How to Write a Short Story

Understanding Short Stories

A short story is a form of fiction that typically takes the reader on a journey through a single, condensed plotline. It is a story that is often less than 10,000 words, and sometimes even less than 1,000. Short stories are designed to be read in a single sitting, and often focus on a single theme, character, or situation.

Short stories have been around for centuries, with early examples dating back to ancient Greece and India. However, the modern short story as we know it today emerged in the 19th century, with writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Anton Chekhov all contributing to its development.

Today, short stories are a popular and important form of literature, with many well-known authors having started their careers writing short stories. Some of the most famous short story writers include Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro, Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver.

One of the key features of a short story is its brevity. This means that every word counts, and each sentence must be carefully crafted to contribute to the overall narrative. Short stories are often written with a specific theme or message in mind, and every element of the story, from the characters to the setting, should work together to convey this message to the reader.

If you are interested in learning more about short stories, there are many resources available online. You can start by exploring the short story section of your local library or bookstore, or by reading some of the classic short stories available for free online. You can also check out online literary magazines, which often feature new and upcoming short story writers.

Short story - Wikipedia

Choosing a Theme and a Message

When you write a short story, you’re telling a tale with a beginning, middle, and end. But unlike a novel, you only have a limited amount of space to convey your message. This is where choosing a theme and a message come in. A theme is a universal idea that your story will explore, while a message is the lesson that the reader will take away from your story.

Choosing a theme can be challenging, but it’s essential for creating a story that resonates with your readers. Themes can be as simple as love, loss, or revenge, or they can be more complex, like the nature of human existence or the consequences of greed. Whatever theme you choose, make sure it’s something that you’re passionate about and that you can explore in depth within the confines of a short story.

Once you’ve chosen your theme, it’s time to think about your message. Your message should be a reflection of your theme and should be something that your readers can take away from your story. Some examples of messages might be the importance of forgiveness, the dangers of greed, or the power of love.

It’s important to remember that your message should not be explicitly stated in your story. Instead, it should be something that your readers can infer from the actions and dialogue of your characters.

Developing Your Characters

Your characters are the driving force of your story. They're the ones who take your readers on a journey through your plot and theme. Because of this, it's important to develop them as fully-realized individuals that your readers can care about and root for. Here are a few tips to help you develop your characters:

Start with a Character Profile

Before you start writing your story, take some time to create a detailed character profile for each of your main characters. This profile should include things like their age, physical appearance, personality traits, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations, and backstory. By creating a character profile, you'll have a better understanding of who your character is and how they'll react in different situations.

Create Multi-Dimensional Characters

Avoid creating characters who are one-dimensional stereotypes. Instead, create characters who are complex and multi-dimensional, with a mix of positive and negative traits. Give your characters flaws, weaknesses, and insecurities, as well as strengths and admirable qualities. This will make your characters feel more realistic and relatable to your readers.

Use Dialogue to Reveal Character

One of the best ways to reveal character is through dialogue. When your characters speak, they reveal their personality, emotions, and motivations. Make sure your characters have distinct voices and speech patterns that reflect their personality and background. This will make your characters feel more distinct and memorable.

Show, Don't Tell

Instead of telling your readers what your characters are like, show them through action and dialogue. For example, instead of saying "Tom was a brave man", show Tom doing something brave, like jumping into a river to save a drowning child. This will allow your readers to draw their own conclusions about your characters and make them feel more invested in their journey. This article about showing not telling will help.

Structuring Your Story

Once you have a strong grasp of your characters and message, it's time to focus on the structure of your story. You want to make sure that the plot is compelling and that it keeps your reader interested until the end. Here are some tips for structuring your short story:

Outline Your Plot

Before you begin writing, create an outline for your story. This will help you to organize your thoughts and ensure that your story flows smoothly. Your outline should include the following elements:

  • Introduction
  • Inciting Incident
  • Rising Action
  • Turning Point
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution

These are the basic elements of any story, and your short story should follow this structure to some extent. The introduction should establish the setting and characters, while the inciting incident should introduce the conflict. The rising action builds tension, leading up to the turning point where the story changes direction. The falling action and resolution bring the story to a close.

