🎉 Our next novel writing master class starts in – ! Claim your spot →
Looking to publish? Meet your dream editor on Reedsy.
Find the perfect editor for your next book
1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy, come meet them.
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.
Meet writing coaches on Reedsy
Industry insiders can help you hone your craft, finish your draft, and get published.
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.
Join a community of over 1 million authors
Reedsy is more than just a blog. Become a member today to discover how we can help you publish a beautiful book.
1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy, come meet them.
Enter your email or get started with a social account:
Meet short story editors
Perfect your story for submission with help from an experienced editor.
- PRO Courses Guides New Tech Help Pro Expert Videos About wikiHow Pro Upgrade Sign In
- EDIT Edit this Article
- EXPLORE Tech Help Pro About Us Random Article Quizzes Request a New Article Community Dashboard This Or That Game Popular Categories Arts and Entertainment Artwork Books Movies Computers and Electronics Computers Phone Skills Technology Hacks Health Men's Health Mental Health Women's Health Relationships Dating Love Relationship Issues Hobbies and Crafts Crafts Drawing Games Education & Communication Communication Skills Personal Development Studying Personal Care and Style Fashion Hair Care Personal Hygiene Youth Personal Care School Stuff Dating All Categories Arts and Entertainment Finance and Business Home and Garden Relationship Quizzes Cars & Other Vehicles Food and Entertaining Personal Care and Style Sports and Fitness Computers and Electronics Health Pets and Animals Travel Education & Communication Hobbies and Crafts Philosophy and Religion Work World Family Life Holidays and Traditions Relationships Youth
- Browse Articles
- Learn Something New
- Quizzes Hot
- This Or That Game New
- Train Your Brain
- Explore More
- Support wikiHow
- About wikiHow
- Log in / Sign up
- Education and Communications
- Writing Genres
- Short Story Writing
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 4,678,799 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
- Send fan mail to authors
Reader Success Stories
Mar 16, 2017
Did this article help you?
Oct 16, 2016
Jan 28, 2021
Dec 26, 2017
Aug 17, 2016
- Do Not Sell or Share My Info
- Not Selling Info
Don’t miss out! Sign up for
How to Write a Short Story in 5 Steps
Short stories are to novels what TV episodes are to movies. Short stories are a form of narrative writing that has all the same elements as novels—plot, character development, point of view, story structure, theme—but are delivered in fewer words. For many writers, short stories are a less daunting way to dive into creative writing than attempting to write a novel . This doesn’t mean writing short fiction is easy—it, like every other kind of writing, comes with its own unique challenges.
If you’re wondering how to write a short story , we’re here to help. We’ve got tips for everything from coming up with short story ideas to fleshing out a plot to getting your work published in literary magazines.
Here’s a tip: Want to make sure your writing shines? Grammarly can check your spelling and save you from grammar and punctuation mistakes. It even proofreads your text, so your work is extra polished wherever you write.
Your writing, at its best Grammarly helps you communicate confidently Write with Grammarly
What is a short story?
A short story is a short, self-contained work of fiction that generally falls between 1,000 and 10,000 words.
Because of this length constraint, short stories tend to be less complex than longer works—in certain ways. In a short story, you can build a world, but not to the extent you can build a world in a (longer) novel. Similarly, you can have multiple fleshed-out characters, but you can’t give every character a full backstory and meaningful character arc like you can in a lengthier work. Generally, long, intricate plots with multiple subplots are better suited to novel-length works than a short story.
Don’t take this to mean your short story’s theme can’t be as deep as a longer work’s theme. You don’t need an extensive world with a complex magical system and an entire cast of three-dimensional characters to express a theme effectively. While short stories have fewer words, simpler settings, and smaller casts than novels, they can have just as much of an impact on readers. If you’re looking to read a powerful short story and see how other authors communicate substantive themes in just a few thousand words, check out these famous, impactful works:
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
- “Thank You Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
- “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
How long should a short story be?
Like we said in the previous section, short stories typically contain between 1,000 and 10,000 words. Stories longer than 10,000 (but shorter than 40,000) words are generally considered novellas . You might even come across the term novelette to refer to a story between 7,500 and 17,000 words. Once you hit about 50,000 words, you’re in novel territory (and you’ve won NaNoWriMo!)
