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Last updated on Oct 29, 2023
How to Write a Short Story in 9 Simple Steps
This post is written by UK writer Robert Grossmith. His short stories have been widely anthologized, including in The Time Out Book of London Short Stories , The Best of Best Short Stories , and The Penguin Book of First World War Stories . You can collaborate with him on your own short stories here on Reedsy .
Writing a short story is, in many ways, more challenging than writing a novel. How can you develop your characters, conflict, and premise — all within the space of a few pages? Where can you find an idea worthy of being such a short story?
In this article, I’ll take you through the process of writing a short story, from idea conception to the final draft.
How to write a short story:
1. Know what a short story is versus a novel
2. pick a simple, central premise, 3. build a small but distinct cast of characters, 4. begin writing close to the end, 5. shut out your internal editor, 6. finish the first draft, 7. edit the short story, 8. share the story with beta readers, 9. submit the short story to publications.
But first, let’s talk about what makes a short story different from a novel.
The simple answer to this question, of course, is that the short story is shorter than the novel, usually coming in at between, say, 1,000-15,000 words. Any shorter and you’re into flash fiction territory. Any longer and you’re approaching novella length .
As far as other features are concerned, it’s easier to define the short story by what it lacks compared to the novel . For example, the short story usually has:
- fewer characters than a novel
- a single point of view, either first person or third person
- a single storyline without subplots
- less in the way of back story or exposition than a novel
If backstory is needed at all, it should come late in the story and be kept to a minimum.
It’s worth remembering too that some of the best short stories consist of a single dramatic episode in the form of a vignette or epiphany.
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A short story can begin life in all sorts of ways.
It may be suggested by a simple but powerful image that imprints itself on the mind. It may derive from the contemplation of a particular character type — someone you know perhaps — that you’re keen to understand and explore. It may arise out of a memorable incident in your own life.
- Kafka began “The Metamorphosis” with the intuition that a premise in which the protagonist wakes one morning to find he’s been transformed into a giant insect would allow him to explore questions about human relationships and the human condition.
- Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” takes the basic idea of a lowly clerk who decides he will no longer do anything he doesn’t personally wish to do, and turns it into a multi-layered tale capable of a variety of interpretations.
When I look back on some of my own short stories, I find a similar dynamic at work: a simple originating idea slowly expands to become something more nuanced and less formulaic.
So how do you find this “first heartbeat” of your own short story? Here are several ways to do so.
Experiment with writing prompts
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the story premises mentioned above actually have a great deal in common with writing prompts like the ones put forward each week in Reedsy’s short story competition . Try it out! These prompts are often themed in a way that’s designed to narrow the focus for the writer so that one isn’t confronted with a completely blank canvas.
Turn to the originals
Take a story or novel you admire and think about how you might rework it, changing a key element. (“Pride and Prejudice and Vampires” is perhaps an extreme product of this exercise.) It doesn’t matter that your proposed reworking will probably never amount to more than a skimpy mental reimagining — it may well throw up collateral narrative possibilities along the way.
Keep a notebook
Finally, keep a notebook in which to jot down stray observations and story ideas whenever they occur to you. Again, most of what you write will be stuff you never return to, and it may even fail to make sense when you reread it. But lurking among the dross may be that one rough diamond that makes all the rest worthwhile.
Like I mentioned earlier, short stories usually contain far fewer characters than novels. Readers also need to know far less about the characters in a short story than we do in a novel (sometimes it’s the lack of information about a particular character in a story that adds to the mystery surrounding them, making them more compelling).
Yet it remains the case that creating memorable characters should be one of your principal goals. Think of your own family, friends and colleagues. Do you ever get them confused with one another? Probably not.
Your dramatis personae should be just as easily distinguishable from one another, either through their appearance, behavior, speech patterns, or some other unique trait. If you find yourself struggling, a character profile template like the one you can download for free below is particularly helpful in this stage of writing.
Reedsy’s Character Profile Template
A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.
- “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman features a cast of two: the narrator and her husband. How does Gilman give her narrator uniquely identifying features?
- “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe features a cast of three: the narrator, the old man, and the police. How does Poe use speech patterns in dialogue and within the text itself to convey important information about the narrator?
- “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor is perhaps an exception: its cast of characters amounts to a whopping (for a short story) nine. How does she introduce each character? In what way does she make each character, in particular The Misfit, distinct?
He’s right: avoid the preliminary exposition or extended scene-setting. Begin your story by plunging straight into the heart of the action. What most readers want from a story is drama and conflict, and this is often best achieved by beginning in media res . You have no time to waste in a short story. The first sentence of your story is crucial, and needs to grab the reader’s attention to make them want to read on.
One way to do this is to write an opening sentence that makes the reader ask questions. For example, Kingsley Amis once said, tongue-in-cheek, that in the future he would only read novels that began with the words: “A shot rang out.”
This simple sentence is actually quite telling. It introduces the stakes: there’s an immediate element of physical danger, and therefore jeopardy for someone. But it also raises questions that the reader will want answered. Who fired the shot? Who or what were they aiming at, and why? Where is this happening?
We read fiction for the most part to get answers to questions. For example, if you begin your story with a character who behaves in an unexpected way, the reader will want to know why he or she is behaving like this. What motivates their unusual behavior? Do they know that what they’re doing or saying is odd? Do they perhaps have something to hide? Can we trust this character?
As the author, you can answer these questions later (that is, answer them dramatically rather than through exposition). But since we’re speaking of the beginning of a story, at the moment it’s enough simply to deliver an opening sentence that piques the reader’s curiosity, raises questions, and keeps them reading.
“Anything goes” should be your maxim when embarking on your first draft.
How to Craft a Killer Short Story
From pacing to character development, master the elements of short fiction.
By that, I mean: kill the editor in your head and give your imagination free rein. Remember, you’re beginning with a blank page. Anything you put down will be an improvement on what’s currently there, which is nothing. And there’s a prescription for any obstacle you might encounter at this stage of writing.
- Worried that you’re overwriting? Don’t worry. It’s easier to cut material in later drafts once you’ve sketched out the whole story.
