I am a “second-rate” short story writer.
Why would I say that? “Exhibit A” shows the answer. It is a certificate documenting my second-place finish in the short story writing contest of the East Texas Christian Writer’s Conference. I have never won a short story competition but have finished in second place.
I have written and even sold short stories. Over the years, I have entered short story contests. I am still seeking that elusive “first place” in a short story contest.
In my quest to win a contest, I have become a student of the short story form. Here is what I call “One Great Way to Write a Short Story.” It begins with planning.
PLANNING IS ESSENTIAL
I would never start writing a short story without at least a rough outline to tell me where I am going. I recommend jotting down the answers to a few questions. The answers provide the framework for where the story is going.
The first step in writing a short story is a planning exercise. Plan your short story in advance by answering questions in three areas:
The subject – Who is the main character? What is the problem?
The story –What is the character’s motivation to solve the problem? What actions occur to address the problem?
The resolution – What are results of the character’s acts to resolve the problem? What change does the character undertake because of that action?
HOW I DO IT – STEP BY STEP
1. The Character
I decide about whom I am going to write. You have one central character in the story. It might a soldier returning home. It could be an astronaut. It might be about a businessperson. The reader will identify with that person.
2. The Problem
What is it that the main character struggles with that he or she may not have an instant need to resolve? It is a problem the character has had for a while but has not had an immediate need to solve. An example would be if I were writing about a businesswoman who obtained an executive position using a falsified resume. She may not have an immediate need to deal with the issue.
3. The Motivation
Why does the main character decide to solve the problem? I’ll use the businesswoman with the falsified resume as an example.
It could be that she has accepted a position on the board of directors for a prominent community organization like the United Way. The local media decides to do a feature story on her background. In this case, I need to put in the appropriate backstory – her claiming to have a prestigious Ivy League graduate degree when she had dropped out of college before obtaining her undergraduate degree. Now she is in a position that requires an accredited four-year college degree as well as MBA. She realizes she is about to be found out with embarrassment to herself, her employer, and maybe she could even have to resign.
4. The Action
What does the main character do to solve the problem? What does she do to correct the situation? Maybe she confesses to her company’s president, or she may try to resign quietly from the board of directors for a prominent community organization for personal reasons trying to avoid being exposed and hoping it will just go away.
5. The Result
What happens because of the character’s attempt to solve the problem? Maybe she tells the president and he dismisses her. The employer takes legal action against her demanding restitution from her for fraudulently obtained wages. He takes her to court and wins. She is required to make restitution of tens of thousands of dollars and has her reputation destroyed.
6. The Change
Perhaps at this point, the character struggles financially, loses her large home and country club lifestyle. Maybe her friends desert her. She is unable to get a job because of her lying on the resume. She could go back to school and complete the education she had claimed. Maybe she becomes an advocate for ethical business practices.
Remember the main character needs a good reason for what they are doing. They need to act consistently to who they are. You need to set up every incident in the story. If the character obtained a high position using a falsified resume, make sure you set this up by doing a flashback or remembrance where she is sitting typing the resume and then clicks submit thinking no one ever checks a resume. If you bring it up, you must conclude it. This refers to the conflict in the story. If you have any conflict, you need to resolve it before ending the story.
Once you have planned your short story, you will be able to write it. My guess is by following these simple principles you too can write a short story. Moreover, just maybe it will be “second-rate” or even better.
This article original appeared in “Author Culture,” September 17, 2014
Enjoy the short story “The Cup.” The idea for it came from a writing prompt in my writer’s group. In ten-minutes I wrote the thumb nail first draft.
by Jimmie Aaron Kepler
“It’s too hot! Get the coffee out of me now before it scalds me to death! Get it out!”
At first I looked around the room trying to find where the yelling was coming from. As I did a visual sweep of the area, I noticed the patrons staring in my direction. The voice originated from the lone ceramic cup on my table. I stared at it.
“It’s too hot. Oh, it’s too hot. I can’t take it anymore!” screamed the cup once more. “Get the coffee out of me now before it scalds me to death! Get it out! Please, hurry, hurry.”
