7 Methods for Writing Your First Draft

Every work of fiction grows from something. A thought. An image. A conversation in the supermarket. A fact. Sometimes, simply, the indefinable yearning to write something, even if you have no grasp of what it might be, or where that yearning is coming from.

From this seed, anything might grow—the realization of which can be daunting, and feel contrary to the way in which you perhaps plan and control your work, your life. But if you open yourself up to the unpredictability of what you might create, then it can also be liberating—and one of the most important skills that a writer learns is to embrace and use the potential of the unknown. You would be unlikely to start reading a book if you already knew every little thing about it, and the experiences of reading and writing are not so very far apart. They are entwined, in fact. It is important to remember that.

There are no rules. It is important to remember that, too. Every narrative is as individual as the person writing it. One of the quiet pleasures of writing fiction is that each project spawns its own storytelling rulebook—of language and style, of point of view, of character—which nobody but the author can impose.

There are, nonetheless, certain elements of craft to discover and to practice—to reject, sometimes—but, firstly, to understand.


First Steps

As much as we might enjoy hearing apocryphal stories of famous authors’ quirks—that Joyce wrote in bed in a white coat; that Joan Didion sleeps beside her manuscript so that it doesn’t leave her; that Dan Brown hangs upside down in anti-gravity boots—they make no difference to the reader’s enjoyment of that author’s book. The important thing, as an author, is to know what ritual, eccentric or not, works for you.

If this means that you do your best writing when you are naked in the bathtub is for you to discover. As is, crucially, the method by which you develop an idea into a finished piece of writing. Every writer has their own process. I have put down some of the main ways in which writers go about creating a piece of fiction. You will notice, however diverse they may at first appear, that there is a lot of crossover, and that most of them involve some kind of milling process.

The relative weight I have given to the first method is because it contains many of the basic principles, and, possibly, because it is the way in which I work myself. I should add that I work in the same way for both novels and short stories. But it is not for me to prescribe the most effective process, and you will inevitably consider some of these methods barmy; others may strike a chord, or you might take titbits from all of them. The only way for you to discover your own method is to experiment, and to write—and complete—as much as you can. And to remember, always, that there is no correct way to write but your own.

The Refinery Method

With a formative idea and a loose plan, embark on a linear first draft. Work from some semblance of a beginning—without stopping to doubt yourself, make improvements, or judge the writing—to an end. The only judgements you should make are instinctive creative ones: Is this character starting to feel more significant than I had envisaged? The storyline seems to have deviated from my plan . . . but what might happen if I go down this new path? Is the point of view serving the story I want to tell? How does it feel if I change it for a chapter or two?

Rough exploratory drafting is an antidote to the anxiety of the blank page. You are generating momentum, a rhythm to your thoughts and your accumulating scenes, even if the actual text you are producing is—or would be if this was going to be the finished manuscript—a hilarious piece of crap. Overwritten in most places, underwritten in others; a tense change halfway through; plot lines and characters abandoned, or appearing from nowhere. But, by the end of it (which will probably not be the right ending), you will have a very good idea of what works and what doesn’t, because you have learned these things through experimentation.

And this is the point at which to write it again.

The second draft begins on a clean page. Very possibly in a different place to where the first draft began, because it is quite likely that you wrote a scene partway through the first draft that suggested itself to you later as an appropriate opening. The process of redrafting is not one of simply copying out the best bits from the first-draft material (although it will sometimes involve doing that). It is a new piece of writing; one that you are commencing with a deep understanding, now, of your idea, style, characters, plot, and with at least some decent lines and scenes in the bank.

“One of the quiet pleasures of writing fiction is that each project spawns its own storytelling rulebook—of language and style, of point of view, of character—which nobody but the author can impose.”

How you make use of the first-draft material is for you to decide: whether you have written a mess of longhand that you now take a highlighter or a number of colored pens to; whether you refer to it closely, chapter by chapter, or barely refer to it at all; whether you complete two full drafts, or more, or redraft certain areas of it more than others.

Whatever way you go about it, the process does not end here. The redraft does not produce the finished piece of writing, so, still, you should not feel the pressure of it being a finished piece of writing. The final part of this method is the edit.

If you have not yet thoroughly worked out your method, then this may all feel rather painstaking to you, but it is a question of care. Ask yourself: “How much do I care about my writing?” And consider too, that the more defined your method, the more defined the final product is likely to be.