Stories that clock in under 1,000 words are known as flash fiction and stories of 500 words or fewer are considered microfiction .
There’s really no limit to how short a story can be, though. Consider Hemingway’s famous six-word story:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
In just six words, Hemingway evokes an entire scene and the backstory that led to that scene. This is an extreme example of a short story, and it relies on the reader extrapolating meaning from the words, but because it does so successfully, it counts as a short story.
What’s in a short story?
Every short story has these five elements:
Characters are the people (or animals, aliens, mythical creatures, or sentient objects) who do the action in your story. Your protagonist is the character who undergoes some kind of change (or lack thereof) as a result of the story’s main conflict. Your antagonist is the character (or something abstract) attempting to prevent the protagonist’s change. To clarify, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a person—it could be the protagonist’s environment, their society, or even an aspect of themselves.
>>Read More: What Is Direct Characterization in Literature?
Plot is the series of events that illustrate the story’s conflict. When you’re writing a short story, it’s generally best to start your plot as close to the end as possible. In other words, if your story is about an alien who visits Earth and then retreats, horrified, back to her spaceship, start your story just as she’s approaching Earth or just as she’s touching down. You can build up a backstory later through tools like dialogue, flashbacks, and the protagonist’s actions. With a short story, you don’t have space for a lengthy exposition, so drop your readers right into the action.
A short story’s theme is its central message. This is the point the author wants readers to take away from their work.
Conflict is the action that drives the story’s plot. It’s the obstacle the protagonist has to overcome or the goal they’re attempting to reach. A conflict can be internal, like our example alien setting out to prove to herself that she can manage a mission to Earth on her own, or it can be external, like the protagonist striving to prove to her society that Earth is a worthwhile planet with which to establish a relationship.
Setting is the time and place where a story’s action occurs. For example, our alien story’s setting might be Nevada in 1955.
How to write a short story
Mine your imagination.
Just like every other type of writing, a short story starts with brainstorming . In fact, the process for writing a short story is the same writing process you use for other kinds of writing, like essays and presentations.
Ask yourself this: What do I want my short story to be about? Jot that down. Do you already have a clear idea of who your characters are or the setting they’ll inhabit? Or are you starting with a theme you want to convey, and now you need to develop a story to express that theme?
Start your brainstorming session with the elements you already have, then flesh out your story idea from there. Write down your setting, your characters, the conflict they face, and any key plot points you have in mind. You can fill in details later; right now, the goal is to have some rough data to use for your outline.
Don’t move on to outlining until you’ve defined your story’s conflict. Without a conflict, you don’t have a story. Although all of the five elements listed above are necessary for writing a great short story, conflict is the one that drives your plot, shapes your characters, and enables you to express your theme.
The next step in writing short fiction is outlining your story.
When you outline your story, you organize the notes from your brainstorming session into a coherent skeleton of your finished story. Outlining your story is a key part of prewriting because it’s where you develop your story’s framework and sketch out how each scene follows the previous scene to advance the plot. This stage is where you determine any plot twists or big reveals and fit them into the story’s sequence.
Next, it’s time to write.
Don’t worry about grammatical mistakes—you’ll fix them later.
Don’t worry about your narration or dialogue being extraneous or not making complete sense—you’ll fix that later too. Right now, you’re working on a rough draft. Just get that story out of your imagination and onto the page without being self-conscious about it.
Keep that first draft as tight as possible. You’re writing a short story, after all, so be economical with your words. Keep these tips in mind as you write :
- You don’t need to explain everything. Give enough explanation so the reader understands what’s happening in a scene; don’t slow them down with paragraphs of backstory and exposition.
- Keep the ending in mind. As you write, determine whether each sentence ultimately progresses the plot. If it doesn’t, either cut it or rework it so it does progress the plot.
- Listen to how people speak. Then, write dialogue that sounds like real conversations. These conversations won’t necessarily be grammatically correct, but they will make your characters sound the way people naturally speak.
Once you have a finished first draft, let it rest. If you have the luxury of waiting a day or so to come back and read what you wrote, do that. That way, you can read your writing again with fresh eyes, which makes it easier to spot inconsistencies and plot holes.
