Short Story Soup

A Recipe for a Short Story

Jeffery E Doherty 


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Have you ever thought, “I wish I had the recipe for a great short story?”


Well, here it is.



            An original idea

            Believable characters

            A convincing background

            A good opening




   A satisfying ending


Take your original idea, one that you are excited about and mix in the desired number of believable characters.  Limit the number of characters to only those who are necessary so the flavours don’t get too complicated.  They have to act realistically – in character, even with make believe or fantasy creatures.  Set them into a convincing background or setting and stir in the readers’ interest with a good, sharp captivating opening.


Once you have done this, season the Short Story Soup with the conflict of your choice; a decision, ambition, dread, force of nature or confrontation with another character.  Add in a hint of suspense, and shape it into a suitable bowl for a satisfying ending.


Reading a short story should be like a fine dining experience.  The entrée or beginning should entice the reader’s appetite. The main course or middle should be filling and full of flavour and the desert or ending should be fresh and delectable.  There is a lot of preparation that goes into creating a great reading experience, though the reader rarely sees this.  The story should be professionally presented to look appealing and should also have an interesting flavor.


Now that may have been just a little flippant but that is really all there is to it.  I will explain the ingredient in a little more detail.


Original Idea.

Your original idea may come to you as a flash of inspiration, something that has happened to you, from a fragment of overheard conversation, something you saw on the television or heard on the radio.  It does not matter where your idea came from but it has to excite you.  If you are not tingling with eagerness at the idea, you can’t expect the reader to be.  Your idea should answer the main question you need to ask yourself before you start writing.


“What am I trying to say?”


If your plot or the events that occur throughout the story answer that question, you have successfully conveyed your original idea concept.


Believable Characters.

Characters or at least the central characters are the heart of your story.  Be sure that you choose the right central character.  Whose problem is the story dealing with?  Short stories should directly deal with the resolution of some conflict the main character is faced with.


The reader must be made to believe that he knows or at the very least cares about what happens to your character, and you need to accomplish this in the very early stages of the story.  One of the best ways to do this is to write from that character’s view-point throughout the entire story.  The reader should be seeing everything through that character’s eyes. (There are exceptions to this rule).


One other consideration is that you need your character to remain “in-character” for that person.  That is not to say, if your central character is mild and timid, they can’t stand up to the bully in the end.  You need, however to have your character develop and grow through the action of the story so when they do strike back, the reader is convinced that they should have.


A Convincing Background.

Your setting should be realistic.  Even for imaginary places, the setting needs to be believable.  Atmosphere plays a great part in short stories, you must take the reader on a journey into your created world and make them believe in it.  The hardest part is that you have a very limited palette and space to evoke the setting.


It is best to set your stories in a location that you now, or for imaginary lands, one that you can clearly picture in your minds eye.  If you can’t picture the setting how can you expect the reader to?


Use all of your senses.  Consider how things sound, smell, taste and feel as well as the way they look.


A Good Opening

There is more than likely a serious problem with your story if, by the end of the second page, you have not introduced your main character, stated or at least hinted at their dilemma, established a believable setting or backdrop to plonk him/her in and set up an intriguing situation to keep the reader wanting to turn the page.


The opening is the most important part of the story, even more important than the climax.  If you do not hook the reader in the opening, there is a very serious chance that the reader will give up and never reach that brilliant, spine chilling, twist of an ending that you have created.



A short story can not exist without conflict, just as a flame can not exist without oxygen.  Conflict is the oxygen of your short story and without conflict; your story will suffocate and die.


Your central character must be faced with some kind of problem from the outset.  No story will hold the readers attention unless there is some kind of early confrontation.  It is a sad thing but there is little drama in happiness and contentment.  That is why “good news” stories are so rare on the evening news.



Having set the scene; intriguing the reader with your central character in some kind of conflict, now you have to pace the story to keep their attention right up until the conclusion of the story.  You need to beguile them to keep turning the pages right to the very end.  This does not mean you need to have non stop, heart-pounding action from beginning to end.  In fact this is counter productive.  Your story needs to be like a roller coaster ride of escalating peaks and troughs with the odd turn thrown in for good measure.


Minds work visually. Sometimes it is helpful if you think of your story in scenes, like in a movie.  In a movie you don’t see everything.  You don’t see the hero park his car, get out and walk all the way from the street to the building, wait five minutes for the elevator and tap his foot to the elevator music all the way to the penthouse.  We don’t need to see this in movies, and stories are the same.  If a sentence or paragraph is not vitally important to the story, cut it out!


Take the original Star Wars movie for instance.  The opening scene is space…(the setting) then you see the rebel space ship fly over, lasers flaring out behind it…(straight into the conflict – it’s being chased by something). The ship looks big, then you see the Imperial Star Destroyer dwarfing the rebel ship, closing, swallowing it…(enhancing the conflict).  The movie then cuts to an interior shot of rebel soldiers taking up defensive positions near the airlock, ominous clangs and atmospheric noises…(raise the suspense through this trough in the action). Then we see Princess Leah trying to get a distress message out with the aid of the droid R2D2…(introducing the central character and evoking empathy for her because she is vulnerable against overwhelming odds).


If you can visualize your story in your mind, you have an excellent chance of being able to create an exciting visual experience for your readers.



Shape is to put it simply, the Beginning, Middle and Ending of the story.


Basically the Beginning introduces the character, poses a problem that requires solving and sets the scene where the action happens.


The Middle develops the action, builds or rounds out the characters and involves the reader in the action.

The Ending resolves the conflict in a believable and satisfactory manner.  Don’t fall into the trap of adding an anti-climax, explaining to the reader what the story was actually about.  Let it speak for itself.


A Satisfying Ending

The best endings are unexpected, yet somehow inevitable.  It is handy if you can leave the reader thinking “Ah… Of course!”  Predictable endings can leave the reader disappointed or feeling let down but unbelievable or contrived endings can leave then feeling cheated.  It is rare you will get them sampling any more of your stories after that.  Having your main character wake up to find the whole incident was a dream is a good example of a very weak and unsatisfying ending.


Basically, by the end of the story, the reader should feel that the central character has been through some ordeal and emerged from the situation having grown or at least being in a better position to face the future.


(C) Jeffery E Doherty 2007 


You may copy or use this article free of charge providing you do not change the contents and that you include the source and that Jeffery E Doherty holds the copyright on the document.