Guest blog: Charlie N Holmberg

I’m pleased to announce a guest blog today from my good friend Charlie N Holmberg. She and I taught a class together last spring at the Storymakers 2018 conference called “The Anatomy of a Short Story“. She’s a great presenter and we had a lot of fun delivering the class together and with our friends from Deep Magic. We distilled the ingredients of a great short story, but these elements also work in fiction of any length. So I invited her to come by my blog and share with all of you what we shared with our class. Enjoy!

One Serving of Short Story, Please

Guest post by Charlie N. Holmberg


Today’s readers are so on-the-go, so busy, that many don’t have time to sit down to a whole novel. We need something that can pack the same punch while we commute to work or sit on the can, and so we turn to short stories. The higher demand for these short, punchy pieces of fiction has more and more writers turning to them for fun and income, but the recipe for writing one is not the same we follow to write a book. It’s like skipping lunch for an energy bar. It has the same ingredients—tension, great characters, and consistent pacing—but in smaller, stronger quantities.


Bite One: The Beginning


Make sure it tastes good, or the reader won’t finish! Great hooks are critical for short stories. A reader doesn’t have the time or the patience to “see if this gets good.” It needs to start good. The shorter the story, the quicker the hook. This first bite also needs to orient the reader so she knows exactly what flavor (genre and mood) she’s getting. The beginning of a short story should establish some form of sympathy for the protagonist, as well as reveal the central conflict of the tale.


Bite Two: The Middle


This is where our energy bar gets chunky. Fruit, chocolate, nuts—whatever it is, it’s an obstacle. Something that stops the conflict from being resolved and/or prevents the protagonist from achieving his goal. The reader wasn’t aware this quick meal was going to change, and now we’ve amped up tension and worry. This build of suspense is what’s going to make a reader take that last bite, so it’s critical!


Bite Three: The End


Ah, the bite that brings it all together. The flavor meshes with the rest of the bar, but there could be something startling in there. Something our consumer wasn’t expecting at all. Maybe, even, something they can’t put their finger on. One nice thing about short stories is that their creators have a little more bend with their endings as opposed to a novel. Maybe this whole time the reader wasn’t eating an energy bar, but a parfait! *gasp*


In other words, it’s a great thing to surprise the reader, so long as their quick meal fulfills the promises it made in bite one. And we want a strong aftertaste—also known as emotional resonance—that keeps the story in the reader’s mind even after he’s put it down.

To quote The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass:


“Why is it important to look at fiction writing through the lens of emotional experience? Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings. You may curate your characters’ experiences and put them on display, but the exhibit’s meaning is different in thousands of ways for thousands of different museum visitors, your readers.”


To end, here are some baking techniques for the creation of a short-story-energy-bar:


  • Use a single point of view
  • Eliminate unnecessary characters
  • Crunch your timeline
  • Condense worldbuilding
  • Utilize succinct sentences


I am an outliner, and I highly recommend outlines for short stories, as they keep the writer from meandering too far from the heart of the story. Being able to see your recipe from start to finish will also help you establish clarity in your prose and plan out plot twists, all of which will make for a more enjoyable story. And if the reader likes her meal, she’ll definitely come back for more.


Hungry yet?


Thanks Charlie! Her newest book (Smoke & Summons) is available now on Kindle through Amazon First Reads.


Charlie and I will both be teaching again (different classes this time) at Storymakers 2019. (May 9-11 in Provo, Utah).

Registration begins Jan 23rd!


Charlie N Holmberg




Jeff Wheeler

Jeff Wheeler

Wall Street Journal bestselling author of over forty epic fantasy novels.

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