How to write a short story
What is a short story? Before you can begin writing, you should be aware of the parameters and purpose of a short story. Per Merriam-Webster, a short story is:
an invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot
How long is “shorter than a novel”? A short story runs between 1,000 and 7,500 words. Anything under is flash fiction, anything over tips into novellete or novella territory.
“Dealing with a few characters”—how many is “few”? 7,500 words doesn’t allow you to dig deep into your character’s personality, background, etc. You’ll want more than one character to create conflict, but not so many they become shallow and cardboard-y. I suggest staying in the 2-4 range.
“Concentrating on the creation of mood rather than the plot.” Again, 7,500 words doesn’t give you the freedom a novel would to create multiple sub-plots and layers. Stick to a character in a situation in a short time frame to give the story justice.
Why you should write short stories
I don’t know about you, but my writing time is precious. Even when I worked full time, I couldn’t afford wasting time on plots that fizzled, unfamiliar genres, and waiting for readers to discover my books. By writing short stories, you can by-pass those problems.
In writing short stories you can:
- Tell a story in a short amount of time. Your investment is limited.
- Write more stories. We all have ideas we want to write “someday”. Why not write them now?
- Write outside your genre. Have a space opera idea? Want to dabble in horror? Writing short stories gives you the freedom to explore different genres.
- Be challenged. Concisely telling a story in a limited amount of words makes you a better writer. Every word choice, sentence and paragraph has to contribute to the story. By refining this skill in short stories, you’ll write a better novel.
- Make it easier for readers to discover you.
- You’ll appear on the “new release” list more often.
- Readers like to see multiple books by an author, proving their professionalism and staying power.
- You never know which one will be your breakout story.
- Give your reader a taste of your writing style by offering a free sample (for example, sign up for MY newsletter and get the 1st of my alien series).
- Expand your fictional world with backstories and prequels. Does a secondary character have more to say but maybe not enough for his own novel? Does your protagonist have an interesting history that doesn’t affect the current story but could lend itself to a short?
- Offer a collection or series without spending years between books.
Erotica, romance, and mystery are the top sellers, but don’t be afraid to explore other genres.
How to write a short story
Elements of a short story
Keep it simple. A short story should consist of:
- A character
- Wants something (her goal)
- Someone or something stands in her way (conflict)
- There are complications (tests and ordeals)
- She faces her final ordeal (payoff)
- Win or lose, she’s changed (resolution)
Let’s look at these elements in more depth:
1. Your character
Who is she? Your main character is the one who makes the decisions that drives the story forward. She’s the one who will be most affected by the story events. Additionally, she will change through her ordeal and be a different person than she was in the beginning.
2. The character wants something
Or, she wants to avoid something. This is her goal and it has to be strong enough she can’t shrug it off and go after it tomorrow. Whether it’s to keep her family together, stop the terrorist, or keep the dog from peeing on the rug, the goal has to be immediate and compelling.
- What does she want?
- Why does she want it? Look at her motivation, both internal and external.
- What is she doing to get it?
3. Something or someone stands in her way
Most often, this is where your villain comes into play. She wants to stop your main character from getting her goal. Maybe she wants the same goal. Maybe she wants to stop your protagonist because she’s in the way. Remember, your villain is the hero of her own story. Don’t make her evil for the sake of being evil.
4. There are complications
You don’t have the space for more than two or three challenges. Your protagonist should not win them easily, if at all. Each failure should be worse than the one before, ramping up the tension and casting doubt in your reader’s mind. One of the complications should come from your protagonist’s internal battle and stem from her primary flaw. Did her self doubt prevent her from acting quickly enough to prevent a disaster? Conversely, did her self confidence make her rush in, triggering events that led to something bad?
5. She faces her final ordeal.
This is the payoff, the event that all others have led to. Beat down by past failures, your protagonist doesn’t want to go on, but she can’t turn back. Calling on the lessons she’s learned, she faces the bad guy, who hasn’t changed (his fatal flaw). Despite all odds, your protagonist battles and wins. Or loses. Either way:
6. She’s changed
The ordeals, challenges, obstacles, and trials she’s experienced have changed her. She has the tools she lacked in the beginning. She’s at peace with the story’s resolution.
Other short story elements
Let’s look at the specific elements of a short story.
- The Hook. You’ve no time to talk about the weather, her reflection in the mirror, or anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Set the mood and setting in the first paragraph and raise a question in the reader’s mind. Hit the ground running.
- Get into the conflict right away. If your protagonist overhears the details of a terrorist attack, she should do so on the first page, not after moaning about her job and lunch with her friends.
- A short story should be a snippet, a snapshot of a character’s life.
- Set the story in as few words as possible then get on with what’s relevant for that moment.
- Every sentence should lead to the climax, the payoff.
- The climax has to be strong. This is the big, black, all-is-lost moment. Make your reader wonder how she’ll survive.
- Choose your POV. You don’t have the story time to hop between characters. If you do, make sure it happens at a natural scene break.
- Develop your character through tropes or one or two traits. Does she bite her nails from nervousness? Shout at the television? Kneel down when she talks to children? You can paint an accurate portrait with a few strokes.
- Use 5-7 scenes. 7,500 words divided by five scenes equals 1,500 words per scene, six pages to delve into the six elements above. Write the first scene as the set up, the middle ones as the ordeals, and the last for the climax and resolution.
- It might be easier to plot the story by starting with the last scene and working your way toward it. What has to happen before the final conflict? Before that?
- Less is more. When in doubt, cut it out.
Try writing a short story. Invent a character, put her in a situation not to her liking, give her a reason to get out of it, someone who doesn’t want her to succeed, and see what happens. You may have found a new outlet for your creativity!
This post is part of January’s #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, a monthly blog hop between many, many talented writers who share posts related to the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, blogging tips for authors, reviews of author-related products, and anything that an author would find helpful.
If you’d like to learn more or be included in the hop, go here.