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Last updated on Oct 29, 2023
How to Write a Short Story in 9 Simple Steps
This post is written by UK writer Robert Grossmith. His short stories have been widely anthologized, including in The Time Out Book of London Short Stories , The Best of Best Short Stories , and The Penguin Book of First World War Stories . You can collaborate with him on your own short stories here on Reedsy .
Writing a short story is, in many ways, more challenging than writing a novel. How can you develop your characters, conflict, and premise — all within the space of a few pages? Where can you find an idea worthy of being such a short story?
In this article, I’ll take you through the process of writing a short story, from idea conception to the final draft.
How to write a short story:
1. Know what a short story is versus a novel
2. pick a simple, central premise, 3. build a small but distinct cast of characters, 4. begin writing close to the end, 5. shut out your internal editor, 6. finish the first draft, 7. edit the short story, 8. share the story with beta readers, 9. submit the short story to publications.
But first, let’s talk about what makes a short story different from a novel.
The simple answer to this question, of course, is that the short story is shorter than the novel, usually coming in at between, say, 1,000-15,000 words. Any shorter and you’re into flash fiction territory. Any longer and you’re approaching novella length .
As far as other features are concerned, it’s easier to define the short story by what it lacks compared to the novel . For example, the short story usually has:
- fewer characters than a novel
- a single point of view, either first person or third person
- a single storyline without subplots
- less in the way of back story or exposition than a novel
If backstory is needed at all, it should come late in the story and be kept to a minimum.
It’s worth remembering too that some of the best short stories consist of a single dramatic episode in the form of a vignette or epiphany.
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A short story can begin life in all sorts of ways.
It may be suggested by a simple but powerful image that imprints itself on the mind. It may derive from the contemplation of a particular character type — someone you know perhaps — that you’re keen to understand and explore. It may arise out of a memorable incident in your own life.
- Kafka began “The Metamorphosis” with the intuition that a premise in which the protagonist wakes one morning to find he’s been transformed into a giant insect would allow him to explore questions about human relationships and the human condition.
- Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” takes the basic idea of a lowly clerk who decides he will no longer do anything he doesn’t personally wish to do, and turns it into a multi-layered tale capable of a variety of interpretations.
When I look back on some of my own short stories, I find a similar dynamic at work: a simple originating idea slowly expands to become something more nuanced and less formulaic.
So how do you find this “first heartbeat” of your own short story? Here are several ways to do so.
Experiment with writing prompts
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the story premises mentioned above actually have a great deal in common with writing prompts like the ones put forward each week in Reedsy’s short story competition . Try it out! These prompts are often themed in a way that’s designed to narrow the focus for the writer so that one isn’t confronted with a completely blank canvas.
Turn to the originals
Take a story or novel you admire and think about how you might rework it, changing a key element. (“Pride and Prejudice and Vampires” is perhaps an extreme product of this exercise.) It doesn’t matter that your proposed reworking will probably never amount to more than a skimpy mental reimagining — it may well throw up collateral narrative possibilities along the way.
Keep a notebook
Finally, keep a notebook in which to jot down stray observations and story ideas whenever they occur to you. Again, most of what you write will be stuff you never return to, and it may even fail to make sense when you reread it. But lurking among the dross may be that one rough diamond that makes all the rest worthwhile.
Like I mentioned earlier, short stories usually contain far fewer characters than novels. Readers also need to know far less about the characters in a short story than we do in a novel (sometimes it’s the lack of information about a particular character in a story that adds to the mystery surrounding them, making them more compelling).
Yet it remains the case that creating memorable characters should be one of your principal goals. Think of your own family, friends and colleagues. Do you ever get them confused with one another? Probably not.
Your dramatis personae should be just as easily distinguishable from one another, either through their appearance, behavior, speech patterns, or some other unique trait. If you find yourself struggling, a character profile template like the one you can download for free below is particularly helpful in this stage of writing.
Reedsy’s Character Profile Template
A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.
- “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman features a cast of two: the narrator and her husband. How does Gilman give her narrator uniquely identifying features?
- “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe features a cast of three: the narrator, the old man, and the police. How does Poe use speech patterns in dialogue and within the text itself to convey important information about the narrator?
- “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor is perhaps an exception: its cast of characters amounts to a whopping (for a short story) nine. How does she introduce each character? In what way does she make each character, in particular The Misfit, distinct?
He’s right: avoid the preliminary exposition or extended scene-setting. Begin your story by plunging straight into the heart of the action. What most readers want from a story is drama and conflict, and this is often best achieved by beginning in media res . You have no time to waste in a short story. The first sentence of your story is crucial, and needs to grab the reader’s attention to make them want to read on.
One way to do this is to write an opening sentence that makes the reader ask questions. For example, Kingsley Amis once said, tongue-in-cheek, that in the future he would only read novels that began with the words: “A shot rang out.”
This simple sentence is actually quite telling. It introduces the stakes: there’s an immediate element of physical danger, and therefore jeopardy for someone. But it also raises questions that the reader will want answered. Who fired the shot? Who or what were they aiming at, and why? Where is this happening?
We read fiction for the most part to get answers to questions. For example, if you begin your story with a character who behaves in an unexpected way, the reader will want to know why he or she is behaving like this. What motivates their unusual behavior? Do they know that what they’re doing or saying is odd? Do they perhaps have something to hide? Can we trust this character?
As the author, you can answer these questions later (that is, answer them dramatically rather than through exposition). But since we’re speaking of the beginning of a story, at the moment it’s enough simply to deliver an opening sentence that piques the reader’s curiosity, raises questions, and keeps them reading.
“Anything goes” should be your maxim when embarking on your first draft.
How to Craft a Killer Short Story
From pacing to character development, master the elements of short fiction.
By that, I mean: kill the editor in your head and give your imagination free rein. Remember, you’re beginning with a blank page. Anything you put down will be an improvement on what’s currently there, which is nothing. And there’s a prescription for any obstacle you might encounter at this stage of writing.
- Worried that you’re overwriting? Don’t worry. It’s easier to cut material in later drafts once you’ve sketched out the whole story.
- Got stuck, but know what happens later? Leave a gap. There’s no necessity to write the story sequentially. You can always come back and fill in the gap once the rest of the story is complete.
- Have a half-developed scene that’s hard for you to get onto the page? Write it in note form for the time being. You might find that it relieves the pressure of having to write in complete sentences from the get-go.
Most of my stories were begun with no idea of their eventual destination, but merely an approximate direction of travel. To put it another way, I’m a ‘pantser’ (flying by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go along) rather than a planner. There is, of course, no right way to write your first draft. What matters is that you have a first draft on your hands at the end of the day.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the ending of a short story : it can rescue an inferior story or ruin an otherwise superior one.
If you’re a planner, you will already know the broad outlines of the ending. If you’re a pantser like me, you won’t — though you’ll hope that a number of possible endings will have occurred to you in the course of writing and rewriting the story!
In both cases, keep in mind that what you’re after is an ending that’s true to the internal logic of the story without being obvious or predictable. What you want to avoid is an ending that evokes one of two reactions:
- “Is that it?” aka “The author has failed to resolve the questions raised by the story.”
- “WTF!” aka “This ending is simply confusing.”
Like Truman Capote said, “Good writing is rewriting.”
Once you have a first draft, the real work begins. This is when you move things around, tightening the nuts and bolts of the piece to make sure it holds together and resembles the shape it took in your mind when you first conceived it.
In most cases, this means reading through your first draft again (and again). In this stage of editing , think to yourself:
- Which narrative threads are already in place?
- Which may need to be added or developed further?
- Which need to perhaps be eliminated altogether?
All that’s left afterward is the final polish . Here’s where you interrogate every word, every sentence, to make sure it’s earned its place in the story:
- Is that really what I mean?
- Could I have said that better?
- Have I used that word correctly?
- Is that sentence too long?
- Have I removed any clichés?
Trust me: this can be the most satisfying part of the writing process. The heavy lifting is done, the walls have been painted, the furniture is in place. All you have to do now is hang a few pictures, plump the cushions and put some flowers in a vase.
Eventually, you may reach a point where you’ve reread and rewritten your story so many times that you simply can’t bear to look at it again. If this happens, put the story aside and try to forget about it.
When you do finally return to it, weeks or even months later, you’ll probably be surprised at how the intervening period has allowed you to see the story with a fresh pair of eyes. And whereas it might have felt like removing one of your own internal organs to cut such a sentence or paragraph before, now it feels like a liberation.
The story, you can see, is better as a result. It was only your bloated appendix you removed, not a vital organ.
It’s at this point that you should call on the services of beta readers if you have them. This can be a daunting prospect: what if the response is less enthusiastic than you’re hoping for? But think about it this way: if you’re expecting complete strangers to read and enjoy your story, then you shouldn’t be afraid of trying it out first on a more sympathetic audience.
This is also why I’d suggest delaying this stage of the writing process until you feel sure your story is complete. It’s one thing to ask a friend to read and comment on your new story. It’s quite another thing to return to them sometime later with, “I’ve made some changes to the story — would you mind reading it again?”
So how do you know your story’s really finished? This is a question that people have put to me. My reply tends to be: I know the story’s finished when I can’t see how to make it any better.
This is when you can finally put down your pencil (or keyboard), rest content with your work for a few days, then submit it so that people can read your work. And you can start with this directory of literary magazines once you're at this step.
The truth is, in my experience, there’s actually no such thing as a final draft. Even after you’ve submitted your story somewhere — and even if you’re lucky enough to have it accepted — there will probably be the odd word here or there that you’d like to change.
Don’t worry about this. Large-scale changes are probably out of the question at this stage, but a sympathetic editor should be willing to implement any small changes right up to the time of publication.
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The short story is a fiction writer’s laboratory: here is where you can experiment with characters, plots, and ideas without the heavy lifting of writing a novel. Learning how to write a short story is essential to mastering the art of storytelling . With far fewer words to worry about, storytellers can make many more mistakes—and strokes of genius!—through experimentation and the fun of fiction writing.
Nonetheless, the art of writing short stories is not easy to master. How do you tell a complete story in so few words? What does a story need to have in order to be successful? Whether you’re struggling with how to write a short story outline, or how to fully develop a character in so few words, this guide is your starting point.
Famous authors like Virginia Woolf, Haruki Murakami, and Agatha Christie have used the short story form to play with ideas before turning those stories into novels. Whether you want to master the elements of fiction, experiment with novel ideas, or simply have fun with storytelling, here’s everything you need on how to write a short story step by step.
The Core Elements of a Short Story
There’s no secret formula to writing a short story. However, a good short story will have most or all of the following elements:
- A protagonist with a certain desire or need. It is essential for the protagonist to want something they don’t have, otherwise they will not drive the story forward.
- A clear dilemma. We don’t need much backstory to see how the dilemma started; we’re primarily concerned with how the protagonist resolves it.
- A decision. What does the protagonist do to resolve their dilemma?
- A climax. In Freytag’s Pyramid , the climax of a story is when the tension reaches its peak, and the reader discovers the outcome of the protagonist’s decision(s).
- An outcome. How does the climax change the protagonist? Are they a different person? Do they have a different philosophy or outlook on life?
Of course, short stories also utilize the elements of fiction , such as a setting , plot , and point of view . It helps to study these elements and to understand their intricacies. But, when it comes to laying down the skeleton of a short story, the above elements are what you need to get started.
Note: a short story rarely, if ever, has subplots. The focus should be entirely on a single, central storyline. Subplots will either pull focus away from the main story, or else push the story into the territory of novellas and novels.
The shorter the story is, the fewer of these elements are essentials. If you’re interested in writing short-short stories, check out our guide on how to write flash fiction .
How to Write a Short Story Outline
Some writers are “pantsers”—they “write by the seat of their pants,” making things up on the go with little more than an idea for a story. Other writers are “plotters,” meaning they decide the story’s structure in advance of writing it.
