How to Write a Short Story: Six Crucial Steps
Short stories are tricky to write well. Every word counts – and you don’t have long at all to establish characters and get the plot going.
While most of my fiction-writing time goes into novels, I’ve written a bunch of short stories over the years (and even won an occasional prize).
There’s plenty to like about the short story form:
- You get the satisfaction of completing something! I’ve often taken breaks from ongoing novels to write short stories, simply to be able to finish a piece of writing. If you’ve ever written a story of any length, you’ll know how satisfying finishing can be.
- You can explore lots of different ideas – without committing a huge chunk of time to them. Maybe you want to write about a weird living spaceship in one story, a bullied teenage girl in another, and a character who never celebrates or even acknowledges his birthday in a third. You might not want to explore any of these ideas at novel or novella length … but you could enjoy fleshing them out into short stories.
- You can have fun with structure and viewpoint. Things that would be unlikely to work for a whole novel (like writing from the point of view of an inanimate object, or writing in the second person, or having a whole story that builds up to a twist ending) can work very well in a short story.
- You can enter competitions. This is a rather less artistic consideration than the others … but most competitions are for short stories rather than for novels. Having a deadline (and often a topic or prompt to work from) can be really motivating, and winning a prize – or even getting shortlisted – could be a great boost to your writing career.
Hopefully, you’re keen to give short stories a go. (If you’re not sure what sort of length you’re going to write to, check out my post Story Writing 101 for help with story-writing more generally.)
These are the six steps you need to follow to complete a short story:
#1: Decide How Long Your Story Will Be
This might seem like an odd place to begin – how can you know how long your story will be until you’ve written it? The length of your story, though, will make a big difference to how you plan and begin writing: a 800 word short story will be very different in nature from an 8,000 word short story.
Depending on your aims with your short story, the length might be pre-determined for you. If you’re entering a competition, for instance, there’ll almost certainly be a minimum and/or maximum word count.
If you’re not sure what sort of length to aim for, check out Maeve’s post How Short Is Short Fiction? to figure out what length your short fiction should be.
Tip: If you’re new to writing short stories, around 2,000 words is a good length – long enough to give your story a bit of breathing room, but short enough that you only need to develop a couple of characters and a single plotline.
#2: Come Up With Several Ideas
Unless you already have a clear idea in mind for your short story, I’d suggest coming up with several different ideas. This is especially crucial if you’re entering a themed competition: chances are, the first idea that you have will be pretty similar to the first idea that pops into other people’s minds!
In two decades of writing fiction, I’ve found that ideas can come at the oddest moments. You can definitely help the process along, though, by setting aside time to deliberately brainstorm. Write your topic, prompt or starting line on a piece of paper, and jot down anything that comes to mind.
If you don’t have a particular topic for your story, you might want to use a prompt to help you.
Tip: Don’t push yourself to write about an idea that doesn’t really interest you. Keep brainstorming until you hit on something you really want to write about … or step away altogether and wait to see if an idea comes to you out of the blue.
#3: Pick a Couple of Characters
Your idea itself might have brought characters with it (e.g. if your idea was “a young colleague is promoted above his older, resentful co-worker”) … but if not, now’s the time to figure out the main characters for your short story.
In a short story, there’s only space for a small cast of characters. While there’s no “rule”, I find it works best to have one protagonist and one other main character (who might be supporting or opposing the protagonist).
If you try to have lots of characters, it’s tricky to introduce them quickly enough without confusing the reader – and continuing to follow several characters throughout can make your story seem muddled or slow. Focusing on two characters (even if other characters come in briefly) helps you to structure a satisfying story.
Tip: Sometimes, a fairly “normal” idea can be made into a great short story by shifting the perspective. The story of a wedding, for instance, might not be especially interesting on the surface – but it could be far more fascinating told from the point of view of the lively five-year-old flower girl.
#4: Plan Your Short Story
Every story needs a beginning, middle and end – I’m sure you’ll have heard that before!
There are two different ways to look at the beginning, middle and end though:
- The chronological structure: this is how the events would look if you placed them in time order. E.g. the first event in the story might be the meeting between the protagonist and antagonist.
