Writing a full-blown novel can be a daunting prospect. With multiple chapters, character arcs, and plot points, the prospect of novel-writing is a myriad of possibilities, twists, and turns.
Then there’s the matter of time. Not all writers will have the time to put into a novel. With the world a busy and demanding place, time isn’t a luxury that many people have, especially when they’re first starting out as a writer or trying to write as a new hobby. Here is where short stories are ideal.
So, what is a short story? Essentially, it’s a condensed version of a novel. Like novels, they have a fully developed and explored theme, but are just less elaborate. We follow fewer characters and a single plot thread, to quickly engage a reader.
However, short stories still need a coherent and engaging plot: a beginning, middle, and end. Usually, they can be anywhere from under 1,500 words, known as flash fiction stories, to 8,000 words. There is another category called long short stories, which range from 8,000 to 20,000 words. These are also known as novelettes.
Short stories can give new writers the “opportunity to find their own voice, to learn the fundamentals of narrative, and, most importantly, to produce a complete piece of work over a limited time scale” (Cox, 2005, pg. 1). Think of short stories as a calling card to bigger writing opportunities.
On the flip side, short stories are ideal for the aspiring author. Think of them as calling cards for new opportunities. Publications such as newspapers, magazines, blogs, and anthologies are always on the lookout for short stories and will pay for them too. Many will pay per word, so it can be a financially smart choice for writers.
You may be thinking, if a short story is just a condensed version of a novel, surely, it’s quite straightforward to write. Think again! A short story means a greatly reduced word count, so you’ll need to be selective in the scenes you include to tell your story from beginning to end. Problems need to be solved quickly, and elaborate detail discarded.
Just like a novel, planning is key! Before you even write your first few words, you’ll need to have an outline in place to ensure your plot is snappy, characters are fully developed, and you have that all important, clear beginning, middle and end.
So, let’s begin our journey into how to write a short story…
|How to Write a Short Story|
|1. Choosing Your Story Idea|
|2. Crafting Your Characters|
|3. Developing Your Plot|
|4. Setting the Scene|
|5. Writing the First Draft|
|6. Publish Your Short Story|
1. Choosing Your Story Idea
Deciphering that one key idea for your story can be the trickiest part of the story writing process. Ideas don’t always appear out of thin air or just pop into your head.
Most of the time, you’ll need to actively work on getting your creative juices flowing. Here are some ways to do exactly that:
Break Down the Key Elements of the Story
Known as the Six Elements of Fiction, these points can help determine everything you need to construct your story. On a piece of paper or in a word processor, write out the six elements. Then, as you determine each, write it down.
- Plot: what happens in your story?
- Character: who is going on the journey within the story?
- Setting: what world is the story set in?
- Point of View: from whose eyes does the story unfold?
- Theme: what is the meaning of the story?
- Style: what words and sentence structures will you use to tell the story?
It doesn’t matter if you don’t have all the answers straight away.
Experiment with different combinations until you find something that works. The important thing is that you have something for each of these six elements.
You don’t have to begin with plot either. If you have a fantastic setting in mind, start there and branch off into character, plot, theme, and style.
Freewriting is when you take a writing prompt and then start writing! It could be something as simple as “There’s a locked door. What’s behind it? Why is it locked?”.
Or something a little more elaborate: “You are an FBI agent who has lost contact with their superiors. You are surrounded by criminals. What do you do?”.
Once you’ve found a writing prompt you like, write for five to ten minutes without stopping and without criticizing your work as you write. After your time is up, read through what you’ve created. Is there a character, a moment, a place that sticks out to you? If so, use it and expand on it.
If nothing sticks out to you this time around, try a different writing prompt or modify the prompt you’ve already used. For example, you could be one of the criminals surrounding the FBI agent. Change the perspective or setting of the piece.
Does anything change?
Use Real Life Experience
Now, we’re not saying you need to write a shortened version of your autobiography, or an extensive diary entry. Instead, draw on your personal experiences to create something brand new.