Then it’s time to edit. Read your writing again and note any places where you can make the writing more descriptive, more concise, more engaging, or simply more logical. At this stage, it can be very helpful to work with readers’ feedback. If you’re comfortable sharing your work and receiving constructive criticism, share your rough draft with friends and family—and, if possible, with other writers—and let their feedback guide the revisions you make.
Move past creative blocks
So you’ve got writer’s block.
Writer’s block can strike at any point in the writing process. You might have a great idea for a short story, then find yourself struggling as you try to brainstorm ways to transform that idea into a narrative. Or you might have no problem brainstorming and creating a coherent outline, but then feel like you’re running into a wall as you try to write linear scenes and craft realistic dialogue that advances the plot. Or maybe you aren’t stuck in the sense that you don’t know what to write, but you’re having a hard time determining the most effective way to write it.
It happens to every writer.
Because writer’s block is such a universal condition, we gathered up a few helpful tips you can use to defeat writer’s block and write effective, engaging scenes:
Give a writing prompt a shot
If getting started is what’s giving you a hard time, consider using a writing prompt . A writing prompt is like kindling for your short story. They’re generally brief, at just a sentence or two, and describe scenarios writers flesh out into full-fledged stories. Run a web search for “writing prompts” and you’ll find a ton. You can even tailor your search to a specific genre, like “horror writing prompts” or “romantic comedy writing prompts.”
Skip the scene and work backward
When a particular scene is what’s making it difficult to move forward, skip it. There’s no rule that says you have to write your short story in order. Just move ahead to the next scene that you can write, and then when you’re finished, revisit the challenging one. In many cases, it’s easier to write a scene once you know what happens after it.
We’ve talked about writing sprints before. They’re a great way to make yourself write faster . When it comes to busting through that brick wall of writer’s block, sprinting can put you into a mindset where you’re writing words, any words, just to reach the word count goal you set. You probably won’t craft publishable prose this way, but you’ll likely find creative ways through the difficult scenes that you can build on later.
Where to distribute your short story
If you’re like most authors, one of your goals is to publish your story.
There are two main ways to do that: traditional publishing and self-publishing.
In the short fiction world, traditional publishing generally means having your work published in a literary magazine. There are thousands of literary magazines currently being published around the world, each with a unique combination of editorial focus, publishing schedule, submission process, acceptance rate, and payment for authors.
Some literary magazines accept nearly every story they receive. Others select very few—as in, a single-digit percentage of the stories submitted—to publish. You can find literary magazines and contests through resources such as Poets & Writers , Duotrope , and Writer’s Digest .
If you’ve got a collection of short stories that together are approximately book-length, you can also query agents to have your work published that way. A few well-known short story collections include The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin.
The other way to publish your work is self-publishing. With self-publishing, you don’t need to have your work greenlit by a magazine editor or a publishing house. Although that hurdle isn’t present, self-publishing can be a complex process. As a self-published author, you’re responsible for everything, including these elements:
- Your story’s cover art
- Professional editing
Whether self-publishing is the right route for your story depends on your goals for the story. If you’re looking to have your work featured in a widely circulated magazine, guaranteeing that thousands of people (or more!) read it, traditional publishing is the way to go. If your priority is to simply get your work out there, or if you want total control of every part of building your platform as an author, self-publishing can be the perfect choice.
Popular self-publishing platforms include Kindle Direct Publishing , CreateSpace , Apple Books , and Barnes & Noble Press . Each has a unique publishing process and royalty rate for authors.
You can also self-publish your short story on your blog . Blogs are personal (and professional) outlets for writing, and if you’ve got a story to tell and don’t want to go through the process of getting it published or going the “traditional” self-publishing route, you can create a blog and publish your work there.
Finding a writing community
For many authors, being part of a writing community is a key part of staying in regular writing practice and striving to grow as a writer. Writing communities exist online and offline, with some existing as simply places for writers to connect with each other and others offering up more structure, like a regular critique schedule. There are also writing communities built around writing challenges like NYC Midnight and NaNoWriMo .
