Introduction to Fiction: How to Write the First Draft of a Short Story | Seth Fried | Skillshare

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Introduction to Fiction: How to Write the First Draft of a Short Story

teacher avatar Seth Fried, Fiction Writer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.



    • 3.



    • 4.



    • 5.

      Showing vs. Telling


    • 6.

      Desire and Obstacle


    • 7.



    • 8.

      Finishing Your Draft


    • 9.



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About This Class

If you're interested in writing a short story and don't know where to start, this is the class for you. 

Seth Fried is a widely published short story writer and novelist, whose debut novel, The Municipalists, was recently published by Penguin Books. This class will introduce you to all the basic skills you’ll need to write a draft of a short story. Creativity often gets talked about as if it’s a personality trait which can’t be taught, but in reality there are lots of simple, easy-to-approach skills you can practice in order to get better at telling the stories you want to tell.

This class is for writers approaching short fiction for the first time or for more experienced writers who are looking to brush up on the basics or who are just having a hard time finishing a draft.

Course highlights:

  • This course will help you generate story ideas and give you the skills you need to get those ideas on the page.
  • You'll learn the craft techniques necessary to come up with original characters and plot lines.
  • Lectures will be followed by fun writing exercises which will help you practice the lecture material and build toward your class project.

Meet Your Teacher

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Seth Fried

Fiction Writer



Seth Fried is a fiction and humor writer. He is the author of the novel The Municipalists (Penguin Books) and the short story collection The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press). He is a recurring contributor to The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” and NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” His stories have appeared in Tin House, One Story, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Kenyon Review, Vice, and many others. He is also the winner of two Pushcart Prizes and the William Peden Prize.


Reviews for The Municipalists

“If you’re a fan of Jane Jacobs, but can’t help but hiss and boo whenever Robert Moses’ name is mentioned, this is a must-read. Then a... See full profile