Perhaps you went on a one-in-a-lifetime trip. Use this destination as the setting for your short story. You have first-hand experience of spending time there, so use it.
If you’d prefer to find inspiration from the stories of others, the news, magazines, and historical events can be fantastic places to start. Even eavesdropping when you’re chilling in your local coffee shop can get your creative mind whirring.
Remember, all stories stem from real life, written by real people, no matter how outlandish they seem.
Remember that You’re Writing a Short Story
Are your creative juices flowing yet? Great! However, keep in mind that the less characters and plot threads, the better.
As we’ve already discussed, short stories have a limited word count, so always have that at the forefront of your mind, and don’t go overboard with multiple character arcs and story lines.
2. Crafting Your Characters
While we’re on the subject of characters, let’s go onto character development within your short story.
The advantage of having minimal character in a short story is that you can fully explore who they are and how they interact with the world around them. A protagonist and antagonist should be all you’d need, plus one or two secondary characters.
The protagonist is the character who drives the plot. They could be a hero in pursuit of the greater good, for example. Most importantly, the protagonist must be someone who the reader can root for.
The antagonist opposes the protagonist and their goals. They usually hinder the protagonist’s journey, providing obstacles along the way.
When you’re first exploring your characters, create a profile for each of them. A fact file that tells you all you need to know about them. Now, the key here is that you don’t reveal all this information in the story. These facts are useful tools for you as a writer to work out why a character may react in a certain way and their tastes.
Crucially, your characters need to develop throughout the story. For example, the protagonist must begin with a motivation that they spend the entire story trying to fulfill. Obstacles then appear in their way, perhaps through the setting or the actions of the antagonist.
At the end of the story, the protagonist will have gone through a significant change, triggered by the journey they’ve been on.
The reader must care about the protagonist’s journey and be intrigued to find out if they’re successful in fulfilling their goals. But how do we create memorable, likeable characters that a reader would love?
How to Create Memorable Characters
We’ve mentioned that a character needs to be likeable, but what does that actually mean? For a character to be likeable, they need to embody positive traits such as compassion, humility, generosity, and kindness. Your job as a writer is to show these traits as quickly as possible when the story starts.
It could be a brief moment where your protagonist showcases a kind gesture or word towards a minor character, for example.
As well as liking the character, the reader also needs to relate to them on a human level. We all have fears and worries in our lives, so it makes sense for our characters to have them too, and for them to be visible to a reader. No one is perfect, so a character flaw is also important to remember. What do they need to learn and overcome in order to reach the end of their journey?
Additionally, you’ll need to challenge the reader with your protagonist; they don’t always have to agree with everything the protagonist does on their journey. Take Dexter Morgan from the TV show Dexter. He’s a protagonist who murders other murderers who have escaped justice with an intense urge to kill.
With a successful TV show like this, the protagonist is indeed likeable despite his pursuit of delivering justice, even if it isn’t in line with US law and justice system practices.
The writers have Dexter fall in love, fear losing those he loves, and struggle to curb his urge to kill. His determination and battle to lead a normal life is inherently human. Therefore an audience relates to him despite his actions challenging their moral code.
Once again, stealing from real life is an effective way to determine memorable and well-rounded characters. Think of someone in your own life who has had a huge impact on you.
Consider their personality. What are their flaws and struggles? What are their goals? You may not want to use their whole personality, but you can of course take elements and craft them into your own character.
Before you start writing, also work out whether your protagonist will learn a lesson from their journey. Are they going to be redeemed, or do they come to a particular realization about themselves or the world, or do they not change at all, learning nothing from their experiences?
By having a clear understanding of the conclusion your protagonist will come to, it’ll make crafting the plot points leading to it much easier.
Developing Realistic Dialogue
How your characters express themselves and their personalities is just as important as the personality itself. Every character should have a unique voice that gives the reader insight into who they are and the world they live in.