You don’t need a short story outline to write a good short story. But, if you’d like to give yourself some scaffolding before putting words on the page, this article answers the question of how to write a short story outline:
How to Write a Short Story Step by Step
There are many ways to approach the short story craft, but this method is tried-and-tested for writers of all levels. Here’s how to write a short story step by step.
1. Start With an Idea
Often, generating an idea is the hardest part. You want to write, but what will you write about?
What’s more, it’s easy to start coming up with ideas and then dismissing them. You want to tell an authentic, original story, but everything you come up with has already been written, it seems.
Here are a few tips:
- Originality presents itself in your storytelling, not in your ideas. For example, the premise of both Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ostrovsky’s The Snow Maiden are very similar: two men and two women, in intertwining love triangles, sort out their feelings for each other amidst mischievous forest spirits, love potions, and friendship drama. The way each story is written makes them very distinct from one another, to the point where, unless it’s pointed out to you, you might not even notice the similarities.
- An idea is not a final draft. You will find that exploring the possibilities of your story will generate something far different than the idea you started out with. This is a good thing—it means you made the story your own!
- Experiment with genres and tropes. Even if you want to write literary fiction , pay attention to the narrative structures that drive genre stories, and practice your storytelling using those structures. Again, you will naturally make the story your own simply by playing with ideas.
If you’re struggling simply to find ideas, try out this prompt generator , or pull prompts from this Twitter .
2. Outline, OR Conceive Your Characters
If you plan to outline, do so once you’ve generated an idea. You can learn about how to write a short story outline earlier in this article.
If you don’t plan to outline, you should at least start with a character or characters. Certainly, you need a protagonist, but you should also think about any characters that aid or inhibit your protagonist’s journey.
When thinking about character development, ask the following questions:
- What is my character’s background? Where do they come from, how did they get here, where do they want to be?
- What does your character desire the most? This can be both material or conceptual, like “fitting in” or “being loved.”
- What is your character’s fatal flaw? In other words, what limitation prevents the protagonist from achieving their desire? Often, this flaw is a blind spot that directly counters their desire. For example, self hatred stands in the way of a protagonist searching for love.
- How does your character think and speak? Think of examples, both fictional and in the real world, who might resemble your character.
In short stories, there are rarely more characters than a protagonist, an antagonist (if relevant), and a small group of supporting characters. The more characters you include, the longer your story will be. Focus on making only one or two characters complex: it is absolutely okay to have the rest of the cast be flat characters that move the story along.
Learn more about character development here:
3. Write Scenes Around Conflict
Once you have an outline or some characters, start building scenes around conflict. Every part of your story, including the opening sentence, should in some way relate to the protagonist’s conflict.
Conflict is the lifeblood of storytelling: without it, the reader doesn’t have a clear reason to keep reading. Loveable characters are not enough, as the story has to give the reader something to root for.
Take, for example, Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story The Cask of Amontillado . We start at the conflict: the narrator has been slighted by Fortunato, and plans to exact revenge. Every scene in the story builds tension and follows the protagonist as he exacts this revenge.
In your story, start writing scenes around conflict, and make sure each paragraph and piece of dialogue relates, in some way, to your protagonist’s unmet desires.
4. Write Your First Draft
The scenes you build around conflict will eventually be stitched into a complete story. Make sure as the story progresses that each scene heightens the story’s tension, and that this tension remains unbroken until the climax resolves whether or not your protagonist meets their desires.
Don’t stress too hard on writing a perfect story. Rather, take Anne Lamott’s advice, and “write a shitty first draft.” The goal is not to pen a complete story at first draft; rather, it’s to set ideas down on paper. You are simply, as Shannon Hale suggests, “shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build castles.”
5. Step Away, Breathe, Revise
Whenever Stephen King finishes a novel, he puts it in a drawer and doesn’t think about it for 6 weeks. With short stories, you probably don’t need to take as long of a break. But, the idea itself is true: when you’ve finished your first draft, set it aside for a while. Let yourself come back to the story with fresh eyes, so that you can confidently revise, revise, revise .
In revision, you want to make sure each word has an essential place in the story, that each scene ramps up tension, and that each character is clearly defined. The culmination of these elements allows a story to explore complex themes and ideas, giving the reader something to think about after the story has ended.
6. Compare Against Our Short Story Checklist
Does your story have everything it needs to succeed? Compare it against this short story checklist, as written by our instructor Rosemary Tantra Bensko.
Below is a collection of practical short story writing tips by Writers.com instructor Rosemary Tantra Bensko . Each paragraph is its own checklist item: a core element of short story writing advice to follow unless you have clear reasons to the contrary. We hope it’s a helpful resource in your own writing.
Update 9/1/2020: We’ve now made a summary of Rosemary’s short story checklist available as a PDF download . Enjoy!
Click to download
How to Write a Short Story: Length and Setting
Your short story is 1000 to 7500 words in length.
The story takes place in one time period, not spread out or with gaps other than to drive someplace, sleep, etc. If there are those gaps, there is a space between the paragraphs, the new paragraph beginning flush left, to indicate a new scene.
Each scene takes place in one location, or in continual transit, such as driving a truck or flying in a plane.
How to Write a Short Story: Point of View
Unless it’s a very lengthy Romance story, in which there may be two Point of View (POV) characters, there is one POV character. If we are told what any character secretly thinks, it will only be the POV character. The degree to which we are privy to the unexpressed thoughts, memories and hopes of the POV character remains consistent throughout the story.
You avoid head-hopping by only having one POV character per scene, even in a Romance. You avoid straying into even brief moments of telling us what other characters think other than the POV character. You use words like “apparently,” “obviously,” or “supposedly” to suggest how non-POV-characters think rather than stating it.
How to Write a Short Story: Protagonist, Antagonist, Motivation
Your short story has one clear protagonist who is usually the character changing most.
Your story has a clear antagonist, who generally makes the protagonist change by thwarting his goals.
(Possible exception to the two short story writing tips above: In some types of Mystery and Action stories, particularly in a series, etc., the protagonist doesn’t necessarily grow personally, but instead his change relates to understanding the antagonist enough to arrest or kill him.)
The protagonist changes with an Arc arising out of how he is stuck in his Flaw at the beginning of the story, which makes the reader bond with him as a human, and feel the pain of his problems he causes himself. (Or if it’s the non-personal growth type plot: he’s presented at the beginning of the story with a high-stakes problem that requires him to prevent or punish a crime.)
The protagonist usually is shown to Want something, because that’s what people normally do, defining their personalities and behavior patterns, pushing them onward from day to day. This may be obvious from the beginning of the story, though it may not become heightened until the Inciting Incident , which happens near the beginning of Act 1. The Want is usually something the reader sort of wants the character to succeed in, while at the same time, knows the Want is not in his authentic best interests. This mixed feeling in the reader creates tension.
The protagonist is usually shown to Need something valid and beneficial, but at first, he doesn’t recognize it, admit it, honor it, integrate it with his Want, or let the Want go so he can achieve the Need instead. Ideally, the Want and Need can be combined in a satisfying way toward the end for the sake of continuity of forward momentum of victoriously achieving the goals set out from the beginning. It’s the encounters with the antagonist that forcibly teach the protagonist to prioritize his Needs correctly and overcome his Flaw so he can defeat the obstacles put in his path.
The protagonist in a personal growth plot needs to change his Flaw/Want but like most people, doesn’t automatically do that when faced with the problem. He tries the easy way, which doesn’t work. Only when the Crisis takes him to a low point does he boldly change enough to become victorious over himself and the external situation. What he learns becomes the Theme.
Each scene shows its main character’s goal at its beginning, which aligns in a significant way with the protagonist’s overall goal for the story. The scene has a “charge,” showing either progress toward the goal or regression away from the goal by the ending. Most scenes end with a negative charge, because a story is about not obtaining one’s goals easily, until the end, in which the scene/s end with a positive charge.
The protagonist’s goal of the story becomes triggered until the Inciting Incident near the beginning, when something happens to shake up his life. This is the only major thing in the story that is allowed to be a random event that occurs to him.
How to Write a Short Story: Characters
Your characters speak differently from one another, and their dialogue suggests subtext, what they are really thinking but not saying: subtle passive-aggressive jibes, their underlying emotions, etc.
Your characters are not illustrative of ideas and beliefs you are pushing for, but come across as real people.
How to Write a Short Story: Prose
Your language is succinct, fresh and exciting, specific, colorful, avoiding clichés and platitudes. Sentence structures vary. In Genre stories, the language is simple, the symbolism is direct, and words are well-known, and sentences are relatively short. In Literary stories, you are freer to use more sophisticated ideas, words, sentence structures and underlying metaphors and implied motifs.
How to Write a Short Story: Story Structure
Your plot elements occur in the proper places according to classical Act Structure so the reader feels he has vicariously gone through a harrowing trial with the protagonist and won, raising his sense of hope and possibility. Literary short stories may be more subtle, with lower stakes, experimenting beyond classical structures like the Hero’s Journey. They can be more like vignettes sometimes, or even slice-of-life, though these types are hard to place in publications.
In Genre stories, all the questions are answered, threads are tied up, problems are solved, though the results of carnage may be spread over the landscape. In Literary short stories, you are free to explore uncertainty, ambiguity, and inchoate, realistic endings that suggest multiple interpretations, and unresolved issues.
Some Literary stories may be nonrealistic, such as with Surrealism, Absurdism, New Wave Fabulism, Weird and Magical Realism . If this is what you write, they still need their own internal logic and they should not be bewildering as to the what the reader is meant to experience, whether it’s a nuanced, unnameable mood or a trip into the subconscious.
Literary stories may also go beyond any label other than Experimental. For example, a story could be a list of To Do items on a paper held by a magnet to a refrigerator for the housemate to read. The person writing the list may grow more passive-aggressive and manipulative as the list grows, and we learn about the relationship between the housemates through the implied threats and cajoling.
How to Write a Short Story: Capturing Reader Interest
Your short story is suspenseful, meaning readers hope the protagonist will achieve his best goal, his Need, by the Climax battle against the antagonist.
Your story entertains. This is especially necessary for Genre short stories.
The story captivates readers at the very beginning with a Hook, which can be a puzzling mystery to solve, an amazing character’s or narrator’s Voice, an astounding location, humor, a startling image, or a world the reader wants to become immersed in.
Expository prose (telling, like an essay) takes up very, very little space in your short story, and it does not appear near the beginning. The story is in Narrative format instead, in which one action follows the next. You’ve removed every unnecessary instance of Expository prose and replaced it with showing Narrative. Distancing words like “used to,” “he would often,” “over the years, he,” “each morning, he” indicate that you are reporting on a lengthy time period, summing it up, rather than sticking to Narrative format, in which immediacy makes the story engaging.
You’ve earned the right to include Expository Backstory by making the reader yearn for knowing what happened in the past to solve a mystery. This can’t possibly happen at the beginning, obviously. Expository Backstory does not take place in the first pages of your story.
Your reader cares what happens and there are high stakes (especially important in Genre stories). Your reader worries until the end, when the protagonist survives, succeeds in his quest to help the community, gets the girl, solves or prevents the crime, achieves new scientific developments, takes over rule of his realm, etc.
Every sentence is compelling enough to urge the reader to read the next one—because he really, really wants to—instead of doing something else he could be doing. Your story is not going to be assigned to people to analyze in school like the ones you studied, so you have found a way from the beginning to intrigue strangers to want to spend their time with your words.
Where to Read and Submit Short Stories
Whether you’re looking for inspiration or want to publish your own stories, you’ll find great literary journals for writers of all backgrounds at this article:
Learn How to Write a Short Story at Writers.com
The short story takes an hour to learn and a lifetime to master. Learn how to write a short story with Writers.com. Our upcoming fiction courses will give you the ropes to tell authentic, original short stories that captivate and entrance your readers.
Rosemary – Is there any chance you could add a little something to your checklist? I’d love to know the best places to submit our short stories for publication. Thanks so much.
