How To Write A Short Story: A Detailed Step-By-Step Guide

Writing short stories means being able to condense an entire story into a fraction of the space and free-range you’d get if you were writing a novel. To write short stories is no simple task and takes a certain amount of finesse.

Most short story writers will tell you that there are certain tricks of the trade that make it easier when you are first learning how to write a short story. In this article, we will discuss some of these tips so that you can write a short story with more ease.

What is a Short Story?

A short story is a bite-sized story. Most readers can start and finish a short story in one sitting. Many readers are attracted to collections of short stories due to the fact that you can read one, put the book down, and come back any time and not have any concerns that you’ve missed or forgotten an essential part of the plot.

Short stories are great for when you have story ideas that don’t have enough content to fill the space of a full-length novel. You can create a compelling story and a complete story based on your idea in fewer pages.

Length of a Short Story

Short stories are classically between 1,000 and 5,000 words, but these are loose guidelines at best. Some are much shorter and fall into a different subcategory of short fiction, while others are much longer and fall more into the category of novella. Regardless of the exact term for these mini-stories, they are shorter than a novel.

As mentioned, there is no fixed word count for a short story as many plots differ in style, approach, gravity, complexity, or mystery, requiring some short stories to be lengthier than others. Edgar Allan Poe once asserted that a short story is a narrative that readers can finish in one sitting. However, on average, the length of a short story is typically anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 words. Within this range, the authors need to incorporate characterization, interconnect the story elements, and resolve the central conflicts, which is often no easy feat.

Short Story Vs Novel

Conventionally, a novel has 50,000 words and above; thus, it takes longer to complete its writing when compared to writing a short story. From the readers’ perspective, a short story’s plot can be read within one sitting, as discussed previously, whereas a novel’s plot is impossible to process within the same time reference. Due to their difference in length, their structures vary in terms of complexity.

In addition, a novel has the luxury of elaborating even the tiniest details, while a short story only includes selected details that contribute directly to the plot’s progress. Hence, the former can explore a more intricate central conflict and accommodate several subplots and main characters, while the latter focuses on one major conflict and a few primary characters.

Specific Elements and Characteristics of a Short Story

While there are elements in fiction writing that all writers abide by, not all elements are created equally when it comes to writing short stories. The following rules, when followed, can result in a well-executed short story.

Keep in mind that regardless of how well you follow the rules and include the elements, you need good and clear story ideas for an audience to have an interest.

Focus on the Main Character

When you write short stories, you have to introduce your protagonist, or main character, almost immediately. Keep the cast of characters short, and don’t bother with filler characters. Keep only the characters that you need to move the story along and to get the protagonist where he or she needs to go to reach a successful ending.

how to write a short story

When you write a short story, you want to grab the reader’s attention as soon as possible. Make your protagonist odd or interesting, or make the main character’s life so chaotic and unusual that the reader is hooked.

Remember that you don’t have a lot of space for creative writing to really flesh out the character and develop the protagonist. A helpful writing habit is to immediately make the main character of a short story memorable.

Adjust the Story Structure

When you write a short story, never forget that you have to pack a lot into a small package. There is far less room to set up a scene, introduce characters, and build a slow burn to put the reader in suspense. As a short story writer, you have to make things happen quickly in the story.

For example, if you have a short story idea about a man who wins the lottery but then loses his winnings almost immediately in a tragic or ironic accident, it makes something interesting that follows the plot happen immediately. Don’t begin your story with a long history of the man who is the protagonist.

Instead, start with him buying the lottery ticket or announcing that he has won the lottery. The reader will use context clues and snippets of background that you sprinkle throughout the story to get the information they may need about the main character.

Character Development is Crucial

When you decide to write your own short stories, you need to know what you want to say before starting. Short story ideas are a dime a dozen, but where will the idea lead? Everyone spends time pondering, “what if?”

If you are going to write a short story, and are looking for short story ideas, ask yourself, “what if?” then answer it. Quickly. If the answer you arrive at is interesting, write the story.

The key to making readers interested in your idea is to make something significant happen to your character and then focus on character development. How does that character react to what you’ve thrown at him or her?

The thing about short stories is that you can focus on just one event and force the character to deal with it in what is close to real-time. This can resonate with the reader because it mimics real life.

You inspire the reader to ask themselves, “What would I do in this situation?” Making your character either rise above the challenge or be destroyed by it is one of the critical elements of writing stories like these.

Short Story Editing

Editing your short story is where you make the changes that will make or break your story. Writing short stories means that you have to get the story written clearly in a small amount of space and make it all make sense and be compelling enough to keep the reader’s attention. This means going over your initial draft with a fine-tooth comb during the editing process.

When you do short story editing, make sure that the first thing to go are any unrelated or “fluff” details that don’t progress the story. Get rid of characters who aren’t needed. Get rid of description that doesn’t need to be there.

If there is a dead body found in an alley, the audience doesn’t necessarily need to know what graffiti is spray painted in vivid detail on the side of the building. You can simply say that it’s there, and if even that fact isn’t relevant, leave it out altogether. Keep the necessary content, and get rid of anything you don’t need.

How to Write a Compelling Story: Creative Writing Techniques

Short stories tend to have one setting or a couple of simple, related settings. There aren’t many characters. You really only need a protagonist and someone or something to act as an antagonist. The antagonist can be the situation or a person, or anything, as long as they serve to push the character arc of the protagonist.

Techniques that can be employed to help you write a short story include sticking to the three-act structure. Make sure that you have a beginning, middle, and end to the story. Don’t let any of those three parts drag themselves out, and make sure that the reader is aware of what part of the story they are reading.

