10 ways you can improve a short story for your english class

What is a short story? Much like judging the pieces themselves, the definition can at times be subjective. In general, we’re talking about something in the range of 1,000-9,000 words, though in cases that word count could shoot up to 20,000. We’re looking at small works of fiction; big enough to be able to stand alone, but short enough so that we really only ever see one or possibly two events. In the teaching of the English language in the modern day, short stories have solidified their position as one of the most viable forms of student essays. Realistically they can provide the greatest creative freedom. Whereas speeches and talks require the laborious task of assuming a formal tone, short stories allow the natural writing style to take control. A young mind is an imaginative mind, and what better way to show that than to bring whole new worlds and characters into being. That being said, even with their growing popularity, the short story is commonly viewed as an easy way out; a short cut to a good grade and an easy option to fall back on in any exam situation. Much of this arises from the vague wording of essay questions. Although a speech questions sets out the immediate issue, a short story may only need to draw on a certain theme or sentence for the chance to evolve. Even in an area of endless possibilities, we as story tellers need to play by the rules of our choice. Playing by some of the rules gets you a good standard. Playing by all of the rules gets you much, much further. As a result I’m gonna try my hand at outlining some key issues, which incidentally are all just falling into my head now.

1. See that dream sequence? It has to go…now.

We’ve all done them. Hopefully the older you get the less it arises. Now, before lovers of a good “I awoke in a sweat” smash their hands onto the keyboard, let me go further on this one. Dream sequences are tools used by some of the best writers around, but it’s where you use them that matters. If you can survey your story, and realise the whole thing works without the dream; cut it out now. Most of these openings only frustrate a reader, who thinks they have been landed in something fantastical and cool, only to find out the author was being very clever and painting a false reality. Also, ‘waking up from a scary dream that may come through later’ screams cliché. Writing a good start to hook the reader is important, but don’t fall back on something just for the sake of that. Basically, a lot of the unnecessary dream sequences run like this;

“I stumbled through the darkness(always dark in these nightmare ones), calling out for help and heaving in big breaths. I started to panic. A menacing laugh (I mean seriously) rang in my ears, and then I saw him (the ‘ole don’t give away the villain’ trick). Suddenly I was falling (they always are). I awoke with a jolt (couldn’t just flick your eyes open?). I was covered in sweat (bit OTT but OK). A light was coming in the window; it was morning (Reader is infuriated at both the trickery of the dream start and how the author must point out the obvious reality that it is morning). I heard my mother call downstairs; I groaned thinking of school (twenty euro says the mother is a single mom and that the male protagonist is unpopular in school). I threw on an old t-shirt and some jeans I found on the floor (why do they always insist on putting on terrible clothes from the floor? Oh yes, as usual, his room is messy).

I’m not going to continue, but the rest of this story always follows like this; ‘grabs toast just after popping because the yellow school bus is outside and he is late and he goes on the bus and averts his gaze from the footballers and sits alone and then his one friend comes on who has something quirky about them or is a nerd’. If your short story is in that format, go kick it across the room right now (DISCLAIMER: piece may be good but at this stage we’ve all seen that a hundred times). At this stage, ye get my point. A dream sequence if not needed wrecks any chance of a good opening, and fixes the idea in the readers mind; “The person who wrote this is a massive Richard” (no nicknames allowed).

2. Character description. Please don’t overload it.

Characters are the most important part of your story. They’re what’s main, what the whole thing revolves around and depends on. If the reader can’t see them, they won’t get very involved in your piece. As a result you need to describe them both physically and mentally (if the protagonist). However this has invariably led to a great deal of over description in many stories. Here’s a simple rule to live by: always think of describing your characters as trying to make a friend recollect someone they vaguely know. You never say to your friend, “Oh you know Peter, the guy with the eyes and the nose?”. Nobody can identify with that. It isn’t discriminating. Think of default on Fifa, and try work around it. What you do say to your friend is, “You know Peter, the guy with the scar by his left eye and the big chin?” granted Peter comes off as a bit of an ugly, violent man, but you see my point. as humans we pick up subtle differentiating characteristics. The only run of the mill things we always need to know are height/build and hair colour. For example, if I tell you I am tall, average build and have dark brown hair, you can surely already get someway towards picturing me. What you never want to do in your English essays is have your character stare into a mirror and go “I saw my hazel hair and my electric blue eyes. I was of average build, but hit the gym when I could. My nose was rather slender and long and my ears stuck out to the same degree as a normal human specimen’s would.” OK, I admit I overdone it near the end, but you see where I’m coming from. Anybody writing first person must NEVER say their hair is hazel or their eyes are electric blue. If someone told me that was their features I’d think, “Wow, what an arrogant Richard (seriously I’m going clean on this one).” Anybody writing 3rd person, keep it simple enough. In a short story we don’t need to picture them as well as you do. Leave some up to the reader. It is unfair to assume the reader can’t fill in some gaps themselves, and thus throw in every fragment of visual imagery you can think of. Hair colour and height are usually a must, unless you state an age and we can assume their build. Eye colour is of variable importance. Just highlight their striking features, and all is fine.