- Got stuck, but know what happens later? Leave a gap. There’s no necessity to write the story sequentially. You can always come back and fill in the gap once the rest of the story is complete.
- Have a half-developed scene that’s hard for you to get onto the page? Write it in note form for the time being. You might find that it relieves the pressure of having to write in complete sentences from the get-go.
Most of my stories were begun with no idea of their eventual destination, but merely an approximate direction of travel. To put it another way, I’m a ‘pantser’ (flying by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go along) rather than a planner. There is, of course, no right way to write your first draft. What matters is that you have a first draft on your hands at the end of the day.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the ending of a short story : it can rescue an inferior story or ruin an otherwise superior one.
If you’re a planner, you will already know the broad outlines of the ending. If you’re a pantser like me, you won’t — though you’ll hope that a number of possible endings will have occurred to you in the course of writing and rewriting the story!
In both cases, keep in mind that what you’re after is an ending that’s true to the internal logic of the story without being obvious or predictable. What you want to avoid is an ending that evokes one of two reactions:
- “Is that it?” aka “The author has failed to resolve the questions raised by the story.”
- “WTF!” aka “This ending is simply confusing.”
Like Truman Capote said, “Good writing is rewriting.”
Once you have a first draft, the real work begins. This is when you move things around, tightening the nuts and bolts of the piece to make sure it holds together and resembles the shape it took in your mind when you first conceived it.
In most cases, this means reading through your first draft again (and again). In this stage of editing , think to yourself:
- Which narrative threads are already in place?
- Which may need to be added or developed further?
- Which need to perhaps be eliminated altogether?
All that’s left afterward is the final polish . Here’s where you interrogate every word, every sentence, to make sure it’s earned its place in the story:
- Is that really what I mean?
- Could I have said that better?
- Have I used that word correctly?
- Is that sentence too long?
- Have I removed any clichés?
Trust me: this can be the most satisfying part of the writing process. The heavy lifting is done, the walls have been painted, the furniture is in place. All you have to do now is hang a few pictures, plump the cushions and put some flowers in a vase.
Eventually, you may reach a point where you’ve reread and rewritten your story so many times that you simply can’t bear to look at it again. If this happens, put the story aside and try to forget about it.
When you do finally return to it, weeks or even months later, you’ll probably be surprised at how the intervening period has allowed you to see the story with a fresh pair of eyes. And whereas it might have felt like removing one of your own internal organs to cut such a sentence or paragraph before, now it feels like a liberation.
The story, you can see, is better as a result. It was only your bloated appendix you removed, not a vital organ.
It’s at this point that you should call on the services of beta readers if you have them. This can be a daunting prospect: what if the response is less enthusiastic than you’re hoping for? But think about it this way: if you’re expecting complete strangers to read and enjoy your story, then you shouldn’t be afraid of trying it out first on a more sympathetic audience.
This is also why I’d suggest delaying this stage of the writing process until you feel sure your story is complete. It’s one thing to ask a friend to read and comment on your new story. It’s quite another thing to return to them sometime later with, “I’ve made some changes to the story — would you mind reading it again?”
So how do you know your story’s really finished? This is a question that people have put to me. My reply tends to be: I know the story’s finished when I can’t see how to make it any better.
This is when you can finally put down your pencil (or keyboard), rest content with your work for a few days, then submit it so that people can read your work. And you can start with this directory of literary magazines once you're at this step.
The truth is, in my experience, there’s actually no such thing as a final draft. Even after you’ve submitted your story somewhere — and even if you’re lucky enough to have it accepted — there will probably be the odd word here or there that you’d like to change.
Don’t worry about this. Large-scale changes are probably out of the question at this stage, but a sympathetic editor should be willing to implement any small changes right up to the time of publication.
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The short story is a fiction writer’s laboratory: here is where you can experiment with characters, plots, and ideas without the heavy lifting of writing a novel. Learning how to write a short story is essential to mastering the art of storytelling . With far fewer words to worry about, storytellers can make many more mistakes—and strokes of genius!—through experimentation and the fun of fiction writing.
Nonetheless, the art of writing short stories is not easy to master. How do you tell a complete story in so few words? What does a story need to have in order to be successful? Whether you’re struggling with how to write a short story outline, or how to fully develop a character in so few words, this guide is your starting point.
Famous authors like Virginia Woolf, Haruki Murakami, and Agatha Christie have used the short story form to play with ideas before turning those stories into novels. Whether you want to master the elements of fiction, experiment with novel ideas, or simply have fun with storytelling, here’s everything you need on how to write a short story step by step.
The Core Elements of a Short Story
There’s no secret formula to writing a short story. However, a good short story will have most or all of the following elements:
- A protagonist with a certain desire or need. It is essential for the protagonist to want something they don’t have, otherwise they will not drive the story forward.
- A clear dilemma. We don’t need much backstory to see how the dilemma started; we’re primarily concerned with how the protagonist resolves it.
- A decision. What does the protagonist do to resolve their dilemma?
- A climax. In Freytag’s Pyramid , the climax of a story is when the tension reaches its peak, and the reader discovers the outcome of the protagonist’s decision(s).
- An outcome. How does the climax change the protagonist? Are they a different person? Do they have a different philosophy or outlook on life?
Of course, short stories also utilize the elements of fiction , such as a setting , plot , and point of view . It helps to study these elements and to understand their intricacies. But, when it comes to laying down the skeleton of a short story, the above elements are what you need to get started.
Note: a short story rarely, if ever, has subplots. The focus should be entirely on a single, central storyline. Subplots will either pull focus away from the main story, or else push the story into the territory of novellas and novels.
The shorter the story is, the fewer of these elements are essentials. If you’re interested in writing short-short stories, check out our guide on how to write flash fiction .
How to Write a Short Story Outline
Some writers are “pantsers”—they “write by the seat of their pants,” making things up on the go with little more than an idea for a story. Other writers are “plotters,” meaning they decide the story’s structure in advance of writing it.
You don’t need a short story outline to write a good short story. But, if you’d like to give yourself some scaffolding before putting words on the page, this article answers the question of how to write a short story outline:
How to Write a Short Story Step by Step
There are many ways to approach the short story craft, but this method is tried-and-tested for writers of all levels. Here’s how to write a short story step by step.