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1. Introduction: Hi, my name is Seth Fried. Welcome to my skill share course, Introduction to fiction, how to write the first draft of short story. I'm a fiction and human writer. I'm a recurring contributor to NPR is selected shorts, the New Yorker shouts and murmurs and McSweeney's. My novel, The Municipalists is out now from penguin Books. I'm also the author of a short story collection, The Great Frustration. The project for this course will be to write the first draft of a five to eight page short story. We'll be breaking the writing process up into a series of accessible steps. We'll be covering things like character development, idea generation, plot, and more. You'll also be sharing your work as you go. We'll also be covering the creative writing process in a way that will be generally applicable. So you can take what you learn in this course and apply it to any creative writing projects you might want to write in the future. This course is for people approaching fiction writing for the first time. But it's also for more experienced fiction writers who are looking to get reacquainted with the basics or who are just having a hard time finishing a first draft. I look forward to seeing you in class. 2. Brainstorming: Now obviously there are a million ways to write a short story. But this class, we're just going to be focusing on one simple path that's going to help you come up with an idea and get it down to pages in draft. The craft stuff we talked about in these lessons are not rules you need to worry about following for any story you might ever write in the future. These are just some quick tips and tricks that are going to help you get to an interesting place faster and help you break through some common misconceptions. The first misconception I want to talk about is the fallacy that you need an idea to get started. This couldn't be further from the truth and brainstorming is a great way to come up with ideas if you don't have one. Here are two quick tools you can use to brainstorm, lists and questions. For example, let's say you're thinking about writing a short story based on some time in your life, just for an example, let's say middle school. With lists, all you have to do is go through and list everything you remember for middle school. List all the people you remember, list all your friends, list all your teachers, list any activities you're involved with, list any vivid memories you have from that time. That's great, you're already filling up the blank page with all of these great details. You can also ask yourself questions, so for example, did you like middle school? Did you hate it? Is there anything you specifically would have changed about that time in your life? Come up with as many questions as you can and be as thoughtful as you can when answering them. We'll fictionalize all this stuff later, but for right now you're just generating raw material and all short stories are based on observation. This is going to help you mine your memory for observations. Your assignment for this lesson is going to be to brainstorm about a particular time in your life. If you need a suggestion, try brainstorming about your first job. List as many details as you can remember. Ask yourself questions too that you can answer at length. Try writing at least 300 words in this brainstorming session. Then post that writing to the project page for this class. Great and good luck. Next class we're going to be talking about free writing, I'll see you there. 3. Freewriting: In this lesson, we're going to be talking about freewriting. Now, freewriting is a big part of drafting a short story, and to emphasize the importance of this stage of the process, I'd like to reference two quotes. The first quote is from Ernest Hemingway, who said, "The first draft is always expletive deleted." The next quote is from Frank O'Connor, who said, "You can't revise nothing." These two quotes are really important to keep in mind when you're approaching freewriting for the first time. Because when you're freewriting, you're finally starting to write in full sentences and complete thoughts and what you're putting together might start to look like a short story. But there's one important difference. In a freewrite, you're kicking your inner critic out of the room. Your inner critic is the voice in your head that tries to get you to stop writing by making you think that what you're writing isn't good enough. But in a freewrite, you're not worried about that. You're not polishing your sentences or trying to write anything perfect. Remember, the first draft is always expletive deleted. In a freewrite, you're actively daydreaming. All you have to do is follow the thread of your own interest. Just like you wouldn't judge your daydreams, you shouldn't judge your freewrites. This is important because creative ideas don't come through focus, they come from relaxing your focus. That's why some of our best ideas come to us when we're doing rote chores or falling asleep. You just need to be able to let go. For this assignment, you're going to be looking over your brainstorming notes for any detail that grabs your attention. It can be a person, it can be an event, whatever. Now, you're going to freewrite about it. Let your freewrite go wherever it needs to go without trying to control it too much. Try to write at least 900 words during this freewrite, then upload that writing to the project page for this class. Good luck and see you in the next lesson. 4. Character: In this lesson, we're going to be talking about character. Now, character is a very important aspect of story because a good character, is going to be your readers emotional entry point into a story. I'm sure we've all had the experience of going to see a big summer blockbuster where giant robots punch each other in the face for 90 minutes, and it's a very cool spectacle, but it might end up feeling a little flat. Usually, that's because there's not a well-rounded character for the audience to project themselves into. That's why you want to spend a lot of time coming up with a character who feels believable. How do you do that? When it comes to character development, there's a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, there's you and people you know really well. The advantage of working from this side of the spectrum is, as we've said, all short stories are based on observation. Who do you have more observations about than yourself and the people you know very well? However, the downside of drawing from this end of the spectrum is that you're going to feel tied down to the truth. On the other end of the spectrum, are people you're pulling out of thin air. On this end of the spectrum, the risks and rewards are flipped. On the one hand, you won't