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Last updated on Aug 12, 2022
How to Write a Short Story in 6 Simple Steps
Writing a short novel can be a challenge: in the space of a few pages you’ll have to develop characters, build tension up to a climax, and resolve the main conflict.
To help you with the process, here's how to write a short story step-by-step:
1. Identify a short story idea
2. define the character’s main conflict and goal, 3. hook readers with a strong beginning , 4. draft a middle focused on the story’s message, 5. write a memorable ending, 6. refine the plot and structure of your short story.
Step by step, we’ll show you how to take a blank page and spin it into short-form narrative gold.
Before you can put your head down and write your story , you first need an idea you can run with. Some writers can seemingly pluck interesting ideas out of thin air but if that’s not you, then fear not. Here are some tips and tricks that will get your creative juices flowing and have you drumming up ideas in no time.
Pro-tip: Interested in writing short stories? We recommend taking this free 10-day course taught by professional editor Laura Mae Isaacman.
How to Craft a Killer Short Story
From pacing to character development, master the elements of short fiction.
Start with an interesting character or setting
Short stories, by their very nature, tend to be narrower in scope than a novel. There’s less pressure to have a rich narrative mapped out from A to Z before your pen hits the paper. Short story writers often find it fruitful to focus on a single character, setting , or event — an approach that is responsible for some true classics.
John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is about one character: a suburban American father who decides to swim through all of his neighbor’s pools. While Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” has a larger cast of characters, the story takes place perhaps over one hour in a town square. By limiting yourself to a few characters and one or two locations, you may find it easier to keep your story from getting out of hand and spiraling off into tangents.
Mine your own anecdotes
When it comes to establishing a story’s premise, real-life experiences can be your first port of call — “write what you know”, as the old adage goes. While you might not have lived through an epic saga akin to Gulliver’s Travels, you probably have an anecdote or two that would easily form the basis of a short story. If there’s a funny story you always reach for at a party or a family dinner, you could repurpose for a piece of writing or let it serve as a launchpad for your imagination.
Eavesdrop and steal
There is beauty in the mundane. Writers these days often have a document open in their phone’s notes app to remember things that might spark their imagination at a later date. After all, something you overhear in a conversation between your aunties could be perfect short story fodder — as could a colorful character who turns up at your workplace. Whether these experiences are the basis for a story or function as a small piece of embellishment, they can save your imagination from having to do all the heavy lifting.
It’s not just your own life you can take inspiration from either. Pay extra attention to the news, the stories your friends tell you, and all the things that go on around — it will surely serve you well when it comes to brainstorming a story.
These little snippets can serve as the genesis of a story, or could even make it in verbatim as inspiration for your dialogue. Want more dialogue writing tips? We've got a free course for that.
How to Write Believable Dialogue
Master the art of dialogue in 10 five-minute lessons.
Try a writing prompt on for size
If you’re still stumped, looking through some short story ideas or writing prompts for inspiration. Any stories that are written with these resources are still your intellectual property, so you can freely share or publish them if they turn out well!
Once you have your idea (which could be a setting, character, or event), try to associate it with a strong emotion. Think of short stories as a study of feeling — rather than a full-blown plot, you can home in on an emotion and let that dictate the tone and narrative arc. Without this emotion core, you may find that your story lacks drive and will struggle to engage the reader.
With your emotionally charged idea ready to go, let’s look at structure.
You might be tempted to apply standard novel-writing strategies to your story: intricately plotting each event, creating detailed character profiles , and of course, painstakingly mapping it onto a popular story framework with a beginning, middle, and end. But all you really need is a well-developed main character and one or two big events at most.
Short stories should have an inciting incident and a climax
A short story, though more concise, can still have all of the narrative components we’d expect from a novel — though the set up, inciting incident, and climax might just be a sentence or two. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, writers should aim to start their stories “as close to the end as possible”. Taking this advice to the extreme, you could begin your story in medias res , skipping all exposition and starting in the middle of the action, and sustaining tension from there on in.
What’s most important to remember is that short stories don't have the same privilege of time when it comes to exposition. To save time and make for a snappier piece of writing, it’s usually better to fold backstory into the rising action .
Each scene should escalate the tension
Another effective short story structure is the Fichtean Curve , which also skips over exposition and the inciting incident and starts with rising action. Typically, this part of the story will see the main character meet and overcome several smaller obstacles (with exposition snuck in), crescendoing with the climax. This approach encourages writers to craft tension-packed narratives that get straight to the point. Rarely do you want to resolve the main conflict in the middle of the story — if there’s an opportunity for tension, leave it open to keep the momentum going until the very end.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with structure and form
Short stories by design don’t really have the time to settle into the familiar shape of a classic narrative. However, this restriction gives you free rein to play around with chronology and point of view — to take risks, and be experimental. After all, if you’re only asking for 20 minutes of your readers’ time, they’re more likely to go along with an unusual storytelling style. Classic short stories like Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” did so well precisely because O’Connor redrew the parameters of the Southern Gothic genre as it was known — with its cast of characters, artfully sustained suspense and its shocking, gruesome ending.
Want to get creative with POV? Check out our free course to master the concept, and pick the perfect perspective for your story.
Understanding Point of View
Learn to master different POVs and choose the best for your story.
A lot rides on the opening lines of a short story . You’ll want to strike the right tone, introduce the characters, and capture the reader’s attention all at once — and you need to do it quickly because you don’t have many words to work with! There are a few ways to do this, so let’s take a look at the options.
Start with an action
Starting with a bang — literally and figuratively — is a surefire way to grab your reader’s attention. Action is a great way to immediately establish tension that you can sustain throughout the story. This doesn’t have to be something hugely dramatic like a car crash (though it can be) — it can be as small and simple as missing a bus by a matter of seconds. So long as the reader understands that this action is in some way unusual, it can set the scene for the emotional turmoil that is to unfold.
Start with an insight
One highly effective method for starting a short story is to write an opening hook. A 'hook' can seem an obtuse word, but what it really means is a sentence that immediately garners intrigue and encourages your reader to read on. For example, in “Mrs Dalloway” (originally a short story), Virginia Woolf opens with the line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The reader then wonders: who is Mrs. Dalloway, why is she buying flowers, and is it unusual that she would do so herself? Such questions prompt the reader to continue with interest, looking for answers.
Start with an image
Another popular way of opening a story by presenting your reader with a strong image. It could be a description of an object, a person, or even a location. It’s not to everyone’s taste (especially if you love plot driven stories), but when done well, a well-drawn image has the ability to linger on the reader’s mind. Let’s go back to our example of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. This story starts opens with a vivid and detailed description of a village: The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. Though this description seems to be setting the stage for a pleasant, lighthearted tale, “The Lottery” actually takes a darker turn — making this opening image of an idyllic summer’s day even more eerie. When this story was published in The New Yorker, readers responded by sending in more letters than for any story that had come before — that’s how you know you’ve made an impact, right?
[ PRO-TIP : To read some of the best short stories, head here to find 31 must-read short story collections . ]
The old maxim of “write drunk, edit sober” has long been misattributed to Ernest Hemingway, a notorious drinker. While we do not recommend literally writing under the influence, there is something to be said for writing feely with your first draft.
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Don’t edit as you write
Your first draft is not going to be fit for human consumption. That’s not the point of it. Your goal with version 1 of the story is just to get something out on the page. You should have a clear sense of your story’s overall aim, so just sit down and write towards that aim as best you can.
Avoid the temptation to noodle with word choice and syntax while you’re on the first draft: that part will come later. ‘Writing drunk’ means internalizing the confidence of someone on their second bottle of chablis. Behave as though everything you’re writing is amazing. If you make a spelling mistake? Who cares! Does that sentence make sense? You’ll fix that later!
