in which we read – so much demanding even more of our limited attention – there’s every reason for short fiction to thrive. Hybrid forms like flash fiction and the prose poem have never been more popular.

Sometimes, a story, finished as it seems, demands more. The eponymous protagonists of Saul and Patsy, a novel by Charles Baxter, had an earlier incarnation in short stories of his, one of which ends with their death in a car accident. Baxter has said he came to see the stories as a cornerstone for the novel. In my own collection, two stories, seemingly unconnected, started nagging at me, suggesting more than I had intended. All of which speaks to that part of writing I love most, when characters take on a life of their own.

So where do you begin writing a short story?

I’m tempted to say from the heart, not in the sense of something maudlin or melodramatic, but in the sense that, if something moves you, it stands a better chance of having an affective quality as a story. The genesis of “Shoes,” one of the title stories in my collection, was the image of pairs of shoes lined up on the floor of my parents’ bedroom; a woman from my childhood, off-beat in her way, gave rise to a hybrid character, “Crazy Charlotte”; “Vegas,” a metaphor in its own right, became the place a son would take his father in the early stages of dementia.

Image – the very word is rooted in our capacity to see something beyond direct observation, and yet direct observation is so often where it begins: a woman crying into her cell phone outside a restaurant, a man uncorking a bottle of wine on the train, a woman walking at a snail’s pace across Grand Central Station. What image compels you to sit with it, get beneath the surface of conscious thought and see if a narrative reveals itself?

Situation/issue/setting – There’s a sense, in writing a short story, of casting a magnifying glass on a particular situation/issue (in contrast to the long view that belongs to the novel): A wedding that goes awry, a car accident on an icy road, a parent grappling with the death of a child from an overdose of drugs. If there’s no immediately compelling situation from your own world, there’s always the news: a man is arrested after throwing $20 bills and baggies of marijuana from a rooftop; a man on death row requests oysters for his last meal; a woman leaves all of her inheritance to her dog. The truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

Who/where/why/how/when? – If writing is an act of discovery, beginning a story is an act of faith – faith in the process that will take you from point A to B, C, and D via a narrative arc that is integral to the story itself. Some stories demand a straightforward telling, up close and personal via first-person; others require the space and distance of a third person, omniscient or not; still others are best told via a dual perspective.

Let’s assume you have your first line and/or the image/situation around which the story will take shape. From there, as simplistic as it seems, the narrative unfolds around questions lurking beneath the plot line, the assumption being that you, the writer, are as curious as your imagined reader(s) to know what happens next. A well-paced story derives from a willingness, in the first draft especially, to trust that imagination, below the level of conscious thought, will take you, by the seat of your pants, from scene to scene. It may be helpful to make a rough outline of the scenes, bearing in mind that the more deliberate work – the ruthless cutting of lines and paragraphs, the shifting of perspective, the realization that the real beginning is on page five – is yet to come.

The sum of the parts – In the way that image can get you started, another word rooted in ‘seeing’ – revision – brings you home, lets you see if the whole is in fact greater than the sum of its parts. The analogy of a jigsaw puzzle is often used in the crafting of the story, the pieces being of your own devising – the ‘telling’ details that make a character or setting jump from a page, the sequencing of scenes, the lasting resonance that casts a light on an otherwise mundane scenario. The inherent form of the short story makes the beginning-middle-end narrative arc, with all its meanderings, more readily manageable. It’s in the honing, draft after draft, that the spirited plot is kept from plodding along.

About the Author: 

A native New Yorker, Deborah Batterman is a fiction writer and essayist. Her stories have appeared in anthologies as well as various print and online journals. A story from her debut collection, Shoes Hair Nails, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Visit her website: http://deborahbatterman.com/
She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

About her Book: 

Shoe Hair Nails: Anthology of Short Stories

The settings of these stories - 1980s New York City, 1950s Brooklyn, Las Vegas, an exurban town post-9/11 - are as diverse as the rich palette of characters drawn with heart, humor, and sensuality. With a sharp sense of the telling detail, Deborah Batterman weaves narratives around the everyday symbols in our world and their resonance in our lives.

To buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Are you a short story writer? Have you got your short story published in a magazine or on a website in a competition? Tell me about it in the comments section below. You can also provide the direct link if it is published on an online portal. If you have any questions regarding short story writing, feel free to discuss them here.


  1. Wonderful advice. This is helpful to read especially as a blogger.

  2. @Elisa: She has got some great suggestions. I love to read and write short-stories, maybe that is why the first thing I got published in the newspaper was my short-story! I still have its copy in my drawer and makes me feel nostalgic whenever I read it again.

  3. Wonderfully written short stories are a joy to read. They require of a writer a lot of discipline and tight command of story line and language. In addition to offering here some valuable insights, you underscore the importance of craft. Best wishes for continued success, Deborah.

  4. @Maureen: Thanks so much for appreciating author's style of writing. Your comments are highly appreciated.

  5. Excellent guidance from a writer whose short story collection 'Shoes Hair Nails' demonstrates every last point made in this instructive how-to piece. I especially appreciate the advice on the 'sum of its parts', which is truly the magic of any memorable story.

  6. @Cathy: Glad you find the article helpful. Yes, Daborah has written a wonderful piece and newbie writers should make note of her suggestions. Thanks for joining me in the comments and liking this post.

  7. Thanks for this advice, I especially like the analogy with a jigsaw.


My Must-Have "How-to" Books On Writing/Publishing/Marketing Your Book

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...