Can’t be. My coffee cup is crying out in pain. Must be a trick, yes a trick.
My graying hair stood on edge. I had felt a strange current moving through the room just as the cries began. It slammed hard into me sending an electric charge through my body. It knocked me into my chair.
“Is there a problem?” asked John craning his neck to look around the counter. He was the manager on duty. His gaze had both a concern and what the heck are you doing tone.
“The cup I bought from YOU is screaming,” I said in a loud voice.
As if on cue the cup yelled, “It’s too hot. I can’t take it anymore. Get the coffee out of me now before it scalds me to death! Get it out!”
The cup’s wailing was so thunderous that it drowned my voice as its misery tones echoed off the walls of the coffee shop.
I had a barista empty the coffee from my cup. The cries stopped. I had it refilled. The lamentation returned.
There was no mistake. The howling originated from the ceramic cup with the Starbuck’s logo on its side. The cup seemed sensitive to hot beverages; when filled with hot coffee the blood curdling screams returned.
Pour out the hot liquid and the noise stopped but then drops of moisture formed and flowed down the side of the cup like tears.
“No,” I will not refund your money,” John said when I tried to return it. “I can’t resell used coffee cups. The health department would shut me down. If the health department shut me down where would you buy your coffee?”
“But it’s haunted,” I pleaded.
“It must be some sort of a voice throwing kind of trick on your part,” he said. “If you don’t cut it out I will have to ask you to leave. I do reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
Everyone continued staring at me and the cup.
“But, you sold me the cup. Something is wrong with it.”
I decided to get the cup examined. But before taking it to a professional, I gave it a cursory inspection.
I looked in the cup. There was nothing inside but the glaze paint and a few drops of cold coffee.
I looked at the handle of the cup. I was just a handle. There were no tiny speakers or sensors.
Turning the cup upside down, I carefully scrutinized its base. Again I found zilch.
“Maybe there is a heat sensitive computer chip embedded in the bottom of the cup?” suggested a recently hired barista. He was an electrical engineering student at the university.
“It may have a second circuit with a voice recording track where it yells when the liquid is of a particular temperature,” he added.
“Brilliant!” I said. Of course that had to be it. It was the only theory or comment I heard that made sense.
“We can take it to the lab at the university. I have a teacher that has access to the x-ray machine …” he said.
“Yes,” I interrupted.
“He can find even the smallest microchip.”
So we set up an appointment with Dr.Wolfgang Reinhold and his x-ray machine. He was skeptical that the cup screamed when hot liquid was placed in it. The professor initially was convinced it was some cheap parlor type trick until he held my cup in his hand, visually examined it, filled it with hot coffee, and nearly dropped it as it began screaming, “Get the coffee out of me now before it scalds me to death! Get it out!”
“Can’t be; this can’t be happening,” he said.
The barista and I nodded in agreement. We both were still as confused as the engineering professor.
“There has to be a scientific explanation,” said Dr. Reinhold.
The doubt in his voice was not reassuring.
“That’s why we want to get the x-ray,” said the barista who was studying engineering.
“Yes, the x-ray. I will prove scientifically that this is someone’s cheap trick, said Dr. Reinhold.
He just kept looking at the monitor and the nothingness it revealed.
“Let me check the calibration,” he said. “There must be something wrong with the x-ray machine.”
He fiddled with some buttons, knobs, and checked settings on the computer.
“Well?” I asked.
“I think you need Dr. Spurgeon Smith,” said an exasperated Dr. Reinhold.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“He’s a religion teacher,” said the barista.
“Religion?” I questioned.
“The cup must be possessed of Satan. You need an exorcism to remove the demons,” said Dr. Reinhold.
“What the devil?” I said.
“No, not what the devil, but where is the devil or demon? And the where is he question’s answer is he is living in that cup!” Now get it out of here. It must be possessed!” said Dr. Reinhold as he pointed to the door.
I called making an appointment with Dr. Spurgeon Smith. It was several days before he could see me and my cup. In the mean time, I made the mistake of washing the cup.
The police were called by my neighbors as the screams from the cup escaped my dishwasher and penetrated the apartment walls.
