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.
I love the idea of short stories to complement novels eventually. I’ve seen other authors do this, but until you spelled it out, I hadn’t considered it for myself. Great post, Cheryl, filled with great tips! Thanks! My Facebook page has been lonely, so I’ll put this up there. 🙂
I love how detailed this breakdown is! I’ve tried my hand at short stories many times, but so far I’ve only managed to produce one I’m proud of – the rest have been hidden away or turned into books.
I’m new at it myself, which is why I like to have a checklist so I don’t wander and ramble.
Thanks for the share! I have yet to write a short story as a complement to one of my novels, but the idea is brewing.
Hi! I’m just about to start a new short story! I love your ‘how to’ list in six steps!
Great tips! I especially enjoy writing short stories about things that happen between my novels, about characters that should have their stories told, yet there isn’t space in the novel to do so properly, and to do lots of world building (I write fantasy, so this is an excellent way to get to know creatures and places with new characters without having to uhm and ah during the process of writing a novel). I like the suggestion of being on the “new release” list more often — definitely worth exploring 🙂
A great post! The breakdown is most helpful and makes the idea of writing short stories seem more accomplishable. I have tried to write short stories before but, as anyone can see, have trouble cutting down words – which is why, as per the reasons you stated, I should endeavor to write them. The part where you said writing short stories is good training for writing novels especially is a motivator. Perhaps it is the key to having me write with economy. Thank you for sharing! I’m posting this on Twitter and Facebook.
These are some really great points 🙂
I love short stories. I’ve been writing one a week for over a year now, and it’s improved my writing no end. My latest novel began as a short story I wrote!
Great post! This really sums up the elements of a short story, and the pros of writing short stories regularly. For me, the challenges with writing short stories comes with finding the “Major Dramatic Question” or the big motivation the protagonist has that drives the story. But writing short stories regularly helps me develop the skill of making that MDQ clear.
Short stories are an art form, in my eyes. It’s so difficult to nail the right pace, setting, plot, and still be able to tell a complete story in such a short time. But when it’s done just right, it’s a truly magical thing to read! I write much longer works, so I’m in awe of people who can pull off short stories well.
This is such a great post. So well detailed that I guess it has covered all my doubts regarding short story writing. bookmarking this piece and am definitely getting back to it when picking up a short story, again. I kind of gave up on writing short stories, after none of my 8 short stories were picked up by a contest. I knew I was lagging, missing on essentials, but didn’t know what are they. But, now I know. Thanks much, Cheryl. This the post I was waiting for. 🙂
I am a complete failure at short stories, but writing more short stories is one of my goals this year. I’ve bookmarked this article for future reference. THX
It has been a long time since I’ve written a short story, but I’ve been wanting to get back into it, and I have a fresh new idea for a series of short stories. 🙂 Your advice is solid. I like that you said a short story only has room for 2-3 complications. That’s key to keeping a story short.
This is excellent, Cheryl! I’ve shared it online. Thanks so much for the concise steps to create short stories. I use them all the time to create my YA Adventure stories.
I also find shorts work well when learning and trying something new within the craft. Best time to experiment and get feedback on how well I’ve done.
Anna from elements of emaginette
I agree. Shorts are an excellent way to genre hop.
Thanks for the share.
Good luck on your series. I’m midway through my latest series of shorts and (maybe) can see the light at the end of the fictional tunnel.
Like every craft, writing short stories takes practice. I think the key is not to cram so much into them. Just expand on one moment of your character’s life. “Hey, you know what happened today?” kind of narrative. Good luck on your short story goals.
Glad I could help! Good luck if you decide to get back in the short story arena.
It’s not for everyone. Have you considered offering a short story based on one of your secondary characters as a freebie to readers? Or maybe you have a scene that you cut because it didn’t quite fit? Short stories are wonderful as a marketing tool.
The burning MDQ! It can be tough including all the elements of a story in a few thousand words. I’m glad you’ve mastered the skill.
One a week— wow, that’s ambitious. My hat is off to you. Isn’t it great when one idea grows legs and starts moving on its own?
Lupa, thanks for the shares. I appreciate it. If you’re starting out, writing short stories helps you find your voice. I wish I would have written shorts when I started instead of tackling 100K novels (which are buried on my hard drive). Good luck with your writing!
Ronel, continuing telling stories from your fantasy world is an excellent excuse to write short stories. I always have so many ideas from my worlds I’d love to insert or expand upon, but doing so would detract from the main story. (I have one in mind where the main characters meet an urchin in a tavern who is obsessed with dragons. I’d love to follow him in a short story). Like you, I hate to see a good world building go to waste.
Leslie, I’m glad I could help. Let me know how it goes!
I love it when an author of a series provides short stories that focus on other characters in their books. I once saw two authors team up together and write a short story that brought together characters from both of their books.
There are always bits and pieces of a book that never make it into the final copy. Using them in a short story is a good way to feed your creativity and give a little bonus to the reader.
I’ve only written two short stories. I find them quite hard. Harder than a novel. You’ve provided some great insight here. Thanks.
I agree that short stories are harder. Every word counts. Your writer brain jumps up and down screaming “What about this? What about that?” That’s why I try to concentrate on one or two moments instead of telling a life story. It’s tricky, but it can be done.
Hi Cheryl. This is a thorough break down of writing a short story. One of my goals this year is to write a whopping two short stories. I struggle with simplicity and am going to try and grow as a writer by making it brief. I look forward to putting these points into action soon.
Good luck on your short stories.
Pingback: Author Toolbox Blog Hop: A Year in Review – E.M.A. Timar