The Jigsaw Method

If you are stumped for the point at which to enter the narrative it may be helpful to forego, for now, an adherence to writing it in a linear way, from beginning to end. Instead, if you do have an idea for one or two scenes that feel pertinent, even though you don’t know where exactly they fit, then start with those. The more you write, the better you will understand the project at large. And you may, eventually, understand that the finished narrative will not be linear. It might, for example, be episodic.

So, by writing a big scene that eventually ends up at the core of the narrative, you will be growing your understanding of the fictional world and the characters who inhabit it—and this, in turn, is likely to spawn other ideas, other scenes, character through-lines, plot events. Once you free yourself from the constraint of putting it down in the right order, you may well find that before very long you have gathered enough fragments that you are beginning to get a perception of the whole.

The Nugget in the Dump Method

This is another variation on the first, and a further relinquishing of control. You cannot know for sure, before you have amassed any words, whether this thing you are writing is worthwhile. Which is why it is so tempting to plan it into an impressive shape, to convince yourself that it is. Your first draft is an exploration. During that exploration you might unearth a completely unexpected idea, character, sentence that causes you to think: actually, this is the thing that has legs.

So the first draft of one book might be what instigates the first draft of a different book.

Maybe the idea of discarding a whole draft sounds demoralizing—and so it might be, for a while—but is it as demoralizing as knowing that you have spent years writing something that is not as good, as impassioned, as the idea that you left behind?

The Spurt Method

Some writers sit at a desk for hours and work without pause until their designated time to punch the clock. I am one of these. Others, like Nick Hornby, write in spurts. A few sentences at a time, then a short break to get up and stretch their limbs before returning to it, refreshed. If you feel that you work best by keeping office hours, keep office hours, but don’t do so just to make your writing feel more legitimate.

Plenty of writers set themselves word targets, and you might find it helpful to have a number to aim for each day. However, don’t let yourself be crippled by it—either your own target, or another writer’s. Anthony Trollope made himself write 250 words every 15 minutes, timing himself with a stopwatch. Fair enough. You don’t have to. The reader is not bothered about how long it took you.

The Sessional Method

In order to create momentum, you might find it helpful to vary what you do, session by session. So, you might spend one session drafting a scene, and the next session rewriting that scene. Furthermore—and this is a useful thing to bear in mind, whatever your method—you might grease the wheels of your stopping-and-starting routine by drawing a close to your writing session at a point where you know what is going to come next on the page. As Hemingway put it: “As long as you can start, you are alright. The juice will come.”

You might, furthermore, heed Hemingway’s advice on rereading what you have done so far, to get into the flow of the material. There are, believe it or not, plenty of writers who will reread the whole draft up to the point they’ve got to, each time they sit down to write. Or, if you are Hemingway, stand.

The Perfectionist Method

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the process of generating momentum through drafting is the process of refining each individual page, over and over, before you move on to the next page. In this way, every existing page is in its final state as the narrative continues, and the end of the work really does mean the end of the work. It is a practice of constant revision, rather than redrafting. Anthony Burgess worked in this way, in part because he believed that over time the intention and technique of a writer is liable to change, with the result that the unity of the work will be affected.

The Incubation Method

Although I have been advocating getting pen to paper as early as possible, there are writers who let an idea remain in their heads for a long time. They will ruminate at length, letting the subconscious stay constantly engaged with the subject so that characters, plot and atmosphere form without any forced deliberation. In this way, seemingly incongruent observations and encounters from the author’s day-to-day life feed into the thought process.

All the while, it will be important to keep a notebook, to write down any scraps that occur to you—until, eventually, you have what is in effect a first draft in the imagination. It will be amorphous, but the putting together of all your notes (maybe even writing them down on record cards that you can then lay out on a table) will create a vague shape for you to use when you do sit down to write.

It has a resemblance, this method, to the act of reading: you immerse yourself inside a dreamed world, in which you are capable of imagining characters doing more than simply what is written down. The trick, I suppose, is knowing when to stop dreaming and get down to it.

10 Ways to Improve Your Creative Writing

1. Get Started: Emergency Tips

Do you have a short story assignment due tomorrow morning? The rest of this document covers longer-term strategies, but if you are in a pinch, these emergency tips should help. Good luck!

