5 Page Story Essay Starters
I’m working on a new short story. However, it’s been a while, and I’m feeling out of practice, like I have to figure out how to write a short story all over again.
To some extent, the process for writing a story is different each time. In the introduction to American Gods, Neil Gaiman quotes Gene Wolfe, who told him, “You never learn how to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you’re on.”
This is true for short stories as well.
You never learn how to write a short story. You only learn to write the story you’re on.
And yet, there are certain patterns to writing a short story, patterns I think everyone follows in their own haphazard way. I’ll call them steps, but they’re more like general paths that may or may not apply to your story. Still, it’s these patterns that I want to present to you in hopes it will make your own short story writing easier.
At the same time, I’ve been presenting these rough steps to myself as I work on my own story. Good news: It’s coming along!
Requirements to Writing a Short Story
But before we begin, let’s quickly discuss three things you’ll need to write your short story. If you don’t have these, you should think twice before you begin:
- Approximately ten to twenty hours of time. We all write at different paces, and depending on the length of your story (e.g. 200 word flash fiction vs. 5,000 word traditional short story) it might take five hours or fifty. But I’ve found that most short stories in the 3,000 to 5,000 word range take ten to twenty hours. Let me know how long yours take in the comments.
- An idea. This guide assumes you already have an idea for a story, even if it’s just a basic sliver of an idea. If you’re still looking for an idea though, check out our top 100 story ideas.
- Writing devices or utensils. Okay, it’s obvious you need something to write with to finish a short story, but I needed a third point! (By the way, I recommend Scrivener for writing short stories. Here’s my review.)
7 Steps to Write a Short Story
Ready to get writing? Here are seven steps on how to write a short story:
1. First, Write the Basic Story in One Sitting
It may seem silly to begin a list of steps on how to write a short story with a tip to “write the story,” but let me explain.
There are really two different kinds of stories. There is the art form, “short stories,” which comes complete with characters, plot, description, and style.
Then there’s the story, the funny, amusing, crazy story you’d tell a friend over a meal.
The story and the short story are not the same thing. The former is just a story, we tell them all the time. The latter is an art.
The first step to writing a short story is to write the former, the story, that version of the story that you would tell a friend.
And when you write it, be sure to write it in one sitting. Just tell the story. Don’t think about it too much, don’t go off to do more research, don’t take a break. Just get the story written down. Whenever I break this rule it takes me FOREVER to finish writing the story.
2. Next, Find Your Protagonist
After you’ve written the basic story, take a step back. You may feel extremely proud of your story or completely embarrassed. Ignore these feelings, as they bear no relation to how good or bad your story actually is or, more importantly, how good it will be.
The next step is to read through your story to find the protagonist.
Now, you may think you already know who your protagonist is, but depending on your story, this can actually be more tricky than you might think.
Your protagonist isn’t necessarily the narrator, nor is she necessarily the “good guy” in the story. Instead, the protagonist is the person who makes the decisions that drive the story forward.
Your protagonist centers the story, drives the plot, and his or her fate gives the story its meaning. As you move forward in the writing process, it’s important to choose the right protagonist.
Learn more about how to create a protagonist in a story.
3. Then, Write the Perfect First Line
Great first lines have the power to entice your reader enough that it would be unthinkable to set your story down. If you want to hook your reader, it starts with writing the perfect first line.
We’ve written a full post about how to write the perfect first line, but here are five quick tips:
- Like the opening of a film, invite us into the scene.
- Surprise us.
- Establish a voice.
- Be clear.
- See if you can tell the entirety of your story in a single sentence.
4. Break the Story Into a Scene List
Every story is composed of a set of scenes which take place in a specific place and time. A scene list keeps track of your scenes, helping you organize your story and add detail and life at each step.
Scene lists do two main things:
- Provide structure to your story
- Show you which parts need more work
You don’t have to follow your scene list exactly, but they definitely help you work through your story, especially if you’re writing over multiple sittings.
For more about how to create a scene list, check out our guide here.
5. Only Now Should You Research
If you’re like me, you want to start researching as soon as you get an idea so that you can pack as much detail into the story as possible. The problem is that if you research too soon, what you find will distort your story, causing it to potentially break under the weight of what you’ve learned.