1. Start With an Idea
Often, generating an idea is the hardest part. You want to write, but what will you write about?
What’s more, it’s easy to start coming up with ideas and then dismissing them. You want to tell an authentic, original story, but everything you come up with has already been written, it seems.
Here are a few tips:
- Originality presents itself in your storytelling, not in your ideas. For example, the premise of both Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ostrovsky’s The Snow Maiden are very similar: two men and two women, in intertwining love triangles, sort out their feelings for each other amidst mischievous forest spirits, love potions, and friendship drama. The way each story is written makes them very distinct from one another, to the point where, unless it’s pointed out to you, you might not even notice the similarities.
- An idea is not a final draft. You will find that exploring the possibilities of your story will generate something far different than the idea you started out with. This is a good thing—it means you made the story your own!
- Experiment with genres and tropes. Even if you want to write literary fiction , pay attention to the narrative structures that drive genre stories, and practice your storytelling using those structures. Again, you will naturally make the story your own simply by playing with ideas.
If you’re struggling simply to find ideas, try out this prompt generator , or pull prompts from this Twitter .
2. Outline, OR Conceive Your Characters
If you plan to outline, do so once you’ve generated an idea. You can learn about how to write a short story outline earlier in this article.
If you don’t plan to outline, you should at least start with a character or characters. Certainly, you need a protagonist, but you should also think about any characters that aid or inhibit your protagonist’s journey.
When thinking about character development, ask the following questions:
- What is my character’s background? Where do they come from, how did they get here, where do they want to be?
- What does your character desire the most? This can be both material or conceptual, like “fitting in” or “being loved.”
- What is your character’s fatal flaw? In other words, what limitation prevents the protagonist from achieving their desire? Often, this flaw is a blind spot that directly counters their desire. For example, self hatred stands in the way of a protagonist searching for love.
- How does your character think and speak? Think of examples, both fictional and in the real world, who might resemble your character.
In short stories, there are rarely more characters than a protagonist, an antagonist (if relevant), and a small group of supporting characters. The more characters you include, the longer your story will be. Focus on making only one or two characters complex: it is absolutely okay to have the rest of the cast be flat characters that move the story along.
Learn more about character development here:
3. Write Scenes Around Conflict
Once you have an outline or some characters, start building scenes around conflict. Every part of your story, including the opening sentence, should in some way relate to the protagonist’s conflict.
Conflict is the lifeblood of storytelling: without it, the reader doesn’t have a clear reason to keep reading. Loveable characters are not enough, as the story has to give the reader something to root for.
Take, for example, Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story The Cask of Amontillado . We start at the conflict: the narrator has been slighted by Fortunato, and plans to exact revenge. Every scene in the story builds tension and follows the protagonist as he exacts this revenge.
In your story, start writing scenes around conflict, and make sure each paragraph and piece of dialogue relates, in some way, to your protagonist’s unmet desires.
4. Write Your First Draft
The scenes you build around conflict will eventually be stitched into a complete story. Make sure as the story progresses that each scene heightens the story’s tension, and that this tension remains unbroken until the climax resolves whether or not your protagonist meets their desires.
Don’t stress too hard on writing a perfect story. Rather, take Anne Lamott’s advice, and “write a shitty first draft.” The goal is not to pen a complete story at first draft; rather, it’s to set ideas down on paper. You are simply, as Shannon Hale suggests, “shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build castles.”
5. Step Away, Breathe, Revise
Whenever Stephen King finishes a novel, he puts it in a drawer and doesn’t think about it for 6 weeks. With short stories, you probably don’t need to take as long of a break. But, the idea itself is true: when you’ve finished your first draft, set it aside for a while. Let yourself come back to the story with fresh eyes, so that you can confidently revise, revise, revise .
In revision, you want to make sure each word has an essential place in the story, that each scene ramps up tension, and that each character is clearly defined. The culmination of these elements allows a story to explore complex themes and ideas, giving the reader something to think about after the story has ended.
6. Compare Against Our Short Story Checklist
Does your story have everything it needs to succeed? Compare it against this short story checklist, as written by our instructor Rosemary Tantra Bensko.
Below is a collection of practical short story writing tips by Writers.com instructor Rosemary Tantra Bensko . Each paragraph is its own checklist item: a core element of short story writing advice to follow unless you have clear reasons to the contrary. We hope it’s a helpful resource in your own writing.
Update 9/1/2020: We’ve now made a summary of Rosemary’s short story checklist available as a PDF download . Enjoy!
Click to download
How to Write a Short Story: Length and Setting
Your short story is 1000 to 7500 words in length.
The story takes place in one time period, not spread out or with gaps other than to drive someplace, sleep, etc. If there are those gaps, there is a space between the paragraphs, the new paragraph beginning flush left, to indicate a new scene.
Each scene takes place in one location, or in continual transit, such as driving a truck or flying in a plane.
How to Write a Short Story: Point of View
Unless it’s a very lengthy Romance story, in which there may be two Point of View (POV) characters, there is one POV character. If we are told what any character secretly thinks, it will only be the POV character. The degree to which we are privy to the unexpressed thoughts, memories and hopes of the POV character remains consistent throughout the story.
You avoid head-hopping by only having one POV character per scene, even in a Romance. You avoid straying into even brief moments of telling us what other characters think other than the POV character. You use words like “apparently,” “obviously,” or “supposedly” to suggest how non-POV-characters think rather than stating it.
How to Write a Short Story: Protagonist, Antagonist, Motivation
Your short story has one clear protagonist who is usually the character changing most.
Your story has a clear antagonist, who generally makes the protagonist change by thwarting his goals.
(Possible exception to the two short story writing tips above: In some types of Mystery and Action stories, particularly in a series, etc., the protagonist doesn’t necessarily grow personally, but instead his change relates to understanding the antagonist enough to arrest or kill him.)