Backstory is rarely needed
Hemingway ’s Iceberg Theory — correctly attributed to the man — is well suited to short stories. Like the physical appearance of an Iceberg, most of which is “under the surface”, much can be inferred about your story through a few craftily written sentences. Instead of being spoon-fed every single detail, your reader can ponder the subtext themselves and come to their own conclusions. The most classic example of this is “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” — a six-word story with a whole lot of emotionally charged subtext. (Note: that story is attributed to Hemingway, though that claim is also unsubstantiated!)
In short, don’t second-guess yourself and if your story truly needs more context, it can always be added in the next revision.
Nothing is more disappointing to a reader than a beautifully written narrative with a weak ending. When you get to the end of your story , it may be tempting to dash off a quick one and be done with it— but don’t give in to temptation! There are countless ways to finish a story — and there’s no requirement to provide a tidy resolution — but we find that the most compelling endings will center on its characters .
What has changed about the character?
It’s typical for a story to put a protagonist through their paces as a means to tease out some kind of character development. Many stories will feature a classic redemption arc, but it’s not the only option. The ending might see the main character making a choice based on having some kind of profound revelation. Characters might change in subtler ways, though, arriving at a specific realization or becoming more cynical or hopeful. Or, they might learn absolutely nothing from the trials and tribulations they’ve faced. In O. Henry’s Christmas-set “The Gift of the Magi,” a young woman sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his pocket watch. When the husband returns home that night, he reveals that he sold his watch to buy his wife a set of hair ornaments that she can now no longer use. The couple has spent the story worrying about material gifts but in the end, they have learned that real gift… is their love for one another.
Has our understanding of them changed?
Human beings are innately resistant to change. Instead of putting your characters through a great epiphany or moment of transformation, your ending could reveal an existing truth about them. For example, the ending might reveal that your seemingly likable character is actually a villain — or there may be a revelation that renders their morally dubious action in a kinder light. This revelation can also manifest itself as a twist. In Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a plantation owner in the Civil War escapes the gallows and embarks on a treacherous journey home. But just before he reaches his wife’s waiting arms, he feels a sharp blow on the back of his neck. It is revealed that he never actually left the gallows — his escape was merely a final fantasy. For these character-driven endings to work, the readers need to be invested in your characters. With the precious few words that you have to tell your story, you need to paint enough of a picture to make readers care what actually happens to them at the end.
More often than not, if your ending falls flat, the problem usually lies in the preceding scenes and not the ending. Have you adequately set up the stakes of the story? Have you given readers enough of a clue about your twist ending? Does the reader care enough about the character for the ending to have a strong emotional impact? Once you can answer yes to all these questions, you’re ready to start editing.
If you’re wondering how to make your story go from good to great, the secret’s in the editing process. And the first stage of editing a short story involves whittling it down until it’s fighting fit. As Edgar Allan Poe once said, “a short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it,”. With this in mind, ensure that each line and paragraph not only progress the story, but also contributes to the mood, key emotion or viewpoint you are trying to express. Poe himself does this to marvelous effect in “The Tell-Tale Heart”:
Slowly, little by little, I lifted the cloth, until a small, small light escaped from under it to fall upon — to fall upon that vulture eye! It was open — wide, wide open, and my anger increased as it looked straight at me. I could not see the old man’s face. Only that eye, that hard blue eye, and the blood in my body became like ice.
The rewrites will often take longer than the original draft because now you are trying to perfect and refine the central idea of your story. If you have a panic-stricken look across your face reading this, don’t worry, you will probably be more aware of the shape you want your story to take once you’ve written it, which will make the refining process a little easier.
A well-executed edit starts with a diligent re-read — something you’ll want to do multiple times to ensure no errors slip through the net. Pay attention to word flow, the intensity of your key emotion, and the pacing of your plot, and what the readers are gradually learning about your characters. Make a note of any inconsistencies you find, even if you don’t think they matter — something extremely minor can throw the whole narrative out of whack. The problem-solving skills required to identify and fix plot holes will also help you eventually skim the fat off your short story.
What to do if it’s too long
Maybe you’re entering a writing contest with a strict word limit, or perhaps you realize your story is dragging. A simple way to trim your story is to see if each sentence passes the ‘so what?’ test — i.e., would your reader miss it if it was deleted?
See also if there are any convoluted phrases that can be swapped out for snappier words. Do you need to describe a ‘400ft canvas-covered, steel-skeleton hydrogen dirigible’ when ‘massive airship’ might suffice?
Get a second opinion
Send your story to another writer. Sure, you may feel self-conscious but all writers have been embarrassed to share their work at some point in their lives— plus, it could save you from making major mistakes. There’s nothing like a fresh pair of eyes to point out something you missed. More than one pair of eyes is even better!
Consider professional editing
If you decide to go with a professional editor, it’s your lucky day! Freelance literary editors will work on short stories for a lot less than they would for novels (from as little as $100 for a story under 5,000 words) — and it’s the perfect opportunity to get some experience working with a professional who knows exactly what a great short story should look like.
Now that you know how to a short story people will want to read, why not get it out into the world? In the next post in this series, discover your best options for getting your short story published.
Douglas Smith | Writer says:
08/05/2019 – 12:28
I'm a big fan of Reedsy, but the above para on submitting is woefully inadequate, incomplete, and wrong. Contests? Sorry, but I rarely recommend entering contests and certainly no contest (or market) that charges an entry fee. I'll give a biased recommendation for my book PLAYING THE SHORT GAME: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. I'm a multi-award-winning writer of short fiction published in 26 languages. The book gives a clear strategy on how to go about getting your first sale, then managing that sale, and learning to develop a career in short fiction by leveraging your stories via reprints and other means. Available at all the major retailers: https://www.books2read.com/b/bo6R14 And Reedsy, if you're interested, I offer workshops on each stage of short fiction careers. Would love to partner.
↪️ Vanessa Saxton replied:
17/09/2019 – 03:00
I respectfully disagree here. Any contest that does not charge an entry fee screams amateur. Any writer worth their salt knows this. I am also an award-winning writer, published author, and award-winning writing teacher,
Zack Urlocker says:
14/01/2020 – 05:51
I've written only novel-length stories, and I found this advice very helpful. Of course, it's still not easy to craft a short story, but this has given me some constraints to make it easier.
René Rehn says:
15/04/2020 – 03:04
What a great article! I truly think that mastering the short story is a prerequisite to writing a novel. I've been writing more than a hundred short stories in the past two years and I've learned a lot during that time. Still, there's some information here that made me think quite a bit. The focus on a central emotion is a great point. It's something I've not been thinking about. Sure, my stories end in a sad or terrible way, but I think my stories are generally broader and only lead up to the aforementioned events and emotions. So that's a great point and something I might want to think about on the next one I'll write. Thank you for the great article!
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How to Write a Short Story in 12 Concrete Steps [Examples]
Posted on Mar 13, 2023
by Bella Rose Pope
Writing short stories can help tremendously in the process of becoming a successful author . Remember that becoming a successful author is a journey, many start with short stories, blogging, or even poetry before going on to writing a book.
You probably don’t think short stories are very hard to write.
In fact, you might be the type who assumes short stories are even easier because, well…they’re short .
But that’s just not the case (there’s an art to writing an amazing short story)—and I’ll tell you why in just a minute.
Short stories, and getting good at writing them, can actually set you up for success in other writing ventures as well. That’s why we’re showcasing the most important steps for writing a short story.
They may be difficult to get good at, but we’re breaking down how to make them much easier, and what makes for a good one to begin with. Want to learn how to write a short story, and get better at this style of writing ?
Be sure to check out our post on publishing short stories once you’ve mastered the writing part.
If you want to learn how to write a short story or be a better short story writer, you’ll have to go through these main steps:
- Generate your idea
- Know your character
- Outline your short story
- Start with something out of the ordinary
- Get your draft done as soon as possible
- Edit your short story
- Title your short story
- Get feedback about it
- Practice often
- How to write a short story every day
- Define your core message
- Write a satisfying ending
Once you get through the steps for writing a short story, make sure to take a look at the short story ideas, tips for writing them, and common questions with answers all about short stories (including how long a short story is ).