Setting plays a huge role in how your characters speak. Are they living in the here and now, in which case you’d use modern words and phrases, or are they living in a by-gone era, such as the medieval times? A medieval peasant wouldn’t talk like we do now, so ensure you do your research into how people of that time spoke.
Show differences in character through varied speech patterns. We can define speech pattern in two different ways. First is the pitch, volume, and placement of the character’s voice (is it throaty, nasal, hoarse, loud, high-pitched, whispery?) Secondly, is their voice gentle and soft, or harsh and blunt?
A character’s personality would inform which patterns you’d choose for them. For example, if a character is optimistic and happy-go-lucky, we would expect their voice to be light and use positive vocabulary.
On the other hand, a gloomy character may mumble and not say many words. Some characters may be more of a listener, so wouldn’t naturally say a great deal.
A top tip is to flip this around. Could a seemingly happy-go-lucky character try and come across more melancholy, so as not to be annoying to those around them? Or could a seemingly gloomy character try and make a real effort to come across more carefree than they actually are?
As you can see, it all stems back to character motivation and what they want to get out of each interaction they have with people around them.
Small variations in speech patterns between characters can make all the difference and allow a reader to distinguish who is speaking.
Check out more top tips on creating awesome characters in our blog post: Developing Your Characters.
3. Developing Your Plot
As we’ve already discussed, a clear beginning, middle, and end is crucial to a short story.
Think of it as writing in three acts.
Act One introduces us to the characters and hooks us into the events.
Act Two is the main body of the story, where most of the action happens.
Act Three concludes and wraps up what has happened so far, and is where your protagonist (does or doesn’t) fulfill their goals.
The first Act should capture the reader’s attention immediately, quickly introducing characters and setting. Our advice is to always start on a huge event to immediately establish tension and your single point of conflict for your story (we wouldn’t recommend anymore than one for a short story).
This point of conflict should trigger a dilemma for the protagonist that they must navigate throughout the rest of the story. It may sound miserable, but make bad things happen to your protagonist to show the reader what they can do.
Act Two will then develop this point of conflict, your protagonist working their way around all the obstacles thrown at them by the antagonist or other antagonistic forces, such as the environment around them. This section of the story is the trickiest to write, as it is very easy for the plot to flounder.
Here is where your planning will come in extremely useful. Ensure you have clear plot points that drive your protagonist’s development towards their goal.
Act Three brings everything together and is where the protagonist succeeds or doesn’t! Whatever you decide, it must be a satisfying ending. The key to an effective ending lies in the stakes you set up at the start. Is your protagonist challenged enough? Is there ample reason for a reader to root for them?
A satisfying ending doesn’t mean you have to answer all your readers’ questions, but it can be helpful to revisit something discussed earlier in the story and wrap things up that way. You don’t want your readers going away thinking they’ve read part of a longer story.
4. Setting the Scene
Creating a Vivid Setting
The setting is a key literary device, which provides atmosphere and background in which your story takes place. Think of the setting like scenery when you go to the theater. It adds to the ambience and theme of the story. It can almost be a character itself in its ability to drive and influence the plot.
It’s important that your setting needs to be vivid and carefully considered. Remember, it’s up to you as the writer to paint the picture of where your characters are.
If your story is set in the modern day, are you in a particular country, city, or town? How does this modern location influence your characters’ lives? Will it help or hinder them in pursuit of their goals? How are the characters connected to these places?
When writing a short story, stick to one or two locations, you can really set the scene and focus on what’s unique about these places. How are these locations different from other places?
Ways to Describe a Setting
When describing your setting, consider all five senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound. Which of these are most prominent in your location? For example, if your setting is a bakery, smell and taste would be the two key senses being used.
As this is a short story, don’t get too carried away with description. Consider the most important aspects of your setting, and how they relate to your characters and connect to the plot itself. Does this place have a special significance to them? Or does the protagonist feel caged and suffocated when they’re in this place?
A short paragraph per new setting should be more than enough to introduce a reader. Throughout the rest of the story, use the essential elements from the setting you’ve established, and pepper them in to continue to help develop your characters.