Hi, Kim Hanson,
Some good places to find publications specific to your story are NewPages, Poets and Writers, Duotrope, and The Submission Grinder.
“ In Genre stories, all the questions are answered, threads are tied up, problems are solved, though the results of carnage may be spread over the landscape.”
Not just no but NO.
See for example the work of MacArthur Fellow Kelly Link.
[…] How to Write a Short Story: The Short Story Checklist […]
Thank you for these directions and tips. It’s very encouraging to someone like me, just NOW taking up writing.
[…] Writers.com. A great intro to writing. https://writers.com/how-to-write-a-short-story […]
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Take risks and tell the truth: how to write a great short story
Drawing on writers from Anton Chekhov to Kit de Waal, Donal Ryan explores the art of writing short fiction. Plus Chris Power on the best books for budding short story writers
T he first story I wrote outside of school was about Irish boxer Barry McGuigan. I was 10 and I loved Barry. He’d just lost his world featherweight title to the American Steve Cruz under the hellish Nevada sun and the only thing that could mend my broken heart was a restoration of my hero’s belt. Months passed and there was no talk of a rematch, so I wrote a story about it.
My imagined fight was in Ireland, and I was ringside. In my story I’d arranged the whole thing. I’d even given Barry some tips on countering Steve’s vicious hook. It went the distance but Barry won easily on points. He hugged Steve. His dad sang “Danny Boy”. I felt as I finished my story an intense relief. The world in that moment was restful and calm. I’d created a new reality for myself, and I was able to occupy it for a while, to feel a joy I’d created by moving a biro across paper. I think of that story now every single time I sit down to write. I strive for the feeling of rightness it gave me, that feeling of peace.
It took me a while to regain that feeling. When I left school, where I was lucky enough to be roundly encouraged and told with conviction that I was a writer, I inexplicably embarked on a career of self-sabotage, only allowing my literary ambitions to surface very sporadically, and then burning the results in fits of disgust. Nothing I wrote rang true; nothing felt worthy of being read.
Shortly after I got married my mother-in-law happened upon a file on the hard drive of a PC I’d loaned her (there’s a great and terrifying writing prompt!). It contained a ridiculous story about a young solicitor being corrupted by a gangster client. I’d forgotten about the story, and about one of its peripheral characters, a simple and pure-hearted man named Johnsey Cunliffe. My wife suggested giving Johnsey new life, and I started a rewrite with him as the hero; the story kept growing until I found myself with a draft of my first finished novel, The Thing About December . I didn’t feel embarrassed, nor did I feel an urge to burn it. I felt peace. I knew it wouldn’t last, and so I quickly wrote a handful of new stories, and the peace didn’t dissipate. Not for a while, anyway.
So a forgotten short story, written somewhere in the fog of my early 20s, turned out to be the making of my writing career. Maybe it would have happened anyway, or maybe not, but I think the impulse would always have been present, the urge to put a grammar on the ideas in my head. Mary Costello, author of The China Factory , one of the finest short story collections I’ve ever read, says: “Write only what’s essential, what must be written … an image or a story that keeps gnawing, that won’t leave you alone. And the only way to get peace is to write it.”
I know that in this straitened, rule-bound, virus-ridden present, many people find themselves with that gnawing feeling, that urge to fashion from language a new reality, or to get the idea that’s been clamouring inside them out of their imagination and into the world. So I’ve put together some ideas with the help of some of my favourite writers on how best to go about finding that peace.
In a short story, the sentences have to do so much! Some of Chekhov’s stories are less than three printed pages; a few comprise a single brief paragraph. In his most famous story, “The Lady with the Dog”, we are given a detailed account of the nature, history and motivations of Gurov within the first page, but there is no feeling of stress or overload. Stephen King’s 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars is a masterclass in compression and suspense. My colleague in creative writing at the University of Limerick, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, is, like me, a novelist who turns occasionally to the short form. Sarah considers short stories to be “storytelling’s finest gifts. In the best ones, nothing is superfluous, their focus is sharp and vivid but they can be gloriously elliptical too, full of echoes.” The novel form, as I’ve heard Mike McCormack say, offers “a wonderful accommodation to the writer”, but the short story is a barren territory. There’s nowhere to hide, no space for excess or digression.
My wife asked me once why this worried me so much. I’d just published my first two novels and had embarked on a whole collection of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun . She’d come home from work to find me curled up in a ball of despair. “Every sentence worries me,” I whined. “None of them is doing enough .” “Don’t worry about how much they’re doing until all the work is done,” she said. “Get the story written, and then you can go back and fix all those worrisome sentences. And the chances are, once the story exists, you won’t be as worried about those sentences at all. They’ll just be. ”
Ah. I can still feel the beautiful relief I felt at her wise words. Life is filled with things to worry about. The quality of our sentences should be a challenge and a constant fruitful quest, a gradual aggregation of attainment. But creativity should always bring us at least some whisper of joy. It should be a way out of worry.
One of the concepts my colleague Sarah illuminates is that of a “draft zero” – a draft that comes before a first draft, where your story is splashed on to your screen or page, containing all or most of its desired elements. Draft zero offers complete freedom from any consideration of craft or finesse.
Kit de Waal, who recently published a wonderful collection, Supporting Cast , featuring characters from her novels, offers this wisdom on getting your story from your head on to your page or screen: “Don’t overthink but do overwrite. Sometimes you see a pair of gloves or a flower on the street or lipstick on a coffee cup and it moves you in a particular way. That’s your prompt right there. Write that feeling or set something around that idea, you don’t know what at this stage, you’re going off sheer muse, writerly energy, so just follow it. And follow it right to the end – it might be a day, a week, a year. Overwrite the thing and then sit back and ask yourself, ‘Where is the magic? What am I saying? Who is speaking?’ When you’ve worked that out, you have your story and you can start crafting and editing.”
Your draft zero is Michelangelo’s lump of rough-hacked marble, but with David’s basic shape. It is the reassuring existence of something tangible in the world outside of your mind , something raw and real, containing within its messy self the potential for greatness. And the best way to make it great is to make it truthful.
I don’t mean by this that you need to speak your own truth at all times or to draw only on your own lived experience, but it’s important to be true to our own impulses and ambitions as writers; to write the story we want to write, not the story we think we should write. That’s like saying things that you think people want to hear: you’ll end up tangling yourself in a knot of half-truths and constructed, co-opted beliefs. You’ll be more politician than writer, and, as good and decent as some of them are, the world definitely has enough politicians.
Your own experiences, of course, your own truth, can be parlayed into wonderful fictions, and can by virtue of their foundation in reality contain an almost automatic immediacy and intensity. Melatu Uche Okorie’s debut collection, This Hostel Life , is drawn from her experiences in the Irish direct provision system as an asylum seeker. The title story in particular has about it a feeling of absolute truthfulness, written in the demotic of the author’s Nigerian countrywomen; while another story, “Under the Awning”, feels as though it might be an oblique description of events witnessed or experienced first-hand by the author.
You might as well do exactly what you want to do, even (or especially) if it’s never been done before. You have nothing to lose by taking risks, with form, content, style, structure or any other element of your piece of fiction. Rob Doyle , a consummate literary risk-taker, exhorts writers to “try writing a story that doesn’t look how short stories are meant to look – try one in the form of an encyclopaedia entry, or a list, or an essay, or a review of an imaginary restaurant, sex toy, amusement park or film. Have people wondering if it’s even fiction. Mix it all up. Short stories can explore ideas as well as emotions – huge ideas can fit into short stories. For proof, read the work of Jorge Luis Borges . In fact, I second Roberto Bolaño’s advice to anyone writing short stories: read Borges.”
Bend the iron bar
“When the curtain falls,” said Frank O’Connor of the short story, “everything must be changed. An iron bar must have been bent and been seen to be bent.” One of the first short stories to break my heart was O’Connor’s “ Guests of the Nation ”. It has been described as one of the greatest anti-war stories ever written, and one of the finest stories from a master of the form. Its devastating denouement closes with this plaintive statement from the shattered narrator: “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.” This line contains within it an entreaty to short story writers to reach for that profound moment, that event or epiphany or reversal or triumph; to arrive within the confines of their story at a moment that will have a resonance far beyond its narrow scope.
Another great literary O’Connor, this time the novelist Joseph, who teaches creative writing at the University of Limerick, says that “to me every excellent short story centres around an instant where intense change becomes possible or, at least, imaginable for the character. Cut into the story late, leave it early, and find a moment.” Joseph quotes the closing words of one of his favourite short stories, Raymond Carver’s “Fat”: “It is August. My life is going to change. I feel it.”
The moment of course needn’t be in the ending, and the end of a story doesn’t necessarily have to be incendiary or revelatory, or to contain an unexpected twist. Mary Gaitskill ’s story “Heaven” describes a family going through change and trauma and loss, and iron bars are bent in almost every paragraph, but its ending is memorable for the moment of relief it offers, in a gently muted description of the perfect grace of a summer evening and a family gathered for a meal. “They all sat in lawn chairs and ate from the warm plates in their laps. The steak was good and rare; its juices ran into the salad and pasta when Virginia moved her knees. A light wind blew loose hairs around their faces and tickled them. The trees rustled dimly. There were nice insect noises. Jarold paused, a forkful of steak rising across his chest. ‘Like heaven,’ he said. ‘It’s like heaven.’ They were quiet for several minutes.”
Listen to your story
“Beer Trip to Llandudno”, Kevin Barry’s masterpiece of the short form, from his 2012 collection Dark Lies the Island , is another story that has remained pristine in my consciousness since I first read it. Part of the magic of that story, and of all Barry’s work, is its dialogue: the earthy, pithy, perfectly authentic exchanges between his characters. When I asked Kevin about this, he said: “If you feel like you’re coming towards the final draft of a story, print it out and read it aloud, slowly, with red pen in hand. Your ear will catch all the evasions and the false notes in the story much quicker than your eye will catch them on the screen or page. Listen to what’s not being said in the dialogue. Very often the story, and the drama, is to be found just underneath the surface of the talk.”
Such scrupulous attention to the burden carried by each unit of language and to the work done by the notes played and unplayed can make a story truly shine. Alice Kinsella is an accomplished poet who recently turned her hand to the short form in great style with her sublime account of early motherhood, “Window”. “Poetry or prose,” Alice says, “the aim is the same, to make every word earn its place on the page.”
And as self-defeating as this sounds, here’s a final piece of advice: once you sit down to write your story, forget about this article. Forget all the advice you’ve ever been given. Free your hand, free your mind, cut yourself loose into the infinity of possibility, and create from those 26 little symbols what you will. We came from the hearts of stars. We are the universe, telling itself its own story.
Donal Ryan is a judge for the BBC national short story award with Cambridge University. The shortlist will be announced on 10 September and the winner on 19 October. For more information see www.bbc.co.uk/nssa .
Books for budding short story writers By Chris Power
If short story collections occupy a minority position on publishers’ lists, books about the short story are an even scarcer commodity. In the 1970s the academic Charles E May published Short Story Theories , which he followed up in 1994 with The New Short Story Theories . These volumes, out of print but easy enough to find second-hand, collect some of the key texts about short fiction, from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales , to Elizabeth Bowen’s tracing of Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov’s influence, and Julio Cortázar’s brilliant lecture Some Aspects of the Short Story (“the novel always wins on points, while the story must win by a knockout”).
Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice (1963) studies 11 great story writers, from Ivan Turgenev to Katherine Mansfield, and argues that the quintessential short story subjects are outsiders: “There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel – an intense awareness of human loneliness.” O’Connor’s assertiveness makes disagreeing with him part of the fun. As his countryman Sean O’Faolain wrote: “He was like a man who takes a machine gun to a shooting gallery. Everybody falls flat on his face, the proprietor at once takes to the hills, and when it is all over, and you cautiously peep up, you find that he has wrecked the place but got three perfect bull’s-eyes.”