  • What does your protagonist want?
    (The athlete who wants her team to win the big game and the car crash victim who wants to survive are not unique or interesting enough.)
  • When the story begins, what morally significant action has your protagonist taken towards that goal?
    (Your protagonist should already have made a conscious choice, good or bad, that drives the rest of the story.)
  • What obstacles must the protagonist overcome in order to reach the goal?
    (Simply having a rival is not that interesting. Yes, Harry Potter defeats Voldemort, but first he has to mature into a leader with the moral clarity and teamwork skills necessary to defeat Voldemort. A short story can’t possibly tackle that kind of character development, but it a character who faces internal obstacles and must negotiate messy moral trade-offs is more dramatically interesting than the hero in the white hat who has to use the right weapon to defeat the villain in the black hat.)
  • What unexpected consequences — directly related to the protagonist’s goal-oriented actions — ramp up the emotional energy of the story?
    (Will the unexpected consequences force your protagonist to make yet another choice, leading to still more consequences? How does Huck change, first when he teams up with Jim, and later when he realizes how much Jim depends upon him?)
  • What details from the setting, dialog, and tone help you tell the story? You can usually cut these:
    • Travel scenes. (Save words. “Later, at the office…”)
    • Character A telling character B about something we just saw happening to character A. (Cut the redundancy.)
    • Facial expressions of a first-person narrator. (We can’t see what our own faces look like, so don’t write “A smile lit my face from ear to ear.”) See Writing Dialogue.
  • At the climax, what morally significant choice does your protagonist make? 
    (Your reader should care about the protagonist’s decision, and ideally shouldn’t see it coming.)

An effective short story (or poem) does not simply record or express the author’s feelings; rather, it generates feelings in the reader. (See “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell.”)

Drawing on your own real-life experiences, such as winning the big game, bouncing back after an illness or injury, or dealing with the death of a loved one, are attractive choices for students who are looking for a “personal essay” topic. But simply listing the emotions you experienced (“It was exciting” “I’ve never been so scared in all my life” “I miss her so much”) is not the same thing as generating emotions for your readers to experience.

For those of you who are looking for more long-term writing strategies, here are some additional ideas.

  • Keep a notebook. To R. V. Cassill, notebooks are “incubators,” a place to begin with overheard conversation, expressive phrases, images, ideas, and interpretations on the world around you.
  • Write on a regular, daily basis. Sit down and compose sentences for a couple of hours every day — even if you don’t feel like it.
  • Collect stories from everyone you meet. Keep the amazing, the unusual, the strange, the irrational stories you hear and use them for your own purposes. Study them for the underlying meaning and apply them to your understanding of the human condition.

Read, Read, Read

Read a LOT of Chekhov. Then re-read it. Read Raymond Carver, Earnest Hemingway, Alice Munro, and Tobias Wolff. If you don’t have time to read all of these authors, stick to Chekhov. He will teach you more than any writing teacher or workshop ever could.
-Allyson Goldin, UWEC Asst. Professor of Creative Writing

2. Write a Catchy First Paragraph

In today’s fast-moving world, the first sentence of your narrative should catch your reader’s attention with the unusual, the unexpected, an action, or a conflict. Begin with tension and immediacy. Remember that short stories need to start close to their end.

I heard my neighbor through the wall.
Dry. Nothing sparks the reader’s imagination. 
The neighbor behind us practiced scream therapy in his shower almost every day.
Catches the reader’s attention. Who is this guy who goes in his shower every day and screams? Why does he do that? What, exactly, is“scream therapy”? Let’s keep reading…
The first time I heard him, I stood in the bathroom listening at our shared wall for ten minutes, debating the wisdom of calling the police. It was very different from living in the duplex over middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. Brown and their two young sons in Duluth.
The rest of the paragraph introduces I and an internal conflict as the protagonist debates a course of action and introduces an intriguing contrast of past and present setting.

“It is important to understand the basic elements of fiction writing before you consider how to put everything together. This process is comparable to producing something delectable in the kitchen–any ingredient that you put into your bowl of dough impacts your finished loaf of bread. To create a perfect loaf, you must balance ingredients baked for the correct amount of time and enhanced with the right polishing glaze.” -Laurel Yourke

3. Developing Characters

Your job, as a writer of short fiction–whatever your beliefs–is to put complex personalities on stage and let them strut and fret their brief hour. Perhaps the sound and fury they make will signify something that has more than passing value–that will, in Chekhov’s words, “make [man] see what he is like.” –Rick Demarnus

In order to develop a living, breathing, multi-faceted character, it is important to know way more about the character than you will ever use in the story. Here is a partial list of character details to help you get started.

