If you’re a creative writer, you probably already know how powerful the desire to write a story can be. Yet sometimes, no matter how much you might want to write a story, doing so is easier said than done! Creative writing can be challenging, and writing a short story as opposed to a novel doesn’t necessarily make things any easier. However, the good news is that there are many tips and tricks you can utilise that make writing short stories not only much easier but far more enjoyable, too.
So if you’re keen to learn how to write short stories – whether it’s for pleasure, to enter in a competition, or because you want to get published – here’s what you should know before you begin.
1. Read short stories
The single most important thing you can do before you start writing short stories is to read short stories – although this actually applies to writing fiction as a whole. Almost all the great writers you can think of were also voracious readers, and ‘read to write’ is some of the most commonly cited advice when it comes to creative writing.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” Stephen King states in On Writing. “There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Reading short stories doesn’t only familiarise you with the genre as a whole, it also exposes you to a whole variety of different writing styles. It helps you understand what a short story can be and what it can’t be, what works well and what doesn’t. It helps you understand story structure, get a feel for pacing, and above all, get inspired.
When you come across a short story you really like, think about what makes it work; is it the plot, the structure, the style, the character, the word choices? It could be all of them – but ultimately, what you’re doing when you’re reading short stories and analysing them is developing critical thinking skills. Once you know precisely why a short story is so good, you’ll be able to bring the same traits to your own work.
If you’d like some recommendations for which short stories you should read, check out this article by The Guardian, where 50 authors recommend their favourite short stories – or alternatively, have a read of Penguin’s suggestions for the best short stories everyone should read.
2. Understand the difference between a short story and a novel
Understanding the difference between a short story and a novel might sound like an unnecessary point – after all, a short story is short, and a novel is much longer! But word count is by no means the only key difference between a short story and a novel.
First, let’s address the word count. Short stories can generally range from 1,000 – 15,000 words, though the vast majority are between 3,000 – 5,000 words. In a novel, which is usually 80,000 – 100,000 words, you have the room to accommodate both an epic story that goes back decades and an extensive cast of compelling, fully-developed characters.
But because they’re so much shorter than novels, short stories need to have an entirely different structure and focus. They need to be able to tell an engaging story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end while using about 98% fewer words.
What this means, ultimately, is that you have to narrow your scope. You simply can’t include anywhere near the same detail in a short story as a novel. This means you’ll probably need to focus on one single character and one single plot, as you just don’t have the word count to be fleshing out multiple characters or exploring different subplots.
So, not only do short stories have a very different structure to novels, they also tend to focus on one aspect of a character’s life rather than their life as a whole. Remember that most of the best short stories only focus on a very brief moment in a character’s life – often only a single scene or incident. This means that, if you want your story to be compelling, you need to carefully choose your theme.
To read more about the differences between short stories and novels, you might want to have a look at this article by Liminal Pages.
3. Find your theme
So now, it’s on to your theme, or the main idea for your story. Before you can start writing, you need to have your idea – and for many writers, deciding what this is can be one of the hardest parts of the writing process. Generally, simple ideas are best for short stories, but this doesn’t mean your idea can’t evoke powerful and complex emotions in your reader.
If you want your readers to be moved, think about what moves you. Basic themes of love, justice, revenge, and redemption are always good ideas for short stories. Once you have a rough idea, you then need to think about the details, and how your theme will play out as a story. It can be helpful to think about your own life experiences here – for example, if you’re writing about redemption or love, do you have any personal experiences you can draw upon?
Aside from your own life, keep an eye and ear out for inspiration as you go about your life. Watch the news, listen to other people’s conversations, observe strangers as they walk by. Many writers have a notepad (either a paper one or on their phone) where they jot down ideas whenever they strike. Sometimes the most mundane things can provide us with inspiration for a character or a plot point. So observe everything around you – and if you find something interesting, stash it to use in your story!
4. Find your character
Once you know what the theme of your story will be, you then need to flesh it out. One of the best ways to do this is to think about your character. Who is your protagonist?
Short stories tend to focus on one single character (the protagonist), though there are often a couple of supporting characters – often an antagonist, and a character who’s just there to advance the character arc. But some of the very best short stories only have one character who actually appears (rather than merely being referenced), so don’t feel you have to include more than one just for the sake of it.