If you think you’d benefit from being part of a writing community, find one that fits what you’re looking for—or start one yourself! You can find writing communities on social media and through websites like meetup.com. Other places to look for writing groups are local libraries and bookstores and if you’re a student, your university. Being part of a writing community can help you get your work published in two ways:
- You can have other authors read and critique your work, giving you direction that will help you make it stronger when you revise.
- Other writers can connect you with literary magazines, contests, and agents to potentially work with. If they’ve been published, they can also answer your questions and give you writer-to-writer advice on what to do (and what not to do) when you’re trying to publish your work.
Tell your story with confidence
We all have stories inside us. Writing your story is what makes you an author, and even the most accomplished authors need help catching grammar mistakes and other issues in their writing. That’s what makes Grammarly an ideal writing assistant. Write what’s in your heart and on your mind, then when it’s time to edit, Grammarly will catch any mistakes you might have missed, flag wording that isn’t clear, and suggest the right tone for telling your tale.
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.
Are You Making This #1 Amateur Writing Mistake?
Faith-Based Words and Phrases
What You and I Can Learn From Patricia Raybon
Wait! Here's a FREE guide...
Before you go, be sure to grab my character arc worksheet.
Just tell me where to send it:
Enter your name and email below to instantly access my ultimate self-editing checklist.
Improve your writing in one of the largest and most successful writing groups online
Join our writing community!
Story Writing Format: How to Format a Short Story + Examples and Templates
by Kelly Hart
Short story manuscript formatting is slightly different from novel and book manuscript formatting , and it’s always a good idea to check submission guidelines for each magazine or anthology you wish to submit to, as they can—and do—differ. Lucky for you, applying industry-standard formatting to your short story manuscript is pretty easy!
Why does short story manuscript formatting matter?
Editors of magazines and anthologies are just as busy as agents and publishers, so it’s important that their first impression of your manuscript is a good one. The best way you can do that is to make sure it looks how they expect it to look —i.e., professionally-formatted.
When an editor recieves a manuscript that’s formatted in a quirky, unusual, or unexpected way, it makes the author look like an amateur. And that’s never the impression you want to give to the person reading and judging your writing. You want to look like a professional writer who knows their way around the industry.
Besides looking amateurish, a short story manuscript that doesn’t follow industry-standard formatting rules makes it harder for the editor to read. The rules are there to make all manuscripts equally legible, so that the editor can quickly read many of them in a day.
How to format a short story manuscript
Here’s a quick summary:
To format a short story manuscript, use 1 inch (2.5cm) margins, 12 point Times New Roman font, double-spaced lines, and half-inch (1.25cm) indents for paragraphs. At the top right of each page put a header with your last name, story title, and page number. A title page isn’t necessary.
Below are the complete formatting rules you need to apply to your short story manuscript:
Set the margins for your manuscript to 1 inch (2.5cm) on all four sides. This is usually the default setting in Word, but check the settings on your computer to be sure.
Align to the left; the right-hand side should remain ragged.
Use 12 point Times New Roman for the entire manuscript. Courier and Arial fonts may also be acceptable—check the submission guidelines of the magazine or anthology.
Black text on white pages only. No other colors are appropriate.
Indent each paragraph by half an inch (1.25cm). Don’t do this by hitting the tab key; instead, set indentation in Word using the Format → Paragraph → Section menu, or see this tutorial.
Lines should be double spaced with no extra spaces between paragraphs.
Single space between sentences, after periods.
Indicate scene breaks with a blank line, and center a hash mark (#) in the center of that line.
The header in the top right corner should contain your name, then a key word from your short story title, followed by the page number. For example, Hart - My Story - 2 . Don’t put this header on the first page.
After the last line in the manuscript, center a hash mark (#) one blank line after the end. Or simply write The End . This assures the editor that no pages are accidentally missing.
Never underline text; use italics when you mean to emphasize or italicize words.
Unlike a book or novel manuscript, a short story manuscript doesn’t require a separate title page. Instead, follow these rules for the first page of the manuscript:
Include your personal details at the upper left. This includes your real name, email address, and other contact information.
Include the approximate word count at the upper right, to the nearest hundred words.
Center the short story title about a third of the way down the first page.
Include your name on the next line after the title. This can be your pen name, and make sure to precede it with by .