The protagonist changes with an Arc arising out of how he is stuck in his Flaw at the beginning of the story, which makes the reader bond with him as a human, and feel the pain of his problems he causes himself. (Or if it’s the non-personal growth type plot: he’s presented at the beginning of the story with a high-stakes problem that requires him to prevent or punish a crime.)
The protagonist usually is shown to Want something, because that’s what people normally do, defining their personalities and behavior patterns, pushing them onward from day to day. This may be obvious from the beginning of the story, though it may not become heightened until the Inciting Incident , which happens near the beginning of Act 1. The Want is usually something the reader sort of wants the character to succeed in, while at the same time, knows the Want is not in his authentic best interests. This mixed feeling in the reader creates tension.
The protagonist is usually shown to Need something valid and beneficial, but at first, he doesn’t recognize it, admit it, honor it, integrate it with his Want, or let the Want go so he can achieve the Need instead. Ideally, the Want and Need can be combined in a satisfying way toward the end for the sake of continuity of forward momentum of victoriously achieving the goals set out from the beginning. It’s the encounters with the antagonist that forcibly teach the protagonist to prioritize his Needs correctly and overcome his Flaw so he can defeat the obstacles put in his path.
The protagonist in a personal growth plot needs to change his Flaw/Want but like most people, doesn’t automatically do that when faced with the problem. He tries the easy way, which doesn’t work. Only when the Crisis takes him to a low point does he boldly change enough to become victorious over himself and the external situation. What he learns becomes the Theme.
Each scene shows its main character’s goal at its beginning, which aligns in a significant way with the protagonist’s overall goal for the story. The scene has a “charge,” showing either progress toward the goal or regression away from the goal by the ending. Most scenes end with a negative charge, because a story is about not obtaining one’s goals easily, until the end, in which the scene/s end with a positive charge.
The protagonist’s goal of the story becomes triggered until the Inciting Incident near the beginning, when something happens to shake up his life. This is the only major thing in the story that is allowed to be a random event that occurs to him.
How to Write a Short Story: Characters
Your characters speak differently from one another, and their dialogue suggests subtext, what they are really thinking but not saying: subtle passive-aggressive jibes, their underlying emotions, etc.
Your characters are not illustrative of ideas and beliefs you are pushing for, but come across as real people.
How to Write a Short Story: Prose
Your language is succinct, fresh and exciting, specific, colorful, avoiding clichés and platitudes. Sentence structures vary. In Genre stories, the language is simple, the symbolism is direct, and words are well-known, and sentences are relatively short. In Literary stories, you are freer to use more sophisticated ideas, words, sentence structures and underlying metaphors and implied motifs.
How to Write a Short Story: Story Structure
Your plot elements occur in the proper places according to classical Act Structure so the reader feels he has vicariously gone through a harrowing trial with the protagonist and won, raising his sense of hope and possibility. Literary short stories may be more subtle, with lower stakes, experimenting beyond classical structures like the Hero’s Journey. They can be more like vignettes sometimes, or even slice-of-life, though these types are hard to place in publications.
In Genre stories, all the questions are answered, threads are tied up, problems are solved, though the results of carnage may be spread over the landscape. In Literary short stories, you are free to explore uncertainty, ambiguity, and inchoate, realistic endings that suggest multiple interpretations, and unresolved issues.
Some Literary stories may be nonrealistic, such as with Surrealism, Absurdism, New Wave Fabulism, Weird and Magical Realism . If this is what you write, they still need their own internal logic and they should not be bewildering as to the what the reader is meant to experience, whether it’s a nuanced, unnameable mood or a trip into the subconscious.
Literary stories may also go beyond any label other than Experimental. For example, a story could be a list of To Do items on a paper held by a magnet to a refrigerator for the housemate to read. The person writing the list may grow more passive-aggressive and manipulative as the list grows, and we learn about the relationship between the housemates through the implied threats and cajoling.
How to Write a Short Story: Capturing Reader Interest
Your short story is suspenseful, meaning readers hope the protagonist will achieve his best goal, his Need, by the Climax battle against the antagonist.
Your story entertains. This is especially necessary for Genre short stories.
The story captivates readers at the very beginning with a Hook, which can be a puzzling mystery to solve, an amazing character’s or narrator’s Voice, an astounding location, humor, a startling image, or a world the reader wants to become immersed in.
Expository prose (telling, like an essay) takes up very, very little space in your short story, and it does not appear near the beginning. The story is in Narrative format instead, in which one action follows the next. You’ve removed every unnecessary instance of Expository prose and replaced it with showing Narrative. Distancing words like “used to,” “he would often,” “over the years, he,” “each morning, he” indicate that you are reporting on a lengthy time period, summing it up, rather than sticking to Narrative format, in which immediacy makes the story engaging.
You’ve earned the right to include Expository Backstory by making the reader yearn for knowing what happened in the past to solve a mystery. This can’t possibly happen at the beginning, obviously. Expository Backstory does not take place in the first pages of your story.
Your reader cares what happens and there are high stakes (especially important in Genre stories). Your reader worries until the end, when the protagonist survives, succeeds in his quest to help the community, gets the girl, solves or prevents the crime, achieves new scientific developments, takes over rule of his realm, etc.
Every sentence is compelling enough to urge the reader to read the next one—because he really, really wants to—instead of doing something else he could be doing. Your story is not going to be assigned to people to analyze in school like the ones you studied, so you have found a way from the beginning to intrigue strangers to want to spend their time with your words.
Where to Read and Submit Short Stories
Whether you’re looking for inspiration or want to publish your own stories, you’ll find great literary journals for writers of all backgrounds at this article:
Learn How to Write a Short Story at Writers.com
The short story takes an hour to learn and a lifetime to master. Learn how to write a short story with Writers.com. Our upcoming fiction courses will give you the ropes to tell authentic, original short stories that captivate and entrance your readers.
Rosemary – Is there any chance you could add a little something to your checklist? I’d love to know the best places to submit our short stories for publication. Thanks so much.
Hi, Kim Hanson,
Some good places to find publications specific to your story are NewPages, Poets and Writers, Duotrope, and The Submission Grinder.
“ In Genre stories, all the questions are answered, threads are tied up, problems are solved, though the results of carnage may be spread over the landscape.”