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How to Write a Short Story in 12 Full, Concrete Steps
If you’re ready to tackle this avenue of creative writing or you just want to learn how to write a short story to strengthen the overall quality of your book, here’s how you can do that.
#1 – Come up with a strong short story idea
You can pull ideas from short stories from everywhere.
Former short story editor and now-published short story author (with 2 collections), Hannah Lee Kidder says, “The best short story ideas will always come from you yourself. Those are the ideas that you’ll care the most about and be able to bring to life the easiest.”
That said, we know it can take a trigger to come up with short story ideas that make you want to craft great writing around. Ultimately, you’ll have the best results by tweaking any idea you have of your own, but we also wanted to provide some short story ideas to help you get started.
Here are 20 short story ideas to take your writing to the next level:
- Your character opens the mailbox to find their biggest fear inside.
- After a devastating fall, your character is learning the hardships of healing after an accident.
- Character accidentally insults their company’s CEO – right before a big promotion.
- The character lost a child years ago but lives as if it just happened the day before.
- Your character’s village wise woman tells the story of how magic was lost due to abuse.
- Your character lives in a space pod traveling space, and they’re also claustrophobic.
- Ash floated from the mountaintop and awoke your character from their night’s sleep.
- Your character hasn’t eaten in days and stumbles upon real berries, and so does a starving bear.
- When your character’s heart is broken, they must find a way to heal it – any way.
- Your character is an orphaned 7-year-old who hears voices.
- Your character just found out they have a rare disease…that hasn’t been detected anywhere in centuries.
- After a fight with their ex, your character decides to go on a trip to the neighboring town that hosts very… unusual tales.
- Your character accidentally runs into the wrong person on the street…and now they can’t sleep at night.
- When your character moves schools, they didn’t expect to find a secret lurking throughout the school…that all the teachers know about.
- It’s your character’s turn in their culture’s ritual of fighting a lion barehanded. They’ve never been good in fights.
- After extreme weather conditions plague your character’s town, they finally leave home to find everybody has gone missing.
- Your character is in the back of an ambulance, trying desperately to revive someone who’s apparently dead…so why are they still away and breathing?
- After a short stint at a hospital as a nurse, your character decides to take their skills to the mountains as a wilderness medical professional. They just didn’t expect to find odd and interesting injuries among campers.
- An apple appears at your character’s front door every morning and they can’t figure out who’s putting it there.
- When an avalanche quakes the mountains in your character’s town, it unveils something that’s been hidden for…millenia.
Sometimes short story ideas are enough but if you want to utilize them effectively, keep these tips in mind:
- Keep it simple and focus on a single portion of a character’s life
- Make sure the reader has a clear picture of your main character right away
- Focus on the theme and message you’re trying to get across
- Let the short story idea create a life of its own
- Be unique and think of many possible endings to the story before outlining
#2 – Focus on Character Development
In order for a short story to be impactful, you have to know your character well. Having good character development is essential in short stories since your main characters often drive the story.
You only have a certain amount of time to show your readers who that person is and you can’t do that if you don’t even know who they are.
Think about it.
If you write a short story about your best friend, whom you’ve known for many years, versus writing one about someone you just met yesterday, you’ll be able to craft a much stronger story about your best friend because you know them so well. Creative writing techniques can help you bring out the best or most compelling things about your characters.
The same goes for your fictional characters.
But when writing a short story, you won’t have the same type of character arc as you would when writing a full-length novel .
You don’t have to spend a ton of time on your main character , but know their history, age, personality, family life, friend life, love life, and other details that shape the way someone sees the world.
Keep in mind that since your short story is, well, shorter than a novel, you may remove a few steps. Knowing the overall character journey, however, can be helpful for your main character development within short stories.
Spend enough time on character development when you’re learning how to write a short story or improving your creative writing skills will pay off by introducing your readers to memorable characters.
#3 – Outline
Thankfully, the outlining process for short stories is much easier than a full novel, but I do still advise creating one in order to have a cohesive flow throughout the story.
This is definitely useful for those of you who prefer outlining versus just writing by the seat of your pants.
- The point of view you’ll use
- How you’ll start the story
- How you’ll get from the beginning to the main issue
- What happens at the “climax” (yes, even short stories have one!)
- Resolution of the main issue
- The very end
Keep in mind that the art of how to write a short story can close with something that ends very abruptly or you can flesh it out until there’s a satisfying ending.
This is really up to you as an author to decide. Practicing this for short stories can help you create an outline for your book , too.
#4 – Start with something out of the ordinary
Take Hannah Lee Kidder’s example from this video above. One of the short stories in her anthology, Little Birds , opens with a woman collecting roadkill.
In order to hook readers from the start of your story , you should write an opening scene that’ll catch someone’s attention right off the bat.
Here’s what that looks like at the start of the short story:
Short Story Opening Example:
Odd? Yes. Attention-grabbing? You bet! This is how to write a short story with an opening that gets readers engaged, invested in your character, and motivated to read the entire story.
Because we’re automatically intrigued by the fact that people don’t normally go around collecting roadkill. It’s another place creative writing skills can really help you draw in your readers in a short story.
Now, you don’t have to start your short story with something as strange as that but you do want to give your readers a sense of who your character is by depicting something different right away that also has to do with the core focus of your short story.
Take this short story called The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry , for example. This author starts with a very low money amount and then hits you with the fact that it’s Christmas the very next day.
This is out of the ordinary because many readers understand that having such little money (scraped up money, at that) right before Christmas isn’t typical. It’s odd – and also hits their emotions right away. If you want to learn how to write a short story, read the opening paragraphs of short stories. And pay attention to the many different ways writers hook readers.
#5 – Get the draft done ASAP
Done is better than perfect. That’s the best way to approach the process of writing a short story or anything else. We’ve all heard or read these words time and time again – and that’s because they’re important; they’re true.
This is especially the case when it comes to short stories. Once you have your outline and know how to start writing , drafting the short story in full comes next.
Don’t worry about editing or polishing the story up in any way right now. After all, you can’t possibly make good edits until you know what the story looks like in full. When you’re learning how to write a short story, resist the urge to get it perfect.
That would be like matching your earrings to your pants without first having the full outfit put together. You don’t know if those earrings work well with it until you see what else you’ll be wearing.
It’s the same for writing. Focus on getting your draft done so you can move on to the next step. The process of how to write a short story is rarely one-and-done but usually takes writing, rewriting, and editing to create your best work.
#6 – Edit your short story
Editing is where the real magic happens when you’re learning how to write a short story. We all have this idea in our minds that we’ll get it perfect the first time and that’s just not how writing works.
Most of the time, your first draft is just the bare bones of what’s to come but through line editing , developmental edits, and proofreading, it will transform into something better.
Think of the actual writing as the wooden structure of a house and the editing as the drywall, paint, windows, light fixtures, doors, and anything else that’ll make the house complete.
These are a few things to keep an eye out for when editing your short story . The elements of story structure to look for include:
- Point of view consistency
- Tense consistency
- Consistency with the setting of your story
- Weak verbs (replace them with our list of strong verbs found right here!)
- Showing versus telling (readers need you to show more!)
- Stronger imagery
- Spelling/grammar/ dialogue
If you want to learn how to write a short story, editing is a necessary part of the process. So what’s that look like? The editing process for short stories is pretty much the same for novels.
The only difference is that short stories tend to focus more on imagery and exposition than they do full character and plot development.
#7 – Title it!
This can be one of the most difficult things for any book, let alone a story that’s only a few hundred to a few thousand words.
The good news? Short story titles are a little less important than titles for novels. They can also be very abstract.
What you want to think of when titling your short story is this:
- What’s the overarching theme?
- Something unique about the story?
- Sounds intriguing but not explanatory?
- What makes sense after reading the short story?