5. Writing the First Draft
You’ve planned and refined the plot for your entire short story, and now it’s time to start writing! Set yourself up in a comfortable writing space, free of distraction and clutter. Perhaps curate a music playlist that’ll keep you motivated. Plan a writing schedule that works for you, a few hours a day or even just 10 minutes, as long as you’re consistent!
Once you’re settled in, we recommend writing the story in its entirety as quickly as possible. Don’t edit as you go along, just keep writing. No first draft is perfect, but you need a completed story in order to look over it as a whole and identify any key areas of strength and improvement.
The whole point of your original story plan is to allow you to almost free write and work with what comes naturally. This will also reduce the chance of writer’s block taking hold. If you do struggle with writer’s block, we have your back with our What is Writer’s Block (Causes and How to Overcome) article.
Refining Your Draft
No first draft is perfect, so refining and editing your story once it’s written is an extremely beneficial exercise. It’s normal for rewrites to take longer than the first draft itself, so don’t worry. The reason for this is that you now have a full picture of your story structure, so can look more critically at what could be changed.
Once you have completed your first draft, leave it for a few days or even a few weeks, and return to it with a fresh pair of eyes. You’ll find you’ll spot more this way, and less errors will dodge your attention. Focus on the overall flow and pace of the plot, whether your characters are defined, their goals and motivations clear, and the small details such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
It can be helpful to complete several ‘passes’ of your script. For example, read through your script once, focusing on plot only. Make any notes you need. Then read it again, focusing on character, then so on with setting, dialogue, and finally SPAG.
Remember, you can also seek feedback from other writers. A second opinion is useful in highlighting errors you’ve missed or elements you may not have thought about. This can be a daunting prospect, so make sure you send your story to someone you trust. You could even send it to a professional editor, who will give you some advice. Of course, this will cost a little money, but can be well worth it.
6. Publish Your Short Story
You’ve put enormous amounts of work into planning, writing, and perfecting your short story, so why not show it off? Publishing your short stories or submitting to literary journals and competitions can help you gain credibility as a writer and gain your own clan of readers.
Of course, you don’t have to submit to publications if you’d prefer not to – Why not start your own blog instead and promote on social media?
Tips for Submitting to Literary Journals
Don’t submit your stories to every literary journal you can find. Be strategic. Do your research and compile a list of journals that would best suit your story’s genre, length, and most of all, the requirements of the particular journal to which you’re submitting.
Pay attention to any requirements:
- Do they require a specific genre or topic?
- Is there a specific length the short story needs to be?
- Are there specific author requirements (e.g. age restriction)
- Do they allow submissions that have been sent elsewhere?
- Do they allow you to submit more than one short story?
When researching, we recommend you create a spreadsheet or separate document to record which journals you’re interested in and meet the specifics of your short story.
Preparing a Cover Letter and Author Bio
Once you have chosen the journals you’d like to submit to, you’ll likely need to write a cover letter to accompany the short story you’re sending. Typically, you’ll need to include:
- The story title, genre, and word count
- Your writing CV (if applicable – make sure to include any and all experience you have)
- Whether this is the first time you’re submitting for publication
- Include some further information about yourself (this is key for your author bio if your story is selected)
- A thank you note thanking the judges for their consideration.
What Should I Do If My Story Gets Rejected?
Rejection can be a good thing, especially if the publications you’ve submitted to, provide feedback.
You can use this to improve your current story and overall writing.
A rejection is always one step closer to acceptance, so keep going! Continue to write stories as frequently as you can, continue to edit the ones you already have.
There we have it, our step-by-step guide on crafting a short story! Remember to begin with intriguing and likeable characters in a situation that will challenge them, and a setting that helps or hinders them on their way. Extensively plan your story before writing, and edit it within an inch of its life when you have written it! Most of all, enjoy the process!
On that note, we’ll leave you in the wonderful world of short stories.
Good luck out there!