Short Story Cheat Sheets

There might still be one or two people in the universe who don’t know that I started my fiction writing in English (in Portuguese I’d had a couple of shorts and a book of poems published) by sitting down and writing a 40000 word thing I thought was a novel.  (It will be a series of novels, someday.)  From that I scaled up to 80k words, 90k words and 650k words (which is actually probably salvageable, when I break it up and fix it a little, as a Mediterranean-based heroic fantasy.)

As people who follow my blog know, I write long naturally, and it takes me double the time to write lean, which is why I don’t do it.  I allot an hour a day for the blog, and if I had to stop to proof/fix/make shorter, I’d never be done.  I know, I had a job doing a non fiction article a week and it ate half the week, because editor wanted me at 500 to 700 words.

Anyway, after the 650k word thing, I got hold of a book that told me to break into science fiction you had to do short stories.  Note that this was not only not true, but REALLY not true.  Lots of people who came in at that time only wrote shorts after they had written novels and many of them not even then.  Once, at World Fantasy, in a late night bar chat, at which all participants were a little boozy, we calculated the “slots” available per novel and the slots available per short story every year, and realized your chance of breaking in (as a pro at least) in novels was about ten times as good as for novels. Now my husband doesn’t drink and had gone to bed, but two of the guys in the group had physics/math jobs and the calculations seemed right to me.

Only I didn’t know that, and this was the times before the internet, and I was young and broke and depended on the writing books and magazines I could get from the library.  I didn’t know anyone who was published.  I only knew a couple of people trying.

So I thought I had to write short stories.  And then I realized my 2k word things weren’t so much short stories as outlines for novels.

Thus started a process of learning to write short stories, which involved taking other stories apart, identifying their parts, then writing “Cheat sheets.”

I’ve promised these sheets to any number of people, but I’d lost them.  And then while opening one of the last boxes for the office, I found a folder with cheat cheats and story ideas.

The story ideas are lame, since at the time I was aiming for “come to realize” stories, but I’ll copy one of them anyway, and also try to do a more “actiony” one to give you an idea of what can be done with the frame work.

So, why would you want to write a short story?  Well, I assume you have your reasons.  I find that collections sell about half as much as novels, and before that I can use the shorts as giveaways.  Also, being on an anthology with someone better known than you really can help.  BUT that’s up to you.  I don’t care what your reasons are, nor who you are.  I figured out this neat way to do a thing, and I’m going to share it.  It’s called pay it forward and it’s part of what writers do.  I expect you’ll do it too in turn.

First, the Cheat Cheat, suitable for copy-pasta-ing onto your file and printing out to fill by hand, or type it in or whatever.


1 Setting (this includes time and future history if needed) It sets the stage for the conflict.

2. Story Characters

3- Problem or goal

4 –  Complications

5 – Turning point/black moment (often also called mirror moment, when your character realizes he’s been pursuing the wrong goal or the right goal in entirely the wrong way.)

6- Resolution

So, because I’m lazy I’m going to copy two short story plans I made long ago, but which I never “liked” well enough to write as stories, though at least one of them might eventually get written in some form.  BTW this notebook is 28 years old, which shows you how long a particular world has been with me.

So, two examples:

Title – Cain

1 – Setting

Near future.  Doctors are able to or think they’re able to identify the gene combination for aggression and psychopathy which, they claim, will create a violent criminal.

2 – Story Characters

Daphne, Melton, a young historian, pregnant after many years of trying.  her husband died in an accident early in her pregnancy.

Problem or goal:

Daphne wants to have her baby.

4 – Complications

The doctors tell her she’s carrying a baby who will become a murderer and they recommend an abortion.  While Daphne is worrying about it, Daphne tries to call her mother in law.  She knows there’s nothing like that in her family so, if it’s hereditary and inescapable, it must be in her late husband’s family.  Her mother in law is away/unavailable.

On the way home Daphne is assaulted by a young mugger and starts miscarrying.  She’s rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.

5 – Turning point/black moment

She thinks if her child is going to be like that, it would be better if she loses him.

6- Climax

At the hospital she starts telling one of the nurses to let her miscarry, but in talking to the woman, she learns that assaults on strangers are actually on the rise, though this program of culling out those with aggression traits has been in place for twenty years.  This is not what the news report, but people in the hospital confirm it.