- What could be mysterious enough to be intriguing?
These questions will help you develop a title that not only makes sense but is also intriguing enough to pull readers in while staying true to what the story is about. It’s also great practice to help you come up with titles when you write and publish your book .
Learning how to write a short story includes learning how to write a great title or headline. And let’s face it, a great title or headline gets readers to pay attention. Put your creative writing skills to work here. Come up with a bunch of different titles, and ask our writing partners or target audience for feedback.
#8 – Get feedback
No matter how experienced (or inexperienced) you are as a writer, you need feedback.
To create your best work, it’s just part of the process when you’re learning how to write a short story. I know…it can feel scary. But feedback from the right people will help you make your short story better.
In order to learn and improve and ensure your message is coming across as desired, you need someone else’s fresh eyes on it.
Google Docs is a great option to write your short story and get feedback from others all in one place.
We need this help because the simple fact is, we’re too close to our writing.
It’s impossible to read your story with a critical eye when you’re the one who came up with and wrote it in the first place. That’s just we’re wired when we’re learning how to write a short story or anything else. We need feedback to improve.
Allowing others to read your work and offer feedback is one of the best ways to improve and make sure your story is exactly how you want it. This is why writing partners and even beta readers are so important.
#9 – Practice by writing short stories often
The number one best way to learn how to write good short stories is by writing them often.
When you’re writing regularly, your brain falls into the habit of being creative and thinking in terms of short stories.
If you want to learn how to write a short story and get good at it…practice. The more you do it, the easier it will get and the more you’ll improve. So focus on writing a certain number of short stories per week and stick to that – even if they aren’t your favorite.
#10 – Write one short story every day for 30 days
This is separate from writing short stories often. If you really want to kickstart your progress and get really good quickly, then create a challenge for yourself .
Want to learn how to write a short story, get good at it, and write faster? Do this…
Write one short story, whether it’s 500 or 1,000 words, per day for an entire month.
When you’re done, you’ll have 30 full short stories to review, edit, and improve upon. Doing this not only builds a habit, but it also gives you a lot of experience quickly .
After those 30 days, you’ll know more about how you like to write short stories, which mean more to you, and how to write them to be good . If you want to learn how to write a short story, give this challenge a try. Seriously, it’s just 30 days.
#11 – Focus on a single message to share
Short stories are known for being impactful even though they’re not novel-length. Learning how to write a short story forces you to think of ways to take your reader on a journey in a much shorter space than a book.
And that means they have to have a core theme or message you want to get across. This can be anything from loving yourself to ignoring societal expectations.
In order to do this, think about what you want people to walk away from your story feeling .
What is the desired outcome?
If you just want people to enjoy the story, that’s great. However, what makes a story impactful and enjoyable is what readers take away from it.
Brainstorm some themes that are important to you and work your short story around them. When you understand how to write a short story this way, it will not only make you care about your story more (which means it’ll be written better), but it’ll also make it more satisfying for readers.
#12 – Tie it up with a satisfying ending
Nobody likes a story that ends on a major cliffhanger.
It’s okay for your short story to have an unresolved ending. In fact, that’ll likely be the case simply because the story is…well, short .
But you do want to tie your story up in a way that leaves the reader feeling satisfied even if they didn’t get all the answers.
Many times, this means circling back to an idea or element presented in the beginning. It’s one storytelling strategy of how to write a short story and wrap everything up.
This story structure often allows readers to feel as though they’ve read a complete story versus just a snippet of a larger one.
Need help wrapping things up? Check out this VIDEO : How to End a Short Story and other valid concerns.
Why All Writers Should Learn How to Write a Short Story
There’s a lot more to writing short stories than you may think. As a short story writer, keep in mind that just because they’re shorter in length doesn’t mean it takes any less skill to execute a good one.
Short story writers get this…Being able to tell a full story in such a short amount of time arguably takes more skill than writing a full-length novel or nonfiction book .
That being said, why is it beneficial for all writers to learn how to write a short story?
#1 – You learn the skill of showing
Short story writers have a challenge that requires some patience to overcome, but it’s worth it. When you only have a few pages to hook readers, paint a clear picture of the main character, and tell a story, you end up mastering the skill of showing instead of telling .
The reason for this is because, in order to accomplish a successful and good short story, showing is a major part of that.
It’s far too difficult to write a great short story without showing the details and using strong verbs to paint a clear image of your main character’s life. Great short story writers understand the “show don’t tell” concept. If you want to learn how to write a short story, getting clear on this will save you a lot of time.
Those skills will transfer into anything you write, automatically making it that much better. One more reason is that learning how to write a short story will help with other writing projects.
#2 – You’ll strengthen individual chapters
No matter if you’re a fiction writer, short story writer, or if you prefer nonfiction, the idea here is the same.
A chapter is basically a short story that’s a part of a bigger whole. The same skills you apply to write a great short story will also help you write stronger chapters.
Each part of your book should be polished, strong, and enticing for your readers. Using short story writing methods will help you achieve that within your chapters.
Why is writing good chapters important if there’s a whole book available for someone to read?
Because it hooks readers and keeps them turning that page.
And when readers look back on an entire book filled with incredible chapters , the entire book as a whole will be seen as being that much better. Spending time learning how to write a short story sets you up for success when you write your book or pursue other writing projects.
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#3 – It makes the story sections of your nonfiction book more captivating
Every nonfiction book has portions where stories must be told in order to get the point across.
This is what allows people to relate to you as an author, which pulls them in deeper and makes the core message of your book resonate with them more. It’s another part “how to write a short story” skills will help you connect with readers.
But if those stories are weak, not well-written, and lackluster, it’s unlikely someone will enjoy them as much.
It’s also likely that your message will get lost because the book doesn’t carry the same impact. Keeping readers engaged from start to finish can feel like a tall order. But when you learn how to write a short story with a beginning, middle, end, and a message readers will love you for it.
How long are short stories?
Short stories should remain below 7,000 words in order to be considered a “short story.” They can be as short as only one sentence, as this is known as flash fiction .
You already know that short stories are… shorter than your average novel but do they have any other differences?
Here’s a chart detailing the main differences in how many words are in short stories, novels, novellas, and nonfiction works.
As you can see, the main difference is length, but that’s not all. When you understand how to write a short story, you’re only writing a very impactful snippet of your main character’s otherwise full life.
You don’t have to unpack your entire character’s life story in a few hundred words in order to write a great short story.
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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.
Here’s a tip: Want to make sure your writing shines? Grammarly can check your spelling and save you from grammar and punctuation mistakes. It even proofreads your text, so your work is extra polished wherever you write.
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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.
Discover Your Writing Niche
with Gloria Kempton
March 15th, 2023
Fiction or nonfiction? Article, short story, or how-to book? Do you want to write for children, teens, adults? There is a type of writing that is best suited for you, and the discovery process can be an adventure.
Let It Rip: The Art of Writing Fiery Prose
with Giulietta Nardone
March 22nd, 2023
You'll write prose that gets folks so hot and bothered they won't be able to put it down, even if it isn't about sex.
Flash Fiction: Writing the Short-Short Story
with Barbara Henning
Write 1–3-page flash fiction in this online course with Barbara Henning, drawing on classic, poetic & experimental elements. Read the form’s masters.
Write Your Picture Book!
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Picture books have changed greatly over the last few decades, and the market is wide open for fresh ideas. Join us in this six-week intensive where we’ll take that idea of yours and turn it into a manuscript!
How to Firm Up the “Mushy Middle” of Any Story
with Jeff Lyons
March 29th, 2023
Ensure a strong middle throughline for any story. Say goodbye to the "mushy middle," and hello to stories that work.
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.