Because you’ll probably only be focusing on one main character, this needs to be someone the reader really cares about – someone they can root for. In a short story, you don’t have much room to develop your protagonist, but there are several ways you can get your readers to quickly care about them.
Your protagonist should either have a passion that helps define who they are, or you should allow your readers a glimpse into your character’s psyche. What are they feeling right now? Why are they feeling this? What are they afraid of? While you don’t have room to expand upon your protagonist’s backstory, it’s helpful to have thought about this and fleshed it out in your head before – because in order to write an engaging story, you need to understand a character’s motivation.
The most interesting and realistic characters are often based upon people we know, so think about friends, relatives, colleagues. Which people do you find interesting and inspiring? What do they look like? What are their characteristics, habits, and tics? What’s their voice like? How do they speak?
Drawing upon real life will help your character seem real, which, when paired with a powerful theme, will make your story more emotionally charged.
For more on developing characters for a short story, have a read of this article by writer E.M. Welsh.
5. Think about your structure
Once you’ve got your story idea and your character, the next thing to consider is the structure of your story. There are two kinds of writers: those who like to painstakingly outline each and every plot event, and those who like to just write and see where it takes them. Whatever type of writer you are, it’s a good idea to have a basic structure for your story before you start writing.
If you’re a planner, you might be tempted to use novel-writing structure strategies, and meticulously map out a story framework, with detailed accounts for everything that happens in the beginning, middle, and end. But if you’re writing a short story, you only really need one or two main plot points and a fleshed-out protagonist.
One of the best ways to create structure is to include a point of conflict as early as you can. Every story needs conflict, whether the character has been placed in terrible danger or is faced with a difficult dilemma. By including this conflict as early as possible, you’re not wasting time or words setting up the story; you’re starting strongly and ensuring your reader is interested from the get-go.
Plus, by introducing conflict and tension early on, you’re making it easier for the reader to care about your protagonist – because when tension exists, your character’s strength is being tested. You might want to take the advice of best-selling US author Kurt Vonnegut, who said: “Writers should be sadists. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading character, make awful things happen to them, so that the reader can see what they’re made of.”
It’s worth bearing in mind here that the “awful things” that happen to your protagonist don’t have to be violent or shocking; you’re writing a love story, for example, the awful thing might be that they’re torn between two lovers. It’s not a physical danger, or a life and death situation, but it’s still awful for the character, and it’s still a way to create conflict and tension, and allow the reader into their troubled mindset.
If you don’t like the idea of putting your character in a bad situation early on – or it just doesn’t work for your theme – there are seven other main types of story structure you can utilise. However, remember that because you have a limited word count, not all of these will work in a short story. Creating conflict early on is one of the easiest ways to get to the main crux of your story – what’s driving the plot – and keep your reader engaged.
To find out more about developing a structure for a short story, you might want to read this article by Jericho Writers.
6. Create a strong opening
No matter how mundane the plot may be, compelling short stories are almost always fast-paced. Whereas novels can afford to build tension and pace slowly, short stories don’t have that luxury, so they need to hit the ground running and keep the reader hooked from the very first page. And to do that, you need a strong opening.
First, you can begin with an action. If your short story is a thriller, this can be something dramatic, like a person getting shot or someone getting hit by a car, but it can also be something more every day, like someone missing their morning train to work. The important thing is that the reader understands that whatever happened doesn’t usually happen – and so the scene is set for conflict and tension.
Alternatively, you can start with an insight – or an opening hook. This is essentially just a single sentence that immediately piques the interest of the reader and compels them to read on. A great example of this type of opening can be seen in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
After reading this first line, the reader immediately will have questions: Who is Colonel Aureliano Buendia? Why is he facing the firing squad? What happened that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice? Why is he remembering it right before his execution? These types of questions compel the reader to continue and find their answers.
Another popular way to start a short story is with an image. This could be a description of a person, a place, or an object. If your short story is plot-driven (e.g. you’re writing a crime story or a thriller) it might not be ideal, but for slower-paced short stories, it can work well.
One example of this type of opening can be seen in William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” When this type of beginning is done well, it creates a vivid image in the reader’s mind, which can help them feel immersed in the story and ensure they want to continue reading.
7. Finish on a strong ending
There’s nothing more disappointing than being intrigued at the start of a short story, enjoying discovering how the story plays out, then having it all fizzle out at the end. Weak endings have the potential to ruin a short story no matter how strong the rest of the narrative is – and in contrast, a strong ending can make a story stick with you for days.
