Writing Course: Elements of Short Story Writing (Part 2)

You might want to read Part 1 first.


A setting doesn’t need to specify a country, it can be confined to a town, house, room, car, park, tunnel or anywhere else. The setting needs to be there but doesn’t need to take on a role. However, some authors manage to make the setting as alive as their characters.

Setting, if used artistically, can help build your characters and strengthen the plot. Think about it, an untidy bedroom tells the reader a lot about your character.


An author must make decisions on how to structure a story. Where does the story start? Where does it end? How will the story be told?

Traditional story telling follows this pattern:

  • introduce a situation
  • the situation becomes complicated, there’s a confrontation
  • the complication/confrontation is resolved


Time Structure

Traditional stories move chronologically through the story from beginning to end. It is often necessary to remind the reader of facts that have already been revealed, or give them other information to help them understand what is happening. There are ways of arranging your story to help you do this.

Foreshadowing helps build suspense and prepare the reader for things that will happen later in the story. For example, if the loss of a pet is going to become an issue in the story it is better to show the relationship with the pet early in the story rather than when the loss occurs.

Flashback is when the character remembers something from their past that is important to the present. It is recommended that flashbacks be used sparingly in short stories under 3000 words in length.

Sequence of Events is a story told from beginning to end but this is not always affective. However, it’s the best way to ensure the reader does not become confused.

Details and Summary

When we tell stories in real life, we gloss over the uninteresting bits and dramatise the exciting bits. This is story manipulation and it’s something writers do when writing a story.

Pace is essential. Some parts of the story might race along while others are slower and more thoughtful. Pace is controlled by word choice, length of sentences and passage content. Pace helps make the story exciting.

Plot is easily recognised in some stories but quite obscure in others. Genre stories aim to keep the reader entertained, thrilled or terrified. The traditional plot is a series of events involving conflict, which lead to a climax and then a resolution. The best planned plot is built around a well developed character.

Some questions you might ask yourself once you have written the first draft are:

Whose story is it? Whom do you most care about? Why?
Is the character’s goal specific enough for the reader to care?
Are there obstacles stopping the character reaching the goal?
What is at stake? If nothing much then the reader will be bored.
Are the events linked? Is it clear the character is in the grip of fate or is the victim of someone or something?
Is the resolution obvious, predictable or inevitable? If so, have you got to this stage in a fresh way? Does the story encourage the reader to think?
Once you get to the climax, is the story quick to end?
Has every scene contributed to the whole and to the development of the character?


Narrative is the section of the story that is not dialogue as well as the whole of the story’s text in terms of elemental construction.

A skilful writer will inject pace into the narrative and will not include unessential details.

Never try to ‘draw the story out’ in the mistaken notion that it creates suspense. It has the opposite effect on the reader who wants the story to ‘move on’. It is also important not to rely too heavily on ‘telling’ a story as the reader will feel important facts are being glossed over and the story becomes shallow.

Elemental Construction refers to the narrative elements within a story that structure it in a particular way. This includes the choice and balanced arrangement of the following:

Location: Why here and not there?
Time: When did or will it happen?
Narrator: Who should tell the story?
Characters: How many, who are they, and how do they interact?
Length: How long should the story be?
Style: What word arrangement will be most effective?
Type of Narrative: Plot or character driven? Present or past tense? Circular or linear in its telling?


Writing is generally about two things — what you write and how you write.

Style is the name given to the manner in which a piece of writing is expressed and the quality of that expression.

Style is a complex topic but here are a few basic styles and their characteristics:

Clear, lucid – simplicity of word and sentence, orderly, coherent.

Strong, virile, vigorous, forceful – exotic or exalted nature, choice of less common words, elaborate sentences.

Graceful, elegant – careful selection of words, mastery of the meanings or words, felicitous expressions, artistic structure of sentences.

Vivacious, animated, racy – concrete and picturesque expressions, spirited flow of sentences, rapid progress in narration, judicious use of dialogue.

The classifications above are not rigid. There are many ways to describe style. For example, simple, curt, crisp, vivid, urbane, lofty, serious, conversational, rambling, strained, illogical, harmonious, consistent, bombastic, quaint, absurd, delicate, light, quirky, ornate, whimsical, sensory.

Poetic concepts are also used by some short story writers. They are devices to enhance style and include things like using words commencing with the same letter, which is called alliteration, or the resemblance of sound between two words, which is called assonance.

A Writer’s Style

Style is your literary fingerprint. It allows you to sound different to other writers. It can, if you manage to develop an individual style, become so well known that readers will not need you to include you name to know something has been written by you.

Editing Course: A Matter of Style

An author’s style can be many things. It can be flowery with long descriptions, which slows the pace down. It can be concise and sharp, which speeds the pace up. The author can use a formal, casual or technical tone. They can write in first, second or third person. And then there’s present or past tense. The voice can be personal or distant. The manuscript could be traditional, classic or modern. All these things contribute to the author’s style and will determine readership.

An editor must look at the author’s style and determine if it is right for the story and if it is right for the publishing house.

Organisations also have their own style. Some may prefer formal looking documents while others will go for casual documents. The style chosen is often the best choice for their needs and what they feel their readers will expect.

No matter what the business, style is a matter of preference.

It is important not to confuse “style” with “sense”. Some writers find it difficult to put words on paper. What they see in their mind makes sense, but the written version doesn’t. The substantive editor will find these troublesome spots and will help the author clarify them.

The copyeditor and proofreader may not have to make sense of something. However, if they find something that doesn’t make sense then they should mark it up by circling the text and placing a question mark (?) in the margin. This alerts the person reviewing the work after them that the text should be checked for sense.

House Style

As already mentioned, style is a matter of preference. It will change from publishing house to publishing house and organisation to organisation.

For example, some organisations spell “copyeditor” as one word, some hyphenate it as “copy-editor” and some spell it as two words, “copy editor”. Some dictionaries spell it as one word, some as two.

Style is not limited to spelling. Other aspects such as capitalisation, punctuation and layout must also be considered.

The internet has not helped. As people have access to more and more information, language has become blurred. The definitions between Australian, British and American English is confusing as they overlap and spell checkers insist on changing “s” to “z” when we know “s” is correct but find ourselves accepting “z” as an alternative.

When editing it is important to know and accept the organisation’s house style. If they prefer “z” to “s” then you do not attempt to change it. In fact, if you do change it the organisation could be offended! What you consider to be right is not right if it goes against the house style for the organisation. For this reason an editor/proofreader must know the preferred style for their clients and, more importantly, must have a system in place to keep track of all the styles.

Style Manuals

In Australia, there is a style manual called Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers which was prepared for use by the Government. This style manual has been adopted by many publishing houses and rejected by a number of others. It is not uncommon for some organisations to refer to the guide but they do not adopt all the styles. It is a house choice.

As a general tip, if the style guide clashes with the Macquarie Dictionary, an editor would follow the dictionary first as it is more widely accepted. However, if your client is a government department then you would follow the style guide first.

Style Guides

If the company or person you are working for has an in-house style then you must know what it is before you start editing their work.

Style Sheets

A style sheet is a list setting out the conventions to follow when editing a document or publication. They can change depending on the document and can be used in conjunction with a style guide. They may include preferred proofreading marks, a list of abbreviations and how they prefer them set out and a list of preferred word spellings.

Always ask a new client if they have a style sheet or word list available. If they don’t, start one of your own so that you know what they prefer the next time they give you something to edit.

It is also advisable to set up your own personal style guide for words and phrases you normally have trouble with.

Remember, when it comes to style, the client is always right.