Updated August 2023
When it comes to drama and intensity, are your short stories falling…short? Are readers reacting with “ho-hum” instead of “oh my!”? The good news is that it’s easy to give your short stories a boost of excitement—if you know the tricks.
How To Write A Dramatic And Intense Short Story
Leave something to the imagination. Want to drive someone crazy? Tease them by saying that you know a secret but won’t tell. In stories and in real life, it’s often what’s not said that keeps people intrigued. But don’t overdo it: Tease too much, and you’ll annoy instead of tempt.
Say more with less. Short stories that drag on with verbose sentences and excessive description tend to fall flat. By editing your short stories down to the essentials, you’ll create a greater sense of drama and benefit from a wider availability of short story markets when you’re ready to submit your work. Read More: 5 Ways To Shorten Your Short Stories.
Make readers work for it. Don’t give away the juiciest elements of your short story too easily: Make readers work a little to put the pieces together and see the big picture. Drop hints that allude to backstory, that foreshadow endings, that boost characterization. Engaging insinuations can make for strong storytelling.
Start close to the end. If the ending of your short story is the moment of greatest drama and suspense, start as close to that center of gravity as possible—then let it pull the rest of your story inevitably inward. You’ll create a story filled with intensity and a seemingly unstoppable procession of events.
Amp up your character’s desires. Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” And yet, even a glass of water can be wildly meaningful to a character who is shipwrecked, sick, or parched. So be sure every character wants something, even your secondary characters, and you’ll have a story that’s rich in drama.
Jazz up the conflict in dialogue. Filling your dialogue with tension doesn’t mean your characters need to speak as if they’re living in a soap opera. Subtle conflict can be just as powerful as conflict involving foul language and spittle. Use dialogue to showcase friction, misunderstanding, or thwarted desires, and your story will be full of energy.
Consider death. Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating with the Dead posits that all creative writing points toward death on some level. There’s no bigger antagonist than the Grim Reaper and no greater drama in life than death. How does death factor into your short story?
Don’t forget fate. When characters operate with a sense of destiny or fate—or when they look back and feel fated to have come to their present predicament—the story will have more innate gravity and importance (aka drama). Do your characters tempt fate?
A Thought On Process: Write Your Short Story In One Big Push
You may like to take your time when you write a short story, gazing off into space, getting up and coming back to your work later on, etc. But consider this: Try to write your story in one sitting. Or give yourself a time limit and try to write as much as you can as fast as you can. Taking this approach can give your story a spark of drama and lots of forward momentum.
Remember: Your first draft doesn’t have to be pretty. Let the fire that compels you to write burn as hot and fast as possible when you first sit down to draft your story. Afterward you can (and mostly likely will) take a slower and more scrutinizing approach as you make your revisions.