So how can you finish on a strong ending – the literary equivalent of pulling the curtain down with flair and gusto? There are numerous ways to finish a short story, but the most satisfying endings tend to centre on the story’s character.
If your story is more character-driven than plot-driven, it can be helpful to think about whether the story has changed your protagonist at all; have they changed as a result of the events of the story? Or has our understanding of them changed? Does the ending reveal the truth about them? Bear in mind that if you want character-driven endings to pack a punch, the reader needs to be truly invested in your character.
Another ending you might want to think about is a twist ending, where you introduce a shocking revelation at the very end of the story. This ending can turn the whole narrative upside down – and it can often evoke a powerful emotional response in the reader. For example, you could reveal that the villain of the story was good all along, or a character who died was actually alive.
If you want your story to stay in the mind of your reader and keep them thinking about it long after they’ve finished the first line, you might want to think about an implied ending, where you intentionally hold back some key details or important explanations, but leave subtle clues and hints. This allows the reader to piece together the ending themselves – which leaves them thinking about the story for far longer than they would have if everything had been wrapped up neatly for them.
If you feel your ending falls flat, often it’s not the actual ending itself that’s the problem, but the rest of the story. If your reader doesn’t care about your character and what happens to them, you won’t get a strong emotional response, no matter how shocking the ending might be. A satisfying ending rests on the stakes of the story being properly set up – which is why thinking about structure is such an important part of writing a short story.
To find out more about writing a good ending, have a read of this article by When You Write.
8. Edit ruthlessly
As you’re writing your short story, try not to get too hung up on word count or editing. First drafts are all about writing freely. So while it can be tempting to continually go back and edit as you’re writing, or worry about your word choice and syntax, the first draft is just about getting the bare bones of the story down. The editing comes once you’ve finished!
For most short stories, ruthless editing is required. The editing will often take longer than writing the first draft – because while you’re able to write freely with a draft, the edit is all about perfecting your story and revising the prose until you’re totally happy with it.
The first thing to look at when editing is the flow of the story. Question every sentence and whether it really needs to be there. As the master of short stories, Edgar Allan Poe said, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it” – so make every sentence count, and if it doesn’t absolutely need to be there, cut it.”
Every line of your story shouldn’t only progress the plot, it should also help convey the feeling or viewpoint you’re trying to get across. Tightening your story will almost always add power and focus, so omit any unnecessary words – particularly adverbs and adjectives. If your story provides context, writing “he shrugged” is more effective than “he shrugged his shoulders” or “he shrugged calmly”.
The best way to start the editing process is to re-read your story carefully – something you’ll probably have to do multiple times before you’re happy with it. Focus on flow and pacing first, and how your characters are coming across. Then, once you’re satisfied with these things, look at word usage, sentence construction, and eliminating cliches.
Once you’re happy with your story, it’s always good to get a second opinion. If you have any writer friends – or friends who are keen readers – send your story to them and see what they think. You might also want to think about using a professional editor – and luckily, freelance literary editors tend to have much lower rates for short stories than for novels.
Whoever you send your story to, the important thing is that you do share it with someone – because when it comes to writing, two sets of eyes will always be better than one! For more tips on editing your short story, have a read of this guide by The Write Practice.
Writing a short story can be an extremely challenging process and just because your story is short, doesn’t mean the whole process won’t be long or laborious! However, writing a short story is one of the best ways to develop your talents as a creative writer – particularly if you’re thinking about writing a novel, or you know you want to write more stories.
When you write a short story, you’ll be confronted with the same obstacles, dilemmas, and questions you’ll face when writing any type of fiction. And if you found structuring a short story difficult, imagine how much harder it would be to structure a novel! But when you write a short story, you’re learning to master some of the most important aspects of fiction writing – as well as giving your confidence a major boost, too.
Ultimately, no matter how meticulously you structure your novel or develop your character, you also need to be passionate about your story and willing to work hard on it – but this is all part of the fun! When you find your flow, creative writing is a joy, and you should enjoy every step of the process.
And if you ever feel defeated or frustrated because it’s all taking much longer than you thought, remember that even the shortest stories require time, effort, and a lot of revision. Good things take time, and good writing is no exception.
To find out more about writing, you might want to read our article, How to write a book and get it published.
Are you currently writing a short story? Or are you thinking about it but aren’t sure where to start? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.