Not just no but NO.
See for example the work of MacArthur Fellow Kelly Link.
[…] How to Write a Short Story: The Short Story Checklist […]
Thank you for these directions and tips. It’s very encouraging to someone like me, just NOW taking up writing.
[…] Writers.com. A great intro to writing. https://writers.com/how-to-write-a-short-story […]
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A short story.
Look at the short story and do the exercises to improve your writing skills.
Do the preparation exercise first. Then do the other exercises.
Check your understanding: multiple choice - choose a title
Check your understanding: true or false, check your writing: matching - story structure, check your writing: grouping - adjectives and adverbs, worksheets and downloads.
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How to Write a Short Story
Last Updated: August 12, 2023 Fact Checked
This article was co-authored by Lucy V. Hay . Lucy V. Hay is a Professional Writer based in London, England. With over 20 years of industry experience, Lucy is an author, script editor, and award-winning blogger who helps other writers through writing workshops, courses, and her blog Bang2Write. Lucy is the producer of two British thrillers, and Bang2Write has appeared in the Top 100 round-ups for Writer’s Digest & The Write Life and is a UK Blog Awards Finalist and Feedspot’s #1 Screenwriting blog in the UK. She received a B.A. in Scriptwriting for Film & Television from Bournemouth University. There are 10 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 4,678,907 times.
For many writers, the short story is the perfect medium. It is a refreshing activity. For many, it is as natural as breathing is to lungs. While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, just about anybody can craft—and, most importantly, finish —a short story. Writing a novel can be a tiresome task, but writing a short story, it's not the same. A short story includes setting, plot, character and message. Like a novel, a good short story will thrill and entertain your reader. With some brainstorming, drafting, and polishing, you can learn how to write a successful short story in no time. And the greatest benefit is that you can edit it frequently until you are satisfied.
Sample Short Stories
- For example, you can start with a simple plot like your main character has to deal with bad news or your main character gets an unwanted visit from a friend or family member.
- You can also try a more complicated plot like your main character wakes up in a parallel dimension or your main character discovers someone else's deep dark secret.
Making Characters that Pop: Finding Inspiration: Characters are all around you. Spend some time people-watching in a public place, like a mall or busy pedestrian street. Make notes about interesting people you see and think about how you could incorporate them into your story. You can also borrow traits from people you know. Crafting a Backstory: Delve into your main character’s past experiences to figure out what makes them tick. What was the lonely old man like as a child? Where did he get that scar on his hand? Even if you don’t include these details in the story, knowing your character deeply will help them ring true. Characters Make the Plot: Create a character who makes your plot more interesting and complicated. For example, if your character is a teenage girl who really cares about her family, you might expect her to protect her brother from school bullies. If she hates her brother, though, and is friends with his bullies, she’s conflicted in a way that makes your plot even more interesting.
- For example, maybe your main character has a desire or want that they have a hard time fulfilling. Or perhaps your main character is trapped in a bad or dangerous situation and must figure out how to stay alive.
Tips on Crafting a Setting: Brainstorming descriptions: Write the down names of your settings, such as “small colony on Mars” or “the high school baseball field.” Visualize each place as vividly as you can and jot down whatever details come into your head. Set your characters down there and picture what they might do in this place. Thinking about your plot: Based on your characters and the arc of your plot, where does your story need to take place? Make your setting a crucial part of your story, so that your readers couldn’t imagine it anywhere else. For example, if your main character is a man who gets into a car crash, setting the story in a small town in the winter creates a plausible reason for the crash (black ice), plus an added complication (now he’s stranded in the cold with a broken car). Don’t overload the story. Using too many settings might confuse your reader or make it hard for them to get into the story. Using 1-2 settings is usually perfect for a short story.
- You can also focus on a more specific theme like “love between siblings,” “desire for friendship” or “loss of a parent.”
- For example, you may have an emotional climax where your main character, a lonely elderly man, has to confront his neighbor about his illegal activity. Or you may have an emotional climax where the main character, a young teenage girl, stands up for her brother against school bullies.
Creating a Satisfying Ending: Try out a few different endings. Outline a few different endings you could use. Visualize each option and see which ones feel more natural, surprising, or fulfilling. It’s okay if you don’t find the right ending right away—it’s one of the hardest parts of the story to write! How do you want your readers to feel when they finish? Your ending is the last impression you’ll leave on your reader. How will they feel if your characters succeed, fail, or land somewhere in the middle? For example, if your main character decides to stand up to her brother’s bullies but gets scared at the last second, the readers will leave feeling like she still has a lot of soul-searching to do. Stay away from cliches. Make sure you avoid gimmick endings, where you rely on familiar plot twists to surprise your reader. If your ending feels familiar or even boring, challenge yourself to make it more difficult for your characters.
- “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov  X Research source
- “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” by Alice Munro
- “For Esme-With Love and Squalor" by J.D. Salinger  X Research source
- “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury  X Research source
- “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman
- "Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx  X Research source
- “Wants” by Grace Paley
- “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz
- “Seven” by Edwidge Danticat
Creating a First Draft
- You can also try the snowflake method, where you have a one-sentence summary, a one-paragraph summary, a synopsis of all the characters in the story, and a spreadsheet of scenes.
- For example, an opening line like: “I was lonely that day” does not tell your reader much about the narrator and is not unusual or engaging.
- Instead, try an opening line like: “The day after my wife left me, I rapped on the neighbor’s door to ask if she had any sugar for a cake I wasn’t going to bake.” This line gives the reader a past conflict, the wife leaving, and tension in the present between the narrator and the neighbor.
- Some stories are written in second person, where the narrator uses “you.” This is usually only done if the second person is essential to the narrative, such as in Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life” or Junot Diaz’s short story, “This is How You Lose Her.”
- Most short stories are written in the past tense, though you can use the present tense if you’d like to give the story more immediacy.
Quick Dialogue Tips: Develop a voice for each character. Your characters are all unique, so all of their dialogue will sound a little different. Experiment to see what voice sounds right for each character. For example, one character might greet a friend by saying, “Hey girl, what’s up?”, while another might say, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages.” Use different dialogue tags—but not too many. Sprinkle descriptive dialogue tags, like “stammered” or “shouted,” throughout your story, but don’t make them overwhelming. You can continue to use “said,” in some situations, choosing a more descriptive tag when the scene really needs it.
