Writing short stories is an excellent way to hone your writing and storytelling skills.
Whatever your chosen genre, it helps to know the key differences between short story writing and novel writing.
There’s more to this type of storytelling than just using fewer words.
You’ll see this in the short story writing tips listed in this post.
Let’s start with what makes a short story so good you can’t help sharing it.
- What Makes a Short Story Good?
- How to Write a Short Story: What Are The 7 Steps to Writing a Short Story?
What Makes a Short Story Good?
Check out any online bookseller, and you’ll no doubt find pages of short story collections. But only a few authors have achieved notoriety with this craft.
Writers like Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor knew how to craft a short story their readers would love (and want to read again).
They knew and made good use of the elements that make a short story stand out:
- A main character who is relatable or evokes a strong emotion;
- A relatable problem or conflict the reader wants to see resolved;
- Enduring universal themes the reader can connect with;
- Situations that evoke strong emotions–especially anger or fear;
- Classic story structure in a small but mighty package.
How to Write a Short Story: What Are The 7 Steps to Writing a Short Story?
Read carefully through these seven steps before you get started writing a short story of your own. The more stories you write, the more likely you are to create a process that’s uniquely your own. But the following will always have a place.
1. Start off on the right foot.
Identify the kernel of your story—the important thing at the center of it all. Ask yourself the following questions to get some clarity:
- What do you want your reader to take away from the story?
- Why does this story beg to be told?
- What real person or real problem do you feel compelled to write about?
Once you’ve answered these questions in writing, sketch out the main idea of your story from start to finish. This can be as simple as a short bulleted list or as complex as a multi-level outline or mind-map. Just get the words down.
Then start your story in the middle of the action — or in an atmosphere of palpable tension. You want your reader to think, “What the heck is going on? I have to know!”
Give them a reason to care about what’s happening or what could happen.
To help you, make time this week and every week to read the best short stories ever written. Learn what you can from those whose work still entertains and inspires.
And keep a journal to record your thoughts as you read.
2. Stick with a few memorable characters.
Create characters based on real people with relatable faults and challenges. These can be friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, or really anyone you meet.
Think about something that makes them stand out or makes their lives more challenging. Then raise the stakes to create a main character your reader can root for.
- Make them an underdog.
- Give them an antagonist the reader loves to hate.
- Create a situation where the price of the wrong choice is a steep one.
- Create an impossible situation they can’t escape.
- Suggest a backstory that still haunts them.
Backstory can make your character more compelling, but it’s easy to overdo. Tempting as it is to go deep, your character’s backstory will be more potent in outline form than in explicit detail. It’s not the main event.
It’s enough to hint at something in the character’s past that ties to the current conflict and offers some clues as to why the character behaves as they do.
3. Create conflict your reader can’t ignore.
Give your main character a problem they can’t easily wiggle out of. Or introduce a meaningful conflict between them and another character (or group of characters).
Make it something your reader can understand—something that grabs their attention and makes them want to know how the story will end. Give it just enough of a novel twist to get the reader curious about how the main character will handle it.
Start with something commonplace like one of the following and add your own flair:
- A relationship breakup or betrayal
- Devastating news about a loved one
- Loss of a job, followed by a darker discovery
- A chance meeting that provokes uncharacteristic behavior
- A character’s past mistake coming back to haunt them
- An altercation with an abusive neighbor, boss, coworker, etc.
- An important piece of mail that goes missing
You can probably think of more.
4. Give your characters something to say.
Use dialogue to reveal your characters and the conflict, amp up the tension, and appeal to your reader’s senses. Well-crafted dialogue distinguishes the characters and helps the reader understand them and the central conflict better.
Use dialogue tags sparingly. No one wants to read the word “said” every few lines, and the synonyms used to replace it can be even worse (e.g., “exclaimed” or “spat”).
Be especially careful not to use words that are nonverbal expressions like “sighed” and “smiled” in place of “said.”
If you can’t completely avoid a dialogue tag, and the words aren’t actually yelled or whispered, stick with “said.” Otherwise, find other ways to show the reader who’s talking without adding a dialogue tag.
- A different accent or manner of speaking
- A follow-up sentence with a character-specific mannerism
- Something in the words that give away the speaker
Picturing the dialogue in your head can help with this. What are your characters doing as they talk? Write whatever comes to mind, dialogue and all. Editing comes later.
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5. Keep the story moving.
Your short story starts in the messy middle, and it’s critical to keep the pace steady and faster than a typical novel’s pace. Make it fit the story, but don’t get bogged down in unnecessary detail or rambling dialogue.
Keep the end of your story in mind as you write, and steer everything in that direction.
Every detail and every conversation should lead the reader closer to the climax and resolution of the story. Short fiction doesn’t allow for tangents that disrupt or slow down the main story.
If anything, you should feel the pace picking up as you go.
6. Make every word count.
Once you’ve finished a story, step away from it for a few days. Give yourself the time and space you need to see it with fresh eyes.
When you return to it, remove every word that your story won’t miss. Read through the dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds like your characters.
See if you, as a reader, feel invested in the story, based only on the words present.
This will take more than one reading. And what you miss, someone else may catch. So, if you’re working with an editor, have them look over your story once you’ve trimmed everything you can.
Editing short stories isn’t just about keeping your story within a specific word count. It’s about making sure every word in the story has earned its place. When you’ve edited all you can, there shouldn’t be a single word in it that your story would be better without.
Once you’ve refined your story to the point where you can’t cut any more — where every remaining word has earned its place, and you can’t cut anything without weakening your story’s impact — set it aside again.
Give yourself time away from your story before you reread it. If you still can’t find anything to cut, share the story with someone who might enjoy it — or a group of interested people (like beta readers).
Get their feedback, and, if necessary, make changes to improve your story before publishing it or adding it to a collection.
Then, go back to your list of short story ideas, and pick another one. Start at step #1 again, and go through the process of crafting and editing another story.
Expect to learn something from each story you write — as well as stories others have written. Writers at all stages know things you don’t. Keep your mind open, and you’ll find inspiration everywhere.
Then give the words a place to go.
Now that you’ve looked through all seven steps to writing a short story, what idea is begging the loudest for expression? And what will you do today to create a short story you’ll be proud to publish?