Category Archive: Short Stories

Test That Scene – Is it Essential or Filler?

The following #writingtips apply to all stories, but especially short ones where every scene must be essential. Happy Short Story Month!

When I plot a story, I tend to think in terms of action. This is probably due to my screenwriter training. In a screenplay all you have to work with is action and dialogue. And in an outline, where you don’t write dialogue, all you have is action. So naturally, when I outline, I follow the action – this takes place here, then the character does this, then the antagonist counters with this move, etc. This is a perfectly good way to plot a story, as I explained in this post: Outlining – Active Beats (aka “Show Don’t Tell”). However, a proper scene requires more than just action.

The basic requirements of every scene are:

  1. Goal – what does the hero want?

  2. Obstacle – what is preventing the hero from getting what he wants?

  3. Conflict – who is opposing the hero’s goal?

  4. Change – how is the hero different by the end of the scene?

For more details on these basics, check out this post: Outlining – From Sticky Notes to Proper Scenes.

Got the basics down? Awesome! Now we have proper scenes, right?

Not necessarily.

Despite having all this good stuff in a scene, it could still fall flat. Why? Because it might not be essential to your story. We need the No Filler Test!

To take this test, you need a scene. We’ll use one of mine (from my outline) as an example.

In response to the panicked call Taryn received from Kate in the previous scene, Taryn leaves her date mid-meal and gets in her car to go help Kate. Taryn pulls out and heads towards Kate’s house, then notices Mel’s car tailing her. Damn. If Mel finds out what they’re up to, they’re dead! Taryn has to get Mel off her tail before she can go help Kate. A car chase ensues through town until finally Taryn outsmarts Mel and leaves her in the dust.

As you can see, this scene covers all the basics: it’s full of action (car chase!), and there’s a goal (get to Kate), obstacle (Mel), conflict (Mel wants to find out what they’re up to and Taryn cannot let that happen), and change (from worried to triumphant when she loses Mel). As an added bonus, it’s fun because my protagonist gets to show off her mad driving skills!

car chase_RoadWarrior

Yet, when I took the test, it didn’t pass…

No Filler Test

Question #1 – If deleted, will the reader still be able to follow the story? If yes, you’ve got filler!

Question #2 – What is different by the end of this scene? If nothing, it’s filler!

Question #3 – What/Who does this scene affect? If nothing/nobody, it’s – you guessed it – filler!

Note that if even one of these questions results in “filler”, the scene should be revised to make it stronger and completely essential. So let’s look at how I faired, er, failed…

  • First, my scene could be deleted and no one would be the wiser. Yes, I need to get my heroine from point A to point B, but I don’t need to show her getting there. Traveling scenes are notorious filler, and I knew that, so I made this scene exciting by having the antagonist show up. Still, that’s all that happens. And that ties into the next question…

  • Second, nothing is different by the end of this scene. The villain shows up, the heroine gets away, and then the heroine goes back to exactly what she was doing before the villain arrived – going to help Kate. This scene changes nothing; it’s merely an obstacle with no consequence. And that leads to…

  • Third, nothing and no one is affected by this scene. In other words, what happens in this scene doesn’t reverberate throughout the story.

Thank goodness I can rewrite and take this test again!

Bottom line, passing the No Filler Test ensures every scene resonates and truly serves the story. Ever read a book where a whole bunch of stuff happens, but you’re still bored? I bet it was full of scenes that would fail this test.

Unfortunately, writers are notorious for falling in love with scenes that don’t pass the No Filler Test, and we’ll give you all kinds of reasons why that scene is vital – it introduces a character, or it sets the tone, or it’s a logical progression, or it reveals information, etc. All those things may be true, but they’re not good enough reasons to keep a scene.

It all comes down to change and consequences. (Doesn’t everything about storytelling?) Something in the scene must directly change/affect the plot and/or characters. If not, it’s filler. Cut it.

But what about setting up character or revealing information? No problem; just combine scenes. Put the necessary details gleaned from the filler scene and insert them into another scene. Or move an important turning point into the filler scene to make it essential. Don’t settle for a scene that “kinda should be there”; make it absolutely indispensable!

Do filler scenes plague your writing? How do you deal with filler? What do you think makes a scene essential?

PS – I really need to see Mad Max 2 soon!


Permanent link to this article:

3 Advantages & Disadvantages of Writing a Serial

Pen Image CC BY-SA 3.0 InverseHypercube

Pen Image CC BY-SA 3.0 InverseHypercube

Short Story Month continues. Are you excited yet? I hope so! Now that you know, thanks to Heather’s last post, if your story idea is more suited to a short story or a novel, we take this discussion into the grey area between the two by talking about serial fiction.