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How to Write a Short Story
Last Updated: January 31, 2023 References Approved
This article was co-authored by Lucy V. Hay . Lucy V. Hay is an author, script editor and blogger who helps other writers through writing workshops, courses, and her blog Bang2Write. Lucy is the producer of two British thrillers and her debut crime novel, The Other Twin, is currently being adapted for the screen by [email protected] TV, makers of the Emmy-nominated Agatha Raisin. There are 10 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. This article received 40 testimonials and 81% of readers who voted found it helpful, earning it our reader-approved status. This article has been viewed 4,644,229 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
- ↑ http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/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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How to Write a Short Story: 5 Major Steps from Start to Finish
by Sarah Gribble | 81 comments
Do you want to learn how to write a short story ? Maybe you'd like to try writing a short story instead of a novel-length work, or maybe you're hoping to get more writing practice without the lengthy time commitment that a novel requires.
The reality of writing stories? Not every short story writer wants to write a novel, but every novelist can benefit from writing short stories. However, short stories and novels are different—so naturally, how you write them has its differences, too.
Short stories are often a fiction writer’s first introduction to writing, but they can be frustrating to write and difficult to master. How do you fit everything that makes a great story into something so short?
And then, once you do finish a short story you’re proud of, what do you do with it?
That's what we'll cover in this article, along with additional resources I'll link to that will help you get started step-by-step with shorts.
Short Stories Made Me a Better Writer
I fell into writing short stories when I first started writing.
I'd written a book , and it was terrible. But it opened up my mind and I kept having all these story ideas I just had to get out.
Before long, I had dozens of stories and within about two years, I had around three dozen of them published traditionally. That first book went nowhere, by the way. But my short stories surely did.
And I learned a whole lot about the writing craft because I spent so much time practicing writing with my short stories. This is why, whether you want to make money as a short story writer or experiment writing them, I think writing short stories is important for every writer who wants to become a novelist.
But how do you write a short story? And what do you do afterwards? I hope that by sharing my personal experiences and suggestions, I can help you write your own short stories with confidence.
Why Should You Write Short Stories?
I get a lot of pushback when I suggest new writers should write short stories.
Everyone wants to write a book. (Okay, maybe not everyone, but if you ask a hundred people if they’d like to write one, I’d bet seventy-something of them would say yes.) Anthologies and short story collections don’t make a ton of money because no one really wants to read them. So why waste time writing short stories when books are what people read ?
There are three main reasons you should be a short story writer:
Short stories help you hone your writing skills .
Short stories are often only one scene and about one character. That’s a level of focus you can’t have in a novel. Writing short stories forces you to focus on writing clearly and concisely while still making a scene entertaining.
You’re working with the basic level of structure here (a scene) and learning to perfect it .
2. Building contacts and readers
Most writers I know do not want to hear this, but this whole writing thing is the same as any other industry: if you want to make it, you better network.
When my first book, Surviving Death , was released, I had hundreds of people on my launch team. How? I’d had about three dozen short stories published traditionally by that time. I’d gathered a readership base, and not only that, I’d become acquainted with some fellow writers in my genre along the way. And those people were more than willing to help me get the word out about my book.
You want loyal readers and you want friends in the industry. And the way to get those is to continuously be writing.
Writing is like working out. If you take a ton of time off, you’re going to hurt when you get back into it.
It’s a little difficult to be working on a novel all the time. Most writers have one or two in them a year, and those aren’t written without a bit of a break in between.
Short story writing helps you keep up your writing habit , or develop one, and they make for a nice break in between larger projects.
I always write short stories between novels, and even between drafts of my novels. It keeps me going and puts use to all the random story ideas I had while working on the larger project. I've found over the years that keeping up the writing habit is the only way to actually keep yourself in “writer mode.”
All the cool kids are doing it. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Edgar Allan Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood . . . Google your favorite writers and they probably have a short story collection or two out there. Most successful authors have cut their teeth on short stories.
What is a Short Story?
Now that you know why you should be writing short stories, let’s talk about what a short story is. This might seem obvious, but it’s a question I’ve gotten a lot. A short story is short, right? Essentially, yes. But how short is short?
You can Google how long a short story is and get a bunch of different answers. There are a lot of different editors out there running a lot of different anthologies, magazines, ezines, podcasts, you name it. They all have slightly different definitions of what a short story is because they all have slightly different needs when it comes to providing content on their platform and meeting the expectations of their audiences.
A podcast, for instance, often wants a story to take up about thirty minutes of airtime. They know how long it takes their producers to read a story, so that thirty minutes means they’re looking for a very specific word count. An ezine might aim for a certain estimated reading time. A magazine or anthology might have a certain number of pages they’re trying to fill.
Everyone has a different definition of how short a short story is, so for the purpose of this series, I’m going to be broad in my definition of a short story.
What qualifies as a short story?
A short story word count normally falls somewhere between 1,000 words and 10,000 words. If you’re over ten thousand, you’re running into novelette territory, though some publications consider up to 20,000 words to be a short story. If you’re under a thousand words, you’re looking at flash fiction.
The sweet spot is between 2,000 and 5,000 words. The majority of short stories I’ve had published were between 2,500 words and 3,500 words.
That’s not a lot of words, and you’ve got a lot to fit in—backstory, world-building, a character arc—in that tiny amount of space. (A book, by the way, is normally 60,000 to 90,000 words or longer. Big difference.)
A short story is one to three scenes. That’s it. Think of it as a “slice of life,” as in someone peeked into your life for maybe an hour or two and this is what they saw.
You’re not going to flesh out every detail about your characters. (I normally don’t even know the last names of my short story characters, and it doesn’t matter.) You’re not trying to build a Tolkien-level world. You don’t need to worry about subplots.
To focus your writing, think of a short story as a short series of events happening to a single character. The rest of the cast of characters should be small.
How to Write a Short Story: The Short Version
Throughout this blog series, I’ll take a deep dive into the process of writing short stories. If you’re looking for the fast answer, here it is:
- Write the story in one sitting.
- Take a break.
- Edit with a mind for brevity.
- Get feedback and do a final edit.
Write the story in one sitting
For the most part, short stories are meant to be read in one sitting, so it makes sense that you should write them in one sitting.
Obviously, if you’re in the 10K range, that’s probably going to take more than one writing session, but a 2,500-word short story can easily be written in one sitting. This might seem a little daunting, but you’ll find your enthusiasm will drive you to the ending and your story will flow better for it.
You’re not aiming for prize-winning writing during this stage. You’re aiming to get the basic story out of your head and on paper.
Forget about grammar . Forget about beautiful prose. Forget about even making a ton of sense.
You’re not worrying about word count at this stage, either. Don’t research and don’t pause over trying to find the exact right word. Don't agonize over the perfect story title.
Just get the basic story out. You can’t edit a blank page.
Take a break
Don’t immediately edit your story. After you’ve written anything, books included, you need to take a step back . Your brain needs to shift from “writer mode” to “reader mode.” With a short story, I normally recommend a three-day break.
If you have research to do, this is the time to do it, though I highly recommend not thinking about your story at all.
The further away you can get from it, the better you’ll edit.
Edit with a mind for brevity
Now that you’ve had a break, you’re ready to come back with a vengeance. This is the part where you “kill your darlings” and have absolutely no mercy for the story you produced less than a week ago. The second draft is where you get critical.
Remember we’re writing a short story here, not a novel. You don’t have time to go into each and every detail about your characters’ lives. You don’t have time for B-plots, a ton of characters, or Stephen King-level droning on.
Short stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, though. They’re short, but they’re still stories.
As you edit , ask yourself if each bit of backstory, world building, and anything else is something your reader needs to know. If they do, do they need to know it right at that moment? If they don’t, cut it.
If this is your first time letting other people see your writing, this can be a scary step. No one wants to be given criticism. But getting feedback is the most important step in the writing process next to writing.
The more eyes you can get on a piece of writing, the better.
I highly recommend getting feedback from someone who knows about writing, not your mother or your best friend. People we love are great, but they love you and won’t give you honest feedback. If you want praise, go to them. If you want to grow as a writer, join a writing community and get feedback from other writers.