1. The Three Act Structure Can Be Effective

This is especially true if you are trying to break into professional writing and you want to submit short stories to literary magazines or small publications. Readers pick these publications up when they’re looking for something to do.

It’s essential to keep your reader interested, so giving them a clear start to the story, then the meat in the middle, and a satisfying ending is critical in your writing process. You don’t need someone to put the magazine down thinking, “The story wasn’t going anywhere. It had a great start, but then the middle went on forever, and I got bored with it.”

2. Make Your Protagonist an Interesting Character

When you write a short story, you have to tell the reader everything about the character that they need to know in one single sitting. Therefore, it makes sense that you create fictional characters that are memorable and interesting.

While you can have a story that features a suburban homemaker, it’s more interesting if you give that homemaker a quirk that makes him or her stand out. Otherwise, it becomes another boring story about one character that no one will remember or care much about.

3. Write Your First Draft Quickly

Say precisely what you want to happen when you write a short story. Your first draft should only be concerned with capturing and writing the story’s events. Don’t worry about producing beautiful prose, grammar, or any other technical issues. Just get the story written.

Try to write the entire thing in one sitting, if possible. You will have chances to fix issues, come up with better names for characters and settings, and add or delete details later.

You want to inspire your reader’s mind to picture what is happening to the main characters of your story when they read, so focus on making that happen in your initial draft, and just write. Most writers dedicate a certain time of day each day in which to write, and they challenge themselves with short stories often.

Set a time aside each day to write, and give yourself short story assignments regularly to keep your skills sharp, even if you’re already working on another project.

4. Flash Fiction

This sort of short story, along with micro-fiction, consists of less than a thousand words. Many writing courses assign these sorts of stories, and they are even more condensed than the classic short story. Even your favorite writers may have difficulty telling a whole story with fewer than a thousand words.

Some writers have found success in ultra-short fiction, while other writers find it too scary a concept even to attempt. There are tips and tricks to doing it successfully, though. For example, you can combine characters to make a single character who can do more with the traits of two people.

This will make your story shorter, and it will also push you as a writer to make the focus of the story the character. Many a published author of any length fiction has run into the issue of having to do away with a character that wasn’t working and letting another character absorb their traits and characteristics.

5. Get to the Climax

You don’t have the luxury to slowly build up the rising action in a short story or micro-fiction story. Instead, you may have to combine plot points to make your writing more condensed. For example, you can combine exposition with what happens before the conflict.

The point or the climax of the story can be stated in its entirety in very few words, as long as those words are well crafted.

6. An Exciting Inciting Incident

Since there isn’t a lot of space to tell your story, consider starting your story with the inciting incident rather than an introduction. Readers remember stories that start with action and throw them into chaos immediately.

Just don’t make this event too complicated or put too many characters into the scene, to begin with. You want to excite the reader, not thoroughly confuse them.

how to write a short story

For example, you can begin the story with a bank robbery/hostage situation. Instead of introducing the characters and giving backstory, simply start with the criminals running into the bank screaming at people to put their hands up and telling the bank teller to put the money in the bag and then open the safe. Easy, fun, and enticing, fans of short stories often prefer this method.

7. Don’t Put Too Much Stock in Word Count

While there are guidelines to word count for short stories, keep in mind that this has been swept aside and ignored successfully many times. If you have a great story, don’t worry too much about keeping within word count parameters.

For example, Hemingway is credited with writing the shortest story known. It simply reads: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Just one sentence long, it’s incredibly short, but it works. It has a way of hitting you right in your emotions and making you wonder what the circumstances are of these shoes being for sale.

8. Use Real Life Experiences as Inspiration

Traumatic experiences, like a car crash or a bad breakup, provide great inspiration for short stories. A love story does, as well. When you write a story based things that have happened to you, just be sure that you can tell the mood or tone of the story just by reading the first few opening lines. Pay attention to word choice to ensure that you haven’t misled the reader by hinting at the wrong tone.

A great short story doesn’t need to insist too much upon itself. Minor tweaks in word choice can give away the tone without you having to come right out and announce it as the writer. Drawing off your own life is also an excellent idea for any school assignment that calls for an essay or short story.

9. Keep Readers Engaged

Human beings need constant stimulation to maintain interest in something, including short stories. Remember when you first started writing and were excited and eager to get started? You want to make the audience feel that way about reading your story or book. All it takes is one story.

If you can make the reader care about what you write because it is easy to relate and emotionally invest in your story and cast, then you will create an audience that keeps coming back for more. You’ll finish and release a book, and they’ll be eager for you to start writing again immediately after.

10. Publication

From the first blank page to the very end of writing, most writers have publication in the back of their mind. Whether you decide to self-publish or go the traditional route with a publishing house, the desired outcome can be reached as long as you stick to the advice given in this article and by many successful short story writers.

How to End a Short Story

No matter how magnificent a short story is and how readers have been absorbed in its plot, it will always reach an end. Short stories often end differently, yet similar strategies are used by the writer to bring their plots to a closure despite differences in their events, characterizations, themes, and other elements. Below are some tested methods to finish a short story successfully:

  • Provide a resolved ending. A resolved ending is where all issues presented have been addressed, or the confusion or chaos has been cleared out. It does not need to end happily. Both celebratory and gloomy endings are accepted.
  • Give an unresolved ending. An unresolved ending does not answer the questions formed in the readers’ minds. It leaves the readers questioning what could happen to a character or characters. It drives the readers to think of a speculated ending.
  • Twist the ending. Often readers try to predict how a story ends. By adding a twist at the end, the story becomes more memorable and is seen as well-crafted. For example, instead of the main character’s recovery or death from a car accident, the writer can reveal at the end that the protagonist is a patient from a mental facility, which then leaves the reader to question the entirety of every events and wonder whether they were are all imagined.

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