Serials come in many forms, but the best known is the Serialized novel. This is when a single story is divided up into smaller parts and published in regular installments in a newspaper or magazine. These were first made popular in the Victorian area by Dickens, Dumas and others. Sometimes these were finished novel, and at other times the writer crafted the story as it was being released to the public, perhaps using reader feedback to improve it.

There are also true serials; these are stories structured a bit more like episodes of a TV show. Each installment has a single story, but all the characters and world building are interconnected. The first installment introduces the main characters and gives a feeling for the setting while providing a small, yet satisfying storyline that also sparks reader interest in coming back to this world again. And Again! That often means a bigger story arc is revisited during the collection of stories, called a “season” like TV shows are.

Courtesy: Toronto Public Library

Courtesy: Toronto Public Library

There are many examples of successful serials, such as the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and The Sex and the City franchise. Both serials and serialized fiction are growing in popularity with readers. You can find them on Amazon or Wattpad, and there are publishing houses and websites dedicated exclusively to them. Writing either type takes a special kind of writer, but short story writers are often masters of the true serial form.




There are wonderful advantages to writing serials:

  • You can take every episode in a new direction. Explore opposing viewpoints of the same events. You can kill off characters or rapidly change their character arcs. In fact, the more you shake things up, the better your readers will like it!

  • You have the luxury of being able to revisit the same world building and characters as many times as you wish. The story can go on for years, evolving and taking new directions while filling many seasons of serials.

  • The pressure to finish the big story arc isn’t hanging over your head the way it is with a novel. A serial writer can go on chasing the same villain forever, as long as the smaller stories are exciting and there are enough clues to the larger plot mission to make the readers want to stick around for the ride.

And some disadvantages:

  • Slow, atmospheric writers need not apply! The market is competitive for all writing, but the pressure to create a knock-the-reader’s-socks-off opening episode for a series is huge. You must have memorable characters and a setting that feels real from the first installment. Being unforgettable is critical, because the reader needs to feel they can pick up the story after a break without missing a beat.

  • Action is the king of all serial fiction, and only the tightest writing works. The hook needs to come in fast. Each story installment must have some resolution to the current problem while also leaving something unresolved to encourage the reader to read the next installment, namely it needs a cliffhanger.

  • The serial format is not good for a writer challenged by deadlines. One of the most important aspects for building a serial readership is getting the next installment out quickly and when you’ve promised you would. If you establish a plan of releasing once a week or once a month, you need to keep with it until the season is done.

The best serial writers have the long-range vision of a plotter with the creative jump-off-a-cliff-without-a-parachute bravery of a pantser. The plotter side needs to keep track of the clues and aspects of the bigger story arc, while the pantser side needs to just go wild with new characters, situations and twists that even a die-hard reader of the series wouldn’t see coming. It’s only through constant innovation that great TV shows stay on the air and serial fiction needs the same level of creative originality to stay fresh and maintain fans.

So, have you ever tried to write a serial? I have! Do you have any other tips to share? I’d love to hear from you.


For more on marketing series fiction and to hear about some success stories check out this post on Writer Unboxed.


Permanent link to this article:

Is Your Idea a Short Story or Novel?

Not counting my childhood Young Authors books (for a hilarious selection of those click here), I have written only one short story: a grim ghost tale featured in Pen & Muse’s Haunted House showcase. However, I’ve written many television episodes, which resemble short stories in length and substance. Writing a novel, by comparison, is like crafting a whole season of a serialized TV show. But besides length, what is the difference between long-format stories and short stories? And how can you tell if your idea works best as a short story or a novel? Or can the same story premise work equally well as both?

confusedboy-Novel or Short Story-cartoon

To answer this question, let’s take a look at what makes up a story. Whether short or long, all tales need to satisfy the basics of storytelling:

  1. A Protagonist – who leads the story.

  2. A Goal – what the protagonist wants.

  3. A Problem – what prevents the protagonist from achieving the goal.

  4. Objectives – how the protagonist tries to solve the problem.

  5. Obstacles – what/who prevents the protagonist from solving the problem.

  6. Stakes – what disaster will happen if the protagonist fails to solve the problem.

  7. Resolution – how the protagonist overcomes the obstacles to solve the problem and avert disaster.

From this perspective, it would seem as if a writer could easily turn a short story (as long as it had all seven elements) into a novel. Just add more characters, obstacles and subplots to make the story longer. Right? A quick search on the Internet reveals that lots of people believe this. But I don’t, and wonder if the many novels I read that are short on plot, heavy on backstory, and padded with inconsequential scenes, were born of premises that were best left as short stories and should have never been turned into novels.