The police were not amused.
“What are you trying to pull?” said the older sergeant.
“I am not trying to pull anything,” I assured him.
“It is coming from your dishwasher,” said the younger patrolman. His hand was visibly shaking as he pointed to the appliance. “I think you have someone in there.”
“This isn’t funny,” said the sergeant. “He opened the dishwasher door in mid wash cycle.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I shouted. “You are getting soap and water all over my kitchen floor.”
“You can clean it up,” he snapped back at me.
“The screams stopped,” said the younger officer.
“Of course it quit. When you opened the door it stopped the wash cycle,” I said.
Well for the next ten minutes I explained about the cup to the policeman.
Two days later when I finally got out of the mental unit at the hospital I made my way back home, picked up the cup and made my way to the appointment with Dr. Spurgeon Smith.
The reverend doctor had no explanation. He filled it with holy water, of both the cold and hot variety. The cold holy water had no effect.
When the hot holy water was poured in the cup, there was an immediate response.
“It’s too hot,” screeched the cup. “Get the hot water out of me now before it scalds me to death! Get it out!”
I thought of throwing the cup away or smashing it. Each time I began to smash it with my hammer the drops of moisture would form on the side of the cup like tears. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. What if it were somehow … alive? I couldn’t destroy a living thing.
I was being psychotic, even obsessed by the cup. I feared how the other cups would behave if I destroyed my Starbucks’ cup.
Over time, there would be a large puddle of water under and around the cup if I left it alone. Apparently the droplets of moisture would form on the cup’s side and slowly trickle down like tears when it was left unaccompanied, so I decided I couldn’t leave the cup by itself.
The cup started going with me to work. A well meaning co-worker filled it with coffee. Immediately throughout the office was heard “It’s too hot,” screeched the cup. “Get the coffee out of me now before it scalds me to death! Get it out!”
The cries faded rather quickly as security escorted me and my cup from the building. I was told my final check would be in the mail.
The cup and I got a job with a travelling carnival. People would pay a small amount to see me pour hot coffee into it and then hear the screams. Three local television stations and two national cable news channels did a story on my cup.
Everyone said it had to be a trick, a fraud, fake, but no one could figure-out how the cup screamed and cried. The cup and I were making enough money, but we didn’t have any extra.
Then it happened. Someone kidnapped my cup. I even received a ransom request. The wanted me to pay them $100,000.00 to have the cup returned.
As I read the note, I started laughing. I chuckled for five minutes. Tears of joy began streaming down my cheeks.
I again felt an electric charge throughout my body. This time I could feel it exiting and moving from my room. I relaxed for the first time since the cup entered my life. I was free. Free. Free!
For the first time in months, my now totally gray hair wasn’t standing on edge.
Many years later I was traveling out west. One evening in my hotel room the local television station carried a news story about a small carnival that was in the city. They had a news story about a screaming cup.
I quickly checked out of my hotel room, got into my car and sped far away as fast as I could.
In the distance, I thought I heard a faint, “It’s too hot. Get the coffee out of me now before it scalds me to death! Get it out!”
And somewhere out west the cup shed a tear.
I’m an entrepreneurial indie author. I published the short story on Amazon. It’s highest ranking was on August 1, 2016.
Overall it has an Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,546.
#23 in Kindle Store > Kindle Short Reads > 30 minutes (12-21 pages) > Literature & Fiction
#27 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Horror > Short Stories
It is also ranked as high as # 36 in the UK and # 60 in Germany Amazon markets.
Jimmie Aaron Kepler is a novelist, poet, book reviewer, and award-winning short story writer. His work has appeared in over twenty venues, including Bewildering Stories and Beyond Imagination. When not writing each morning at his favorite coffee house, he supports his writing, reading, and book reviewing habit working as an IT application support engineer. He is a former Captain in the US Army. He holds BA, MA, MRE and EdD degrees. His blog Kepler’s Book Reviews was named a 100 best blogs for history buffs. He is the author of seven books and collections available on Amazon. You can visit him at http://www.jimmiekepler.com.