Choose a Point of View

The point of view you choose for your story can have a big impact on how it is structured. There are a few different options:

  • First-person: This point of view uses "I" or "we" to tell the story from the perspective of one of the characters. This can help to build a strong connection between the reader and the protagonist, but can also be limiting.
  • Second-person: This point of view uses "you" to put the reader directly into the story. This can be a powerful tool for immersing the reader in the narrative, but can also be jarring.
  • Third-person: This point of view uses "he," "she," or "they" to tell the story from an outside perspective. This can provide a wider view of the events in the story, but can be less immersive.

Whichever point of view you choose, be consistent throughout your story.

Use Dialogue Effectively

Dialogue can be a powerful tool for advancing the plot and revealing character. When using dialogue in your short story, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Use dialogue to reveal character traits and motivations.
  • Avoid using dialogue to deliver exposition or information that could be shown in another way.
  • Keep dialogue realistic and natural-sounding, but also make sure that it is purposeful and moves the story forward.
  • Use dialogue tags (such as "he said" or "she replied") sparingly, but make sure that it is always clear who is speaking.

This article about dialogue will help.

Consider Your Story's Length

Short stories come in all shapes and sizes, but there are some general guidelines to keep in mind. A short story is typically between 1,000 and 7,500 words, although this can vary depending on the publication or contest guidelines.

In general, shorter is better when it comes to short stories. While there’s no hard and fast rule on how long a short story should be, publications will often specify a word count range they are looking for. As a general guideline, most short stories fall between 1,500 and 7,500 words.

If you find yourself struggling to cut down your story to fit within a certain word count range, consider if there are any scenes or subplots that are not essential to the overall message or theme of the story. Be willing to cut those elements if they do not serve the story. Additionally, you may be able to tighten up your language or dialogue to make the story more concise.

Hook Readers with a Strong Beginning

A strong beginning can hook a reader and keep them engaged throughout the entire story. There are a few different approaches you can take when crafting the opening of your short story.

Start with an Action

Starting your story with an action can immediately capture the reader's attention and set the tone for the story. The action doesn't have to be explosive or dramatic, but it should be intriguing and interesting enough to make the reader want to keep reading. For example, opening your story with a character missing their train or encountering an unexpected obstacle can create immediate tension that can be sustained throughout the story.

Start with an Insight

Starting with an insight or a hook is an effective way to capture the reader's attention and encourage them to keep reading. An insight can be a statement or a question that creates intrigue and prompts the reader to continue with interest. For example, Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" opens with the line, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." This line raises questions about the character and the plot, enticing the reader to continue reading to find out more.

Start with an Image

Starting your story with a vivid and descriptive image can help set the scene and establish the tone of the story. The image can be a description of a person, an object, or even a location. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" starts with a description of a village on a summer's day, which initially seems pleasant and idyllic, but takes a darker turn as the story progresses. Starting with a striking image can help draw the reader in and keep them engaged.

Whichever approach you choose, your opening should be clear, concise, and engaging. It should establish the tone and set the stage for the story that is about to unfold.

Draft a Middle Focused on the Story’s Message

The old maxim of “write drunk, edit sober” has long been misattributed to Ernest Hemingway, a notorious drinker. While we do not recommend literally writing under the influence, there is something to be said for writing feely with your first draft.

Don’t edit as you write

Your first draft is not going to be fit for human consumption. That’s not the point of it. Your goal with version 1 of the story is just to get something out on the page. You should have a clear sense of your story’s overall aim, so just sit down and write towards that aim as best you can.

Avoid the temptation to noodle with word choice and syntax while you’re on the first draft: that part will come later. ‘Writing drunk’ means internalizing the confidence of someone on their second bottle of chablis. Behave as though everything you’re writing is amazing. If you make a spelling mistake? Who cares! Does that sentence make sense? You’ll fix that later!