Name Age Job Ethnicity Appearance Residence Pets Religion Hobbies Single or married? Children? Temperament
Favorite color Friends Favorite foods Drinking patterns Phobias Faults Something hated? Secrets? Strong memories? Any illnesses? Nervous gestures? Sleep patterns

Imagining all these details will help you get to know your character, but your reader probably won’t need to know much more than the most important things in four areas:

  • Appearance. Gives your reader a visual understanding of the character.
  • Action. Show the reader what kind of person your character is, by describing actions rather than simply listing adjectives.
  • Speech. Develop the character as a person — don’t merely have your character announce important plot details.
  • Thought. Bring the reader into your character’s mind, to show them your character’s unexpressed memories, fears, and hopes.

For example, let’s say I want to develop a college student persona for a short story that I am writing. What do I know about her?

Her name is Jen, short for Jennifer Mary Johnson. She is 21 years old. She is a fair-skinned Norwegian with blue eyes, long, curly red hair, and is 5 feet 6 inches tall. Contrary to the stereotype about redheads, she is actually easygoing and rather shy. She loves cats and has two of them named Bailey and Allie. She is a technical writing major with a minor in biology. Jen plays the piano and is an amateur photographer. She lives in the dorms at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She eats pizza every day for lunch and loves Red Rose tea. She cracks her knuckles when she is nervous. Her mother just committed suicide.

4. Choose a Point of View

Point of view is the narration of the story from the perspective of first, second, or third person. As a writer, you need to determine who is going to tell the story and how much information is available for the narrator to reveal in the short story. The narrator can be directly involved in the action subjectively, or the narrator might only report the action objectively.

  • First Person. The story is told from the view of “I.” The narrator is either the protagonist (main character) and directly affected by unfolding events, or the narrator is a secondary character telling the story revolving around the protagonist.
I saw a tear roll down his cheek. I had never seen my father cry before. I looked away while he brushed the offending cheek with his hand.
This is a good choice for beginning writers because it is the easiest to write. (But if your viewpoint character is too much like you, a first-person story might end up being a too-transparent exercise in wish-fulfillment, or score-settling.)
  • Second Person. The story is told directly to “you”, with the reader as a participant in the action.
You laughed loudly at the antics of the clown. You clapped your hands with joy.
  • Third Person. The story tells what “he”, “she,” or “it” does. The third-person narrator’s perspective can be limited (telling the story from one character’s viewpoint) or omniscient (where the narrator knows everything about all of the characters).
He ran to the big yellow loader sitting on the other side of the gravel pit shack.
Your narrator might take sides in the conflict you present, might be as transparent as possible, or might advocate a position that you want your reader to challenge (this is the “unreliable narrator” strategy).

Yourke on point of view:

  • First Person. “Unites narrator and reader through a series of secrets” when they enter one character’s perceptions. However, it can “lead to telling” and limits readers connections to other characters in the short story.
  • Second Person. “Puts readers within the actual scene so that readers confront possibilities directly.” However, it is important to place your characters “in a tangible environment” so you don’t “omit the details readers need for clarity.”
  • Third Person Omniscient. Allows you to explore all of the characters’ thoughts and motivations. Transitions are extremely important as you move from character to character.
  • Third Person Limited. “Offers the intimacy of one character’s perceptions.” However, the writer must “deal with character absence from particular scenes.”

5. Write Meaningful Dialogue

Make your readers hear the pauses between the sentences. Let them see characters lean forward, fidget with their cuticles, avert their eyes, uncross their legs. –Jerome Stern

Dialogue is what your characters say to each other (or to themselves).

Each speaker gets his/her own paragraph, and the paragraph includes whatever you wish to say about what the character is doing when speaking.