She realizes that her husband might very well have had that gene, too.  It’s what you do with it, not what you’re born with.  She changes her mind and demands that her pregnancy be stabilized.  In the future, they’ll need sheepdogs, as well as wolves.

7 – Conclusion

Her mother in law calls and they talk about the baby and how her husband always defended anyone in need.  And her son will be just like him.


Crisis Averted

1- Setting – Twenty second century.  After the first Seacity War.  Biology has progressed to the point it’s possible to tailor a drug to addict a specific person by targeting the exact make up of his/her DNA.  One dosage is enough to get addicted.  Once you’re addicted it become vital to your survival and you’ll do anything for it.

2- Characters

Max Keeva – Leader of Olympus Seacity

Deran Maurice – Leader of Katmandoo Seacity

3 – In the wake of the war with the continental states, the seacities are parsing out continental territories and these two have been involved in a dispute.

Maurice slips Keeva a tailor drug in his drink — this is accomplished, of course, via a mole in his mansion — and refuses to give the formula for it, unless Keeva gives up the disputed territories.

4- Keeva’s attempts to have his scientists figure out what the drug would be from his DNA fail, as do his attempts to do without it.  His medical exam reveals that in time addiction to the substance will destroy his brain.

He’s not sure who slipped him the drug, and he knows for sure that Maurice will now be on the watch for any new personnel in his Seacity. And he doesn’t trust his own counselors, who know in what state he is, not to be turned.

There’s only one thing for it.  He is an enhanced person, capable of physical feats his servants and followers can’t even dream of.  Impaired and shaky by his need for the drug, he decides he must do this himself.

He manages to get hold of Maurice’s DNA and has his scientists synthetize a drug that will affect Maurice the same way.

Then he goes to Katmandoo Seacity.

5. Turning point, black moment

It seems impossible, and his first attempts at penetrating the Seacity fail, because he’s not good at climbing while shaking like a leaf.  All seems lost.  But he perseveres, even though by then he’s hurt from a fall off a cliff.

And he manages to slip the drug into Maurice’s food.

6. Climax

Since both of them are compromised, they sign a treaty on territory and exchange the formulas.  Keeva decides to tighten up his security.  And Maurice must meet with a fatal accident asap.


Filed under Uncategorized

66 responses to “Short Story Cheat Sheets

  1. Martin L. Shoemaker

    I must be more of a pantser than I realized. Even this feels like too much outline to me. I might have these pieces in my head (or some of them), but I can’t imagine sitting down and writing them out. As soon as I tried, I would write the story instead.

    • Oh, Martin, I no longer outline them, which is why I’d lost these. At some point I stopped needing the crutch!

    • B. Durbin

      I can’t stand outlining on paper. This is because one of my skills is in writing instructional manuals or handbooks, so the moment I go to outlines my brain shifts into pedantic instructional mode. Which is useful, but not for fiction.

      I also have years of improv training. Which is useful when something happens that you weren’t expecting to write.

    • I only do outlines to try and get an idea of how big the story is going to be. It helps me get the size I want, because I know about when things should take place.
      But I usually don’t write the outline down until I’m about a fifth of the way into the story.

  2. Christopher M. Chupik

    I’m thinking I need plotting crutches. I’m better than I used to be, but plotting is often my biggest weakness.

  3. Reality Observer

    Clipped. Saved.

  4. I’d like to make an argument in favor of short stories: they hook young ADD fans. I was one of those. I’d often grab a book of short stories, flip to the table of contents, and read the shortest stories first.

    • As someone who prefers short stories, the sad thing is they just don’t sell well outside of anthologies. They become for-the-love-of-it efforts, or as marketing tie-ins for novels.

      • They do sell in collections. And at the rate I’m going, I can put out a collection a year. (whee.)

        • Yay…as one of the few readers anymore who seem to prefer short stories between a hectic life and the attention span of a cat with ADD I’m glad to hear it.

          I’m hoping indie, over time, makes it easier for writers to collect their shorts and start making money often enough to:

          1. Encourage more authors to do collections.
          2. Create a path for some authors to specialize in shorts again.

    • For those who like shorts, would a collection of related (by character and/or by world) shorts be of interest? I’ve got a world I’m buidling and several of the stories there in are more inclined towards shorts than novels so I’m curious.