feel tied down to the literal truth, but you won't have all of those observations that help you make a character field grounded and believable. This is why the best strategy, is actually to mix and match character elements from both sides of the spectrum. Take people you know really well and give them qualities they don't actually have in real life. For example, if you're writing about your first job, make your boss either meaner or nicer than he was in real life. Just do whatever captures your imagination. Look over your brainstorming notes and you're free right from the previous two lessons. Be on the lookout for any good characters, any people you might be interested in writing a about. Once you've found them, start freewriting about them. Use this freewrite to get to know your character. Try free writing at least 900 words then post that writing to the project page for this course. Great. Now next lesson, we're going to take everything you've learned about your character and figure out how to get them on the page. I'll see you there. 5. Showing vs. Telling: We have this character that we've been learning about through free-writing. In these free writes we've been keeping it really loose. It's almost like you've been journaling about this character. But how do you take all the insights you've gotten from this journaling or this free-writing and get it onto the page in a way that'll be engaging for readers. This takes us to a very important craft mechanic, showing versus telling. To demonstrate how this works, I'd like to share two sentences. The first one is John was angry. The second sentence is, John pushed his wife's bookshelf down a flight of stairs. I'm sure you've noticed the second sentence is a little grabbier than the first. That's because in the first sentence, we're telling the reader how to interpret the action and in the second sentence, we're showing them the action and letting them make their own decisions about it. Readers tend to prefer this type of writing because they like to have their curiosity engaged. They like to play detective. When you tell action, it's like you're standing as a partition between the reader and the action and reporting back what you've decided about it. Here are some quick tips to start showing in your writing. Raised the level of specificity in your writing. The more specific you get, the less likely it will be that you're telling. Try to rely on verbs and nouns in your writing instead of adjectives and adverbs. Let me show you how these two skills will work together. Instead of writing John's car was the best you can write, John's father gave him a cherry red El [inaudible] when he was 16. He woke up every morning at 05:00 a.m to wash it by hand. It was six years later and it still looked brand new. By increasing the level of specificity and relying on verbs and nouns instead of an adjective, you can see how we took a short sentence of telling and turned it into a long stretch of showing. Now I've explained why this type of writing is good for readers. It engages their curiosity. But I also want to focus on why it's good for you, the writer. When you write a sentence like John was angry, it gives you no place to go. There's nothing to riff on. But when you rely on showing, John pushed his wife's bookshelf down a flight of stairs. Now you have all this physical inventory to riff on. You could write about how that bookshelf looks at the bottom of the stairs. You have the fact that John's married and his wife's a reader, you have that John's prone to fits of violent outbursts. You have that they live in a two-story house. So you have all this stuff you can riff on that wasn't there before when you were just relying on that single adjective, angry. That's why showing works for you as the writer, it gives you momentum in your drafts. One thing about telling, a lot of creative writing instructors will say what I've just said, which is basically show, don't tell. But in fact, both showing and telling have value in fiction and you'll want some interplay between the two. Showing it's good for when you want the reader to experience the information emotionally. Telling, is something you want to use when the reader needs to understand the information but doesn't need to experience it emotionally. For example, they lived in Idaho for 40 years. You can see how that might be information the reader needs, but they don't need to necessarily experienced emotionally with lots of showing. One other thing I want to mention about showing has to do with entering characters thoughts. Even when you're dipping into a character's thoughts, you can still respect the same notion of showing. For example, instead of having a character think, I'm a very morbid person, you could have them think, every time I see a beautiful butterfly, I think of the inevitability of my own death. You can see showing and telling it work in both sentences. This first sentence is that type of writing that readers aren't going to enjoy. You're telling them what to think about your character. In the second sentence, you're having your character think a morbid thought, and you're leaving it open for your reader to decide that this means that they're morbid. Let's get into our assignment for this lesson. Look at all your free writing and brainstorming notes to get a sense of your character. Now, show that character's personality in action. You can do this by showing them do in everyday task. Maybe they're commuting to work, mowing their lawn, brushing their teeth. We want to get a sense of who they are by how they do this action. For example, does your character whistle while they rake the leaves in their yard or do they get so frustrated, they break the rake over their knee. Try to write at least 300 words showing your character and action and then posted to the project page for this class. Good luck, and I'll see you next class. 