Where are you going?” John cracked his knuckles while he looked at the floor. “To the racetrack.” Mary edged toward the door, keeping her eyes on John’s bent head. “Not again,” John stood up, flexing his fingers. “We are already maxed out on our credit cards.”
The above paragraph is confusing, because it is not clear when one speech stops and the other starts.
      “Where are you going?” John asked nervously.
      “To the racetrack,” Mary said, trying to figure out whether John was too upset to let her get away with it this time.
      “Not again,” said John, wondering how they would make that month’s rent. “We are already maxed out on our credit cards.”
The second example is mechanically correct, since it uses a separate paragraph to present each speaker’s turn advancing the conversation. But the narrative material between the direct quotes is mostly useless.

Write Meaningful Dialogue Labels

“John asked nervously” is an example of “telling.” The author could write “John asked very nervously” or “John asked so nervously that his voice was shaking,” and it still wouldn’t make the story any more effective.

How can the author convey John’s state of mind, without coming right out and telling the reader about it? By inference. That is, mention a detail that conjures up in the reader’s mind the image of a nervous person.

John sat up. “Wh– where are you going?” “Where are you going?” John stammered, staring at his shoes, Deep breath. Now or never. “Where are you going?”
Any of the above would work.
John sat up and took a deep breath, knowing that his confrontation with Mary had to come now, or it would never come at all. “Wh– where are you going?” he stammered haltingly, staring vulnerably at the tattered Thomas the Tank Engine slippers Mary had given him so many years ago, in happier times.
Beware — a little detail goes a long way. Why would your reader bother to engage with the story, if the author carefully explains what each and every line means?

6. Use Setting and Context

Setting moves readers most when it contributes to an organic whole. So close your eyes and picture your characters within desert, jungle, or suburb–whichever setting shaped them. Imagining this helps balance location and characterization. Right from the start, view your characters inhabiting a distinct place. –– Laurel Yourke

Setting includes the time, location, context, and atmosphere where the plot takes place.

  • Remember to combine setting with characterization and plot.
  • Include enough detail to let your readers picture the scene but only details that actually add something to the story. (For example, do not describe Mary locking the front door, walking across the yard, opening the garage door, putting air in her bicycle tires, getting on her bicycle–none of these details matter except that she rode out of the driveway without looking down the street.)
  • Use two or more senses in your descriptions of setting.
  • Rather than feed your readers information about the weather, population statistics, or how far it is to the grocery store, substitute descriptive details so your reader can experience the location the way your characters do.
Our sojourn in the desert was an educational contrast with its parched heat, dust storms, and cloudless blue sky filled with the blinding hot sun. The rare thunderstorm was a cause for celebration as the dry cement tunnels of the aqueducts filled rapidly with rushing water. Great rivers of sand flowed around and through the metropolitan inroads of man’s progress in the greater Phoenix area, forcefully moved aside for concrete and steel structures. Palm trees hovered over our heads and saguaro cactuses saluted us with their thorny arms.

7. Set Up the Plot

Plot is what happens, the storyline, the action. Jerome Stern says it is how you set up the situation, where the turning points of the story are, and what the characters do at the end of the story.

A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. –Janet Burroway

Understanding these story elements for developing actions and their end results will help you plot your next short story.

  • Explosion or “Hook.” A thrilling, gripping, stirring event or problem that grabs the reader’s attention right away.
  • Conflict. A character versus the internal self or an external something or someone.
  • Exposition. Background information required for seeing the characters in context.
  • Complication. One or more problems that keep a character from their intended goal.
  • Transition. Image, symbol, dialogue, that joins paragraphs and scenes together.
  • Flashback. Remembering something that happened before the short story takes place.
  • Climax. When the rising action of the story reaches the peak.
  • Falling Action. Releasing the action of the story after the climax.
  • Resolution. When the internal or external conflict is resolve.

Brainstorming. If you are having trouble deciding on a plot, try brainstorming. Suppose you have a protagonist whose husband comes home one day and says he doesn’t love her any more and he is leaving. What are actions that can result from this situation?

  1. She becomes a workaholic.
  2. Their children are unhappy.
  3. Their children want to live with their dad.
  4. She moves to another city.
  5. She gets a new job.
  6. They sell the house.
  7. She meets a psychiatrist and falls in love.
  8. He comes back and she accepts him.
  9. He comes back and she doesn’t accept him.
  10. She commits suicide.
  11. He commits suicide.
  12. She moves in with her parents.

The next step is to select one action from the list and brainstorm another list from that particular action.