3. Keep the pace consistent

Unless your narrative demands it, don’t go cooling and heating up the pace on those words. We need a heightened pace near the conflict, and especially at the climax. We need a slow pace when we’re aiming towards that. Other than that a consistent pace is expected. Nothing is worse than reading of somebody going into massive detail for the act of pulling on a jumper, only to use three lines to get to school, have classes, and eat lunch. It just doesn’t sit right with the reader. It’s fine to skip the boring parts, but make sure it’s consistent. Don’t tell me “His feet shuffled along the floorboards, making small tapping sounds and coming to a rest in the doorway. The doorway was huge and made of mahogany and slightly worn” only to then say “about four days later”. it should write itself naturally in any case, but sometimes when we get nervous and want to jump to the good part, we take a huge leap and wreck the whole thing. Monitoring the level of detail and keeping an eye on how fast time is passing in-story should sort that out.

4. HAVE CONFLICT

Yes, this is an obvious one, but it would surprise people how many stories an English teacher might laugh at when they realise nothing has happened in the 3,000 words that are there. Conflict is huge in any work of fiction, but in a short story, it may as well be the corner stone. People like small stories because they get a small work load coupled with a nice piece of action. One way this might occur is if you go into too much detail at the start; a common mistake that stems from finding yourself in a new world and wanting to explore it (I admit, everyone does this). Make sure you know what the problem is at the start, and always work towards it. If you’re confident of your ability, you might even throw in subtle hints of what the reader should expect; dropping them into dialogue and making use of literary fancies like pathetic fallacy. OK, so pathetic fallacy might not be SO fancy, but it has pathetic in it, it sounds cool. If you plan ahead, the conflict will always arise, and a good grader will pick up on the fact that you had control of the plot all the way through. Never try squash in your action at the end. What you want there in terms of action may be a twist, but never your main predicament.

5. Little language things that go a long way……to ruining your entire story

Language matters. In some cases, up to half the marks might go to your use of it. I’m not gonna try preach about grammar. I myself struggle with that. But the control of your language is VERY important, especially in short stories where description is abundant. At my age, and so at the age of college students and high school finishers, it may be tempting to throw down all the new words you are learning. Please refrain from this. What will drown your entire piece is too much adjectives, too much adverbs and too much ways of trying to say something. Adjectives are great; they help us see the world we’re writing. Sometimes though, it might be best leaving them out. Read the following sentence: “I ran down to the red door which opened into a wide, cold barn which was dark except for the small, wax candle in the centre.” It’s not TOO bad. At times though, especially when the pace is picking up, that looks cluttered. When you’re getting to action, strip back all those big adjectives. The same goes for adverbs; “I ran swiftly down to the door which hung limply. Opening it, I saw a candle burning brightly and faintly lighting the room.” Putting in too many adverbs is telling the reader: “you’re not smart enough to get what I mean. Therefore, I will spell out every action for you. IS THAT..OK…WITH YOU?” Readers, teachers in particular, don’t need your help. Try use something else to show verbs in action. It boils down to the old saying “show, don’t tell”. If you tell me he “ran hurriedly into class”, I get the point but frown on how babyish you treat me. If you say “Glen ran into the room; his bag crashing off the door and his books flying everywhere”, I know Glen was in a hurry. Either that or Glen is a nutjob. As for trying to say something, simple is fine in most cases. It gets painful reading exclaimed, replied, answered, shouted, muttered, murmured, screamed and announced after a while. Unless the person is actually doing these, ‘said’ is perfectly fine. Similar to above, by using these words you tell rather than shwo. By adding different points, you can empower the reader. Instead of saying ‘Glen announced’, try say ‘said Glen, his voice carrying to the far parts of the room’. At times, the word announced is fine; it’s short and we get it. But if you want your work to look less lazy, strive to cut out those little twists on said and embrace the simple form of talking.

6. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.

