Monday, August 30, 2010

10 Tips for Writing A Short Story by Amanda Lohrey

Author Amanda Lohrey shares her tips for writing a great short story:

It’s difficult to generalize about what makes for a good short story. I once sat on a panel of three judges for a short story competition that attracted over 400 entries. We whittled that number down to a short-list of twelve and all twelve stories were first-rate – and all were different. Here, however, are a few broad-stroke guidelines:

1. A story should lock into one of your obsessions or you won’t bother to finish it.

2. It shouldn’t be in any way predictable, including to you while you’re writing it. It’s good not to be sure where you’re going.

3. After a first, second or third draft, leave it to cook in the oven of your unconscious for at least a month, preferably 3-6 months (longer even).

4. If a story isn’t working try changing the voice from third person to first – or vice versa – or the point-of-view from one character to another.

5. Poets sometimes assert that poetry differs from prose because in a poem every word counts. They’re wrong. In a story every word counts as well. Even a simple thing like a sentence that has too many occurrences of ‘a’ or ‘the’ in it can wreck the rhythm of a paragraph. Be ruthless in purging cliché and lazy phrasing from your drafts (unless deliberately planted in the idiomatic speech of a character). Purging cliché helps to avoid flatness of tone. Flatness of tone is death to a story.

6. The ending of a story should be both surprising and yet feel inevitable. This is the paradox of what readers think of as a good ending. If the right ending doesn’t come to you then the story needs more cooking (see 3).

7. Be like a film director – work on several story projects at once. You never know which one(s) are going to turn out well.

8. A story is a message in a bottle and not everyone will get the message. Some of my favorite stories by other writers have been rejected by famous editors. If someone doesn’t like your story, don’t fret. Write another story.

9. Hold your nerve. Don’t censor at source and take at least one major risk of self-exposure in writing the story. Something has to be at stake, including that you might make a fool of yourself. If that’s not happening then the story probably isn’t worth writing. 

10. Don’t worry about what your mother will think. She’ll surprise you.

Amanda Lohrey's new collection of short stories Reading Madame Bovary is available now in all good bookstores. 


  1. Aha! Love the last one and you are so right. Although the next story that's published might actually be the one to push her over the edge! I tell her to pretend someone else wrote it!

    (found you via KYD post)

  2. Thanks, these are helpful tips. Number 9 is particularly relevant to me.

  3. This is a fab article, thanks for sharing! I especially like point 9 about risking self-exposure. In fact, it’s my own Number 1 tip. I know I’ve got a long way to go in my own writing journey yet, but I had fun thinking up what top ten tips I’d give writers further behind in their writing journey than me and posting them on my website. My top tip is to ‘dig deep’.

    The only point I disagree with in Amanda’s tips is in point 7, where she says “you never know which [stories] are going to turn out well”. But that’s just because of my own personal work ethic. If a story doesn’t work, I rework it until it does. I know a lot of writers disagree with this ethic, they say dump it and move on. But there are also a lot of writers who keep going until it’s perfect, and I’m one of those. I wonder which work ethic your readers have?

  4. really simple but relevant advice. I agree about the self exposure stuff too. It's bloody hard sometimes, but it can be the best.

  5. I strongly agree with the 3rd rule. The details and ideas you get after you let it to marinate for a few weeks and months are awesome. Though sometimes you end up in throwing part of the original writings. I usually obsess on a idea that has nothing to do with me. Thank you for the tips. Keep writing great articles.

  6. Thanks for sharing. It is very beneficial to go back to stories written months or even years ago. Faults now jump out. New twists appear as if the computer in my head has been secretly labouring on the work. I also think writers mature in their work over the years. After 12 years of writing I can now say without being self conscious - I am a writer. For years I introduced myself as an emerging writer! Valerie Pybus.

  7. Thank you for sharing. Particularly points 3 and 7.
    I have often gone back to work written months even years ago. News twists emerge , new plots. We mature as writers as we keep trying. We get skilled at picking out what is working and what is not.

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