Backstory is rarely needed

Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory — correctly attributed to the man — is well suited to short stories. Like the physical appearance of an Iceberg, most of which is “under the surface”, much can be inferred about your story through a few craftily written sentences. Instead of being spoon-fed every single detail, your reader can ponder the subtext themselves and come to their own conclusions. The most classic example of this is “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” — a six-word story with a whole lot of emotionally charged subtext. (Note: that story is attributed to Hemingway, though that claim is also unsubstantiated!)

In short, don’t second-guess yourself and if your story truly needs more context, it can always be added in the next revision.

Write a Memorable Ending

Nothing is more disappointing to a reader than a beautifully written narrative with a weak ending. When you get to the end of your story, it may be tempting to dash off a quick one and be done with it— but don’t give in to temptation! There are countless ways to finish a story — and there’s no requirement to provide a tidy resolution — but we find that the most compelling endings will center on its characters.

What Has Changed About the Character?

It’s typical for a story to put a protagonist through their paces as a means to tease out some kind of character development. Many stories will feature a classic redemption arc, but it’s not the only option. The ending might see the main character making a choice based on having some kind of profound revelation. Characters might change in subtler ways, though, arriving at a specific realization or becoming more cynical or hopeful. Or, they might learn absolutely nothing from the trials and tribulations they’ve faced.

In O. Henry’s Christmas-set “The Gift of the Magi,” a young woman sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his pocket watch. When the husband returns home that night, he reveals that he sold his watch to buy his wife a set of hair ornaments that she can now no longer use. The couple has spent the story worrying about material gifts but in the end, they have learned that real gift… is their love for one another.

Has Our Understanding of Them Changed?

Human beings are innately resistant to change. Instead of putting your characters through a great epiphany or moment of transformation, your ending could reveal an existing truth about them. For example, the ending might reveal that your seemingly likable character is actually a villain — or there may be a revelation that renders their morally dubious action in a kinder light.

This revelation can also manifest itself as a twist. In Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a plantation owner in the Civil War escapes the gallows and embarks on a treacherous journey home. But just before he reaches his wife’s waiting arms, he feels a sharp blow on the back of his neck. It is revealed that he never actually left the gallows — his escape was merely a final fantasy.

For these character-driven endings to work, the readers need to be invested in your characters. With the precious few words that you have to tell your story, you need to paint enough of a picture to make readers care what actually happens to them at the end.

More often than not, if your ending falls flat, the problem usually lies in the preceding scenes and not the ending. Have you adequately set up the stakes of the story? Have you given readers enough of a clue about your twist ending? Does the reader care enough about the character for the ending to have a strong emotional impact? Once you can answer yes to all these questions, you’re ready to start editing.

Refine the Plot and Structure of Your Short Story

If you’re wondering how to make your story go from good to great, the secret’s in the editing process. And the first stage of editing a short story involves whittling it down until it’s fighting fit. As Edgar Allan Poe once said, “a short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.” With this in mind, ensure that each line and paragraph not only progresses the story, but also contributes to the mood, key emotion or viewpoint you are trying to express. Poe himself does this to marvelous effect in “The Tell-Tale Heart”:

Slowly, little by little, I lifted the cloth, until a small, small light escaped from under it to fall upon — to fall upon that vulture eye! It was open — wide, wide open, and my anger increased as it looked straight at me. I could not see the old man’s face. Only that eye, that hard blue eye, and the blood in my body became like ice.

Edit ruthlessly. The rewrites will often take longer than the original draft because now you are trying to perfect and refine the central idea of your story. If you have a panic-stricken look across your face reading this, don’t worry, you will probably be more aware of the shape you want your story to take once you’ve written it, which will make the refining process a little easier.