Not my strongest point as far as my own secondary school essays show, but worth a point in this note. As a younger writer, dialogue rarely crops up. This is normal. We are used to taking action over talking, guns over words, and explosions over conversation. But the pen is mightier than the the sword, or the tongue is in this case (that’s why I cut all my meals with my tongue…..OK, sorry, that was being a Richard). By the age of 15-16 though, we begin to appreciate the place of words in our stories. So do correctors and teachers. Why, you may ask? It’s simple really. A short piece of dialogue can explain the details of a situation far more sneakily than your own exposition. For instance, I may tell you “The school was flooded. All the classrooms were out of use and so the students had to crowd into the gymnasium for lessons”. However I could also do the following;

“What’s the rush, school doesn’t start for an hour”, said Richard.

“We need to get there early, our class if flooded, remember?”, said Glen.

“if our class is flooded why are we even going?” (notice here I can leave out the verb, due to the fact that we can tell who is talking)

“Lessons are in the gymnasium, I won’t be late!”

Peter, the boys’ father, broke in, “Will ye two Richards come on? I won’t wait around all day for ye two idiots.”

Sorry about that last part, as well as being ugly and violent; Peter is a terrible alcoholic. As ye can see, I got the same information across in both cases. Either is perfectly fine.However using dialogue we do have the added bonus of character building. Here we see Richard is forgetful and lazy. Glen is studious and on top of things. Peter is….well Peter doesn’t have much going for him does he? Good dialogue helps make your characters real and identifiable to the teacher. They stand out more, and go a long way towards making your grade a better one. Shorter dialogue is all the fashion now. Unless the point is for the speaker to be drawn out and boring, keep it snappy and charged with emotion.

7. Stay in character.

Nothing screams “I was out of ideas” more than betraying your characters. That doesn’t mean killing them off. By all means, kill those imaginary people (a quote from controversial child psychologist Kyle Malone). But as a story progresses we get a sense of what someone is. Even over a page or two we know who we’re dealing with. Don’t have some shy loser suddenly slam dunk a basketball or get the hot girl (I mean seriously if I’m not dunking a basketball there’s no way the other losers get to). Keep your characters..well..your characters. The only time it is excusable for someone to break character is when a)their whole personality was a ruse or b) they experience a traumatic event. I’m sure there’s other ways it can happen, but those stand out. If you have your protagonist wrestle a bear just for some action (and because you also hate grizzlies and all they stand for) then an examiner will know you’re a cheat. It’s be to tailor your action for your characters. Action can be an argument or a small scuffle. Not everybody has to storm Normandy or shoot Hitler (NB Hitler may actually have to shoot Hitler). The more realistic a character’s choices are in the face of adversity, the more likely a teacher will believe them and bump up your marks.

8. Avoid clichés, they’re as old as the bible itself.

Yes, we all do these too. In a short story, keep your vigilance up to make sure none of these slip in. In four-five pages you can make a good impression. In a novel a small cliché goes unnoticed, forgotten behind all the really good stuff. In a short story it stands out; it’s a blemish on your work and your credentials. A cliché doesn;t have to be an overused phrase. If your story is a short story on a boy who attends a magical school with two geeky friends…COME ON. It really needs to be original enough for short story. You only need like one event, so really you have no excuse if you throw in a cliché in the hope a proven track can please your corrector. You need something that wows your reader, something they haven’t seen before or something old in a different light. Original short story ideas always stand well with correctors, and guarantee higher marks.

9. You don’t need a twist

Twists are fine. They end up in a lot of short stories, a final joust to the reader and a lasting memory. It’s a good thing. But don’t throw one in for a two second shock effect if it destroys everything before it. A good story gets a good grade. But if it ends in a twist that shouldn’t be there…no. A wrong twist would be something like having someone being hit by a bus for no reason other than to add sadness to your piece. Or perhaps you will kill off half of a romance just to try make it gripping. Please refrain if it isn’t your original intention. If you get to the end of your work and decide there should be a twist, WARNING LIGHTS SHOULD BE GOING OFF. A twist should be something you decide on initially, and even then should be carefully considered. To sum up, a good twist should add to the piece, not take away from it and leave the corrector feeling sour.

10. Fill your plot holes

These are real deal breakers. If your plot doesn’t make sense, and the whole thing is like four pages, you’re doomed. A short story needs to anchor on a well-thought out plot. Why is Glen running back into that burning building? Why is Richard taking a scary route home from school for the first time? You can’t just throw in a fun plot for the sake of it; the thing has to fit together like a jigsaw. In a small snippet of time, it actually is difficult to make plot holes. That is why they’re so criminal. If peter decides to drive after alcohol, why is that? Is he mad? Is he in a rush? What makes Peter break the law? If the plot is consistent and self explanatory, the whole story writes itself a lot easier. It should flow when you read it. Your teacher or lecturer should never have to ask why this is happening. They should want to ask questions, but about the story itself, never about the design of it.

I might do more of these sometime, but for now, I hope these make your English answers a little easier in the coming academic year.

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