I have a similar relationship with George Saunders’s remarkable study of seven classic Russian short stories, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain , published earlier this year. I don’t buy the overarching argument about fiction generating empathy, but this is a book stuffed with arresting observations and practical tips from a master craftsman. His 50-page close reading of Chekhov’s 12-page “In the Cart” is jaw-droppingly good.
Steering the Craft by Ursula K Le Guin isn’t specifically about short stories, but she could certainly write them, and her clear, practical advice is invaluable to anyone wanting to learn about two of the form’s prerequisites: rhythm and concision.
My last recommendation isn’t a book at all, but the New Yorker: Fiction podcast . Appearing monthly since 2007, each episode features a writer reading a story from the magazine’s archives and discussing it with fiction editor Deborah Treisman. These conversations are a wonderful education in how stories work. I strongly recommend Ben Marcus on Kazuo Ishiguro (September 2011), Tessa Hadley on Nadine Gordimer (September 2012), and ZZ Packer on Lesley Nneka Arimah (October 2020), a discussion which moves between craft, fairytale and motherhood.
- Short stories
- Raymond Carver
- Stephen King
- Anton Chekhov
- Jorge Luis Borges
- Mary Gaitskill
- Kevin Barry
How to Write a Short Story in 5 Steps
Short stories are to novels what TV episodes are to movies. Short stories are a form of narrative writing that has all the same elements as novels—plot, character development, point of view, story structure, theme—but are delivered in fewer words. For many writers, short stories are a less daunting way to dive into creative writing than attempting to write a novel . This doesn’t mean writing short fiction is easy—it, like every other kind of writing, comes with its own unique challenges.
If you’re wondering how to write a short story , we’re here to help. We’ve got tips for everything from coming up with short story ideas to fleshing out a plot to getting your work published in literary magazines.
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What is a short story?
A short story is a short, self-contained work of fiction that generally falls between 1,000 and 10,000 words.
Because of this length constraint, short stories tend to be less complex than longer works—in certain ways. In a short story, you can build a world, but not to the extent you can build a world in a (longer) novel. Similarly, you can have multiple fleshed-out characters, but you can’t give every character a full backstory and meaningful character arc like you can in a lengthier work. Generally, long, intricate plots with multiple subplots are better suited to novel-length works than a short story.
Don’t take this to mean your short story’s theme can’t be as deep as a longer work’s theme. You don’t need an extensive world with a complex magical system and an entire cast of three-dimensional characters to express a theme effectively. While short stories have fewer words, simpler settings, and smaller casts than novels, they can have just as much of an impact on readers. If you’re looking to read a powerful short story and see how other authors communicate substantive themes in just a few thousand words, check out these famous, impactful works:
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
- “Thank You Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
- “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
How long should a short story be?
Like we said in the previous section, short stories typically contain between 1,000 and 10,000 words. Stories longer than 10,000 (but shorter than 40,000) words are generally considered novellas . You might even come across the term novelette to refer to a story between 7,500 and 17,000 words. Once you hit about 50,000 words, you’re in novel territory (and you’ve won NaNoWriMo!)
Stories that clock in under 1,000 words are known as flash fiction and stories of 500 words or fewer are considered microfiction .
There’s really no limit to how short a story can be, though. Consider Hemingway’s famous six-word story:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
In just six words, Hemingway evokes an entire scene and the backstory that led to that scene. This is an extreme example of a short story, and it relies on the reader extrapolating meaning from the words, but because it does so successfully, it counts as a short story.
What’s in a short story?
Every short story has these five elements:
Characters are the people (or animals, aliens, mythical creatures, or sentient objects) who do the action in your story. Your protagonist is the character who undergoes some kind of change (or lack thereof) as a result of the story’s main conflict. Your antagonist is the character (or something abstract) attempting to prevent the protagonist’s change. To clarify, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a person—it could be the protagonist’s environment, their society, or even an aspect of themselves.
>>Read More: What Is Direct Characterization in Literature?
Plot is the series of events that illustrate the story’s conflict. When you’re writing a short story, it’s generally best to start your plot as close to the end as possible. In other words, if your story is about an alien who visits Earth and then retreats, horrified, back to her spaceship, start your story just as she’s approaching Earth or just as she’s touching down. You can build up a backstory later through tools like dialogue, flashbacks, and the protagonist’s actions. With a short story, you don’t have space for a lengthy exposition, so drop your readers right into the action.
A short story’s theme is its central message. This is the point the author wants readers to take away from their work.
Conflict is the action that drives the story’s plot. It’s the obstacle the protagonist has to overcome or the goal they’re attempting to reach. A conflict can be internal, like our example alien setting out to prove to herself that she can manage a mission to Earth on her own, or it can be external, like the protagonist striving to prove to her society that Earth is a worthwhile planet with which to establish a relationship.
Setting is the time and place where a story’s action occurs. For example, our alien story’s setting might be Nevada in 1955.
How to write a short story
Mine your imagination.
Just like every other type of writing, a short story starts with brainstorming . In fact, the process for writing a short story is the same writing process you use for other kinds of writing, like essays and presentations.
Ask yourself this: What do I want my short story to be about? Jot that down. Do you already have a clear idea of who your characters are or the setting they’ll inhabit? Or are you starting with a theme you want to convey, and now you need to develop a story to express that theme?
Start your brainstorming session with the elements you already have, then flesh out your story idea from there. Write down your setting, your characters, the conflict they face, and any key plot points you have in mind. You can fill in details later; right now, the goal is to have some rough data to use for your outline.
Don’t move on to outlining until you’ve defined your story’s conflict. Without a conflict, you don’t have a story. Although all of the five elements listed above are necessary for writing a great short story, conflict is the one that drives your plot, shapes your characters, and enables you to express your theme.
The next step in writing short fiction is outlining your story.
When you outline your story, you organize the notes from your brainstorming session into a coherent skeleton of your finished story. Outlining your story is a key part of prewriting because it’s where you develop your story’s framework and sketch out how each scene follows the previous scene to advance the plot. This stage is where you determine any plot twists or big reveals and fit them into the story’s sequence.
Next, it’s time to write.
Don’t worry about grammatical mistakes—you’ll fix them later.
Don’t worry about your narration or dialogue being extraneous or not making complete sense—you’ll fix that later too. Right now, you’re working on a rough draft. Just get that story out of your imagination and onto the page without being self-conscious about it.
Keep that first draft as tight as possible. You’re writing a short story, after all, so be economical with your words. Keep these tips in mind as you write :
- You don’t need to explain everything. Give enough explanation so the reader understands what’s happening in a scene; don’t slow them down with paragraphs of backstory and exposition.
- Keep the ending in mind. As you write, determine whether each sentence ultimately progresses the plot. If it doesn’t, either cut it or rework it so it does progress the plot.
- Listen to how people speak. Then, write dialogue that sounds like real conversations. These conversations won’t necessarily be grammatically correct, but they will make your characters sound the way people naturally speak.
Once you have a finished first draft, let it rest. If you have the luxury of waiting a day or so to come back and read what you wrote, do that. That way, you can read your writing again with fresh eyes, which makes it easier to spot inconsistencies and plot holes.
Then it’s time to edit. Read your writing again and note any places where you can make the writing more descriptive, more concise, more engaging, or simply more logical. At this stage, it can be very helpful to work with readers’ feedback. If you’re comfortable sharing your work and receiving constructive criticism, share your rough draft with friends and family—and, if possible, with other writers—and let their feedback guide the revisions you make.
Move past creative blocks
So you’ve got writer’s block.
Writer’s block can strike at any point in the writing process. You might have a great idea for a short story, then find yourself struggling as you try to brainstorm ways to transform that idea into a narrative. Or you might have no problem brainstorming and creating a coherent outline, but then feel like you’re running into a wall as you try to write linear scenes and craft realistic dialogue that advances the plot. Or maybe you aren’t stuck in the sense that you don’t know what to write, but you’re having a hard time determining the most effective way to write it.
It happens to every writer.
Because writer’s block is such a universal condition, we gathered up a few helpful tips you can use to defeat writer’s block and write effective, engaging scenes:
Give a writing prompt a shot
If getting started is what’s giving you a hard time, consider using a writing prompt . A writing prompt is like kindling for your short story. They’re generally brief, at just a sentence or two, and describe scenarios writers flesh out into full-fledged stories. Run a web search for “writing prompts” and you’ll find a ton. You can even tailor your search to a specific genre, like “horror writing prompts” or “romantic comedy writing prompts.”
Skip the scene and work backward
When a particular scene is what’s making it difficult to move forward, skip it. There’s no rule that says you have to write your short story in order. Just move ahead to the next scene that you can write, and then when you’re finished, revisit the challenging one. In many cases, it’s easier to write a scene once you know what happens after it.
We’ve talked about writing sprints before. They’re a great way to make yourself write faster . When it comes to busting through that brick wall of writer’s block, sprinting can put you into a mindset where you’re writing words, any words, just to reach the word count goal you set. You probably won’t craft publishable prose this way, but you’ll likely find creative ways through the difficult scenes that you can build on later.
Where to distribute your short story
If you’re like most authors, one of your goals is to publish your story.
There are two main ways to do that: traditional publishing and self-publishing.
In the short fiction world, traditional publishing generally means having your work published in a literary magazine. There are thousands of literary magazines currently being published around the world, each with a unique combination of editorial focus, publishing schedule, submission process, acceptance rate, and payment for authors.
Some literary magazines accept nearly every story they receive. Others select very few—as in, a single-digit percentage of the stories submitted—to publish. You can find literary magazines and contests through resources such as Poets & Writers , Duotrope , and Writer’s Digest .
If you’ve got a collection of short stories that together are approximately book-length, you can also query agents to have your work published that way. A few well-known short story collections include The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin.
The other way to publish your work is self-publishing. With self-publishing, you don’t need to have your work greenlit by a magazine editor or a publishing house. Although that hurdle isn’t present, self-publishing can be a complex process. As a self-published author, you’re responsible for everything, including these elements:
- Your story’s cover art
- Professional editing
Whether self-publishing is the right route for your story depends on your goals for the story. If you’re looking to have your work featured in a widely circulated magazine, guaranteeing that thousands of people (or more!) read it, traditional publishing is the way to go. If your priority is to simply get your work out there, or if you want total control of every part of building your platform as an author, self-publishing can be the perfect choice.
Popular self-publishing platforms include Kindle Direct Publishing , CreateSpace , Apple Books , and Barnes & Noble Press . Each has a unique publishing process and royalty rate for authors.
You can also self-publish your short story on your blog . Blogs are personal (and professional) outlets for writing, and if you’ve got a story to tell and don’t want to go through the process of getting it published or going the “traditional” self-publishing route, you can create a blog and publish your work there.
Finding a writing community
For many authors, being part of a writing community is a key part of staying in regular writing practice and striving to grow as a writer. Writing communities exist online and offline, with some existing as simply places for writers to connect with each other and others offering up more structure, like a regular critique schedule. There are also writing communities built around writing challenges like NYC Midnight and NaNoWriMo .
If you think you’d benefit from being part of a writing community, find one that fits what you’re looking for—or start one yourself! You can find writing communities on social media and through websites like meetup.com. Other places to look for writing groups are local libraries and bookstores and if you’re a student, your university. Being part of a writing community can help you get your work published in two ways:
- You can have other authors read and critique your work, giving you direction that will help you make it stronger when you revise.
- Other writers can connect you with literary magazines, contests, and agents to potentially work with. If they’ve been published, they can also answer your questions and give you writer-to-writer advice on what to do (and what not to do) when you’re trying to publish your work.
Tell your story with confidence
We all have stories inside us. Writing your story is what makes you an author, and even the most accomplished authors need help catching grammar mistakes and other issues in their writing. That’s what makes Grammarly an ideal writing assistant. Write what’s in your heart and on your mind, then when it’s time to edit, Grammarly will catch any mistakes you might have missed, flag wording that isn’t clear, and suggest the right tone for telling your tale.