Begin your story a few lines below your byline.
If you’ve followed all these steps, you should now have your short story manuscript formatted to the industry standard!
An example of a well-formatted short story manuscript
Remember these tips before you send it in.
Always check the manuscript submission guidelines of the magazine or anthology you’re submitting to! Different markets may have unique formatting requirements, and you should always do as they ask, even if it contradicts the rules we’ve set out here.
Keep a copy of the exact manuscript file you submitted in a special location, in case you update the master manuscript later. It’s always good to know exactly what version of a manuscript you submitted to a market, so you don’t get confused with edits you might have made after submission.
Download a short story formatting template
We’ve prepared this helpful Word document template for a short story manuscript submission that you can use as a base for your own writing. Check it out!
Download the short story formatting template (docx)
Get feedback on your writing today!
Scribophile is a community of hundreds of thousands of writers from all over the world. Meet beta readers, get feedback on your writing, and become a better writer!
Join now for free
Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: Which is Best for Your Book?
How to Find a Literary Agent
Screenplay Format: How to Format a Script, with Examples
What is a Novella-In-Flash? With Ideas and Tips to Write Your Own
Short Story Submissions: How to Publish a Short Story or Poem
Writing the 100-Word Memoir
The best way to kill boring scenes and assemble an army of readers is to improve your craft by mastering the art of writing short stories.
James L. Rubart and I interviewed a master of short stories. He’s written a number-one bestseller for writers called Plot and Structure (affiliate link), and he has served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest . James Scott Bell is the author of several popular writing books and a host of mystery, thriller, and suspense novels. Since he’s an International Thriller Writers Award winner and Christy Award winner, we asked him about the key to writing a great short story.
How to Start Writing Short Stories
Rubart : What advice do you give writers who are just starting to write short stories?
James Scott Bell : Short stories used to be the primary way new writers got their feet wet. For 50-100 years, writers learned their craft and started marketing themselves by writing short stories. From 1920-1960 the pulp market was huge. There were detective and adventure magazines like Dying Detective , Weird Tales , and Science Fiction . A voracious reading public would buy those publications from newsstands for five or ten cents. Some of the best writers America has produced started in the pulps writing short stories.
I advise beginning writers to read some of the short story masters in the genre you’re aiming for. But don’t limit yourself to one genre because any great short story writer can teach you about craft and style. You will benefit from reading a wide variety of authors and genres.
If you’re hoping to write full-length fiction, you must do the same thing. You need to read a lot of full-length fiction to get a sense for how it’s done.
As a beginner, you need to read, think about the story and its message, and know what you feel about it. Study the craft by reading authors who have done it well.
How do short stories help novelists?
Rubart : What are the keys to writing short stories?
Bell : Many authors try to write a novel first, and then they discover that short stories help build their readership. So, they try to write stories using the model of a novel. But you can’t write a really short novel. You just don’t have the space.
A novel has a definite structure and a lot of space to develop different aspects.
Short stories help you establish your style and voice, and an established style will help when you go to write your novel. Writing short stories will teach you to write scenes and characters. The form has its own specific feel. It’s not a multi-layered, sub-plotted genre. It’s short, and it’s meant to do one thing in 1,000-7,500 words. If your word count is higher, it would be considered a novelette or novella.
In a short story, you only have space to do one thing, and that’s how I teach short story writing.
What is the most important part of a short story?
Rubart : What are the common mistakes first-time short story writers make?
Bell : Sometimes, they’ll start a story with a “what if” idea. Writers begin to explore the idea, but they don’t know exactly where they’re going with it. Their writing is more of an exploration. They’ll get to a point where the story feels like it’s over, and they just stop and call it a short story.
I teach writers to find the one definite point you’re writing toward. When you know that point, you’re free to place that structural element anywhere in your story. The greatest short stories, the ones that work, are about one shattering moment.
The story revolves around something that happens that changes a character on the inside or flips their perspective on life. The moment shatters their complacency or the operating principle of their life. The greatest short stories explore those shattering moments that have a tremendous emotional impact on the characters and the reader.