When you’ve gotten some feedback from a handful of people, make any changes you deem necessary and do a final edit for smaller issues like grammar and punctuation.
Here at The Write Practice, we’re huge fans of publishing your work . In fact, we don’t quite consider a story finished until it’s published.
Whether you’re going the traditional route and submitting your short story to anthologies and magazines, or you’re more into self- publishing , don’t let your story languish on your computer. Get it out into the world so you can build your reader base.
And it’s pretty cool getting to say you’re a published author.
That’s the short version of how to go about writing short stories. Throughout this series, I’ll be taking a more in-depth look at different elements of these steps. Stick with me throughout the series, and you’ll have a short story of your own ready to publish by the end.
A Preview of My How to Write a Short Story Series
My goal in this blog series is to walk you through the process of writing a short story from start to finish and then point you in the right direction for getting that story published.
By the end of this series, you’ll have a story ready to submit to publishers and a plan for how to submit.
Below is a list of topics I’ll be covering during this blog series. Keep coming back as these topics are updated over the coming months.
How to Come up With Ideas For Short Stories
Creative writing is like a muscle: use it or lose it. Coming up with ideas is part of the development of that muscle. In this post , I’ll go over how to train your mind to put out ideas consistently.
How to Plan a Short Story (Without Really Planning It)
Short stories often don’t require extensive planning. They’re short, after all. But a little bit of outlining can help. Don’t worry, I’m mostly a pantser! I promise this won’t be an intense method of planning. It will, however, give you a start with the elements of story structure—and motivation to get you to finish (and publish) your story. Read this article to see how a little planning can go a long way toward writing a successful story.
What You Need in a Short Story/Elements of a Short Story
One of the biggest mistakes I see from new writers is their short stories aren’t actually stories. They're often missing a climax, don't have an ending, or just ramble on in a stream-of-consciousness way without any story structure. In this article , I’ll show you what you need to make sure your short is a complete story.
Writing Strategies for Short Stories
The writing process varies from person to person, and often from project to project. In this blog , I’ll talk about different writing strategies you can use to write short stories.
How to Edit a Short Story
Editing is my least favorite part of writing. It’s overwhelming and often tedious. I’ll talk about short story editing strategies to take the confusion out of the process, and ensure you can edit with confidence.Learn how to confidently edit your story here .
Writing a Better Short Story
Short stories are their own art form, mainly because of the small word count. In this post, I’ll discuss ways to write a better short, including fitting everything you want and need into that tiny word count.
Weaving backstory and worldbuilding into your story without overdoing it. Remember, you don't need every detail about the world or a character's life in a short story—but the setting shouldn't be ignored. How your protagonist interacts with it should be significant and interesting.
How to Submit a Short Story to Publications
There are plenty of literary magazines, ezines, anthologies, etc. out there that accept short stories for publication (and you can self-publish your stories, too). In this article, I’ll demystify the submission process so you can submit your own stories to publications and start getting your work out there. You'll see your work in a short story anthology soon after using the tips in this article !
Professionalism in the Writing Industry
Emotions can run high when you put your work out there for others to see. In this article, I’ll talk about what’s expected of you in this profession and how to maintain professionalism so that you don't shoot yourself in the foot when you approach publishers, editors, and agents.
Write, Write, Write!
As you follow this series, I challenge you to begin writing at least one short story a week. I'll be giving you in-depth tips on creating a compelling story as we go along, but for now, I want you to write. That habit is the hardest thing to start and the hardest thing to keep up.
You may not use all the stories you're going to write over the next months. You may hate them and never want them to see the light of day. But you can't get better if you don't practice. Start practicing now.
As Ray Bradbury says:
“Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”
When it comes to writing short stories, what do you find most challenging? Let me know in the comments .
For today’s practice, let’s just take on Step #1 (and begin tackling the challenge I laid down a moment ago): Write the basic story idea, the gist of the premise, as you’d tell it to a friend. Don’t think about it too much, and don’t worry about going into detail. Just write.
Write for fifteen minutes .
When your time is up, share your practice in the box below. And after you post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.
Enter your practice here:
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Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death , her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.
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The Top 10 Tips For Writing Great Short Stories
September 30, 2020 5 min read Character Checklist Fiction Short Stories Tips 82 Comments
Guest post by Willie Handler , author of two satirical novels, The Road Ahead and Loved Mars Hated The Food .
Not every writer has the passion and time to write a novel . Or maybe you do write novels but want to try something different. If so, writing short stories might be for you.
Short stories are in demand by magazines , newspapers, blogs, and anthologies, and many of these publications pay authors for short stories.
In fact, you can earn more money per word writing short stories than you can publishing a novel.
So how do you go about writing a short story that will be accepted by a publication or website? Here are my top ten tips for writing a great short story.
1. Understand that a short story is not the same as a novel
Novels and short stories share some common characteristics. They need to be coherent, grammatically correct, and have proper spelling. And, no matter the length, they need to tell a story.
That means they both need to have these elements: inciting incident, rising action (progressive complications), climax, and falling action.
Still, the two formats differ.
Whereas novelists decide the length of their books, short story writers have to work within the confines of the word limit they're given. To tell a complete story on a smaller scale, they have to cut their stories down to the bone, excluding all fatty detail . And they need to resolve problems quickly.
This is why short stories, unlike novels, usually focus on one aspect of a character’s life , or one aspect of a problem/relationship in a character’s life.
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2. Start as close to the end as possible
Newspaper articles include the entirety of the story as close to the opening of the article as possible. Why? Because giving a reader the details upfront is one way to let them know whether they want to read on.
Good short story writers do this as well, sharpening their opening lines and paragraphs to ensure readers are pulled in off the bat, and keep reading.
So, get the reader right into your unfolding story. Bypass the “before” and the “also related” and the “vaguely interesting thing that is also true of my character’s life” snapshots.
Make the plot obvious.
3. Keep up the pace
A fast pace is essential for short stories. Normally, the pace increases as the hero approaches the final conflict. Since a short story starts close to the final conflict, it needs to hit the ground running and catapult the reader headlong into the action from page one.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Keith Cavernaugh got murdered last night.”
Fred almost dropped his rake. “I hadn’t heard,” he said.
4. Keep the number of characters small
It’s difficult to properly develop a larger number of characters in a short story, and it's hard for a reader to keep track of them.
A short story only needs three characters – a protagonist, antagonist, and what is referred to as a wrench or relationship character. The reader needs someone to cheer on, someone to hate, and, occasionally, someone who serves to advance the character arc for either the protagonist or antagonist.
A short story can even have as few as one character. In the Tom Hanks film Cast Away , the main character is alone for most of the movie. This is a great example of how you can build a story with just a single character.
5. Give the reader someone to root for
Again, every story needs a protagonist. The trick is to make the reader care about that character. There are a few techniques to strengthen the connection between your protagonist and the reader.
Give your main character a passion, hopefully one that will be shared by the reader. Give your character determination that brings them out of their comfort zone. Give your character a weakness, one that is only shared with the reader.
A glimpse into your character’s psyche is another good approach. This will make your character feel real and go on to draw in the reader.
6. Create conflict!
Every short story needs to have a single point of conflict. As a rule, no more than one is required for a short story.
The character should have either a dilemma, a revelation, or be faced with a decision of some kind. Surrounding that conflict should be a good dose of tension. Conflict and tension keep readers engaged and invested in your story.
Kurt Vonnegut suggests that writers should be sadists. Make bad things happen to your main characters to show readers what they are made of. A short story can never have too much tension.
7. Suggest a backstory but don’t elaborate
You don’t have the space to flesh out a character’s backstory. So, if in doubt, leave it out. Every sentence must count. If even one word seems extraneous, it has to go.
Even though you may not describe much of the backstory on paper, you need to have it worked out in your head. You need to understand a character’s motivation to write a compelling story.
Instead, draw in your readers with tight dialogue, tension, and by engaging their senses.