      • The ONLY way to fail is to not publish them.

        • William Underhill

          Very, very easy to fail that way, though. I’ve got some abortive efforts on the ol’ HD, but I’ve never summoned up the courage to submit anything. It doesn’t help that 99% of what I’ve written so far is fanfic and hence unpublishable anyway. I sometimes wonder if I write fanfic because I *know* I can’t submit them and therefore don’t have to endure scrutiny.

          I did have fun with the ST/SW cross-over one, at least until I ran into plotblock. I got SO tired of crosovers where the Enterprise beats the shit out of an Imperial Star Destroyer without even breaking a sweat – and on home turf, to boot. So I flung Voyager into the post-RotJ remnants of the Galctic Empire and within the first thousand words had the saucer section captured and the engineering section trying to make a getaway with a failed warp drive…

          • Sara the Red

            That sounds intriguing…

            I did a Star Wars/Sherlock Holmes crossover, but then, I have a Thing for apparently-impossible crossovers and trying to make them work. 😉

            • William Underhill, Barbarian 1st Class

              Where I ran out of steam / into plotwall was with B’elanna and Seven captured by slavers when they beamed down from the truncated engineering portion (under Chakotay’s command), Han & Chewie picked up and brought onboard the same truncated section, which then warps out of orbit, leaving the EmFalcon behind. Meanwhile on the captured-by-Imperials saucer section, Janeway was being interrogated by the CO of the ISD Deathfist and an Imperial Security team was busily going through Voygager’s data cores…

      • B. Durbin

        Seriously, a collection of short stories counts as a book (I have a number of such collections on my shelves.) Put it together and sell it.

        • It’s going to take a lot of polishing since many of the stories languish in the state of ‘scene’ others are concepts. I’m already sorting them and summarizing so I can get a queue together. 🙂 Queues are my friend. They make me look at things I want to get to and get them done.

  5. Mary

    Once Upon A Time — it was true. When C.J. Cherryh first published, the reviewer remarked that surprisingly enough the novel appeared to be her first work, no short stories.

    Things have changed.

    • It may have changed longer ago than we think. Oh, I know an editor who, to this day, believes an author must make their bones in the short story market. But long before indie I was a fly on a wall where one of the huge name authors called short story sales a lottery. That was surprising, since he probably could have sold a shopping list just because it had his name on it.

  6. Uncle Lar

    Before indie that one step from trying to published was a huge cliff. Once you had a published short you at least got a foot in the door at an agency or in those days even a publisher. Or so it seemed at the time.
    I was making pin money writing short humor, essentially jokes, for men’s magazines at $20 a pop, so often getting a quarter a word for my efforts.
    Had every intention of breaking into SF with a short short as conventional wisdom had it that if you had something in the 5 to 7k range the bar was lower as a magazine editor would take just about anything readable to fill that small gap of white space in a coming month’s layout.
    My situation changed and I became far too busy to pursue that pipe dream. Now? Who knows.

  7. BTW I was an utter derp. the title of the second gives the store away.

  8. TRX

    > So, why would you want to write a short story?

    Some authors write them as tie-ins or ads for their longer works. Roger Zelazny wrote some for Amber fanzines. Jim Butcher has written some Dresden shorts for anthologies. Walter Jon Williams had some leftover bits from his Hardwired universe he released as shorts.

    Maybe you have a piece of something big enough to package as a short story; it’s something you cut out of a longer story, or something short that wasn’t worth expanding to novel length, or maybe it’s just the loser in your projects/time score. So you kick it out as a short story; it shows your fans you’re still producing new stuff, it notches your publication count up, and maybe you’ll bundle it with some other scraps and sell it as a collection later. Or even give it away as a pointer to your other work.

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      I write them because that’s what comes to me. Most of my ideas fall in the 10-20K range. Shorter or longer are a lot harder for me.

      • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

        And of course, because they are fun to write 🙂

      • B. Durbin

        Which makes sense. Some ideas are short-story length and some are novel length and confusing the two leads to an unsatisfied reader. (One of the later Pern books felt like that to me. I was enjoying it clear up until the end, when I suddenly said, “What was the point of that?” It was a short story idea blown up to novel length and there wasn’t a deeper meaning to the anecdotes stored therein.)