- For example, you may describe your old high school as “a giant industrial-looking building that smells of gym socks, hair spray, lost dreams, and chalk.” Or you may describe the sky by your house as “a blank sheet covered in thick, gray haze from wildfires that crackled in the nearby forest in the early morning.”
- You can also end on an interesting image or dialogue that reveals a character change or shift.
- For example, you may end your story when your main character decides to turn in their neighbor, even if that means losing them as a friend. Or you may end your story with the image of your main character helping her bloodied brother walk home, just in time for dinner.
Polishing the Draft
- Notice if your story follows your plot outline and that there is a clear conflict for your main character.
- Reading the story aloud can also help you catch any spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors.
Parts to Delete: Unnecessary description: Include just enough description to show the readers the most important characteristics of a place, a character, or an object while contributing to the story’s overall tone. If you have to clip out a particularly beautiful description, write it down and save it—you may be able to use in another story! Scenes that don’t move the plot forward: If you think a scene might not be necessary to the plot, try crossing it out and reading through the scenes before and after it. If the story still flows well and makes sense, you can probably delete the scene. Characters that don’t serve a purpose: You might have created a character to make a story seem realistic or to give your main character someone to talk to, but if that character isn’t important to the plot, they can probably be cut or merged into another character. Look carefully at a character’s extra friends, for example, or siblings who don’t have much dialogue.
- For example, the title “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” by Alice Munro is a good one because it is a quote from a character in the story and it addresses the reader directly, where the “I” has something to share with readers.
- The title “Snow, Apple, Glass” by Neil Gaiman is also a good one because it presents three objects that are interesting on their own, but even more interesting when placed together in one story.
- You can also join a writing group and submit your short story for a workshop. Or you may start your own writing group with friends so you can all workshop each other’s stories.
- Once you get feedback from others, you should then revise the short story again so it is at its best draft.
You Might Also Like
- ↑ https://www.writersdigest.com/there-are-no-rules/how-to-brainstorm-give-your-brain-free-rein
- ↑ https://blog.reedsy.com/character-development/
- ↑ http://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-write-a-short-story/
- ↑ https://www.masterclass.com/articles/understanding-story-setting
- ↑ https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-develop-a-theme-for-your-story
- ↑ https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/102799.50_Best_Short_Stories_of_All_Time
- ↑ https://www.grammarly.com/blog/need-a-pick-me-up-5-best-short-stories-of-all-time/
- ↑ http://www.listchallenges.com/the-50-best-short-stories-of-all-time
- ↑ https://writers.com/freytags-pyramid/
- ↑ https://writingcooperative.com/how-to-write-a-short-story-17c615853bf2
About This Article
If you want to write a short story, first decide on the central conflict for your story, then create a main character who deals with that problem, and decide whether they will interact with anyone else. Next, decide when and where your story will take place. Next, make a plot outline, with a climax and a resolution, and use that outline to create your first draft, telling the whole story without worrying about making it perfect. Read the short story out loud to yourself to help with proofreading and revision. To learn more about how to add details to your story and come up with an interesting title, keep reading the article! Did this summary help you? Yes No
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How to Write a Short Story That Captivates Your Reader
Trying to write a short story is the perfect place to begin your writing career .
Because it reveals many of the obstacles, dilemmas, and questions you’ll face when creating fiction of any length.
If you find these things knotty in a short story, imagine how profound they would be in a book-length tale.
Most writers need to get a quarter million clichés out of their systems before they hope to sell something.
And they need to learn the difference between imitating their favorite writers and emulating their best techniques.
Mastering even a few of the elements of fiction while learning the craft will prove to be quick wins for you as you gain momentum as a writer.
I don’t mean to imply that learning how to write a short story is easier than learning how to write a novel —only that as a neophyte you might find the process more manageable in smaller bites.
So let’s start at the beginning.
- What Is a Short Story?
Don’t make the mistake of referring to short nonfiction articles as short stories. In the publishing world, short story always refers to fiction. And short stories come varying shapes and sizes:
- Traditional: 1,500-5000 words
- Flash Fiction: 500-1,000 words
- Micro Fiction: 5 to 350 words
Is there really a market for a short story of 5,000 words (roughly 20 double-spaced manuscript pages)?
Some publications and contests accept entries that long, but it’s easier and more common to sell a short story in the 1,500- to 3,000-word range.
And on the other end of the spectrum, you may wonder if I’m serious about short stories of fewer than 10 words (Micro Fiction). Well, sort of.
They are really more gimmicks, but they exist. The most famous was Ernest Hemingway’s response to a bet that he couldn’t write fiction that short. He wrote: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
That implied a vast backstory and deep emotion.
Here are some other examples of micro fiction from my Facebook page.
Writing a short story is an art, despite that they are so much more concise than novels. Which is why I created this complete guide.
- How to Come Up with Great Short Story Ideas
Do you struggle coming up with short story ideas?
Or is your list so long you don’t know where to start?
Writing fiction i s not about rules or techniques or someone else’s ideas.
It’s about a story well told .
Short story ideas are all around you, and you can learn to recognize them. Then you can write with confidence and enjoy the process.
I recommend these strategies to generate story ideas:
1. Recognize the germ.
Much fiction starts with a memory—a person, a problem, tension, fear, conflict that resonates with you and grows in your mind.
That’s the germ of an idea that can become your story.
2. Write it down.
Write your first draft to simply get the basics of the story down without worrying about grammar, cliches, redundancy or anything but the plot.
3. Create characters from people you know.
Characters come from people you’ve or have known all your life (relatives).
Brainstorming interesting, quirky, inspiring, influential people and mix and match their looks, ages, genders, traits, voices , tics, habits, characteristics. The resulting character will be an amalgam of those.
4. Get writing.
The outlining and research has to end at some point.
You’ve got to start getting words onto the page.
Interested in reading more about these strategies?