6. Desire and Obstacle: Great, so you have your character that you've been learning about and that you now know how to get onto the page with [inaudible] But how do you turn that into a story? For that, we're going to need two things, a desire and an obstacle. The tension between these two things will drive your plot forward. Maybe your character wants something that he or she can't get. Maybe he or she is afraid of something they can't avoid. You want to make sure to get to know your character really well because their core desire is going to inform what obstacle you choose for them. Let's take two hypothetical characters. Character one wants more than anything to fall in love, character two wants more than anything to make millions of $. Now let's take two obstacles. Obstacle one is that the character falls madly in love with someone who lives in another country, they'd have to quit their job to be with them. Obstacle two is that our character gets a great career opportunity that won't give them time for personal life. For there to be any tension in the story, you can see how you'd have to match the right obstacle with the right character. All right, let's try this briefly. I'm going to come up with a hypothetical character, and we're going to see if you can come up with the right obstacle for them. Let's say we have someone who hates every boss they've ever had. What kind of boss do we give this character in our story? Do we give them a mean boss? A boss who's never there or a boss who's really nice? Take a couple of minutes and think about it. Now in reality, I think you could make an argument for any of these choices. But I think best-case scenario, since we've specified that this character has hated every boss they've ever had, the best answer in this situation is actually to give this character a nice boss. Giving them a nice boss will force them to confront the fact that they just have a problem with authority. If we gave them a mean boss, they would be able to cover up their character flaw with just more superficial conflict. That's going to take us into our homework for this lesson. Spend some time thinking about your character and trying to figure out what their core desire is. Then, come up with an obstacle that's specifically tailored for your character that will increase the tension for them. Write up this desire and obstacle and post it to the project page for this class. Good luck, and I'll see you in next lesson. 7. Plot: Awesome. Now, if you're to want some the obstacles. Since this is a first draft, from here on out, all you have to be worried about is keeping yourself interested in this character, and their attempt to overcome the obstacle. Here's a couple of quick tips on how to do that. It has to be important that the character overcome the obstacle. For example, I might want a cookie and I might not be able to get one, but nothing bad is going to happen if I don't. However, if I have a blood sugar condition, and I'm trapped in an elevator, suddenly that situation has stakes. It's important to link the events in your story through cause and effect. Here's an example, someone loses their job and then, unrelatedly gets a divorce. That's not going to be as interesting to readers as this situation. Let's say someone loses their job, which causes them to come home early. This means that there in time to catch their spouse in bed with someone else. That sense of cause and effect is going to give your story momentum. Up until now we've talked about desire and obstacle but in reality, there's going to be many obstacles in your story. Each obstacle should steadily increase the tension for your character. These obstacles will build tension until we reach the climax of the story, which is just when the tension has been so maxed out that your character is forced to make a difficult and character revealing decision. A good rule of thumb is that your character's first attempt to overcome the obstacle should actually put them in a worse situation than they were before. Let's say someone's goal is to succeed at work, so they start sucking up to their boss. However, this actually ends up annoying their boss. Now, let's jump into our assignment for this lesson. We're going to summarize your story, breaking it into a beginning, a middle, and an end. For the beginning, describe your character's desire, the main obstacle they face in pursuing that desire, and also describe why it's important that the character overcome the obstacle. For the middle, describe the series of escalating obstacles that your character will face in pursuit of the goal. Remember to arrange these from smallest to biggest and link them with cause and effect. This will lead to the climax of the story in which the character's forced to make a revealing decision. The end of a short story can be as short as a paragraph. All we need here is some indication of what the world of the story will be like after the climax is happened. Work on summarizing the beginning, middle, and end of your story, then upload that summary to the project page for this course. We're almost there. Next class, we're going to talk about finishing your project. I'll see you there. 8. Finishing Your Draft: You now have a general outline for your short story. This outline may very well change as you start to draft your story, but it's good to have a general sense of what you're working on. How do you go about completing that first draft? One of my biggest recommendations is to follow a modest daily goal. It might be a seductive idea to sit down and write an entire short story in one sitting but that rarely happens. More often, you'll work on it a little bit each day. For example, if you were to write 300 words a day, you would finish a draft for an eight page short story in about a week, that's great progress. Remember slow and steady wins the race. Set a modest daily goal for yourself and keep to it. Here's some other quick tips to help you get through your draft. Remember to try to show your character as much as possible. Try writing with verbs and nouns instead of adverbs and adjectives. Not only will verbs and nouns produce more interesting writing, but they'll also give you momentum that will help you get through your first draft. Remember to keep yourself interested in your character. Usually this will mean giving them a variety of obstacles. If you get stuck, remember to think about who your character is and what they want. Remember to make use of the physical inventory you have from all the verbs and nouns you've used up to that point. Finally, remember that it's important in a first draft, kick your inner critic out of the room and just keep moving forward. After all, you can't revise nothing. For this last assignment, set a modest daily goal for yourself, then stick to it. We're aiming for a five to eight page long story. Use the plot line you came up with as a general guideline as you move forward. But feel free to change that outline if inspiration strikes. Once you finish your first draft, Make sure to upload it to the project page for this course. Good luck. 9. Thanks!: Congratulations for finishing the course, you should now have all the skills you need to complete the first draft of the short story. Make sure to upload your progress to the project page for this course as you go. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter. I love to hear from people and I'm excited to hear how your draft is going. If you're interested, please feel free to check out my novel The Municipalists, and my short story collection, The Great Frustration. Lastly, thank you so much for taking this course. I hope it was helpful and I hope you have a great time putting your draft together. Happy writing.