    • Could you use short stories via a web presence to build fans before heading for indie? I see using it as a variation on the “chapter a day” thing some people do with a lower entry cost (and lower buy-in on the downside).

      It seems to me to be a better fit for somethings.

      • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

        Kris Rusch posts a short on her blog once per week. I think it sounds like a great way to attract readers.

        • So:

          1. Collect 52 short stories
          2. ?
          3. Profit

          Not that I have any more ideas for one short story much less 52 (although writing pseudo-fan fic for what has been called the worst sci-fi TV show ever has tempted me recently…well, not fan-fic per se but closely inspired).

          • Martin L. Shoemaker

            Oh, come on, you can’t tease like that without naming names… Unfair!

            • But I can…but I’ll give you two hints: Ursula K. LeGuin wrote the storyline (but not the script) for episode three and two well know SF writers were involved initially and later wrote about the negative experience of the show.

              • Martin L. Shoemaker

                Ah, I thought so. Unca Harlan’s nightmare. But I’ve never seen it, so I have only his word for how awful it was.

                • It actually has its own Roku channel and I’ve been rewatching it. It is not as bad as I remembered and that’s working off the memory of 7 year old kid.

                  Odd thing is between about 1985 and the Internet I thought I had imaged it and several other shows as I knew no one who remembered them.

                  Anyway, rewatching made me want to write better stories in that setting but between Harlan’s hints about the cause of the accident in the show’s bible (which is an interesting reminder of how old it is as black holes are still unobserved theoretical objects), the RPG The Strange, and me noodling notes about how a real generation ship would work (with too much time at the Atomic Rockets website) I’m not sure my ideas are fan fic anymore.

                  I guess I could steal the above outline and see if I have enough on my initial story idea to fill it.

          • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

            So, turn it into something like Star Wreck. Parody can be a hoot.

        • I used to do that, but it’s such a mess with amazon, that now I think it’s safer to post serialized novels.

  9. mrsizer

    An interesting short story that I recently stumbled upon: Sort of an epilogue to the novel. It was “in” the book (Kindle, so “in” is a bit murky) after the last chapter. It wasn’t really attached to the plot, though. Big time jump and some character change. There is another novel in the series, so it might be a “bridge” scene: Epilogue to book 2/Prologue to book 3.

    I really don’t like short stories because they’re short. They’re over too soon. The 163x anthologies are both neat and annoying because they are required – or at least very helpful – to understand what’s going on in the novels. I didn’t read them until after reading much of the rest, which was a mistake.

    I should probably write some just to finish something. I can always figure out what to do with them later.

  10. I just re-read Mike Resnick’s closing editorial for the last issue of Jim Baen’s Universe, “So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish.” They paid between eight and twenty-five cents a word, but that was when there weren’t any free e-zines out there. At the time of the last issue, there were 18 e-zines. I don’t know how many of them were free, but it was a lot. I also don’t know how many of those are around five and a half years later.
    Sarah, I’ll bet you could put out a Hoyt’s Huns or Mad Genius Club short story collection every month, and make money on it.
    There’s more I’d like to say, by my fat black Manx cat SugarBelly decided it’s time to sit on Papa…..

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      Current pro markets start at six cents a word and run as high as twenty-five cents a word ( I’ll never get rich on that, but I ain’t complaining. Like Dean Wesley Smith told me, a full page ad in Analog and Asimov’s will run you about $800, and half the readers will never look at it. Conversely, a ten page story will have THEM pay YOU about $500, and readers are eager to look at it. It’s the best possible advertising for your other work. I have a small handful of readers who buy everything I put online because they liked my stories in Analog and Clarkesworld and other markets. Now if only I could add a couple zeroes to those numbers…

    • Yea. Greebo-boy is complaining at me.

    • Sarah, I’ll bet you could put out a Hoyt’s Huns or Mad Genius Club short story collection every month, and make money on it.

      I’d subscribe, certainly…sounds like a good Paetron kind of thing.

  11. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    This is a fun one. Thanks Sarah.

    Referring back to my essay about the Hugo Awards, and how Science Fiction and Fantasy did a Borg on Mainsteam Culture, part of what I covered was the way that the market for SF&F has changed since the start of the 20th Century.

