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I’m writing a novel. I am planning the plot in detail and doing worldbuilding. In the meantime, I would like to write some short stories to practice writing itself (style, pacing, emotion, descriptions…). However, when I start a short story a find myself planning the plots, characters etc., so I end up with the same problem. There are plenty of prompts for writing out there, but they lead to the same problem.

Is it possible to find a place with short stories ready to be told, so that I can focus on telling the story instead of inventing or finding it?. They don’t need to be original at all, I just look for some exercises. For example, imagine Little Red Riding Hood:

  • Little girl lives in the forest with Mum
  • Grandma is sick at the other side of the forest
  • Mum tells her to visit Grandma and warns her not to speak to strangers
  • Little girls finds the Wolf and chats with him
  • Etc.
  • They put stones in the belly of the Wolf and throw him into the river.
  • Happy ending.

Fairy tales are an option and I might try, but I don’t feel very compelled by them.

5 Answers 5

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One answer to question is to pick up the Cliff notes for the short stories of authors that you enjoy reading, but I don't really think that will help to you.

It will provide you with a condensed outline of successful short stories, that you can use as fodder to practice writing. But, since the plots and characters don't come from your own imagination, I anticipate that you will become more frustrated using this method than I assume you are currently experiencing.

You might consider the scenes you've outlined for your novel as vehicles for practicing the craft of writing. The upside of this approach is that it lets your imagination draw on your understanding of your characters and the genre of your story. You'd wouldn't be trying to write the actual scenes, you would use the scaffolding to practice writing descriptive settings or dialogue. You don't care if it ends up in your story, they'd be scratch pads to build your skills and your understanding of your characters.

If you really want ideas to practice writing skills without using your own outlines, I can recommend Brian Kiteley's '3 A.M. Epiphany' and '4 A.M. Breakthrough' since the exercises are very focused and don't require any plotting. They are broken down by chapters focusing on specific elements of craft. It was doing one of these exercises on synesthesia that got me hooked on learning to write fiction. They are very good.

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Before the lockdown when I could attend science fiction conventions, there was a panel put on by a famous author at many conventions. It had a title something like 100 Ideas In an Hour. (I may have the number wrong.) Coming up with ideas for stories is not the problem. You just mumble words until something interesting comes out, and you write it down. He would stand at the front of the room with a flip chart and write them down. If he slowed down then people in the audience would shout out some. Lot of fun.

The list you provided is sometimes called "beats." It is a way many people start outlining a story. The idea is, there is a drum beating over the background of your story. The beats are the identifiable events. Or sometimes they are descriptions of still scenes. Or even descriptions of philosophical notions.

It's not hard to sit down and start writing beats. You just did it. You start with some sort of idea of the overall story. Then you write the bits you know and try to put them in the order they belong.

If you find you know the details of one of the beats as you go along, you can stop and type that in right at the beat. You have the details and dialog already? Save them. Write them down. Get to the end of the beat and run out?

Go on to the next beat and write it down.

You can also use beats to save partial ideas when the entire story isn't worked out yet. Maybe you have some great scene with the hero surrounded by defeated enemies just as the sun rises and they all turn back into teddy bears. How'd he get there? Start writing beats back from that.

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What is the secret sauce in Little Red Riding Hood?

Where's the trick?

Basically, the Wolf learns a secret from Little Red Riding Hood, then runs off and tries to exploit it. Why? Because LRRH did not take her mother's instructions seriously; about not talking to strangers. And she learns her lesson, with the help of a woodsman.

So copy that. From any story, pick a story you have read, and analyze it. What exactly was it trying to teach us?

The first Star Wars movie we see, with the rise of Luke Skywalker, is about faith. Luke is a child with no faith. At the end of the movie, when all is about to be lost, Luke finds his faith, trusts The Force, explodes the Death Star and wins the day. (Just the battle, not the war -- Darth Vader goes spinning off into space.)

The whole movie is about trusting your Faith in the magic of the Force, if you don't believe in it, you will fail. When Luke says "I'll try," Yoda replies, "Do or do not, there is no 'try'."

Then Luke tries, and fails. (He had to, the finale is when he finally succeeds.) That is the secret of the story.

So you can take that, and follow the same beats (critical moments) as Star Wars, but change the setting. Your story is about Faith. But not exactly in Magic. Say your protagonist is starting a business, or getting a college degree, or is anybody else with a problem, thrust into a new situation by disaster or crime, forced to adulthood immediately, etc. Like Luke.

You can do this with short stories like fairy tales as well, of course, or even short stories like Stephen King puts in collections.

Rather than fairy tales, I would take any current commercial success, figure out the secret sauce of the story, and then try to put new meat on the bones.

This is good practice, and will help you learn to read great stories analytically. Many will advise you to read good authors, but they don't tell you how to read.

Specifically, you want to read without getting immersed in the story and your imagination. If you get immersed, you are not looking at technique, how the author describes a scene succinctly, why the author chooses some words or sentence structures, the ratio of dialogue to description and how they are interspersed. And the larger elements, like what was left out, how they "break" or transition from one scene to another, how they end scenes. And what is the change wrought by a scene? Does it start on a down beat, or an up beat? Does it end on a down beat, or an up beat? What new information was revealed? What questions were resolved? Which characters were most affected by this scene; whose courses were changed?

This is the kind of stuff you need to know to pull the skeleton out of the story.

And reading as an analyst, instead of reading for entertainment, is also how you can learn how modern best-selling writers format their dialogue, pack it with information and emotion, intersperse it with action and narrative and description, and so on.

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My suggestion for practicing writing with short stories is to try Flash Fiction Stories, which are stories that are simple and have little text but many meanings. You don't need many characters and descriptions, you don't need many places or settings, just a fairly simple story that hides meaning. Like "baby shoes, never worn", which is a prime example of Flash Fiction as it is literally four words but can mean anything. Writing flash fiction should not have too much thought into it and should not take too long, it is something simple to do when writing on the side of a bigger work.

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  • May be worth adding that "flash fiction" is generally defined as being 1,000 words or fewer.
    – F1Krazy
    Jun 17, 2023 at 21:34
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Forget originality. Try taking a novel you are familiar with and rewriting it as a short story. That will give you practice in recognising both the essential details of a novel and its ignorable subplots.

When it comes time to write your own novel, you can use this experience to help you construct the main plot and understand how to integrate its subplots.

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