Click here to read my in-depth blog post on how to come up with story ideas .
- How to Structure Your Short Story
Regardless whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser like me (one who writes by the seat of their pants), I recommend a basic story structure .
It looks like this, according to bestsellin g Dean Koontz :
- Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible. (That trouble will mean something different depending on your genre. For a thriller it might be life-threatening. For a romance it might mean choosing between two suitors.)
- Everything your character does to try to get out of the trouble makes it only worse.
- Eventually things appear hopeless.
- Finally, everything your character has learned through all that trouble gives him what he needs to win the day—or fail.
That structure will keep you —and your reader—engaged.
- How to Write a Short Story in 9 Steps
- Read as Many Great Short Stories as You Can Find
- Aim for the Heart
- Narrow Your Scope
- Make Your Title Sing
- Use the Classic Story Structure
- Suggest Backstory, Don’t Elaborate
- When in Doubt, Leave it Out
- Ensure a Satisfying Ending
- Cut Like Your Story’s Life Depends on It
How to Write a Short Story Step 1. Read as Many Great Short Stories as You Can Find
Read hundreds of them—especially the classics .
You learn this genre by familiarizing yourself with the best. See yourself as an apprentice. Watch, evaluate, analyze the experts, then try to emulate their work.
Soon you’ll learn enough about how to write a short story that you can start developing your own style.
A lot of the skills you need can be learned through osmosis .
Where to start? Read Bret Lott , a modern-day master. (He chose one of my short stories for one of his collections .)
Reading two or three dozen short stories should give you an idea of their structure and style. That should spur you to try one of your own while continuing to read dozens more.
Remember, you won’t likely start with something sensational, but what you’ve learned through your reading—as well as what you’ll learn from your own writing—should give you confidence. You’ll be on your way.
How to Write a Short Story Step 2. Aim for the Heart
The most effective short stories evoke deep emotions in the reader.
What will move them? The same things that probably move you:
- Heroic sacrifice
How to Write a Short Story Step 3. Narrow Your Scope
It should go without saying that there’s a drastic difference between a 450-page, 100,000-word novel and a 10-page, 2000-word short story.
One can accommodate an epic sweep of a story and cover decades with an extensive cast of characters .
The other must pack an emotional wallop and tell a compelling story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—with about 2% of the number of words.
Naturally, that dramatically restricts your number of characters, scenes, and even plot points .
The best short stories usually encompass only a short slice of the main character’s life —often only one scene or incident that must also bear the weight of your Deeper Question, your theme or what it is you’re really trying to say.
- If your main character needs a cohort or a sounding board, don’t give her two. Combine characters where you can.
- Avoid long blocks of description; rather, write just enough to trigger the theater of your reader’s mind.
- Eliminate scenes that merely get your characters from one place to another. The reader doesn’t care how they got there, so you can simply write: Late that afternoon, Jim met Sharon at a coffee shop…
Your goal is to get to a resounding ending by portraying a poignant incident that tell a story in itself and represents a bigger picture.
How to Write a Short Story Step 4. Make Your Title Sing
Work hard on what to call your short story.
Yes, it might get changed by editors, but it must grab their attention first. They’ll want it to stand out to readers among a wide range of competing stories, and so do you.
How to Write a Short Story Step 5. Use the Classic Story Structure
Once your title has pulled the reader in, how do you hold his interest?
As you might imagine, this is as crucial in a short story as it is in a novel. So use the same basic approach:
Plunge your character into terrible trouble from the get-go .
Of course, terrible trouble means something different for different genres.
- In a thriller, your character might find himself in physical danger, a life or death situation.
- In a love story, the trouble might be emotional, a heroine torn between two lovers.
- In a mystery, your main character might witness a crime, and then be accused of it.
Don’t waste time setting up the story. Get on with it.
Tell your reader just enough to make her care about your main character, then get to the the problem, the quest, the challenge, the danger—whatever it is that drives your story.
How to Write a Short Story Step 6. Suggest Backstory, Don’t Elaborate
You don’t have the space or time to flash back or cover a character’s entire backstory.
Rather than recite how a Frenchman got to America, merely mention the accent he had hoped to leave behind when he emigrated to the U.S. from Paris.
Don’t spend a paragraph describing a winter morning.
Layer that bit of sensory detail into the narrative by showing your character covering her face with her scarf against the frigid wind.
How to Write a Short Story Step 7. When in Doubt, Leave it Out
Short stories are, by definition, short. Every sentence must count. If even one word seems extraneous, it has to go.
How to Write a Short Story Step 8. Ensure a Satisfying Ending
This is a must. Bring down the curtain with a satisfying thud.
In a short story this can often be accomplished quickly, as long as it resounds with the reader and makes her nod. It can’t seem forced or contrived or feel as if the story has ended too soon.
In a modern day version of the Prodigal Son, a character calls from a taxi and leaves a message that if he’s allowed to come home, his father should leave the front porch light on. Otherwise, he’ll understand and just move on.
The rest of the story is him telling the cabbie how deeply his life choices have hurt his family.
The story ends with the taxi pulling into view of his childhood home, only to find not only the porch light on, but also every light in the house and more out in the yard.
That ending needed no elaboration. We don’t even need to be shown the reunion, the embrace, the tears, the talk. The lights say it all.
How to Write a Short Story Step 9. Cut Like Your Story’s Life Depends on It
Because it does.
When you’ve finished your story, the real work has just begun.
It’s time for you to become a ferocious self-editor .
Once you’re happy with the flow of the story, every other element should be examined for perfection: spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, word choice , elimination of clichés, redundancies, you name it.
Also, pour over the manuscript looking for ways to engage your reader’s senses and emotions.
All writing is rewriting . And remember, tightening nearly always adds power. Omit needless words.
She shrugged her shoulders .
He blinked his eyes .
Jim walked in through the open door and sat down in a chair .
The crowd clapped their hands and stomped their feet .
Learn to tighten and give yourself the best chance to write short stories that captivate your reader.