8. Create Conflict and Tension

Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story: birth, love, sex, work, and death. –Janet Burroway

Conflict produces tension that makes the story begin. Tension is created by opposition between the character or characters and internal or external forces or conditions. By balancing the opposing forces of the conflict, you keep readers glued to the pages wondering how the story will end.

Possible Conflicts Include:

  • The protagonist against another individual
  • The protagonist against nature (or technology)
  • The protagonist against society
  • The protagonist against God
  • The protagonist against himself or herself.

Yourke’s Conflict Checklist

  • Mystery. Explain just enough to tease readers. Never give everything away.
  • Empowerment. Give both sides options.
  • Progression. Keep intensifying the number and type of obstacles the protagonist faces.
  • Causality. Hold fictional characters more accountable than real people. Characters who make mistakes frequently pay, and, at least in fiction, commendable folks often reap rewards.
  • Surprise. Provide sufficient complexity to prevent readers predicting events too far in advance.
  • Empathy. Encourage reader identification with characters and scenarios that pleasantly or (unpleasantly) resonate with their own sweet dreams (or night sweats).
  • Insight. Reveal something about human nature.
  • Universality. Present a struggle that most readers find meaningful, even if the details of that struggle reflect a unique place and time.
  • High Stakes. Convince readers that the outcome matters because someone they care about could lose something precious. Trivial clashes often produce trivial fiction.

9. Build to a Crisis or Climax

This is the turning point of the story–the most exciting or dramatic moment.

The crisis may be a recognition, a decision, or a resolution. The character understands what hasn’t been seen before, or realizes what must be done, or finally decides to do it. It’s when the worm turns. Timing is crucial. If the crisis occurs too early, readers will expect still another turning point. If it occurs too late, readers will get impatient–the character will seem rather thick.-Jerome Stern

Jane Burroway says that the crisis “must always be presented as a scene. It is “the moment” the reader has been waiting for. In Cinderella’s case, “the payoff is when the slipper fits.”

While a good story needs a crisis, a random event such as a car crash or a sudden illness is simply an emergency –unless it somehow involves a conflict that makes the reader care about the characters (see: “Crisis vs. Conflict“).

10. Find a Resolution

The solution to the conflict. In short fiction, it is difficult to provide a complete resolution and you often need to just show that characters are beginning to change in some way or starting to see things differently.

Yourke examines some of the options for ending a story.

  • Open. Readers determine the meaning.
    Brendan’s eyes looked away from the priest and up to the mountains.
  • Resolved. Clear-cut outcome.
    While John watched in despair, Helen loaded up the car with her belongings and drove away.
  • Parallel to Beginning. Similar to beginning situation or image.
    • They were driving their 1964 Chevrolet Impala down the highway while the wind blew through their hair.
    • Her father drove up in a new 1964 Chevrolet Impala, a replacement for the one that burned up.
  • Monologue. Character comments.
    I wish Tom could have known Sister Dalbec’s prickly guidance before the dust devils of Sin City battered his soul.
  • Dialogue. Characters converse.
  • Literal Image. Setting or aspect of setting resolves the plot.
    The aqueducts were empty now and the sun was shining once more.
  • Symbolic Image. Details represent a meaning beyond the literal one.
    Looking up at the sky, I saw a cloud cross the shimmering blue sky above us as we stood in the morning heat of Sin City.

Got Writer’s Block?

The Writer’s Block
Comprehensive Web site that offers solutions to beating writer’s block such as various exercises (not necessarily physical), advice from prolific writers, and how to know if you really have writer’s block.

How to Write Short Stories from Inside Your Character’s Head

This page explains narrative point of view and how to write short stories from the best “camera angle.” This is just one of many pages on this website about different elements of a story. For a complete list and the chance to take free creative writing courses, see the links at the bottom.

How to write short stories from different points of view

Your story’s narrator is the voice that is telling the story. 

For example, read the same scene described by three different narrators:

  • I pulled out the gun and showed it to the cute blond bank teller, who gave a little yelp of surprise.
  • This bald guy came up to my counter and reached into his jacket. Suddenly, I realized he was holding a gun.
  • A bald jerk cut in front of me in line. I hate cutters, so I was about to go say something, when he pulled a gun on the blond lady behind the counter.

All of these examples use first person narrators. That means the narrator is also one of the characters in the scene, and he or she tells the story using the words “I,” “me,” etc.