So how do you know if your idea is a short story or a novel? It comes down to one storytelling element:


How easy is the problem to resolve? The quicker a character can solve a problem, the shorter the story. If the problem will take many, varied steps to resolve, you have a novel.

Think of it in terms of TV… each episode has a small problem that can be resolved in less than an hour. Then there are “season” or “series” problems. These are the big problems. The small problems can connect to the big problem, especially in shows that are serialized (as opposed to episodic), but something is resolved in every episode, even if the episode ends on a cliffhanger. Usually that cliffhanger comes right after the small problem has been resolved and introduces the problem for the following episode, which entices the audience to come back next week (or binge watch on Netflix).TV Supernatural poster

Take the TV show SUPERNATURAL, for example. Each episode has a small problem, a supernatural entity they have to defeat, and since Sam and Dean were raised to hunt monsters, they’re pretty good at it and can take down the baddies in less than an hour of screen time. The big problem, though, the one that is harder for them to resolve, is finding out what killed their mother and destroying it – which leads into a seasons-long story arc. Often the cliffhanger at the end of a Supernatural episode is a clue to this big problem.

Like a season of your favourite television drama, novels need a big problem that warrants using 300 pages or more to address it. How do you know if the problem is big enough? Start by brainstorming how the character could possibly solve the problem. If it will only take a few steps, you’ve got a short story. If the problem seems almost insurmountable, like it will take lots of time and dozens of attempts to resolve, that’s a novel. TV Breaking Bad poster

Take BREAKING BAD, for example. If Walter needed money for a one-time surgery, the story would be much shorter. He’d deal some drugs, get the money after some scary close calls, and get out before he got in too deep. But the creators made sure that his problem was much harder to resolve. Walter has cancer, something that could require treatment for months or years. And to make the problem even more complicated, Walter is worried about leaving money for his family if he passes away. This is a big problem, an ongoing problem, one that cannot be wrapped up quickly.

So if you have a short story that you want to turn into a novel, don’t just inflate it with more characters and subplots, think of how you can make the problem bigger and less easy to resolve.

Have you ever turned a short story into a novel? What did you do to make sure there was enough story?


Permanent link to this article:

Six Don’t-Skip Short Story Tips

 Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

May is short story month. In honor of the event, Heather and I have a few treats planned this month. Hopefully you are taking part in a contest, or perhaps just letting the event inspire you to dash off a short story (or two) for the writing practice. If so, here are my six favorite tips for writing a short story.


  1. Great short stories still have structure. It’s just a reapportioned and compact structure. The compression is throughout the tale, but especially in the beginning. The set up needs to happen quickly and pack in all the necessary information for plot context. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, it helps if you can start as close to the end as possible. The sooner we meet the characters and learn about their problems, the better.

  2. Don’t skip the character’s goal. Though there isn’t room for epic battles of good and evil, the protagonist’s struggle is still where the punch comes from. A nice collection of unimportant tasks, regardless of how well-told, isn’t going to cut it. If you want the story to be memorable, the stakes must stay high and be immediate! And the reader should care if the protagonist succeeds or fails.

    Courtesy: Toronto Public Library

    Courtesy: Toronto Public Library

  3. The POV needs special attention. A short story is often packed with internal conflict. Many are told in the first person POV, but you don’t need to make the narrator the main character; the story can unfold from the POV of someone from the outside looking in. It’s also exciting if the narrator or the main character is someone unexpected, like the antagonist!

  4. Language and voice are the short story kings! The stylistic vibe and genre of the story should come screaming through in the first few paragraphs. If I start reading and I have to look to the title or the blurb to figure out what kind of story I’m reading (romance, horror, noir thriller), the story is already off to a bad start.

  5. Summarize and combine scenes when you can. There is a lot of ground to cover in few pages, so expect things to feel a bit truncated from your normal novel style. You just can’t indulge in the same level of narrative, setting details, reactions and dialogue that you’re used too. Writing a short story is good practice for any novelist, and once you master the form, you might start to wonder why you don’t write this way all the time.

  6. The ending is the best part! I love a twist and a circular framework – a story where the beginning and ending scenes echo each other. A frame story can also create an interesting story structure, as long as it’s not misused. What I don’t love is a cop-out ending. No Dreams please! No closing the book, or lights coming up on the empty theater because the protagonist was just watching something that didn’t really happen.

Of course, there are many other parts to consider when writing a short story, but these are the tips I try to remember as I write one. Hopefully they will help you too.

I’m curious about how many people are attempting a short story this month. If you are, do you have a favorite tip you want to share? If so, please include it in the comments.

Permanent link to this article: