On the surface, a short story may sound easy. Like a novel, but shorter, easier, and less complicated. Learning how to write a short story well, however, is no easy feat.
An experienced writer will let you in on a little known fact: short stories are often more difficult to write successfully than a novel. It may not take as long, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Short stories are, of course, much shorter than a novel. Therefore, there is not nearly as much room to let things grow, breathe, and evolve.
You need to get your point across in a small window of both time and space. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds. There are a few steps you can take to make sure it's as strong as possible:
- Familiarize yourself with the definition of a short story
- Create an outline
- Remember to show, not tell
- Know the essential elements
- Get creative
- Craft the title
- Finds some tools to help you
As with all types of writing, anyone can do it. It takes knowledge, practice, and skill to know how to write a short story well. An effective short story is one that leaves a reader in shock, in tears, in awe, or all of the above.
Write a Good Short Story With a Template
Before diving into your short story, it might be helpful to set yourself up with a template. A short story template can help you create an effective outline and see the direction of your story before you even start.
Even though it's not as long as a novel, a short story still needs lots of planning:
Using this template in conjunction with the following steps will give your short story the best chance at success.
1. How to Write a Short Story: What is it?
For some, a short story needs to have a very short word count. I like to keep short stories to around 3000 words or less. These are easily read and digested in a single sitting, and if done right, will pack a punch in a short period of time.
By definition, however, a short story can be up to 10,000 words. Beyond this, you are looking at a novella. You can also try a type of fiction writing called flash fiction. This is a form of micro fiction that is typically 1000 words or less. In other words, an extremely short story. In fact, some people try to write a story so short that it fits into a single tweet. There's a whole community dedicated to this on Twitter.
Short stories and micro fiction are common high school writing assignments as they can teach elements of storytelling without having to assign a novel to every student.
Short stories are fun to write, fun to read, and can be extremely profound. They are also often studied in classrooms as they display powerful examples of writing techniques as well as interesting and provocative world views.
However, they are not nearly as popular as the novel. Novels are easily the most well-read and lucrative area of fiction. But, this doesn’t mean writing short stories isn’t worth it.
Many authors come out with short story collections. These are a single book that contains multiple short stories. The stories are sometimes connected, while other times they are all entirely stand-alone.
Authors often do this after they have already published and sold a successful novel. This way, their short story anthology can ride on the success of their novel a little bit. The author already has attention on them, so their short stories are easier to market and advertise for.
Other times, writers will contribute one or two short stories to an anthology comprised of work from several different authors. In this case, the contributors will all share in the profits when it sells.
Either way, there are methods with which to sell your short story. You just can’t go about it in the same way as you would when publishing a novel.
Classic Short Stories by Famous Authors
There are many classic, well-known short stories by famous authors. Some short story examples that are expertly written and deeply meaningful:
- "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe
- "Chivalry" by Neil Gaiman
- "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry
- "The Signal-Man" by Charles Dickens
- "Barn Burning" by William Faulkner
- "Miss Temptation" by Kurt Vonnegut
- "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" by Ernest Hemingway
These short tales have gone down in history for their ingenuity. They did such a fantastic job at setting the atmosphere, bringing their character to life, and awing the reader, that they will forever be remembered.
That is what a short story is all about.
2. How to Write a Short Story Outline (Template)
One thing a short story has in common with a novel is the need for an outline. Can a short story be written without an outline? Yes, it can. And, your chances of being successful without an outline are much greater with a short story than with a novel.
However, knowing how to write a short story outline will reap you some benefits and save valuable time. Especially if your story is going to be on the long side of “short,” (8-10,000 words) then an outline will help you craft the story in the best way possible.
Outlining a short story isn’t too different from outlining a novel. The main difference is in the complexity. A short story outline won’t be as comprehensive as a novel outline, simply because you don’t have as much time to add detail.
A short story outline will be clear, direct, and concise. It will tell you the main points of the story, and where things are headed. Once you map out these basic elements, actually writing it will become a breeze.
Above is a basic template for your short story outline. It prompts you for all the key information. Fill in the specifics of your story, and things will start coming together.
3. Show Don’t Tell
This is a popular piece of general writing advice. In any type of writing, especially fiction, you want to show your readers what’s going on, most of the time. However, in a novel-length piece, a little bit of telling can be okay too.
Not so in a short story. With so little time to put together a beginning, middle, and end, you don’t have any room for lengthy descriptions, backstories, or huge revelations.
Make sure everything is being shown to your readers, and don’t waste time telling them the information.
4. Elements of a Short Story
I always encourage writers to be bold, creative and break the rules. This is what can separate good fiction from great fiction. That being said, some essential elements are included in almost every short story.
|Short Story Elements|
|1. The Message||What are you trying to say with your short story?
What emotions are you writing about?
|2. Minimal Characters||A short story should ideally have only one main character.|
|3. Concise Plot||The plot should be well-developed but not overly complex.
With a short story, you must find a balance.
|4. A Hook||The very beginning needs to be something that draws readers in immediately.|
|5. A Strong Ending||A short story is meant to be intense and powerful.
If your ending lacks, the entire story will fail.
These are things that help keep it brief and entertaining at the same time.
Short stories are rarely written for no reason. Yes, they are meant to entertain. But they should also leave a lasting impression on the reader.
Think about the message behind your short story. What are you trying to say? What is the strongest emotion behind the story? Are you writing about love, hatred, bitterness, sadness, anger, or something else?
F. Scott Fitzgerald puts it simply: "Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story. "
A famous short story writer, he has written many short stories. Some of his most notable titles include:
- "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz"
- "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
- "The Camel's Back"
- "The Last of the Belles"
This main emotion and the message you want to get across will be what drives your story. It is the reason you’re writing, and without reason, a story will fall flat.
A short story should not have a large cast of characters. Most of the time, they will focus on one or maybe two main characters. For some stories, a small handful of side characters can be useful and appropriate, but that’s it.
Too many characters within a short story will become confusing and overwhelming. Because of the shorter length, you will be jumping back and forth between them too often.
You also won’t be able to properly develop any of your characters, if you have too many. The window for character development is small, so you must use it wisely.
Some tips on writing your characters well within a short story:
- Make at least one of the characters someone the readers will want to root for.
- All your characters should want something, even if it is a single item.
- Be ruthless. No matter how wonderful and lovely your characters are, don’t be afraid to make terrible things happen to them.
As well as keeping the characters to a minimum, don’t try to play around with too much perspective shifting. Whether told from the first or third person, it is best to keep the point of view the same throughout. The second person is much less common.
Short and Concise Plot
A sophisticated and well-developed plot is something to be praised and admired - but it is usually found in a novel.
Some things to think about when creating the plot of your short story:
- Start as close to the end as you can. Keep the rising action intense and concise. This allows you to give more attention to the deepest, most important and climactic parts of the story.
- Reveal information quickly. Suspense is great, but you can only have so much of it in a short story. Don't drag out the inciting incident and make the plot points clear.
- Every single sentence should have a purpose. Revealing information, forwarding the plot, developing a character, etc. There is no room in a short story for fluffy extras. Familiarize yourself with short story structure. This will help you ensure you include the right elements and leave out the unnecessary ones.
Even if you keep all of these things in mind, your story will still probably end up being too long. This is why editing is essential. Once your first draft is done, be as ruthless with your editing as you were with the characters.
Cut out absolutely anything and everything that is not essential to the plot. And then, go back for another round. This will get you down to the bare bones of your story. This is what will make it both short and effective. This is where true creative writing is tested. Can you make an impact in just a few words?
Any book will indeed come with a good hook. However, it is especially important with a short story that the beginning be strong and impactful.
With a short story, you need to introduce your characters, reveal the setting, create the right atmosphere, and grab the reader’s attention all at once. Ideally, it should all be in the first paragraph.
This isn’t an easy thing to do, but it’s crucial. A good opening can be done a few different ways:
- Throw the readers into an intense action scene. Perhaps even the very climax of your story should double as the beginning. A bank robbery, a murder, a car chase, or violent fight scene will all leave a reader wondering what on earth is happening, and why. They will have no choice but to keep reading to find out.
- Pose several questions at once that will prompt them to keep reading. For example, make them wonder who the character is, why they are where they are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. You can do this by presenting your main character in an unusual situation, rather than immediately describing who they are and why they are important.
Anything that is interesting, shocking, or creates immediate questions will make for a good hook. If you can hook your readers, they will always want to continue on to the end.
An Ending That Makes Readers Think
Lastly, you need a strong ending that leaves a lasting impression. The goal with a short story is to make an impact on your readers. Short stories can be incredibly powerful when executed well.
Don’t rush through the ending. You may already know exactly how you want it to end - but it still needs to be done well!
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and create a unique and unexpected ending. There are a few strategic ways to write a powerful ending to a short story:
- A cliffhanger. This requires balance as you don’t want to leave your readers questioning everything about the resolution. But, leaving one thing up in the air will make them think. It will have them running through all the options and deciding which one they want the most. Some readers may even go back through the story to see if there are any clues to the true ending.
- A twist. Twist endings are classic for a reason - they work! A well written and adequately executed twist will have your readers reeling. They will lay there in shock, combing through the story over and over again to find any instances of foreshadowing, once the ending is revealed.
- Dialogue. Ending a story with dialogue is similar to a cliffhanger, though generally less shocking and intense. Instead, it leaves things more gently open-ended and will have readers curiously pondering what was said or done next. This is an excellent way to have a highly emotional impact. It's also a good way to set up the next short story if you have a sequel planned.
Whatever type of ending you choose to use in your story, always ensure that it makes sense.
Even the craziest twist endings need to make sense in some way. If you are planning on doing a big reveal, make sure you do leave small, barely noticeable clues throughout the story.
This will help the reveal to be shocking, but still logical, and may even have some of the more observant readers guessing at the twist before it happens.
5. How to Write a Creative Short Story
Due to the shorter length, a great short story can be produced at a much faster rate than a novel. And, while less popular, they can also be published just as fast especially with the growing self-publishing industry.
This means that in order to stand out, you need to be intuitive and creative. You can’t write something boring and unoriginal, because everyone will have seen it before. Another common place to see short stories published is in a literary magazine. If short enough, they can be included in a one or two-page segment.
There are some strategies you can use to write something sufficiently creative and unique:
- Write something that reflects you. Don’t write something that you feel you should write. Write something that you love and are passionate about. Write the story that you want to tell, and the right readers will come.
- Break the rules. At this point, you probably know all of the writing “rules. “ You’ve read the guidelines, the articles, the advice from successful authors. But, If you’re feeling rebellious, then go for it. Go against everything you know to be “right” and proper. If the story turns out to be a bust - oh well! Write another one. Sometimes, the very best stories are the ones that have broken all conventions.
- Think outside the box. This may seem obvious, but too many writers fall prey to the temptation of writing what they think will sell. They stick to what is currently popular because they know people love it. But, trends pass. You want to write something original that will still be relevant in 20 years when no one cares about vampires anymore.
- Don’t be afraid to write something controversial and/or provocative. Touch on those subjects that others think are taboo. Give a voice to things that no one talks about. Stories like these can be wildly entertaining, but they may also spark some real conversation.
Another simple but impactful way to be creative within your short story is to liven up your dialogue tags a little bit. Constant "he said, she said" gets boring and stagnant real fast.
Here are some examples of common dialogue tags:
- He whispered.
- She screamed.
- He snapped.
- They retorted.
- She stuttered.
- He whined.
- They exclaimed.
- She mumbled.
Not only are these things more descriptive, but they will make reading the story more interesting.
6. How to Write a Short Story Title
Knowing how to write a short story title is just as important as the story itself. The title needs to be catchy, smart, and appropriately reflective of the story and its plot.
The title is the first thing a reader will see. And, unlike with a novel, there usually isn’t an image to go with it. A novel also has a cover design that can be used to captivate and engage a potential reader.
Some short stories may come with illustrations, but most appear with only a title and the text within an anthology. A boring and uninspired title will have most readers skipping the story in favor of the next one.
There are a few things you can keep in mind when crafting the perfect title for your short story:
- Don’t let it become too long. Five or six words maximum is a good rule of thumb.
- Explore the overall themes and message of your story. The title should reflect this.
- The title should include a hint at the plot. Just by reading the title, a reader should have at least a vague idea of what’s going to happen.
Just because a story is short, doesn’t mean the title isn’t important! Don’t neglect this part of the process, as it will be crucial to the success of your short story.
7. Short Story Writing Tools
When the writing gets tricky, don’t be afraid to seek some assistance.
This can come in the form of human help from your fellow writers, or you can turn to some writing software to guide you. There are many options when it comes to this, but I can recommend two that will no doubt help you create the best short story possible.
Squibler offers an abundance of organizational tools that are sure to make your life easier.
- A place for notes and research
- A place for your outline - no matter how detailed
- Chapter and scene organization
- Free templates
- A convenient tag system
- Easy access and searchability
All of these things can come in handy when you are writing a short story. Depending on the style and genre of your story, you may need to do a lot of research despite the shorter length.
I discussed the importance of an outline for a short story earlier - Squibler will assist with and accommodate this as well.
Squibler won’t write the story for you. But, it takes care of all the small details so you can focus on writing and creating something amazing.
Once you have completed the first draft of your short story, it will be time to edit. Of course, as a writer, you are more than capable of doing much of this yourself.
However, we are human and we make mistakes. Grammarly is there to help you through the editing process. Once it scans your work, it will pick out the spelling and grammatical errors, and show them to you.
In addition to pointing out the errors you’ve made, it tells you how to fix them. These can be small things like an unnecessary comma or a missing period. But, a lot of little things can add up.
Grammarly is free to use and can be integrated with a few different things:
- Microsoft Word
- Google Docs
- Chrome Browser
Grammarly makes your writing better, but it also makes you a better writer. It will fix up your current writing, and if you pay attention to the corrections it makes, you can start learning from your own bad habits.
Grammarly is an effective editing tool for all types of writers, fiction or otherwise. It cleans up your work fast. This saves you time, improves your craft, and helps you remain professional and polished.
For an enhanced editing experience, Grammarly offers a premium upgrade that provides you with additional, more advanced checks.
If you are writing a lot of short stories and hope to publish them all, the upgrade might be the right choice for you.
If you're struggling to come up with some short story ideas, you can beat writer's block by using some writing prompts. Especially if it's your first time, these can be helpful.
A good place to start is with this writing prompt generator. It offers you more than 500 options to inspire a story. Use the prompts for a first sentence idea or to solidify the end of the story. Sometimes creating that satisfying ending first actually helps you develop the rest of the plot.
Write a Short Story of Your Own
Short stories are a fun, unique, and often mind-bending part of the literary world. Knowing how to write a short story is a valuable skill as it’s not easy.
Short stories that are successful, however, can be some of the most intense, powerful, and thought-provoking pieces of fiction out there.
Once you hone your skills and understand exactly how they work, your short stories will be unstoppable.