How to write short stories in the first person

There are certain things a first person narrator normally shouldn’t say. For example: “My bald spot looked particularly shiny that day.” Why? Because you can’t see your own bald spot unless you’re looking at yourself in a photograph or a mirror at just the right angle. 

Another thing that sounds strange in the first person voice: “I have no idea that…” Your first person narrator can’t give information he doesn’t know. If your narrator has been locked in the trunk of a car, it will be hard for him to describe what the police are doing just then to solve his kidnapping.

Also always an awkward statement: “Then, I died.”

How to write short stories – advantages of a first person narrator:

  • Directness – You can give the reader a first-hand perspective on the story.
  • Voice – If your narrator has a colorful or appealing way of talking, this can add flavor to the story-telling.
  • Intimacy – Your reader has the chance to get to know the narrator by listening to him.

How to write short stories – disadvantages of a first-person narrator:

  • Limited scope – Your narrator only knows what she knows. She doesn’t know what the other people around her are thinking. She doesn’t know what’s happening two miles away. That limits the information she can supply to the reader.
  • Limited voice – If your narrator is a seven-year-old, she can’t talk convincingly about politics. One thing that drives me crazy is when a first-person narrator who is supposed to be a child, or an uneducated farm worker or manual laborer suddenly launches into a poetic description of the weather using twenty-dollar words and references to Greek philosophers. I mean, come on.
  • Difficulty withholding information – If the narrator knows something that you don’t want the reader to know yet, she might have to be tricky or evasive. For example, let’s say your narrator killed his brother, but you want to keep the murderer’s identity a mystery until the end. How is the narrator going to inform your reader about the murder without this little detail coming up? 

    Note: some stories have narrators who mislead the readers or lie to them outright, known as unreliable narrators. This option can work well if it’s handled right, but you have to make sure the readers don’t feel cheated or manipulated by the story, even if they have been manipulated by the narrator. One strategy is to drop hints from the beginning that the narrator’s account might not be totally trustworthy.
  • Question of how the narrator came to tell the story. If your first-person narrator’s a ghost or a dog or someone who’s been buried alive in the desert, how did the story come to be written? I’ve noticed that some writers choose to ignore this logical problem. But it always bugs me when they do, and I’m probably not alone. So if you’re writing a story in the first person, please, please don’t have your character die in the last line.

How to write short stories in the third person

third-person narrator might be completely outside the action. A third-person narrator tells the story using the words, “He,” “she,” “it,” they,” etc. For example: “A bald man suddenly cut in front of the teenager boy, who looked like he was about to protest until the man pulled out a gun and pointed it at the blond teller.”

A third person narrator might even have a supernatural ability to be in more than one place at once, seeing everything that’s going on. Example: “Customers screamed and ducked to the floor, unaware that police cars were already surrounding the building. Across the city, Miriam paced back and forth across their small living room, wondering if Jack would possibly manage to pull off the robbery.” This kind of narrator with unlimited vision and knowledge is called an omniscient narrator. 

Third-person narrators may also have limited or complete access to one or more character’s thoughts. It’s common to locate the narrator partially inside a particular character’s head. Example: Jack felt faint as he hurried out of the bank, wondering if the police were already outside. What would happen to Miriam if he were arrested? The thought was unbearable; he tried to push it out of his mind.”

The effect here is almost as if this had been written in the first person, with Jack telling the story. But with a third-person narrator, I’m not limited by Jack’s voice. I might choose to limit my third-person narrator to Jack’s perspective. This would give readers a sense of connection to Jack, as if they are living his particular experience. Or I could move from one character’s mind to another. If you switch points of view in the same story, you have to be careful not to confuse or disorient your reader. You might decide to limit yourself to one viewpoint for each section of the story and use line breaks or another visual cue to let your reader know when you’re switching.

Tip: readers will often feel more intensely involved with a particular character if you limit the story to that person’s point of view.

How to write short stories in the second person

A story written in the second person treats the reader as the story’s character. The narrator talks all the time about “you.” “Nervously, you walked up to the bank counter, then reached for your gun.” Second-person narration is more unusual than the first or third person, and it’s harder to use without seeming contrived or defying the reader’s common sense (I know that I didn’t rob a bank!) Similarly unusual in fiction is first-person plural narration, where the narrator uses the word “We” to tell the story. Two wonderful novels written in the first-person plural are Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But, again, what these authors have accomplished is very difficult to pull off successfully.