On that note...
8. Appeal to the five senses
Don't restrict your readers to only the visual experience of your story. Transport them into your world by letting them touch, smell, taste and hear it. This is what we mean when we say, "Show, don't tell." Invite your readers to explore the full breadth of what your world has to offer, as if they were really there.
The dense fog engulfs your character and she can no longer make out the path through the woods.
The smell of bacon cooking in the kitchen pulls him from his sleep.
The fan blades thwack the air and keep her from drifting to sleep.
9. Dialogue should bring your story to life
Don’t spend too much time setting scenes because a short story needs to come to a relatively quick conclusion. Good dialogue can make the characters, and therefore the story, come to life.
When putting characters in a scene, give them something to do, like washing dishes. But then focus on the dialogue to advance the story and set up conflict.
There’s no better way to build drama than through tight dialogue. I always try to read my dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t feel real, or if it seems out of character, I have a problem.
“Come quick! Jack is trapped in the mineshaft.”
“I can’t help rescue Jack. I’m claustrophobic.”
“That mineshaft floods in wet weather. If this storm breaks, Jack will drown.”
10. Edit until it hurts
No matter how good a writer thinks their story is, it can be made more concise and compelling. To be a good writer, one needs to be a ruthless editor .
Some ways to do that...
- Combine characters where possible.
- Delete transitory scenes and get right to the meat of the story.
- Show, remember, don’t tell.
- Get rid of repetitive words.
- Toss out unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.
- Make every sentence count.
This is the time to look at the backstory and decide how much of it is critical to the story. Remember, just because short stories are short, they aren't necessarily easier to write.
---------- ---------- ---------- ----------
Check out short story anthologies for examples of how to apply these tips well. Reading is always a great way to learn how to write.
In sum, keep it spare. Limit plot lines, the number of characters, the amount of backstory provided, and whittle down your conflict to just one event.
And remember, as with all things, practice makes perfect.
So, commit to your craft. Write a 500 to a 1,000-word story every month. Once you get the hang of that, try to churn one out every two weeks. And then every week. And then every day.
Soon, you’ll be able to create short stories with ease, and you’ll have trained yourself to write consistently, too.
Just don’t forget to edit!
November 07, 2022
Thank you so much, this really is helpful to me…
October 04, 2022
Really helpful tips for a beginner. Much appreciated.. I’m writing a short story for a a prize winning competition.. Best of luck to me.
Very well thought. Thank you.
September 08, 2022
‘‘Tis article was really helpful as I have a short story competition tomorrow so thank you this was great help as I’m a beginner 😊
Truly great advice
Thank You so much for this tip on short story books. I have been dragging my feet on this needing to know where to start. Again Thank You!
August 09, 2022
Wish I could find words to express myself on how thankful and honored I am to receive such assistance from this amazing article. Thank you.
I’m so thankful and I MEAN IT
Helpful tips. Thanks for sharing
July 15, 2022
This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.
Atta Dhe Titan
July 04, 2022
The article is truly a brilliant guide to writing of short stories. It has armed me with tips that improves writing skills. I can’t say thank enough to the initiator of this guide.
June 14, 2022
This is absolutely helpful. I am planning on writing a short story this July and the article has just paved a way for me.
Wow it’s really helpful
May 30, 2022
this is so helpful I really like it as much as I like writing
May 19, 2022
The tips were excellent it was kept short and on point. Amazing 😍😉
May 17, 2022
May 09, 2022
Thank you so much. I have learnt a lot.
Nice tips on how to write short stories. “Edit until it hurts”….wow…so true.
At this point, almost everyone has read at least some Alice Munro, right? This story is one of the best from one of the greats, and was also adapted into a fantastic but heartbreaking film, Away From Her.
April 27, 2022
thanks for your tips. it’s really helpful for me to create short audio stories. I believe a shorter one is easy to digest for young generations.
Nice tips they are really helpful. :D
April 19, 2022
Thank you so much for this information. I’ve learnt so much more.
You save me ,got it lastly
April 12, 2022
March 22, 2022
Sharing your beautiful ideas to the people is awesome… thank you so much… i am so interested
Very informative and well versed, thank you
Bilyaminu Ali Sani
March 14, 2022
This tips gives writing absolute inspirations. Thanks
Thanks it is helpfull and informative
March 07, 2022
tysm for this
February 21, 2022
Thank you for sharing this information.
February 14, 2022
Thank you for the guidelines to writing a short story. I will ensure to use them.
This article is super good and truly tells me what I need to do . Thank you
February 07, 2022
This article inspired me. I have ALWAYS wanted to write short stories and now I’m going to do it! Thank you so much!
January 25, 2022
Amazing! You should be so proud.
January 19, 2022
If you ever wondered why you get so caught up in a story. Or if you want to learn the reason behind how a group of words can keep you on your toes. This blog will show you the foundation of it.
January 14, 2022
it is really useful and helpful;
January 11, 2022
Thanks now I can write a short story about the time I almost killed my grandma <3
This was so well put together! Extremely helpful ! thank you!
December 21, 2021
Really great help, Thanks
This was terrific! Helped me out so much.
this was horrid. in a good way. now i can write about the one time i had bloody diarrhea <3
December 06, 2021
These tips are great, these will help a lot.
November 30, 2021
This is really helpful
Great! Really helped me develope a well-written narrative.
These tips really help me a lot. It made me realize that writing short stories is possible to someone like me.Thank you so much!
Thanks for the tips.I have been thinking about writing about my village in India,where I lived for 25 years.
thank you!! i love writing and this was super helpful:)
Thank you, this will help me with my 11+ preparation this was so quick to read yet so informative.
The tips, outlined here, are written with passion and captivating explanation. I like this article. It is just what I needed right now!
October 25, 2021
This is really great!!! Thank you so much 😊😊💗
I like the tips that given its help me a lot to make a short story being a student
Thank you very much. These tips are made crystal clear to everyone. I read from beginning to end with great interest. I will start writing from today.
October 15, 2021
The tips really help me a lot. Thanks..
Thanks for all the wonderful tips. I sincerely would like to try my hand in writing short stories.
October 04, 2021
thank you i am very gratefull for the help i am in a english class and have to write a short story
Hi! I was born talking Northern Sotho it’s my parents’ tongue, used tips .it really helped me alot. Now I’m enjoying writing my own short stories.
Bol Deng Piol
Thanks for this. A guide indeed.
September 05, 2021
I really enjoyed this piece. I want to start publishing my short stories and this piece will go a long way for me.
this article really helped me out for my project! thank you!
Hello! My mother tongue is Spanish. I speak English so bad (think in English is my karma). However, I can read and write short stories for my own pleasure. This article was been very useful for me. Has been part of my practice. Thanks!
It helpful thank u 💙🤗❤
All points are relevant and straight to the core as you mean, thanks for this practical and yet useful tips. Will start my practise imminent .
Good read of good information. Any advice on where to start looking for places to sell my short stories? Thank you.
I really gained a lot , l was at a loss with regard to short story writing, but now l know where to start. Thanks.
July 15, 2021
Amazing article. I write posts and comments on social media and your steps will definitely make my writing more relatable. I’m also looking to write nonfiction to inspire businesses to take action. Your steps will be used in all of the genres that will be written. Looking forward to reading more of your articles. Do you write blogs or articles for magazine publications?
July 08, 2021
This has opened my eyes about what it takes to be a writer and I am excited to apply these methods to my short story ventures.
I am happy that I discovered this article.
I’ve been a Gamemaster (DM) for over 40 years – this is great stuff! This is also a great way to write an RPG adventure.
This was so informative and really helped me improve as a writer. Thank you!
Jo Ann Harris
This information really helped me to write a short story on Medium. Thanks for the tips.
Cabin #6 Resident
Thank you! These tips are very useful!
Thanks for the tips…..I will succeed here….show me the money
I’ve been reading a lot lately about short stories, but this article is by far the most complex and complete!