As you read short stories, look for the I teach writers to find the one definite point you’re writing toward. When you know that point, you’re free to place that structural element anywhere in your story. The greatest short stories, the ones that work, are about one shattering moment. The creative part of writing the short story is deciding when that moment occurs.
You can place the shattering moment at any one of five points:
- Before the story begins
- After the story ends
That is the structural secret of the great short stories.
Examples of Great Short Stories
Rubart : Can you give us an example from a story we might be familiar with?
Bell : In Hemmingway’s Hills Like White Elephants , the shattering moment happens before you begin reading. It’s one of the greatest short stories, and for that reason, it’s taught in college-level writing and English courses.
It’s about a couple sitting in a train station waiting for a train to arrive. They’re having a drink, and there is an implied tension between them that comes only through the dialogue. As the story progresses, we learn that the conversation is the aftermath of the shattering moment that happened before the story began.
This man has impregnated this woman and has told her he wants her to have an abortion. The brilliance of the story is that the word “abortion” is never used. It’s only seen from the surface level of the conversation with that subtext underneath.
The story, Girls in Summer Dresses by Irwin Shaw places the shattering moment after the story has ended. It’s an implied, ambiguous, open-ended conclusion where you wonder how the characters handle what happens after the story ends.
In Shaw’s story, a middle-aged husband and wife are walking down the street in New York, and the man notices young women in their summer dresses. The couple goes to a restaurant, and their conversation becomes increasingly intense.
Finally, the wife confronts her husband. He thinks it’s all fun and games to notice young women, but it hurts her on a deep level. The story ends with him noticing the waitress. You get the impression that the wife has been shattered. It’s left to the reader to fill in the blanks about what happens between them in the aftermath.
The shattering moment may happen at the beginning, middle, or end of your story. Wherever you place it, the rest of the story is about the aftermath.
Crime stories usually place the twist at the end. It’s a satisfying form of writing. The twist is the shattering moment for the lead character, but it’s also a shattering moment for the reader because they were taken off guard and surprised.
Rubart : The shattering moment can also be beautiful. For example, in O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi , the shattering moment creates a positive emotional impact
Bell : Yes. That shattering moment is at the end where the wonderful twist is that both characters have given up their most valuable possession for the other. It’s a sad moment, but the sadness is overcome by the beautiful sense of sacrifice and generosity. Maybe they didn’t know how much they loved each other, but now they do.
Thomas Umstattd, Jr. : You can find good examples of positive emotional endings in Pixar’s short films. They’re super simple. In the short film Lava , a volcano is singing for his lady volcano, and then he sinks into the sea. You’ve only been invested in the story for a minute or two, but you’re moved because you’re sad for the volcano.
Bell : Pixar is plugged into emotional impact. There is also that great prologue to the movie UP . It begins with the meeting of a young boy and girl and follows the course of their life. Incredibly, it was done only with images and no dialogue, and it provoked a very emotional response. I cried.
Writing short stories will teach the novelist how to select details that bring a scene to life. Raymond Carver was a master of that. He was considered one of the great short story writers of the 20th century. He had the ability to select a detail that seemed irrelevant when taken out of context, but in the context of the story, it brought incredible illumination to the scene.
When you learn to bring sensory details to a scene, your novel will benefit.
Who are the best authors to study?
Rubart : If someone wants to study short stories, which authors or collections would you recommend?
Bell : It depends on the genre you’re looking for. You’ll find masters in several genres.
Hemmingway’s short stories are a great starting place. He was possibly the greatest short story writer because of his ability to select detail and to render a scene. He didn’t overload readers with emotional adjectives, but he made the scene come to life in a way that impacted readers emotionally and directly. He wanted to strip away manipulative elements, so he designed his stories to render life on the page with “one true sentence,” as he used to say.
Jeffery Deaver writes fabulous twist endings. Read his collections Twisted , and More Twisted to learn how to write a twist where readers try to guess the ending. It’s fun to be fooled by the writer.
Lawrence Block writes genre crime and has a collection called Enough Rope , which has several excellent crime stories.
What books teach how to write short stories?
Rubart : Do you have any resources on the craft of writing short stories?
Bell : I have written, How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career (affiliate link). I’ve read many books on writing short stories, and none of them really covered the one shattering moment concept. I discovered that on my own, so I wanted to write a book about it. But I also wanted to write something to encourage writers to publish their short fiction online.