- The narrative structure: this is how the events look in the order in which you tell them. E.g. the first paragraph of the story might show us the protagonist and antagonist in the middle of a fight.
One of the great things about short stories is that you can do some interesting things with structure. It might make sense to tell the story out of chronological order, for dramatic effect – for instance, you might start a story with a mild-mannered grandmother being arrested, then backtrack to explain what happened, then return to the arrest and the events after it at the end of the story.
When you’re planning, think about the most effective way to tell your story. Chronological order will work well for many stories, but you still might want to bring in past information through summary, dialogue or even flashbacks. (Be careful with flashbacks, though; they can easily disrupt the pace of a short story.)
Tip: You might not hit on the perfect structure for your story first time around. You might want to write a rough plan, draft out your story, then think again about the order in which you want to present your scenes.
#5: Draft Your Short Story
This is perhaps the trickiest step – because it’s time to sit down and actually write your short story.
Hopefully, at this stage, you’ve got a clear idea in mind, plus a rough plan or outline for your story. That’ll make the writing much easier.
Viewpoint and Tense
You may still face some decisions at this stage, though, particularly when it comes to viewpoint and tense. Sometimes, there’ll be a particular choice that just feels right for your story – maybe you have a central character with an unusual perspective and/or voice, and you want to write in the first person from their perspective.
With viewpoint, you might write from:
- First person (“I”) – particularly useful if you want to tell a story through letters, diary entries, text messages or similar
- Second person (“you”) – this is an unusual choice but can be sustainable in a short story
- Third person (“he/she”) – this is the most conventional choice and you can’t go far wrong with it
In a short story, I’d recommend sticking to one character’s viewpoint (even if you’re using third person), unless you have a good reason to switch between characters.
With tense, you might write in the:
- Past tense (“[he] walked”) – the most conventional choice
- Present tense (“[he] walks”) – often seen as a more literary choice; can work well with a first-person perspective in particular
- Future tense (“[he] will walk”) – an unusual choice but not out of the question for a short story
Writing the First Draft of Your Story
As you write the story itself, try not to worry too much about getting every word right: you’ll have time to edit later.
It’s usefully helpful to:
- Move the plot along quickly. You don’t have space for lots of introspection (characters dwelling on their thoughts).
- Show, don’t tell. Because short stories are so compact, it’s very easy to slip into telling – but it’s better to paint a scene and trust that readers will understand it!
- Use dialogue effectively. It should either advance the plot or reveal character … or both! Don’t have dialogue for the sake of it.
Tip: If you can, it’s helpful to get a rough draft of your short story written in just one or two writing sessions. Can you set aside a full afternoon or evening to focus on your writing? (If not, don’t worry, just work with what you have – but do try to get that draft done quickly, or you’ll spend a lot of time trying to figure out where you left off.)
#6: Edit Your Short Story
Finally, it’s time to edit your short story. Depending on how your first draft worked out, you might end up doing a lot of rewriting at this point – perhaps you’ve realised that your characters weren’t quite right, or you’ve uncovered a whole new layer to your story, or you want to tell it in a completely different order.
If you have major changes to make, get those done first before you start finalising word choices and sentence structures – there’s no point perfecting three paragraphs that you later cut completely.
Once you’re happy that your short story is in reasonable shape, with no more big changes to come, you can go through it and edit on a sentence level. For me, this normally means cutting out unnecessary words and flabby sentences, and paring the story back a little, in order to make what remains even more powerful.
Tip: However much editing you do, you’ll need to do a final pass through your story to look for typos and grammatical mistakes. It’s easy for these to creep in during editing – so it’s always good to do that final check. Many writers find it helpful to proofread on paper rather than on the screen.
Short stories might look easy on the surface. They’re short, after all! But writing a good short story can be really tricky, because you don’t have long to make an impact on the reader … and every word needs to count.
Best of luck with your short stories! And for lots more help with writing stories of all lengths, from flash fiction up to novels, check out our ‘Fiction Writing’ archives.
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