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How to start writing short stories
Keen to try your hand at writing a short story but feeling a little lost? Here's a few tips, tricks and suggestions to help you get started.
Last updated: 15 December 2022
Scary, punchy memorable, haunting, funny, teeny tiny or sprawling over several pages, short stories are fantastically flexible. They give you space to explore ideas or get up close to characters in a short amount of time and let readers get stuck into another world without committing to a longer read.
Ready to give writing your own short stories a go? Delve into some top tips for getting started.
Generating story ideas
In some ways, coming up with a spark of an idea is the hardest part of writing - and the best way to make it easier is to practise letting your imagination run wild. If that sounds like a daunting task, don’t worry, there are loads of great ways to help get those cogs turning.
Where to find inspiration
When you’re actively looking for inspiration, you’ll soon discover you can find it almost anywhere. Here are a few fun ways to find things to write about:
- Pick up any newspaper or magazine and work out a backstory for an interesting report
- Browse sites like Pinterest and Instagram for pictures to spark your imagination
- Try working your way through thinkwritten’s 365 simple prompts (this link will open in a new window)
- Have a go at our 50-Word Fiction competition for a new challenge every month
How to start writing
Writing a short story doesn’t have to be difficult, especially not at the beginning. The very first thing you have to do is just sit down and write. Some people like to do that without any clear plan of where their story will go; others prefer to work out a rough plot or idea before they get going.
Both methods have their plus points. Try it one way, try it the other or have a go at mixing the two up. And do remember that one method might not fit all stories (or moods!). Avoid making hard and fast rules or superstitions for yourself and go with the flow.
How to hone your storytelling skills
Once you’ve got the hang of working out new things to write about – and you’re confident you can sit down and do it! – it’s time to take a step back and work on your writing skills.
In the loosest sense of the words, short stories tend to have some sort of beginning, middle and end (there are always exceptions!). They could do with a character or two. And definitely a distinctive point of view. Ideally - and this is very important with short stories - something should happen.
This doesn’t have to be a huge, dramatic climax or a crazy twist, but it does have to be interesting. Short stories don’t take long to read but they do require an investment for the reader so it’s your job to give them something to think about.
What ingredients does a story need?
It’s a question a lot of writers ask themselves and, sadly, it isn’t one with a straight answer. If there was a simple recipe to getting it right, stories would all end up rather samey and bland.
That said, the one crucial ingredient is something to hook the reader’s attention. This might be a cleverly plotted surprise ending, a moment of conflict between two characters, a moment of revelation for the main character, an exciting inciting incident or simply a new take on a familiar setting.
Chuck out the desire to follow the numbers and write a completely normal day in the life of a very average sounding person. Give the reader a glimpse of something different, a story that could only reside in your imagination.
Where to get help with your writing
For some more friendly advice, check out Sophie Cooke’s tips for writing a story .
You may want to think about taking part in a course; whether that’s an evening class, a tutored retreat or a formal university or college course is up to you. Many universities run evening classes and Open University offer several creative writing qualifications (this link will open in a new window) for those who need some flexibility in studying.
Get feedback from a writing group
Joining a creative writing group is also a great way to get feedback and find out what about your story works well and what could do with some fine tuning. Check out writing groups in Scotland or have a search online.
Not every group will suit everyone – for example, some focus on support and others on critical feedback - be prepared to try a couple and if none leave you feeling inspired, start your own!
Submit your short stories
Once you grow more confident in your writing and you feel as though you’re ready to share with a wider audience, it’s time to start sending stories to journals, magazines and competitions. These are easy to find online and many are very welcoming to new writers.
Be prepared for rejection – it’s a normal part of every writer’s life and it’s important to remember that competition is often fierce. Keep trying, pay attention to any feedback you may get and try to send your stories to the kind of opportunities for writers that seem to match your tastes and style. Don’t send a fluffy kitten story to the Journal of Dark Fiction, for example.
Start writing and don’t stop
Take the plunge and start writing. Don’t be disheartened if your short stories aren’t quite the way you want them to be – writing well is a lot harder than it looks, but practice is a sure fire way to improve your skills and tighten your storytelling abilities.
Scottish short story collections
Mayhem & Death
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales
Author Lynsey May
As well as spending two days a week as part of the Writing Communities team, Lynsey May is a freelance writer and online content creator. She's written copy for major brands and arts charities, won prizes for her fiction and spent too much time reading. Her first novel, Weak Teeth, is out in May 2023.
How to Write a Short Story That Captivates Your Reader
Trying to write a short story is the perfect place to begin your writing career .
Because it reveals many of the obstacles, dilemmas, and questions you’ll face when creating fiction of any length.
If you find these things knotty in a short story, imagine how profound they would be in a book-length tale.
Most writers need to get a quarter million clichés out of their systems before they hope to sell something.
And they need to learn the difference between imitating their favorite writers and emulating their best techniques.
Mastering even a few of the elements of fiction while learning the craft will prove to be quick wins for you as you gain momentum as a writer.
I don’t mean to imply that learning how to write a short story is easier than learning how to write a novel —only that as a neophyte you might find the process more manageable in smaller bites.
So let’s start at the beginning.
- What Is a Short Story?
Don’t make the mistake of referring to short nonfiction articles as short stories. In the publishing world, short story always refers to fiction. And short stories come varying shapes and sizes:
- Traditional: 1,500-5000 words
- Flash Fiction: 500-1,000 words
- Micro Fiction: 5 to 350 words
Is there really a market for a short story of 5,000 words (roughly 20 double-spaced manuscript pages)?
Some publications and contests accept entries that long, but it’s easier and more common to sell a short story in the 1,500- to 3,000-word range.
And on the other end of the spectrum, you may wonder if I’m serious about short stories of fewer than 10 words (Micro Fiction). Well, sort of.
They are really more gimmicks, but they exist. The most famous was Ernest Hemingway’s response to a bet that he couldn’t write fiction that short. He wrote: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
That implied a vast backstory and deep emotion.
Here are some other examples of micro fiction from my Facebook page.
Writing a short story is an art, despite that they are so much more concise than novels. Which is why I created this complete guide.
- How to Come Up with Great Short Story Ideas
Do you struggle coming up with short story ideas?
Or is your list so long you don’t know where to start?
Writing fiction i s not about rules or techniques or someone else’s ideas.
It’s about a story well told .
Short story ideas are all around you, and you can learn to recognize them. Then you can write with confidence and enjoy the process.
I recommend these strategies to generate story ideas:
1. Recognize the germ.
Much fiction starts with a memory—a person, a problem, tension, fear, conflict that resonates with you and grows in your mind.
That’s the germ of an idea that can become your story.
2. Write it down.
Write your first draft to simply get the basics of the story down without worrying about grammar, cliches, redundancy or anything but the plot.
3. Create characters from people you know.
Characters come from people you’ve or have known all your life (relatives).
Brainstorming interesting, quirky, inspiring, influential people and mix and match their looks, ages, genders, traits, voices , tics, habits, characteristics. The resulting character will be an amalgam of those.
4. Get writing.
The outlining and research has to end at some point.
You’ve got to start getting words onto the page.
Interested in reading more about these strategies?
Click here to read my in-depth blog post on how to come up with story ideas .
- How to Structure Your Short Story
Regardless whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser like me (one who writes by the seat of their pants), I recommend a basic story structure .
It looks like this, according to bestsellin g Dean Koontz :
- Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible. (That trouble will mean something different depending on your genre. For a thriller it might be life-threatening. For a romance it might mean choosing between two suitors.)
- Everything your character does to try to get out of the trouble makes it only worse.
- Eventually things appear hopeless.
- Finally, everything your character has learned through all that trouble gives him what he needs to win the day—or fail.
That structure will keep you —and your reader—engaged.
- How to Write a Short Story in 9 Steps
- Read as Many Great Short Stories as You Can Find
- Aim for the Heart
- Narrow Your Scope
- Make Your Title Sing
- Use the Classic Story Structure
- Suggest Backstory, Don’t Elaborate
- When in Doubt, Leave it Out
- Ensure a Satisfying Ending
- Cut Like Your Story’s Life Depends on It
How to Write a Short Story Step 1. Read as Many Great Short Stories as You Can Find
Read hundreds of them—especially the classics .
You learn this genre by familiarizing yourself with the best. See yourself as an apprentice. Watch, evaluate, analyze the experts, then try to emulate their work.
Soon you’ll learn enough about how to write a short story that you can start developing your own style.
A lot of the skills you need can be learned through osmosis .
Where to start? Read Bret Lott , a modern-day master. (He chose one of my short stories for one of his collections .)
Reading two or three dozen short stories should give you an idea of their structure and style. That should spur you to try one of your own while continuing to read dozens more.
Remember, you won’t likely start with something sensational, but what you’ve learned through your reading—as well as what you’ll learn from your own writing—should give you confidence. You’ll be on your way.
How to Write a Short Story Step 2. Aim for the Heart
The most effective short stories evoke deep emotions in the reader.
What will move them? The same things that probably move you:
- Heroic sacrifice
How to Write a Short Story Step 3. Narrow Your Scope
It should go without saying that there’s a drastic difference between a 450-page, 100,000-word novel and a 10-page, 2000-word short story.
One can accommodate an epic sweep of a story and cover decades with an extensive cast of characters .
The other must pack an emotional wallop and tell a compelling story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—with about 2% of the number of words.
Naturally, that dramatically restricts your number of characters, scenes, and even plot points .
The best short stories usually encompass only a short slice of the main character’s life —often only one scene or incident that must also bear the weight of your Deeper Question, your theme or what it is you’re really trying to say.
- If your main character needs a cohort or a sounding board, don’t give her two. Combine characters where you can.
- Avoid long blocks of description; rather, write just enough to trigger the theater of your reader’s mind.
- Eliminate scenes that merely get your characters from one place to another. The reader doesn’t care how they got there, so you can simply write: Late that afternoon, Jim met Sharon at a coffee shop…
Your goal is to get to a resounding ending by portraying a poignant incident that tell a story in itself and represents a bigger picture.
How to Write a Short Story Step 4. Make Your Title Sing
Work hard on what to call your short story.
Yes, it might get changed by editors, but it must grab their attention first. They’ll want it to stand out to readers among a wide range of competing stories, and so do you.
How to Write a Short Story Step 5. Use the Classic Story Structure
Once your title has pulled the reader in, how do you hold his interest?
As you might imagine, this is as crucial in a short story as it is in a novel. So use the same basic approach:
Plunge your character into terrible trouble from the get-go .
Of course, terrible trouble means something different for different genres.
- In a thriller, your character might find himself in physical danger, a life or death situation.
- In a love story, the trouble might be emotional, a heroine torn between two lovers.
- In a mystery, your main character might witness a crime, and then be accused of it.
Don’t waste time setting up the story. Get on with it.
Tell your reader just enough to make her care about your main character, then get to the the problem, the quest, the challenge, the danger—whatever it is that drives your story.
How to Write a Short Story Step 6. Suggest Backstory, Don’t Elaborate
You don’t have the space or time to flash back or cover a character’s entire backstory.
Rather than recite how a Frenchman got to America, merely mention the accent he had hoped to leave behind when he emigrated to the U.S. from Paris.
Don’t spend a paragraph describing a winter morning.
Layer that bit of sensory detail into the narrative by showing your character covering her face with her scarf against the frigid wind.
How to Write a Short Story Step 7. When in Doubt, Leave it Out
Short stories are, by definition, short. Every sentence must count. If even one word seems extraneous, it has to go.
How to Write a Short Story Step 8. Ensure a Satisfying Ending
This is a must. Bring down the curtain with a satisfying thud.
In a short story this can often be accomplished quickly, as long as it resounds with the reader and makes her nod. It can’t seem forced or contrived or feel as if the story has ended too soon.
In a modern day version of the Prodigal Son, a character calls from a taxi and leaves a message that if he’s allowed to come home, his father should leave the front porch light on. Otherwise, he’ll understand and just move on.