Other writers never research, which can leave their story feeling fuzzy and underdeveloped.
By waiting until your story is well on its way, you can keep it from getting derailed by the research process, and by this point you’ll also be able to ask very specific questions about your story rather than following tangents wherever they take you.
So go fill in that scene list with some hard, cold facts!
It’s time to get some serious writing done.
Now that you know who your protagonist is, have the perfect first line, have created your scene list, and have done your research, it’s time to finally get this story written.
We all write differently. Some write fast in multiple drafts, others write slow and edit as they go. I’m not going to tell you how you should be writing. Whatever works for you, just get it done.
For a thorough process on editing your story, check out my guest post on Positive Writer.
I firmly believe publishing is the most important step to becoming a writer. That’s why I’ll tell you that once your story is finally written, it’s not finished until it’s published.
Now, you don’t necessarily need to get published by Glimmer Train or Narrative. Instead, what if you got feedback from a writing friend or even by our Becoming Writer community?
If you want your short story to be as good as it can be, get feedback—first from a small group of friends or other writers, and then from a larger community of readers.
The worst thing you can do for your story is to hide it away out of fear or even feigned indifference.
Now, go get your story out into the world.
The Only Short Story They’ll Ever Read
As you write your short story, I want you to ask yourself a question:
What if this is the only story someone ever reads written by you? How will you give it everything you have?
Annie Dillard said:
One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.
Don’t hold back. Don’t save ideas. Don’t write something you feel you should write.
Instead, write something that is wholly you, a story so bound to your soul that it would be impossible to mistake it for the work of another writer.
In other words, don’t write the best story. Write your best story.
And above all, have fun. 🙂
Do you like to write short stories? What is your favorite part? Let me know in the comments!
For today’s practice, let’s just take on step #1, write the basic story, the gist of the idea, the story as you’d tell it to a friend. Don’t think about it too much, and don’t worry about going into detail. You have six other steps to do that. Just write.
Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.
In a narrative essay you tell a story, often about a personal experience, but you also make a point. So, the purpose is not only to tell an entertaining tale but also show the reason for the story and the importance of the experience.
Narrative Essays: To Tell a Story
There are four types of essays:
- Exposition - gives factual information about various topics to the reader.
- Description - describes in colorful detail the characteristics and traits of a person, place, or thing.
- Argument - convinces the reader by demonstrating the truth or falsity of a topic.
- Narrative - tells a vivid story, usually from one person’s viewpoint.
A narrative essay uses all the story elements - a beginning, middle and ending, plot, characters, setting and climax - all coming together to complete the story.
Essential Elements of Narrative Essays
The focus of a narrative essay is the plot, which is told using enough details to build to a climax. Here's how:
- It is usually told chronologically.
- It has a purpose, which is usually stated in the opening sentence.
- It may use dialogue.
- It is written with sensory details and bright descriptions to involve the reader. All these details relate in some way to the main point the writer is making.
All of these elements need to seamlessly combine. A few examples of narrative essays follow. Narrative essays can be quite long, so here only the beginnings of essays are included:
Learning Can Be Scary
This excerpt about learning new things and new situations is an example of a personal narrative essay that describes learning to swim.
“Learning something new can be a scary experience. One of the hardest things I've ever had to do was learn how to swim. I was always afraid of the water, but I decided that swimming was an important skill that I should learn. I also thought it would be good exercise and help me to become physically stronger. What I didn't realize was that learning to swim would also make me a more confident person.
New situations always make me a bit nervous, and my first swimming lesson was no exception. After I changed into my bathing suit in the locker room, I stood timidly by the side of the pool waiting for the teacher and other students to show up. After a couple of minutes the teacher came over. She smiled and introduced herself, and two more students joined us. Although they were both older than me, they didn't seem to be embarrassed about not knowing how to swim. I began to feel more at ease.”
The Manager. The Leader.
The following excerpt is a narrative essay about a manager who was a great leader. Notice the intriguing first sentence that captures your attention right away.
“Jerry was the kind of guy you love to hate. He was always in a good mood and always had something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, 'If I were any better, I would be twins!' He was a unique manager because he had several waiters who had followed him around from restaurant to restaurant. The reason the waiters followed Jerry was because of his attitude. He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Jerry was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.”
