Thursday, April 29, 2021

Building POV and Stakes in Short Stories

By Rachelle Shaw

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: Short stories have little time to make readers care about the protagonist and their problem. Rachelle Shaw shares tips on how point of view and stakes can pull readers into your story.

Individually, POV and stakes both play an important role in developing a story that compels readers to keep going. For short works of fiction, the biggest challenge usually comes with choosing which POV is right and what kind of stakes works best for the chosen narrative.

In a previous post on this site, I mentioned how short stories should cover a single event that shapes the main character’s journey in their overall arc. Even though only a snippet of that larger arc is covered, the backstory leading up to that point serves as motivation for the choices your character will make during the event.

Types of POV that work well for short stories

1. First Person 

This is the most common POV used in short fiction. It’s easily spotted by the frequent use of “I,” “me,” or “my.” However, be careful not to fall into the trap of relying on those pronouns too heavily and forgetting to incorporate active descriptions, particularly those that tie into the environment. An overabundance of first-person pronouns will pull readers out of the story, weakening the writing.

Another challenge with this viewpoint is limitation and bias. The only information given in the narrative is based on facts and thoughts the main character knows and has. Use that to your advantage! As the author of the story, you select the paths readers will go down, allowing you to omit information where you choose and sometimes create an unreliable narrator to purposely mislead readers. Agatha Christie was a master at this. A modern-day example would be the book Gone Girl, where one of the main characters, Nick, is assumed to be a killer, but as the book unfolds, readers learn there’s more to the story than what was initially revealed.

This type of narrative works well for emotion-driven stories, such as those in the genres of romance, women’s fiction, and suspense. That’s because those stories usually focus on personal, internal changes that alter the character arc more than they do the plot. That makes them powerful pieces that tug at readers’ heartstrings.

Second person narratives are uncommon, but they can be very effective and are well suited for shorts. The narrative style makes things extremely personal for readers, which naturally lends itself to an immersive and compelling point of view. However, for some readers, it’s rather jarring, and its personal nature can be uncomfortable when certain topics are addressed. That said, the key to pulling it off is to use strong showing techniques that captivate readers so much they forget they’re reading in second person. Hint: The five senses are dynamite when woven into this type of POV.

This type of narrative will stretch your skills as a writer. It’ll take some practice, but I’d strongly encourage you to give it a go if you haven’t. Because short fiction offers more flexibility in the way of narratives, its inherently brief structure is perfect for experimenting with styles you may be less familiar with. As an example of a longer narrative in this style, I would recommend checking out the book The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

3. Third Person Limited 

Another solid choice for short stories is third person limited. It’s nearly as effective as first person because of its personal nature and because it showcases few perspectives. One advantage is that while the wiggle room for holding information back is still there, with the possibility of switching between viewpoints, you additionally have more room to play when it comes to developing the plot, because this approach allows you to convey different angles for each scene like you would different camera shots for a TV show. Please be aware, though, that changing from one character’s perspective to another without a proper scene break does NOT make for good writing and is instead considered head hopping.

Note: While there is another form of third-person narration in fiction known as third person omniscient, it’s much better suited for novels, where multiple characters’ viewpoints can be explored. It’s also a difficult POV to pull off without relying too heavily on telling; because of that, there’s been a shift away from it in modern fiction writing.

(Here's more with How a Limited vs. a Tight Point of View Can Confuse Writers)

Additional tips for choosing POV:

Think about the message/theme you want to convey in the story. What is the primary hurdle the main character is attempting to overcome? Who stands in their way? How do they change from the beginning of the story to the end? Uncovering the steps they take to get there might help you decide which narrative type most closely aligns with that arc.

Consider which character(s) would be the easiest to relate to and root for. The more a reader engages and connects with the story, the more likely they are to continue reading it.

Keep in mind tense and diction as well. Depending on the setting, the characters, and the genre, one POV might be more representative of that type of story than another. Consider other short works of fiction you’ve read in that genre. What POV was used? What aspects of those narratives worked well, and which did you have trouble connecting to?

Identifying stakes at every level

1. Small-scale

Small-scale stakes, which are also referred to as internal or personal stakes, address issues such as fears, relationships, flaws, and past choices that are part of the main character’s development. They contribute to the overall character arc, but they also work on a scene-by-scene basis in conjunction with the character’s goals depending on if they succeed or fail in meeting them. Short stories often deal with a variety of small-scale stakes because of the word limitation that makes it difficult to impose larger ones. However, if these smaller stakes are too generalized, they result in bland characters that readers don’t care about.

(Here's more with What “Burnt” Can Teach Us About Conflict and Stakes)  

2. Large-scale

Large-scale stakes are usually identified as external or public; in other words, they impact others outside of the scope of the main character’s world, affecting others in a way that forces the main character to act or make a choice, often involving a sacrifice.

The dangers with being too heavy-handed for larger stakes, particularly for short stories, include a lack of substance (i.e. not enough character development), a feeling that the story is incomplete, or a premise where characters are reactive rather than proactive.

(Here's more with The Trouble With Reactive Protagonists)

3. Dual-scale

When you get a solid fusion of small-scale and large-scale stakes, you end up with something I like to call a dual-scale approach—a balanced work of fiction that combines personal stakes of characters and external circumstances in a way that immerses readers in the world completely, resulting in a page-turner.