A well-executed edit starts with a diligent re-read — something you’ll want to do multiple times to ensure no errors slip through the net. Pay attention to word flow, the intensity of your key emotion, and the pacing of your plot, and what the readers are gradually learning about your characters. Make a note of any inconsistencies you find, even if you don’t think they matter — something extremely minor can throw the whole narrative out of whack. The problem-solving skills required to identify and fix plot holes will also help you eventually skim the fat off your short story.

Considering Length

Once you’ve given your story a thorough read-through and tweaked it until it gleams, you’ll want to think about the length of your story. It’s easy to get carried away and end up with something that is novel-length rather than a short story. However, if you are looking to publish your story or enter it in a contest, there will likely be a strict word count limit.

If your story is too long, don’t worry — there are plenty of ways to trim it down. Try the “so what?” test with each sentence: would your reader miss it if it was deleted? See if there are any convoluted phrases that can be swapped out for snappier words. Consider if every character, subplot or scene is truly necessary, and if not, cut it out. Remember, the goal is to create a tight, focused narrative that leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

If you’re having trouble trimming down your story, consider getting a second opinion. Send your story to another writer or someone you trust to give you honest feedback. Another person’s perspective can be incredibly valuable in identifying areas that need to be cut or developed further.

This extensive article about word count will give you a deeper understanding.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some frequently asked questions that will provide you with more information.

How do I come up with a theme for my short story?

Choosing a theme for your short story can be a daunting task. One way to start is by thinking about what message you want to convey through your story. You can also draw inspiration from personal experiences or societal issues. For more tips on choosing a theme, refer to the 'Choosing a Theme and a Message' section of this article.

How can I create realistic and believable characters?

Developing realistic and believable characters involves giving them unique personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. Consider their strengths and weaknesses, their desires and fears, and how they interact with other characters. For more tips on developing your characters, refer to the 'Developing Your Characters' section of this article.

How important is it to have a strong beginning and ending?

The beginning and ending of your short story are crucial in capturing and retaining the reader's attention. A strong beginning will hook the reader and make them want to continue reading, while a memorable ending will leave a lasting impression. For more tips on crafting a strong beginning and ending, refer to the 'Hook Readers with a Strong Beginning' and 'Write a Memorable Ending' sections of this article.

How can I refine the plot and structure of my short story?

Refining the plot and structure of your short story involves editing and revising your work. Read through your story multiple times and pay attention to the pacing, flow, and consistency of the plot. Look for any plot holes or inconsistencies and make sure each scene and character serves a purpose. For more tips on refining your short story, refer to the 'Refine the Plot and Structure of Your Short Story' section of this article.

Further Reading

  1. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

    Truby's book offers a comprehensive guide to creating stories, starting with a basic premise and going all the way through to developing fully-realized characters, plotlines, and themes. He takes a detailed look at story structure and how it affects the reader's experience, with a focus on creating works that resonate emotionally and thematically.

  2. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

    In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott shares her insights into the writing process, covering topics such as writer's block, character development, and the importance of allowing yourself to write badly. Lamott's advice is often humorous and always encouraging, making this a great read for writers at any stage in their careers.

  3. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

    Steven Pressfield's book is a no-nonsense guide to overcoming the obstacles that prevent many writers from creating their best work. He emphasizes the importance of discipline, perseverance, and developing a strong work ethic, and offers practical advice for overcoming procrastination, self-doubt, and other common challenges that writers face.


Writing a short story is a challenging yet rewarding experience. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can develop your own unique style and bring your ideas to life.

Remember, choosing a theme and message, developing characters, and structuring your story are all essential components of crafting a great short story. And don't forget to hook readers with a strong beginning, create a middle focused on your story's message, and write a memorable ending.

Editing and refining your story is just as important as the writing process itself. Don't be afraid to cut down your story if it's too long, and always seek feedback from others to help improve your work. You can find out more about book editing here.

Thank you for reading this guide and we wish you the best of luck in your short story writing endeavors.

Further Reading

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