Thank you! All the advice in it will be put to good use, as I am currently working on a short piece for a competition.
March 04, 2021
This article has really helped me as a short story writer. It is an eye opener. Big up!
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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.
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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How to Write a Short Story: The Complete Guide in 9 Steps
Any tiny little mistake in a short story becomes magnified into gigantic proportions.
If a minor character fails to come alive in a novel, you can forgive the error because there is so many other things to enjoy, but if a minor character falls flat in a short story, a reader will become annoyed and a literary magazine editor will throw it away.
In a short story, a writer has to accomplish a great deal — details, setting, conflict, plot, character development — in a very small space, usually between 3,000 words and 6,000 words, and that requires concision and revision. Read the tips below to find out how to write a short story that will get published, get readers that love you, and get attention from an agent.
1. Start With an Idea
You can get inspiration fromreal-life events – whether they happened to you, a grandparent who told you a story, or even the combination of little tidbits you hear from here and there.
I suggest following a few “weird news” sites , because I’ve gleaned incredible stories including one about a tourist in Iceland who joined a search party only to discover she was the one being searched for, and another about an ex-Olympian who started prostituting herself not for money but for attention. Take nonfiction and transform it into fiction.
If you’re stuck, consult a short story idea database , or a story idea generator.
2. Pick a Point of View
Is your character telling the story? Then you’re writing in 1st person . “I.”
Are you telling the story for someone else? Then you’re writing in 3rd person. “He” or “She.”
Are you going to go into multiple people’s heads, and tell information that the character can’s know? Then you’re writing in 3rd person omniscient. “He” or “She.”
Now, decide whose eyes the story will be told through. Remember, you can’t switch halfway through the story. Once you pick a point of view, you have to stick with it. A good rule of thumb for beginning writers is to use the protagonist.
3. Learn About Your Character
These are the six questions you have to know about every character:
- What does your protagonist want?
- What major decision or action has your protagonist taken to achieve this?
- What unexpected consequences arise?
- What results from these consequences?
- What morally significant action does your protagonist have to make?
- How has your protagonist changed by the end of the story?
Your job as a writer is to develop a living, breathing character, and the only way to do that is to make sure you know more about your characters than what you ever let your reader know.
Write out everything there is to know about your character from their high school GPA, their earliest memories, and their home address to their first love, their favorite TV show, and their greatest fear.
If you want to get to know your character even deeper, fill out a character questionnaire .
4. Avoid Character Cliches
- Don’t outright explain your character’s appearance, personality, etc. Let readers discover this character on their own as they read.
- Give your character weaknesses. Perfect people don’t exist.
- Give your character at least one unique characteristic. Everyone knows the independent, stubborn female character who is small, stronger than she looks, not very pretty (at least in her own opinion), and can fight like the devil. But does she play the flute? Does she have an embarrassingly ugly laugh? Does she notice the smell of everything?
- If you must have an outright description of a character, make it seem natural. Have the character describe him or herself to another character, or have one character describing the other character to someone else.
Find out some more cliches to avoid and character development tricks .
5. Give Your Character Conflict
Make sure to have conflict. Don’t set up the conflict, start your story right in the middle of the conflict. This is called, “In Media Res.” It means to start in the middle of the action so the reader isn’t bored.
There are several types of conflict, but ask yourself what type of conflict you want to emphasize:
- Conflict with self
- Conflict with others
- Conflict with the natural world
Make sure to “have something at stake.” In other words, what happens if the characters don’t get what they want? It should be something that ruins them. If there is nothing at stake in your story, you need to “raise the stakes.”
6. Show, Don’t Tell
Don’t just tell me that your dad is hilarious. Show me by what he says and does, and then let me decide if he is funny or not.
There’s a difference between writing an anecdote (the type of story you would tell a friend over dinner) and a quality short story (the type of story where readers are set inside the action).
Take these two different types of writing, for example:
1. I’m a pretty easy going person. I get along with everyone including the obnoxious guys from my hometown, but there’s a certain event that rolls around every year that puts most of them on the wrong side of the fence from me. These “couple” games are all athletic based and are meant to build trust and teamwork between “couples,” but no one cares for that. Everyone is after the prize money. Unfortunately, I am pathetically unathletic, so none of the athletic guys from my town have ever wanted to team up with me. I’m too “small,” “weak,” “uncoordinated,” and “clumsy.” They’re not wrong.
2. My eyes scanned the auditorium, but all of the boys seemed to be avoiding my gaze. Basketball scholarship boy was excitedly whispering with the tumbling queen of University of the Cumberlands cheer squad, and the soon-to-be marine was already exchanging information with the girl who had broken our high school hurtle record. Only Seth, the art major who assisted in coaching the middle school soccer team met my eyes with a malicious grin as he put his arm around his most recent fling – a rock-climbing pro from Etowah.
The difference between these two passages is the same as the difference between a good story teller and a good story writer .
Telling will give the reader the facts, but showing engages their mind, emotions, and imagination. Sometimes it’s good and necessary to give the cold, hard facts (such as emails to your boss), but the writing we’re interested in makes the reader feel something. A story like this will engage the reader in such a way that he or she won’t easily forget it.
If you struggle with being a storyteller , do some writing exercises to help you get better at showing and not telling. One idea would be to take your setting and, without listing the name, describe it. Describe everything about it from the smell, the taste, the appearance, the texture, etc. Leave nothing undone. Imagine yourself as waking up in this setting with no recollection of where you are or how you had gotten there, and now you are straining over every minute detail trying to remember.
7. Advance the Action (Plot!)
Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action. -Kurt Vonnegut
The plot is what your story hinges on because it is the series of events that take place in your story. It is the storyline , and the sequential events in your novel (exposition, rising action, climax, etc.) are big factors in determining whether or not your story is individually unique or just about the same as everything else out there.
If you want to keep readers on their toes, the plot of your story should always take an unexpected turn, whether at the beginning or the end.
Because it keeps the story interesting!
I went home, opened my laptop, and stared at the black screen for thirty minutes asking myself, Do you really want to do this? Do you really want to dish out around a hundred dollars just to prove a point? I turned the laptop on, took out my debit card, and typed in the search bar, “rent a guy for a day.” Because yes. I really did want to do this.
8. First Draft
Don’t worry so much about having a catchy first paragraph or too many details right now. Now, you simply need to worry about getting everything on paper.
An 8,000 word story will probably end up as a 4,000 word short story after you go through cutting out unnecessary sentences.
When you finish:
- Edit again. Maybe three or four times.
- Remove sentences that don’t serve a purpose.
- Make sure your beginning is catchy
- Make sure you have a solution to your conflict (can be open-ended with character beginning to change and now see things differently)
- Show it to a critical writing friend and revise based on their suggestions.
- Submit to a literary magazine or publisher!
9. A Final Crucial Trick
I once heard some valuable advice that has stuck with me:
When you write a story, don’t save any of your ideas for later, grander books, and don’t write like you want everyone to like it. Pour your soul into every word and write as though you are writing to please one person.
Writing to please everyone will water your story down and steal its uniqueness. Even if you’re planning to please a group of people, remember that nothing in the world can replicate the individuality of a single person, and that’s how you should want your story to be.
Also remember that giving your all on every book is important because this book may be the only book that someone reads by you. What imprint do you want to leave in their mind?
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Thanks! I really enjoyed this post! Short story writing is arguably harder than writing a novel at times. Just like you said, there’s no room for meandering about with your wordplay, that’s for sure!
wow i learn so much stuff in this
this post is as lovely as passion for story writing is..
This was really helpful since I do need to learn how to write short stories, thank you!!!
I really appreciate this post
I have really enjoyed the post and this will help me to teach short story perfectly
Every writer NEEDS this book.
It’s a guide to writing the pivotal moments of your novel.
Whether writing your book or revising it, this will be the most helpful book you’ll ever buy.
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