That doesn’t mean every story will have evenly matched stakes. In fact, depending on the genre or story structure (more on that in a future post), stakes might fall more heavily on one side of the fence or the other. So how do you tell if you have it right?

I like to think of this method as one that creates varying blends of coffee. Some stories call for a richer, bolder flavor, and others call for lighter, more subtle ingredients. Both can work well when done right. The key is specificity: If the stakes are high for the character, they’ll be high for the reader too. No matter what scale they’re written on, large or small, the more a character stands to gain or lose from reaching their goals, the better.

(Here's more with Raise Your Novel's Stakes by Narrowing the Focus)  

Raising the bar

Raising the stakes can be tricky to do when the story revolves around a single event, but sometimes circumstances that seem insignificant on the surface can cost the main character more than is initially revealed. A great way to achieve this is through subtext and micro conflict.

For example, let’s say your main character gets a new job. It wasn’t necessarily his first choice, but it pays well, and the benefits are great. However, after a while, the long, inconsistent hours start causing strain on his relationship with his spouse. The main character tries to search for a new job with similar perks to no avail. He discusses this with his spouse, who is understanding but expresses that they need the money. Now the main character feels stuck, because he can’t exactly quit, but there isn’t much elsewhere to be had, and in the meantime, there’s a wedge being driven into his relationship. Now let’s say the main character’s spouse becomes pregnant, and she’s unable to work during the pregnancy because of complications. Now you have more of a deficit in income, another life on the way (that may or may not be the main character’s child—remember those long hours?), and general medical stress that the main character feels helpless about.

The point is, the deeper and more personal you go with this, the higher the stakes are. If you add a time constraint onto how long the main character has to achieve their goals, that makes the tension higher yet. The biggest challenge with stakes in short stories is simply keeping them high enough to matter while limiting how complex they are because of word count.

Additional tips for raising stakes:
  • Make sure you hammer home what the stakes are, then add to them as the story unfolds.
  • If you can’t illustrate or gain that connection for the stakes through your current POV, it may be time to consider another one.
  • If readers are having trouble connecting with your story, review the details of your stakes. Are they too vague? Are they high enough for the reader to care? If lack of conflict is to blame, upping the stakes will address that too.

Used together, POV and stakes pack quite a punch. But if one or the other isn’t quite right, readers will lose interest in the story. So if you’re having trouble, take a moment to plan out alternative approaches. Is there a POV that might make the story more immersive? Are the stakes compelling enough? When implemented well, those two elements elevate short stories to a whole new level, creating unique tales that will stick with readers long after they finish.

Rachelle Shaw is avid reader with an incurable need to research everything she comes across, Rachelle is an author of paranormal, horror, and writing craft books as well as the occasional women’s fiction piece. Since scribbling down her first story at the age of eight, her love for language and books has blossomed into a full-time career. She currently works as an independent editor who is passionate about writing in layers and helping authors find their voice. When she’s not busy chasing her kids and two rather persnickety cats, you can catch her blogging, tweeting, or plotting her next series. Her current publications include the young adult paranormal series The Porcelain Souls and the women’s fiction shorts Sisters and Michael’s Cry.


  1. "While there is another form of third-person narration in fiction known as third person omniscient"

    In the politest possible way, with no euphemisms for cuss words, let me say that I don't understand why people dislike the omniscient perspective. I would genuinely appreciate a response, and I apologize for wording my last post in a way that caused it to be removed.

    1. I appreciate you rephrasing your comment :)

      Not everyone dislikes it, and Rachelle actually said it was more suited to novels than short stories.

      The reason it gets a lot of hate, is that it's hard to do well, especially for new writers. So it frequently comes across as "bad writing," since it often uses a lot of head hopping, telling, infodumping, and heaps of backstory. It can read like the author is explaining the story, not dramatizing a story.

      Omniscient also tends to feel more detached and outside the protagonist, because it's literally an outside narrator telling the story. This was very popular in days past, but modern readers typically want a closer point of view and feel more inside the head of the character. Even if it's a limited third person with a far narrative distance (which is essentially omniscient without the head hoping), there's still that sense of being in a character's head and not hovering a above them.

      But plenty of stories do use omniscient, and there are plenty of readers who enjoy it. It's more popular in some genres than others. You'll see it more often in plot-heavy novels than character-focused ones, but it's used everywhere.

      I suspect it's less popular with writers than readers, so if you read a lot of writer blogs, you'll probably see more negative views on it. But I see just as many digs against first person as I do omniscient, so both extremes of point of view have their detractors.

    2. Thank you - that's very thought-provoking!

  2. Interesting and helpful post. I've been writing novels for a while, now, but have only just ventured into short stories.
    I have no objection to omniscient if done well. What I don't really like is present tense. Ans present tense, second person? That's weird. Someone telling someone else what they are doing right now?
    I have written a short story in the present first person, but that was of necessity. The protagonist was a cat, and no human could have access to what she was thinking to tell her stoty, and as she was alone most of the time, no other cat could tell her story. It had to be in present because of the ending, which I won't give away as the story is on my blog.