The short story form really dried up when the pulp magazines begin to fold. The slick magazines were very selective and chose the top-tier writers. A few genre magazines like Analog , Ellery Queen , and Alfred Hitchcock still exist, and those are possibilities for writers who want to break into those markets.
But now, any writer can strategically publish their short stories to build a following and to test their material. By testing your story in a short form, you can learn whether the story is one you want to continue in the serial form. You might find you want to extend the stories into a collection or expand one into a novel. There is a lot of flexibility, and it won’t cost you much money.
Umstattd : Many of our listeners are going through The 5-Year Plan to Become a Best Selling Author , and we recommend multiple books by James Scott Bell. How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career (affiliate link) is the first one we recommend.
You can connect with James Scott Bell on twitter or at his website where you can sign up to receive his short and entertaining emails about deals and new titles.
Five Year Plan to Become a Bestselling Author
Crafted by Thomas Umstattd and bestselling, award-winning author James L. Rubart, The Five Year Plan is a step-by-step guide for your writing career. Learn what to do in each quarter of the year to avoid the mistakes that hijack success for most authors. Learn more at NovelMarketing.com/courses.
Derek Doepker author of Why Authors Fail
Becoming a massively successful self-published author can be challenging. Even just one missing link in an otherwise perfect plan can kill your results. In Why Authors Fail , award-winning author Derek Doepker reveals the 17 biggest mistakes authors make that sabotage their success along with practical steps to fix each mistake.
You can become a Novel Marketing Patron here . If you can’t afford to become a patron, but still want to help the show, you can! Just leave a review on Apple Podcasts , Podchaser , or Audible .
Jack Umstattd was on December 23rd weighing 9 pounds 10 ounces. Both he and my wife are tired from a long delivery but doing well overall. For those keeping score at home, we now have three children. Mercy age 3, Tommy age 2, and baby Jack.
Beautiful child and family!!
Congrats on the new baby. Cute family.
Now the fun starts! but it is worth it all, my friend.
Beautiful family! Wishing the children the best of brotherly and sisterly love! It shows in their smiles already. They are so blessed to have each other and a great mom and dad!
Fantastic! Love the photos. Congratulations! God bless you.
That’s one good looking baby boy! And a beautiful family. Congratulations!
Cuteness overload! Congratulations to all of you! Beautiful family.
Congratulations and lot of love from Italy!
Oh my goodness that baby resembles you so much!! Wow that’s a beautiful baby! Congratulations great family picture!!!
Subscribe to Novel Marketing
7 Secrets of Amazing Author Websites
In this free video course, you will learn how to craft a website that readers will love visiting.
You have Successfully Subscribed!
- Time-Saving Tools for Authors
- How to Successfully Self Publish Your Book in 2023 with James Blatch
- Black Friday Book Promotion Tips for Authors
- How to Protect Your Writing From Reputation Theft
- Book Marketing 101: Price
- How Larry Correia Became a Mega-Bestseller by Writing for Overlooked Readers
- Author Websites (104)
- Blogging (61)
- Branding (23)
- Podcasting (13)
- Public Speaking (9)
- Social Media (94)
- Advertising (23)
- Copywriting (10)
- Email Marketing (25)
- Marketing 101 (11)
- Marketing Psychology (10)
- Strategy (68)
- Audiobook Publishing (7)
- Book Design (18)
- Business Advice (48)
- Conference Tips (15)
- Crowdfunding (12)
- Independent Publishing (37)
- Productivity (42)
- Traditional Publishing (22)
- Writing Craft (142)
Want more help?
Get a weekly email with tips on building a platform, selling more books, and changing the world with writing worth talking about.
The Model Short Story
On "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield
Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” is beautifully written, with a touch that one might best describe as delicate
On "Salvation" by Langston Hughes
“Salvation” is the third chapter of Langston Hughes’s memoir The Big Sea , but this two-page tour de force of prose is also a compact...
On "Sweethearts" by Richard Ford
Yes, we could have played it safe and inaugurated this series with something by Chekhov or Gogol or by someone like Alice Munro, who writes nothing...