The rest of the story is him telling the cabbie how deeply his life choices have hurt his family.
The story ends with the taxi pulling into view of his childhood home, only to find not only the porch light on, but also every light in the house and more out in the yard.
That ending needed no elaboration. We don’t even need to be shown the reunion, the embrace, the tears, the talk. The lights say it all.
How to Write a Short Story Step 9. Cut Like Your Story’s Life Depends on It
Because it does.
When you’ve finished your story, the real work has just begun.
It’s time for you to become a ferocious self-editor .
Once you’re happy with the flow of the story, every other element should be examined for perfection: spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, word choice , elimination of clichés, redundancies, you name it.
Also, pour over the manuscript looking for ways to engage your reader’s senses and emotions.
All writing is rewriting . And remember, tightening nearly always adds power. Omit needless words.
She shrugged her shoulders .
He blinked his eyes .
Jim walked in through the open door and sat down in a chair .
The crowd clapped their hands and stomped their feet .
Learn to tighten and give yourself the best chance to write short stories that captivate your reader.
- Short Story Examples
- The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
- The Bet by Anton Chekhov
- The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
- To Build a Fire by Jack London
- Journalism In Tennessee by Mark Twain
- Transients in Arcadia by O. Henry
- A New England Nun by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
- Miggles by Bret Harte
- The McWilliamses And The Burglar Alarm by Mark Twain
- Vanka by Anton Chekhov
- Where to Sell Your Short Stories
Writing contests are great because the winners usually get published in either a magazine or online—which means instant visibility for your name.
Many pay cash prizes up to $5,000. But even those that don’t offer cash give you awards that lend credibility to your next short story pitch .
2. Genre-Specific Periodicals
Such publications cater to audiences who love stories written in their particular literary category.
If you can score with one of these, the editor will likely come back to you for more.
Any time you can work with an editor, you’re developing a skill that will well serve your writing.
3. Popular Magazines
Plenty of print and online magazines still buy and publish short stories. A few examples:
- The Atlantic
- Harper’s Magazine
- Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine
- The New Yorker
- Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
- Woman’s World
4. Literary Magazines
While, admittedly, this market calls for a more intellectual than mass market approach to writing, getting published in one is still a win.
Here’s a list of literary magazine short story markets .
5. Short Story Books
Yes, some publishers still publish these.
They might consist entirely of short stories from one author, or they might contain the work of several, but they’re usually tied together by theme.
Regardless which style you’re interested in, remember that while each story should fit the whole, it must also work on its own, complete and satisfying in itself.
- What’s Your Short Story Idea?
You’ll know yours has potential when you can distill its idea to a single sentence. You’ll find that this will keep you on track during the writing stage. Here’s mine for a piece I titled Midnight Clear (which became a movie starring Stephen Baldwin):
An estranged son visits his lonely mother on Christmas Eve before his planned suicide, unaware she is planning the same, and the encounter gives them each reasons to go on.
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Home » Blog » How to Write a Short Story That Gets Read (In 7 Steps)
How to Write a Short Story That Gets Read (In 7 Steps)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
On the surface, a short story may sound easy. Like a novel , but shorter, easier, and less complicated. Learning how to write a short story well, however, is no easy feat.
An experienced writer will let you in on a little known fact: short stories are often more difficult to write successfully than a novel. It may not take as long, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Short stories are, of course, much shorter than a novel. Therefore, there is not nearly as much room to let things grow, breathe, and evolve.
You need to get your point across in a small window of both time and space. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds. There are a few steps you can take to make sure it’s as strong as possible:
- Familiarize yourself with the definition of a short story
- Create an outline
- Remember to show, not tell
- Know the essential elements
- Get creative
- Craft the title
- Finds some tools to help you
As with all types of writing , anyone can do it. It takes knowledge, practice, and skill to know how to write a short story well . An effective short story is one that leaves a reader in shock, in tears, in awe, or all of the above.
Write a Good Short Story With a Template
Before diving into your short story, it might be helpful to set yourself up with a template. A short story template can help you create an effective outline and see the direction of your story before you even start.
Even though it’s not as long as a novel, a short story still needs lots of planning.
Using novel writing prompts in conjunction with the following steps will give your short story the best chance at success.
1. How to Write a Short Story: What is it?
For some, a short story needs to have a very short word count. I like to keep short stories to around 3000 words or less. These are easily read and digested in a single sitting, and if done right, will pack a punch in a short period of time.
By definition, however, a short story can be up to 10,000 words. Beyond this, you are looking at a novella. You can also try a type of fiction writing called flash fiction. This is a form of micro fiction that is typically 1000 words or less. In other words, an extremely short story . In fact, some people try to write a story so short that it fits into a single tweet. There’s a whole community dedicated to this on Twitter.
Short stories and micro fiction are common high school writing assignments as they can teach elements of storytelling without having to assign a novel to every student.
Short stories are fun to write, fun to read, and can be extremely profound. They are also often studied in classrooms as they display powerful examples of writing techniques as well as interesting and provocative world views.
However, they are not nearly as popular as the novel. Novels are easily the most well-read and lucrative area of fiction. But, this doesn’t mean writing short stories isn’t worth it.
Many authors come out with short story collections. These are a single book that contains multiple short stories. The stories are sometimes connected, while other times they are all entirely stand-alone.
Authors often do this after they have already published and sold a successful novel. This way, their short story anthology can ride on the success of their novel a little bit. The author already has attention on them, so their short stories are easier to market and advertise for.
Other times, writers will contribute one or two short stories to an anthology comprised of work from several different authors. In this case, the contributors will all share in the profits when it sells.
Either way, there are methods with which to sell your short story. You just can’t go about it in the same way as you would when publishing a novel.
Classic Short Stories by Famous Authors
There are many classic, well-known short stories by famous authors. Some short story examples that are expertly written and deeply meaningful:
- “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
- “Chivalry” by Neil Gaiman
- “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
- “The Signal-Man” by Charles Dickens
- “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner
- “Miss Temptation” by Kurt Vonnegut
- “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway
These short tales have gone down in history for their ingenuity. They did such a fantastic job at setting the atmosphere, bringing their character to life , and awing the reader, that they will forever be remembered.
That is what a short story is all about.
2. How to Write a Short Story Outline (Template)
One thing a short story has in common with a novel is the need for an outline . Can a short story be written without an outline? Yes, it can. And, your chances of being successful without an outline are much greater with a short story than with a novel.
However, knowing how to write a short story outline will reap you some benefits and save valuable time. Especially if your story is going to be on the long side of “short,” (8-10,000 words) then an outline will help you craft the story in the best way possible.
Outlining a short story isn’t too different from outlining a novel . The main difference is in the complexity. A short story outline won’t be as comprehensive as a novel outline, simply because you don’t have as much time to add detail.
A short story outline will be clear, direct, and concise. It will tell you the main points of the story, and where things are headed. Once you map out these basic elements, actually writing it will become a breeze.
Above is a basic template for your short story outline. It prompts you for all the key information. Fill in the specifics of your story, and things will start coming together.
3. Show Don’t Tell
This is a popular piece of general writing advice. In any type of writing, especially fiction, you want to show your readers what’s going on, most of the time. However, in a novel-length piece, a little bit of telling can be okay too.
Not so in a short story. With so little time to put together a beginning, middle, and end, you don’t have any room for lengthy descriptions, backstories, or huge revelations.
Make sure everything is being shown to your readers, and don’t waste time telling them the information.
4. Elements of a Short Story
I always encourage writers to be bold, creative and break the rules. This is what can separate good fiction from great fiction. That being said, some essential elements are included in almost every short story.
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These are things that help keep it brief and entertaining at the same time.
Short stories are rarely written for no reason. Yes, they are meant to entertain. But they should also leave a lasting impression on the reader.
Think about the message behind your short story. What are you trying to say? What is the strongest emotion behind the story? Are you writing about love, hatred, bitterness, sadness, anger, or something else?
F. Scott Fitzgerald puts it simply: “ Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story. “
A famous short story writer, he has written many short stories. Some of his most notable titles include:
- “ The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”
- “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
- “The Camel’s Back”
- “The Last of the Belles”
This main emotion and the message you want to get across will be what drives your story. It is the reason you’re writing, and without reason, a story will fall flat.
A short story should not have a large cast of characters. Most of the time, they will focus on one or maybe two main characters. For some stories, a small handful of side characters can be useful and appropriate, but that’s it.
Too many characters within a short story will become confusing and overwhelming. Because of the shorter length, you will be jumping back and forth between them too often.
You also won’t be able to properly develop any of your characters, if you have too many. The window for character development is small, so you must use it wisely.
Some tips on writing your characters well within a short story:
- Make at least one of the characters someone the readers will want to root for.
- All your characters should want something , even if it is a single item.
- Be ruthless. No matter how wonderful and lovely your characters are, don’t be afraid to make terrible things happen to them.
As well as keeping the characters to a minimum, don’t try to play around with too much perspective shifting. Whether told from the first or third person, it is best to keep the point of view the same throughout. The second person is much less common.
Short and Concise Plot
A sophisticated and well-developed plot is something to be praised and admired – but it is usually found in a novel .
Some things to think about when creating the plot of your short story:
- Start as close to the end as you can. Keep the rising action intense and concise. This allows you to give more attention to the deepest, most important and climactic parts of the story.
- Reveal information quickly. Suspense is great, but you can only have so much of it in a short story. Don’t drag out the inciting incident and make the plot points clear.
- Every single sentence should have a purpose. Revealing information, forwarding the plot, developing a character, etc. There is no room in a short story for fluffy extras. Familiarize yourself with short story structure. This will help you ensure you include the right elements and leave out the unnecessary ones.
Even if you keep all of these things in mind, your story will still probably end up being too long. This is why editing is essential. Once your first draft is done, be as ruthless with your editing as you were with the characters.
Cut out absolutely anything and everything that is not essential to the plot. And then, go back for another round. This will get you down to the bare bones of your story. This is what will make it both short and effective. This is where true creative writing is tested. Can you make an impact in just a few words?
Any book will indeed come with a good hook. However, it is especially important with a short story that the beginning be strong and impactful.
With a short story, you need to introduce your characters, reveal the setting, create the right atmosphere, and grab the reader’s attention all at once. Ideally, it should all be in the first paragraph.
This isn’t an easy thing to do, but it’s crucial. A good opening can be done a few different ways:
- Throw the readers into an intense action scene. Perhaps even the very climax of your story should double as the beginning. A bank robbery, a murder, a car chase, or violent fight scene will all leave a reader wondering what on earth is happening, and why. They will have no choice but to keep reading to find out.
- Pose several questions at once that will prompt them to keep reading. For example, make them wonder who the character is, why they are where they are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. You can do this by presenting your main character in an unusual situation, rather than immediately describing who they are and why they are important.
Anything that is interesting, shocking, or creates immediate questions will make for a good hook. If you can hook your readers, they will always want to continue on to the end.
An Ending That Makes Readers Think
Lastly, you need a strong ending that leaves a lasting impression. The goal with a short story is to make an impact on your readers. Short stories can be incredibly powerful when executed well.
Don’t rush through the ending. You may already know exactly how you want it to end – but it still needs to be done well!
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and create a unique and unexpected ending. There are a few strategic ways to write a powerful ending to a short story:
- A cliffhanger. This requires balance as you don’t want to leave your readers questioning everything about the resolution. But, leaving one thing up in the air will make them think. It will have them running through all the options and deciding which one they want the most. Some readers may even go back through the story to see if there are any clues to the true ending.
- A twist. Twist endings are classic for a reason – they work! A well written and adequately executed twist will have your readers reeling. They will lay there in shock, combing through the story over and over again to find any instances of foreshadowing, once the ending is revealed.
- Dialogue. Ending a story with dialogue is similar to a cliffhanger, though generally less shocking and intense. Instead, it leaves things more gently open-ended and will have readers curiously pondering what was said or done next. This is an excellent way to have a highly emotional impact. It’s also a good way to set up the next short story if you have a sequel planned.