This excerpt from The Climb also captures your attention right away by creating a sense of mystery. The reader announces that he or she has "this fear" and you want to read on to see what that fear is.
“I have this fear. It causes my legs to shake. I break out in a cold sweat. I start jabbering to anyone who is nearby. As thoughts of certain death run through my mind, the world appears a precious, treasured place. I imagine my own funeral, then shrink back at the implications of where my thoughts are taking me. My stomach feels strange. My palms are clammy. I am terrified of heights. Of course, it’s not really a fear of being in a high place. Rather, it is the view of a long way to fall, of rocks far below me and no firm wall between me and the edge. My sense of security is screamingly absent. There are no guardrails, flimsy though I picture them, or other safety devices. I can rely only on my own surefootedness—or lack thereof.”
The following narrative essay involves a parent reflecting on taking his kids to Disneyland for the first time.
“It was a hot, sunny day, when I finally took my kids to the Disneyland. My son Matthew and my daughter Audra endlessly asked me to show them the dreamland of many children, with Mickey Mouse and Snow White walking by and arousing a huge portion of emotions. Somehow these fairy-tale creatures can make children happy without such 'small' presents as $100 Lego or a Barbie house with six rooms and garden furniture. Therefore, I thought that Disneyland was a good invention for loving parents.”
The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo by Jeffrey Tayler
The following essay contains descriptive language that helps to paint a vivid picture for the reader of an interesting encounter.
“As I passed through the gates I heard a squeaky voice. A diminutive middle-aged man came out from behind the trees — the caretaker. He worked a toothbrush-sized stick around in his mouth, digging into the crevices between algae'd stubs of teeth. He was barefoot; he wore a blue batik shirt known as a buba, baggy purple trousers, and an embroidered skullcap. I asked him if he would show me around the shrine. Motioning me to follow, he spat out the results of his stick work and set off down the trail.”
This excerpt from “Playground Memory” has very good sensory details.
“Looking back on a childhood filled with events and memories, I find it rather difficult to pick on that leaves me with the fabled “warm and fuzzy feelings.” As the daughter of an Air Force Major, I had the pleasure of traveling across America in many moving trips. I have visited the monstrous trees of the Sequoia National Forest, stood on the edge of the Grande Canyon and have jumped on the beds at Caesar’s Palace in Lake Tahoe. However, I have discovered that when reflecting on my childhood, it is not the trips that come to mind, instead there are details from everyday doings; a deck of cards, a silver bank or an ice cream flavor. One memory that comes to mind belongs to a day of no particular importance. It was late in the fall in Merced, California on the playground of my old elementary school; an overcast day with the wind blowing strong. I stood on the blacktop, pulling my hoodie over my ears. The wind was causing miniature tornados; we called them “dirt devils”, to swarm around me.”
This excerpt from “Christmas Cookies” makes good use of descriptive language.
“Although I have grown up to be entirely inept at the art of cooking, as to make even the most wretched chef ridicule my sad baking attempts, my childhood would have indicated otherwise; I was always on the countertop next to my mother’s cooking bowl, adding and mixing ingredients that would doubtlessly create a delicious food. When I was younger, cooking came intrinsically with the holiday season, which made that time of year the prime occasion for me to unite with ounces and ounces of satin dark chocolate, various other messy and gooey ingredients, numerous cooking utensils, and the assistance of my mother to cook what would soon be an edible masterpiece. The most memorable of the holiday works of art were our Chocolate Crinkle Cookies, which my mother and I first made when I was about six and are now made annually.”
Tips on Writing a Narrative Essay
When writing a narrative essay, remember that you are sharing sensory and emotional details with the reader.
- Your words need to be vivid and colorful to help the reader feel the same feelings that you felt.
- Elements of the story need to support the point you are making and you need to remember to make reference to that point in the first sentence.
- You should make use of conflict and sequence like in any story.
- You may use flashbacks and flash forwards to help the story build to a climax.
- It is usually written in the first person, but third person may also be used.
Remember, a well-written narrative essay tells a story and also makes a point.