- Short Story Examples
- The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
- The Bet by Anton Chekhov
- The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
- To Build a Fire by Jack London
- Journalism In Tennessee by Mark Twain
- Transients in Arcadia by O. Henry
- A New England Nun by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
- Miggles by Bret Harte
- The McWilliamses And The Burglar Alarm by Mark Twain
- Vanka by Anton Chekhov
- Where to Sell Your Short Stories
Writing contests are great because the winners usually get published in either a magazine or online—which means instant visibility for your name.
Many pay cash prizes up to $5,000. But even those that don’t offer cash give you awards that lend credibility to your next short story pitch .
2. Genre-Specific Periodicals
Such publications cater to audiences who love stories written in their particular literary category.
If you can score with one of these, the editor will likely come back to you for more.
Any time you can work with an editor, you’re developing a skill that will well serve your writing.
3. Popular Magazines
Plenty of print and online magazines still buy and publish short stories. A few examples:
- The Atlantic
- Harper’s Magazine
- Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine
- The New Yorker
- Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
- Woman’s World
4. Literary Magazines
While, admittedly, this market calls for a more intellectual than mass market approach to writing, getting published in one is still a win.
Here’s a list of literary magazine short story markets .
5. Short Story Books
Yes, some publishers still publish these.
They might consist entirely of short stories from one author, or they might contain the work of several, but they’re usually tied together by theme.
Regardless which style you’re interested in, remember that while each story should fit the whole, it must also work on its own, complete and satisfying in itself.
- What’s Your Short Story Idea?
You’ll know yours has potential when you can distill its idea to a single sentence. You’ll find that this will keep you on track during the writing stage. Here’s mine for a piece I titled Midnight Clear (which became a movie starring Stephen Baldwin):
An estranged son visits his lonely mother on Christmas Eve before his planned suicide, unaware she is planning the same, and the encounter gives them each reasons to go on.
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How to start writing short stories
Keen to try your hand at writing a short story but feeling a little lost? Here's a few tips, tricks and suggestions to help you get started.
Last updated: 15 December 2022
Scary, punchy memorable, haunting, funny, teeny tiny or sprawling over several pages, short stories are fantastically flexible. They give you space to explore ideas or get up close to characters in a short amount of time and let readers get stuck into another world without committing to a longer read.
Ready to give writing your own short stories a go? Delve into some top tips for getting started.
Generating story ideas
In some ways, coming up with a spark of an idea is the hardest part of writing - and the best way to make it easier is to practise letting your imagination run wild. If that sounds like a daunting task, don’t worry, there are loads of great ways to help get those cogs turning.
Where to find inspiration
When you’re actively looking for inspiration, you’ll soon discover you can find it almost anywhere. Here are a few fun ways to find things to write about:
- Pick up any newspaper or magazine and work out a backstory for an interesting report
- Browse sites like Pinterest and Instagram for pictures to spark your imagination
- Try working your way through thinkwritten’s 365 simple prompts (this link will open in a new window)
- Have a go at our 50-Word Fiction competition for a new challenge every month
How to start writing
Writing a short story doesn’t have to be difficult, especially not at the beginning. The very first thing you have to do is just sit down and write. Some people like to do that without any clear plan of where their story will go; others prefer to work out a rough plot or idea before they get going.
Both methods have their plus points. Try it one way, try it the other or have a go at mixing the two up. And do remember that one method might not fit all stories (or moods!). Avoid making hard and fast rules or superstitions for yourself and go with the flow.
How to hone your storytelling skills
Once you’ve got the hang of working out new things to write about – and you’re confident you can sit down and do it! – it’s time to take a step back and work on your writing skills.
In the loosest sense of the words, short stories tend to have some sort of beginning, middle and end (there are always exceptions!). They could do with a character or two. And definitely a distinctive point of view. Ideally - and this is very important with short stories - something should happen.
This doesn’t have to be a huge, dramatic climax or a crazy twist, but it does have to be interesting. Short stories don’t take long to read but they do require an investment for the reader so it’s your job to give them something to think about.
What ingredients does a story need?
It’s a question a lot of writers ask themselves and, sadly, it isn’t one with a straight answer. If there was a simple recipe to getting it right, stories would all end up rather samey and bland.
That said, the one crucial ingredient is something to hook the reader’s attention. This might be a cleverly plotted surprise ending, a moment of conflict between two characters, a moment of revelation for the main character, an exciting inciting incident or simply a new take on a familiar setting.
Chuck out the desire to follow the numbers and write a completely normal day in the life of a very average sounding person. Give the reader a glimpse of something different, a story that could only reside in your imagination.
Where to get help with your writing
For some more friendly advice, check out Sophie Cooke’s tips for writing a story .
You may want to think about taking part in a course; whether that’s an evening class, a tutored retreat or a formal university or college course is up to you. Many universities run evening classes and Open University offer several creative writing qualifications (this link will open in a new window) for those who need some flexibility in studying.
Get feedback from a writing group
Joining a creative writing group is also a great way to get feedback and find out what about your story works well and what could do with some fine tuning. Check out writing groups in Scotland or have a search online.
Not every group will suit everyone – for example, some focus on support and others on critical feedback - be prepared to try a couple and if none leave you feeling inspired, start your own!
Submit your short stories
Once you grow more confident in your writing and you feel as though you’re ready to share with a wider audience, it’s time to start sending stories to journals, magazines and competitions. These are easy to find online and many are very welcoming to new writers.
Be prepared for rejection – it’s a normal part of every writer’s life and it’s important to remember that competition is often fierce. Keep trying, pay attention to any feedback you may get and try to send your stories to the kind of opportunities for writers that seem to match your tastes and style. Don’t send a fluffy kitten story to the Journal of Dark Fiction, for example.
Start writing and don’t stop
Take the plunge and start writing. Don’t be disheartened if your short stories aren’t quite the way you want them to be – writing well is a lot harder than it looks, but practice is a sure fire way to improve your skills and tighten your storytelling abilities.
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Author Lynsey May
As well as spending two days a week as part of the Writing Communities team, Lynsey May is a freelance writer and online content creator. She's written copy for major brands and arts charities, won prizes for her fiction and spent too much time reading. Her first novel, Weak Teeth, is out in May 2023.