    A lot of the changes early on were driven by economics. People couldn’t afford to buy hardcovers (all that existed), so they bought magazines. When paperbacks came out, magazine buyers started to buy them. Then original fiction started to be published in paperbacks, and that started the decline of the magazine market, like any classical Disruptive Technology situation.

    However unlike typewriters, the magazines didn’t disappear, and other markets for short fiction opened up, such as theme anthologies, shared world anthologies, etc.

    Which is good. I love short stories. I love novels too. It’s much like loving both apples and oranges.

    As Sarah said, breaking in via novels is the norm now, though my first fiction sale was a short story (I’d been selling non-fiction for a couple of years prior).

    I’ve never used cheat sheets myself, but what works everyone is different. What works for me is envisioning a scene – a women lying dead on a bed, with a ‘vampire’ guitar attached to her stomach, and then working backwards to why she bought the guitar…

  12. Thanks for the cheat sheets. These will help me turn several short story ideas into actual short stories rather than a jumbled mash that may turn into novels later… maybe. I’m not normally a planner, but short stories tend to have me stymied, which is bad because I’ve been getting a tone of ideas for them lately.

  13. Best short story I ever read, and I don’t remember the name of the story or of the author: First colony lands on Alpha Centauri, and gets set up. Pregnancies. All babies are healthy in terms of everything but brain development, and in that they are perhaps homo habilis. 10 year communication gap with Earth. The do sends back a request for health. Earth has the same problem. Seems our species has ensured survival, and no longer needs the brain power to travel between the stars. So, the big-brained variant is no longer produced.
    It worked great as a short story.

  14. William Underhill

    I’m bookmarking this page for future reference.

    Query for information from an aspiring writer: I was reading the intro to an anthology, and the editor made a parenthetical comment including a speculation that there might be a story in it somewhere. The comment turned into a brainworm and I want to take a stab at it. I’m wondering if I ought to contact the editor first and ask if it’s okay, though? Legal requirement? Ethical requirement? Or n00b getting over-anxious? Thanks for whatever replies come my way.

    • I’m not sure what you’re asking?

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      Ideas are free, and not protected by any legal mechanism. It might be polite to acknowledge the editor if you ever sell the story, but you’re fine either way.

    • William Underhill

      September 10, 2015 at 3:55 pm

      I’m not sure what you’re asking?

      Sorry, I’m not always as clear as I think I am. Basically, if someone mentions an idea for a story in an introduction or something (in this case, specifically saying “Hm.. there might be a story in that”), do I need their permisson to grab the idea and run with it?

      Martin L. Shoemaker
      September 10, 2015 at 4:07 pm

      Ideas are free, and not protected by any legal mechanism. It might be polite to acknowledge the editor if you ever sell the story, but you’re fine either way.

      That’s what I intend to do if I do sell the story; it’s more I wasn’t sure what copyright law etc. says about such things. I would imagine an editor’s introduction is protected by copyright, just as any of the stories contained in the anthology.

      Thank you both very much.

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        Ideas cannot be copyrighted, only the words used to express the ideas. As soon as you put the idea substantially in your own words (which you will do simply by turning them into a story), you’re fine. If you quote the editor’s words exactly, you MIGHT be edging closer to a line, but not close enough to matter.

      • No, you absolutely don’t. Ideas ARE free.

        • Isaac Asimov wrote a column called ‘Between Heaven and Earth’ about the impact a comet would make if it hit the Earth. Then ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ came out. He ran into Niven at a con, complimented him on the work, and mentioned he had the same idea in a column. Niven popped a shrimp in his mouth and said “I know. That’s where I got the idea from.” And subsequent to that, people were telling Larry that ‘Halo’ was a rip-off of ‘Ringworld.’ His response: You can’t patent a planet!

          • William Underhill, Barbarian 1st Class

            Heh. I didn’t know about Asimov and Niven. When I first played ‘Halo’, I suspected someone would accuse them of ripping it from ‘Ringworld’, but never looked into it.

  15. Sarah, may I have permission to use this to teach on Baen’s Bar for the 1632 authors? I’d really appreciate it.



  16. I realized that I never mentioned “thanks for posting this.” 🙂

    So anyhow, I really appreciate this type of post. I always learn something and I always am encouraged.