Whatever type of ending you choose to use in your story, always ensure that it makes sense.
Even the craziest twist endings need to make sense in some way. If you are planning on doing a big reveal, make sure you do leave small, barely noticeable clues throughout the story.
This will help the reveal to be shocking, but still logical, and may even have some of the more observant readers guessing at the twist before it happens.
5. How to Write a Creative Short Story
Due to the shorter length, a great short story can be produced at a much faster rate than a novel. And, while less popular, they can also be published just as fast especially with the growing self-publishing industry.
This means that in order to stand out, you need to be intuitive and creative. You can’t write something boring and unoriginal, because everyone will have seen it before. Another common place to see short stories published is in a literary magazine. If short enough, they can be included in a one or two-page segment.
There are some strategies you can use to write something sufficiently creative and unique:
- Write something that reflects you. Don’t write something that you feel you should write. Write something that you love and are passionate about. Write the story that you want to tell, and the right readers will come.
- Break the rules. At this point, you probably know all of the writing “rules. “ You’ve read the guidelines, the articles, the advice from successful authors . But, If you’re feeling rebellious, then go for it. Go against everything you know to be “right” and proper. If the story turns out to be a bust – oh well! Write another one. Sometimes, the very best stories are the ones that have broken all conventions.
- Think outside the box. This may seem obvious, but too many writers fall prey to the temptation of writing what they think will sell. They stick to what is currently popular because they know people love it. But, trends pass. You want to write something original that will still be relevant in 20 years when no one cares about vampires anymore.
- Don’t be afraid to write something controversial and/or provocative. Touch on those subjects that others think are taboo. Give a voice to things that no one talks about. Stories like these can be wildly entertaining, but they may also spark some real conversation.
Another simple but impactful way to be creative within your short story is to liven up your dialogue tags a little bit. Constant “he said, she said” gets boring and stagnant real fast.
Here are some examples of common dialogue tags:
- He whispered.
- She screamed.
- He snapped.
- They retorted.
- She stuttered.
- They exclaimed.
- She mumbled.
Not only are these things more descriptive, but they will make reading the story more interesting.
6. How to Write a Short Story Title
Knowing how to write a short story title is just as important as the story itself. The title needs to be catchy, smart, and appropriately reflective of the story and its plot.
The title is the first thing a reader will see. And, unlike with a novel, there usually isn’t an image to go with it. A novel also has a cover design that can be used to captivate and engage a potential reader.
Some short stories may come with illustrations, but most appear with only a title and the text within an anthology. A boring and uninspired title will have most readers skipping the story in favor of the next one.
There are a few things you can keep in mind when crafting the perfect title for your short story:
- Don’t let it become too long. Five or six words maximum is a good rule of thumb.
- Explore the overall themes and message of your story. The title should reflect this.
- The title should include a hint at the plot. Just by reading the title, a reader should have at least a vague idea of what’s going to happen.
Just because a story is short, doesn’t mean the title isn’t important! Don’t neglect this part of the process, as it will be crucial to the success of your short story.
7. Short Story Writing Tools
Writing anything – short fiction, novels , nonfiction – can be daunting and difficult. Sometimes the shorter pieces are even harder than a novel-length work because you don’t have as much wiggle room.
When the writing gets tricky, don’t be afraid to seek some assistance.
This can come in the form of human help from your fellow writers, or you can turn to some writing software to guide you. There are many options when it comes to this, but I can recommend two that will no doubt help you create the best short story possible.
The first is Squibler. While Squibler has been specially designed for those wishing to write a book , it can still help you with a shorter fictional endeavor.
Squibler offers an abundance of organizational tools that are sure to make your life easier.
- A place for notes and research
- A place for your outline – no matter how detailed
- Chapter and scene organization
- Free templates
- A convenient tag system
- Easy access and searchability
All of these things can come in handy when you are writing a short story. Depending on the style and genre of your story, you may need to do a lot of research despite the shorter length.
I discussed the importance of an outline for a short story earlier – Squibler will assist with and accommodate this as well.
Squibler won’t write the story for you. But, it takes care of all the small details so you can focus on writing and creating something amazing.
Once you have completed the first draft of your short story, it will be time to edit. Of course, as a writer , you are more than capable of doing much of this yourself.
However, we are human and we make mistakes. Grammarly is there to help you through the editing process. Once it scans your work, it will pick out the spelling and grammatical errors, and show them to you.
In addition to pointing out the errors you’ve made, it tells you how to fix them. These can be small things like an unnecessary comma or a missing period. But, a lot of little things can add up.
Grammarly is free to use and can be integrated with a few different things:
- Microsoft Word
- Google Docs
- Chrome Browser
Grammarly makes your writing better, but it also makes you a better writer . It will fix up your current writing, and if you pay attention to the corrections it makes, you can start learning from your own bad habits.
Grammarly is an effective editing tool for all types of writers , fiction or otherwise. It cleans up your work fast. This saves you time, improves your craft, and helps you remain professional and polished.
For an enhanced editing experience, Grammarly offers a premium upgrade that provides you with additional, more advanced checks.
If you are writing a lot of short stories and hope to publish them all, the upgrade might be the right choice for you.
If you’re struggling to come up with some short story ideas, you can beat writer’s block by using some writing prompts. Especially if it’s your first time, these can be helpful.
A good place to start is with this writing prompt generator . It offers you more than 500 options to inspire a story. Use the prompts for a first sentence idea or to solidify the end of the story. Sometimes creating that satisfying ending first actually helps you develop the rest of the plot.
Write a Short Story of Your Own
Short stories are a fun, unique, and often mind-bending part of the literary world. Knowing how to write a short story is a valuable skill as it’s not easy.
Short stories that are successful, however, can be some of the most intense, powerful, and thought-provoking pieces of fiction out there.
Once you hone your skills and understand exactly how they work, your short stories will be unstoppable.
Published in Short Story Writing
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How to Write a Short Story
Last Updated: August 12, 2023 Fact Checked
This article was co-authored by Lucy V. Hay . Lucy V. Hay is a Professional Writer based in London, England. With over 20 years of industry experience, Lucy is an author, script editor, and award-winning blogger who helps other writers through writing workshops, courses, and her blog Bang2Write. Lucy is the producer of two British thrillers, and Bang2Write has appeared in the Top 100 round-ups for Writer’s Digest & The Write Life and is a UK Blog Awards Finalist and Feedspot’s #1 Screenwriting blog in the UK. She received a B.A. in Scriptwriting for Film & Television from Bournemouth University. There are 10 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 4,680,263 times.
For many writers, the short story is the perfect medium. It is a refreshing activity. For many, it is as natural as breathing is to lungs. While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, just about anybody can craft—and, most importantly, finish —a short story. Writing a novel can be a tiresome task, but writing a short story, it's not the same. A short story includes setting, plot, character and message. Like a novel, a good short story will thrill and entertain your reader. With some brainstorming, drafting, and polishing, you can learn how to write a successful short story in no time. And the greatest benefit is that you can edit it frequently until you are satisfied.
Sample Short Stories
- For example, you can start with a simple plot like your main character has to deal with bad news or your main character gets an unwanted visit from a friend or family member.
- You can also try a more complicated plot like your main character wakes up in a parallel dimension or your main character discovers someone else's deep dark secret.
Making Characters that Pop: Finding Inspiration: Characters are all around you. Spend some time people-watching in a public place, like a mall or busy pedestrian street. Make notes about interesting people you see and think about how you could incorporate them into your story. You can also borrow traits from people you know. Crafting a Backstory: Delve into your main character’s past experiences to figure out what makes them tick. What was the lonely old man like as a child? Where did he get that scar on his hand? Even if you don’t include these details in the story, knowing your character deeply will help them ring true. Characters Make the Plot: Create a character who makes your plot more interesting and complicated. For example, if your character is a teenage girl who really cares about her family, you might expect her to protect her brother from school bullies. If she hates her brother, though, and is friends with his bullies, she’s conflicted in a way that makes your plot even more interesting.
- For example, maybe your main character has a desire or want that they have a hard time fulfilling. Or perhaps your main character is trapped in a bad or dangerous situation and must figure out how to stay alive.
Tips on Crafting a Setting: Brainstorming descriptions: Write the down names of your settings, such as “small colony on Mars” or “the high school baseball field.” Visualize each place as vividly as you can and jot down whatever details come into your head. Set your characters down there and picture what they might do in this place. Thinking about your plot: Based on your characters and the arc of your plot, where does your story need to take place? Make your setting a crucial part of your story, so that your readers couldn’t imagine it anywhere else. For example, if your main character is a man who gets into a car crash, setting the story in a small town in the winter creates a plausible reason for the crash (black ice), plus an added complication (now he’s stranded in the cold with a broken car). Don’t overload the story. Using too many settings might confuse your reader or make it hard for them to get into the story. Using 1-2 settings is usually perfect for a short story.
- You can also focus on a more specific theme like “love between siblings,” “desire for friendship” or “loss of a parent.”
- For example, you may have an emotional climax where your main character, a lonely elderly man, has to confront his neighbor about his illegal activity. Or you may have an emotional climax where the main character, a young teenage girl, stands up for her brother against school bullies.
Creating a Satisfying Ending: Try out a few different endings. Outline a few different endings you could use. Visualize each option and see which ones feel more natural, surprising, or fulfilling. It’s okay if you don’t find the right ending right away—it’s one of the hardest parts of the story to write! How do you want your readers to feel when they finish? Your ending is the last impression you’ll leave on your reader. How will they feel if your characters succeed, fail, or land somewhere in the middle? For example, if your main character decides to stand up to her brother’s bullies but gets scared at the last second, the readers will leave feeling like she still has a lot of soul-searching to do. Stay away from cliches. Make sure you avoid gimmick endings, where you rely on familiar plot twists to surprise your reader. If your ending feels familiar or even boring, challenge yourself to make it more difficult for your characters.
- “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov  X Research source
- “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” by Alice Munro
- “For Esme-With Love and Squalor" by J.D. Salinger  X Research source
- “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury  X Research source
- “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman
- "Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx  X Research source
- “Wants” by Grace Paley
- “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz
- “Seven” by Edwidge Danticat
Creating a First Draft
- You can also try the snowflake method, where you have a one-sentence summary, a one-paragraph summary, a synopsis of all the characters in the story, and a spreadsheet of scenes.
- For example, an opening line like: “I was lonely that day” does not tell your reader much about the narrator and is not unusual or engaging.
- Instead, try an opening line like: “The day after my wife left me, I rapped on the neighbor’s door to ask if she had any sugar for a cake I wasn’t going to bake.” This line gives the reader a past conflict, the wife leaving, and tension in the present between the narrator and the neighbor.
- Some stories are written in second person, where the narrator uses “you.” This is usually only done if the second person is essential to the narrative, such as in Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life” or Junot Diaz’s short story, “This is How You Lose Her.”
- Most short stories are written in the past tense, though you can use the present tense if you’d like to give the story more immediacy.
Quick Dialogue Tips: Develop a voice for each character. Your characters are all unique, so all of their dialogue will sound a little different. Experiment to see what voice sounds right for each character. For example, one character might greet a friend by saying, “Hey girl, what’s up?”, while another might say, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages.” Use different dialogue tags—but not too many. Sprinkle descriptive dialogue tags, like “stammered” or “shouted,” throughout your story, but don’t make them overwhelming. You can continue to use “said,” in some situations, choosing a more descriptive tag when the scene really needs it.
- For example, you may describe your old high school as “a giant industrial-looking building that smells of gym socks, hair spray, lost dreams, and chalk.” Or you may describe the sky by your house as “a blank sheet covered in thick, gray haze from wildfires that crackled in the nearby forest in the early morning.”
- You can also end on an interesting image or dialogue that reveals a character change or shift.
- For example, you may end your story when your main character decides to turn in their neighbor, even if that means losing them as a friend. Or you may end your story with the image of your main character helping her bloodied brother walk home, just in time for dinner.
