If you want to write a good (and publishable) short story, start by writing a balanced one. There are five elements of storytelling, and if you focus on one element too much your story can get off-kilter and topple.

Photo by Matthias Rhomberg

These five elements are the building blocks of story, and they are:

1. Action. What are your characters doing?

2. Dialogue. What are they saying?

3. Description. What are they see­ing, hear­ing, touch­ing, tast­ing, and smelling?

4. Inner Monologue. What are they thinking?

5. Exposition / Narrative. What other infor­ma­tion does the nar­ra­tor (IE you) want us to know?

I've added emotion in the past, but that can be lumped into inner monologue. Other people add summary, but that can be part of exposition.

Every writer focuses on some of these elements more than others. Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy are heavy on the action, dialogue, and description side. They give almost no inner monologue. Other writers like Dickens and George Elliott use more narrative and inner monologue.

Let's look at some examples:

1. Action

Tommy drove to the park. He walked on the grass barefoot and looked up when he passed under the oak trees. After walking for a little while, he sat against one of the oaks, closed his eyes and fell asleep.

Notice all the action verbs: drove, walked, passed, walking, sat, closed, fell.

2. Dialogue

He dreamt of his last conversation with Suzy.

“I'll never leave you,” he said.

“You don't have to. I'll be gone in the morning.”

“I'll follow you.”

“You can. I'll just leave again, though.”

“I'll follow forever if I have to.”

“If you want to torture yourself, be my guest.”

In dialogue, make sure you only use the verb said (as in he said / she said). It can be tempting to mix it up with verbs like exclaimed, shouted, whispered, added, countered, and so on. However, readers tend to ignore speaker tags, and varying them is distracting and doesn't add to the dialogue.

3. Description

Tommy woke to feel of a warm breeze on his cheeks and bare arms. The oak leaves struck into each other in the wind and sounded like an audience of elves applauding. He smelled the grass and the breeze tasted of lemon and iron.

Description is a great way to pace your story. If you pepper your story with description, you won't have to worry too much about your story moving too quickly for the reader. Don't use too much at one time though or your reader will get bored.

4. Inner Monologue

He thought of her and wondered where she was. He wondered if she was in trouble or with another man. He should follow her. He would get up in just a second. He just needed to sit there for a second more and breathe in the breeze and taste the air. Then he would go.

Inner monologue is the thing that sets apart writing from most other art forms. In film or theater, the audience rarely has access to the minds of the characters. Maybe that's why the “reality television” style has become so popular on shows like The Office and Modern Family.

However, if you overuse inner monologue your story will sound like a diary. It's also easy to lose the plot of the story if you use too much, and it can become too much telling and not enough showing.

5. Exposition / Narrative

But he didn't go, and Tommy never saw Suzy again, though he thought of her often and with regret. He stayed in Texas and fell in love with other women, none of which he married or even talked to much. He lived alone and died in the house they both lived in all those years ago.

Exposition is when the narrator takes over the story, often through some kind of summary or information dumping. It's like a voice over in a movie.

Exposition is necessary to tell almost all stories. However, it's an example of telling, and you want to show as much as possible. Use it sparingly.

Which storytelling element do you like using the most? 


Write a story about Tommy using all the elements above. After each sentence, write the storytelling element you used.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, post your practice in the comments section.

And if you post, please comment on a few other pieces to let the writer know how they did.


Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

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