Polishing the Draft
- Notice if your story follows your plot outline and that there is a clear conflict for your main character.
- Reading the story aloud can also help you catch any spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors.
Parts to Delete: Unnecessary description: Include just enough description to show the readers the most important characteristics of a place, a character, or an object while contributing to the story’s overall tone. If you have to clip out a particularly beautiful description, write it down and save it—you may be able to use in another story! Scenes that don’t move the plot forward: If you think a scene might not be necessary to the plot, try crossing it out and reading through the scenes before and after it. If the story still flows well and makes sense, you can probably delete the scene. Characters that don’t serve a purpose: You might have created a character to make a story seem realistic or to give your main character someone to talk to, but if that character isn’t important to the plot, they can probably be cut or merged into another character. Look carefully at a character’s extra friends, for example, or siblings who don’t have much dialogue.
- For example, the title “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” by Alice Munro is a good one because it is a quote from a character in the story and it addresses the reader directly, where the “I” has something to share with readers.
- The title “Snow, Apple, Glass” by Neil Gaiman is also a good one because it presents three objects that are interesting on their own, but even more interesting when placed together in one story.
- You can also join a writing group and submit your short story for a workshop. Or you may start your own writing group with friends so you can all workshop each other’s stories.
- Once you get feedback from others, you should then revise the short story again so it is at its best draft.
You Might Also Like
- ↑ https://www.writersdigest.com/there-are-no-rules/how-to-brainstorm-give-your-brain-free-rein
- ↑ https://blog.reedsy.com/character-development/
- ↑ http://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-write-a-short-story/
- ↑ https://www.masterclass.com/articles/understanding-story-setting
- ↑ https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-develop-a-theme-for-your-story
- ↑ https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/102799.50_Best_Short_Stories_of_All_Time
- ↑ https://www.grammarly.com/blog/need-a-pick-me-up-5-best-short-stories-of-all-time/
- ↑ http://www.listchallenges.com/the-50-best-short-stories-of-all-time
- ↑ https://writers.com/freytags-pyramid/
- ↑ https://writingcooperative.com/how-to-write-a-short-story-17c615853bf2
About This Article
If you want to write a short story, first decide on the central conflict for your story, then create a main character who deals with that problem, and decide whether they will interact with anyone else. Next, decide when and where your story will take place. Next, make a plot outline, with a climax and a resolution, and use that outline to create your first draft, telling the whole story without worrying about making it perfect. Read the short story out loud to yourself to help with proofreading and revision. To learn more about how to add details to your story and come up with an interesting title, keep reading the article! Did this summary help you? Yes No
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The Best 10 Books About Writing Short Stories
Not every story requires a full-length telling. In some cases, a tale can become iconic because it ended when it did. This is why many writers still prefer short stories over other forms of the craft. If you want to know more about short story writing, start by getting a list of books that can help you with your journey.
Table of Contents
What are short stories?
Short stories are works of fiction that typically go from about a thousand words to a maximum of 10,000. The concise nature of these stories tends to attract a lot of readers because they can finish the work in one sitting. They can be found on ebooks, published collections, standalone releases, or even on Reddit and Facebook.
This type of story is a staple in the industry, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Most novelists have short story collections under their belts. Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemmingway, H.P. Lovecraft, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce are some of the best-known authors of this type of craft. Their contemporaries — Stephen King, George Saunders, Alice Munroe, and Anne Beattie — continue the tradition in their own unique ways. So if you’re a writer, you really need to try out making one of these. And if you’re new, well, I’ve got just the thing for you.
How to write short stories
Decide on a topic
Most writers write for audiences that are like them. So it’s a good idea to figure out what you like to read and then develop your story from there. Make sure that it’s compelling, though. You want to keep your readers’ engagement high throughout the brief experience. But this doesn’t mean that you need to always shoot for stories of grand adventure and fanciful revenge. Short stories tend to revolve around a single topic, idea, event, or conflict.
Now, I’m going to give you a writing prompt (a man sitting in a bare room), and we’ll discuss where we can take this in a later section.
Work your plot
This is the nuts and bolts of any type of storytelling. You need to cover the setting, characters, and events that will go into your tale. It’s a good idea to harmonize the core elements of your story with a central theme — it makes for a more meaningful experience. And while you don’t need to outline extensively, the best course of action here is to plan out your plot. You don’t have the amount of real estate some novels have, so make it lean and avoid the Sagging Middle Syndrome. Or you can opt to do discovery writing and cut it down once you’re done with the first draft. Oh, and it is possible to write connected short stories and publish them as a full book later on.
Start with something eye-catching
Good introductions get readers mildly interested in your story. It’s like hearing someone call your name in a public place. Great introductions, meanwhile, drag your readers face-first into your imagination. This works doubly so for short stories. You don’t have a lot of space to flesh out your characters and world to the degree that novels can, so you need to hook your readers early and hook them deep. The opening must also capture the theme or essence of your story. Here are some examples of the best short story introductions I’ve read:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” — Stephen King, “The Gunslinger”
“Gaotana ran his fingers across the thick canvas, inspecting one of the greatest works of art he had ever seen. Unfortunately, it was a lie.” — Brandon Sanderson, “The Emperor’s Soul”
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” — H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” — Edgar Allan Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado”
Write complex characters
You don’t have the luxury of focusing on multiple characters and POVs. Focus on a handful and then develop them as well as you can. Background, motivation, and personality traits that are relevant to the story have to be hashed out, whether subtly or conspicuously (to a degree, but more on that later). Some of the best short stories out there only have one character. In those cases, it comes down to the author’s skill and prose to portray them and the story well enough to keep the readers invested until the end.
Don’t be afraid to explore and experiment
Let’s get back to the writing prompt. “A man sitting in a bare room” doesn’t have a lot of details going for it, and that’s a good thing, story-wise. Why is he there? Is he waiting for a torture-interrogation? Waiting for bad news from surgery? Is he the last man on Earth? Or is he a pet kept by alien overlords? Is he even real? The “short” in short story means that you don’t always have to present logical background information about your world and characters. You can be as weird and as freaky and as experimental as you want.
Edit, revise, and repeat
Just because you wrote something short doesn’t mean you get to skip out on the revisions. It’s always a good idea to review your work in case you missed out on ways that you can improve your story the first time ’round. Maybe you’ll find certain symbolisms that you unconsciously worked into your story, like what Stephen King realized when he re-read Carrie (the story had a lot to do with blood, you see.) Or maybe there are a few plot holes, or just one, but it’s the size of an open city grate. Again — and I cannot stress this enough — it always pays to re-read and revise.
Best books about writing short stories
The Elements of Style (1920) by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White
This book was published a hundred years ago. I need that to sink in for the moment because the last hundred years of our civilization have been the time of greatest advancement for our species. But despite everything that’s changed, especially in the writing and publishing industry, this book is still regarded as the best introductory book for newbie writers. It contains timeless advice like tips on using active voice, omitting unnecessary words, and cleaning up your prose by using parallelism. You’ll find this in almost every “best book about writing” list out there. Tons of famous authors still recommend the book, including the likes of Stephen King. Speaking of the King of Horror—
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) by Stephen King
If you want a writing guide with a lot of personality in it, then this is the book for you. King offers his journey and writing process with no filters and no sugarcoating. He’ll tell you how he hates adverbs. Then he’ll talk about the writer’s toolbox. Later, he’ll discuss the mechanics of grammar rules. And then he’ll segue to how he liked to chug mouthwash back when he was struggling with drugs and alcohol. It’s not just about writing novels, either. King talks about short stories in his book and how he thinks it’s a vital art form that every writer should know.
I remember reading this around 2007 when I was trying to find my writer’s voice. I came out of the experience with what I needed, along with an endless fountain of motivation and enough momentum to push through any kind of rejection for writing that would last me a lifetime. Spoiler alert: My biggest takeaway from this book — and the most resonant advice I have gotten from any writer — is this: “Learn the rules so you know when to break them.”
Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (1998) Ursula K. Le Guin
If you’re going to get advice, you might as well take it from the very best. And Ursula K. Le Guin ranks as one of the best in fiction writing. The author of The Earthsea Cycle discusses both her personal writing process and other styles to accommodate as many novice writers as possible. Her easy writing style and propensity to give readers specific examples of what she’s discussing make the book easy to get through. There are also writing exercises dotted throughout, making it both a collection of essays and a writing workbook.
Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You (1992) by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury, the man behind the iconic Fahrenheit 451 , is widely regarded as one of the best and most imaginative writers ever. This collection of essays from him doesn’t dip too much into the mechanics of writing itself. Instead, it provides authors with insights into how Bradbury seeks inspiration and motivation to write his stories. This is more of a love letter to the craft than a guidebook, and Bradbury really loves writing. He insists that writers shouldn’t be bogged down by the rules, and instead enjoy the freedom to explore their craft in any direction they want with their creative instincts as their guide.
How to Write a Short Story, Get Published & Make Money (2015) by Christopher Fielden
Now that’s a title that gets straight to the point. Christopher Fielden’s book on the world of short stories is not limited to writing advice, though it has that by the bucketful. The book also covers the inner workings of the publishing industry, like where to submit what to get the best chance of getting published, plus a few exercises thrown in to help writers generate ideas or practice. It’s also very readable; Fielden doesn’t skimp out on the humor, and his tongue-in-cheek style makes the whole experience relatable and easy to get through.
The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience (2014) by Chuck Wendig
We like lists, don’t we? It breaks down the topic, makes it easier to read, and gives us breathing room whenever we need it. So here’s a whole book filled with lists of how to become a better writer. Chuck Wendig’s signature style of irreverent and humorous deliveries shines through this work, along with great advice on theming, a chapter outlining, character work, and sharpening dialog. He engages with his audience through the use of practical exercises and writing prompts, giving his readers a chance to apply the advice immediately after receiving it. And with actual 1001 pieces of advice inside the book, it’s pretty certain that any reader with specific needs can get in and get out with what they were looking for.
The Art of the Short Story (2005) by Dana Gioia and R. Gwynn
This book has a lot going for it. One, it features stories from some of the most renowned writers in the world, like William Faulkner and Margaret Atwood. Two, Gioia and Gwynn aren’t content with featuring Western writers. We have stories from Yukio Mishima, Chinua Achebe, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, giving the readers a taste of different cultures from all over the world. Three, the authors talk about how they wrote their stories in essay form. It’s like taking a peek into how their great minds work when writing, and let me tell you, that sort of thing is invaluable when you’re starting out.
Write Short Stories and Get Them Published: Teach Yourself (2015) by Zoe Fairbairns
This reference book contains practical and pragmatic guides for writing short stories. It’s excellent for people who like the mechanical side of writing. The author discusses each part of the process with great detail and provides exercises to make sure that everything sinks in. It’s also sectioned step by step, from brainstorming to publishing, making it one of the best books you can give to a newbie author.
Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction (1997) by Damon Knight
Damon Knight is one of the best Science Fiction writers of his generation. His book starts by describing the four stages of the writing process. He also talks about how to develop your ideas and a great starting checklist of what to include in your stories. This is a great starting point for fiction authors.
Write and Grow Rich: Secrets of Successful Authors and Publishers by Alinka Rutkowska et al.
This is one must-have resource if you plan on making a career out of writing. Write and Grow Rich not only covers the fundamentals of the craft, it also gives readers valuable insights into the world of publishing. It presents a collection of strategies, advice, and experiences from accomplished authors and publishers, aiming to help aspiring writers achieve success. It also encourages others to overcome insecurities and self-doubt by presenting the authors’ personal struggles and how they overcame them. It’s both a reference book and a guide on how to make the best possible decisions when getting into the writing industry.
It’s always nice to see writers trying out the different forms of the craft. I hope this list has helped you on your way to becoming a short story writer. However, remember that nothing beats practical writing experience. Reading a lot of books might help, but you need to write short stories to get better. So get on with it.
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