How To Write A Short Story
Short stories can be a great way for writers to learn their trade, nurture a readership, and develop new ideas.
Many great writers have started their writing journey with the idea that they would write a short story.
The problem is that writing a short story is no easy matter; even coming up with a short story idea can be tough, never mind creating a compelling story.
Even the most experienced writers can be overwhelmed when it comes to knowing how to write a short story.
In this article, you’ll discover what constitutes a good short story, you’ll learn one technique you can use to create a readable story, and you’ll also find out what one very famous writer has to say about the art of writing short stories.
Table of Contents
What is a Short Story?
One of the first questions short story writers often ask when they start to write a short story is 'how long should my short story be?'
It is easy to assume that any work of fiction that is shorter than a novel (about 80,000 words) can be classed as a short story, but this is not the case.
A story around 40.000 words is considered a novella, and one between 7,000 and 17,000 is a novelette.
A short story length is typically around 5,000 words in length but maybe as long as 7000 words.
Stories that range from 500 to 1,00 words are classed as flash fiction (here’s a great example).
Stories less than 500 words are considered to be micro-fiction. Perhaps the most famous example of micro-fiction is Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
In other words...
- Novel: 40,000 to 150,00+ words.
- Novella: 17,500 – 40,000 words.
- Novelette: 7,700 – 17,500 words.
- Short Story: Less than 7,500 words.
- Flash Fiction: 500 to 1000 word.
The thing is, even short story writers produce stories of different lengths. You can see from the image below, which looks at the average short story length from different short story writers, that the length of their short stories differ from writer to writer.
Learning to Write Short Stories
One of the most beautiful and frustrating aspects of deciding to write short stories is the freedom it brings to the writing process.
It is almost impossible to define just one way to write a short story.
There are just so many types of short stories, ranging from intense pieces of character development to expansive short stories that create new worlds, that pinpointing just one type of story is impossible.
However, for new writers looking to flex their short story writing muscles for the first time, they must have some kind of understandable structure on which to build their first stories.
So, below is ONE place you can begin to write your short story.
Think of this as a jump-off point, a starting point from which you can build.
This technique employs four simple short story writing tools:
- Have an idea for a short story.
- Start In Media Res.
- Employ a recognizable short story structure. Develop a sense of movement.
Have an Idea for a Short Story
Before you write a short story, you need a great short story idea.
Great short stories tend to be built around one engaging idea.
This short story concept must be interesting and simple since it will provide the skeleton on which your short story will be built.
The starting point for a great short story is always an interesting idea.
For example, you could build a short story around the question: What would happen if dogs suddenly started talking?
Or, what if use discovered you could fly?
Or even, what if you were never born?
Here’s a list of ten great short story ideas: (https://thewritepractice.com/short-story-ideas/):
- Tell the story of a scar, whether a physical scar or an emotional one. To be a writer, said Stephen King, “The only requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
- A group of children discover a dead body. Good writers don’t turn away from death, which is, after all, the universal human experience. Instead, they look it directly into its dark face and describe what they see on the page.
- A young prodigy becomes orphaned. Orphans are uniquely vulnerable, and as such, they have the most potential for growth.
- A middle-aged woman discovers a ghost. What do Edgar Allen Poe, Ron Weasley, King Saul from The Bible, Odysseus, and Ebenezer Scrooge have in common? They all encountered ghosts!
- A woman who is deeply in love is crushed when her fiancé breaks up with her. “In life, every ending is just a new beginning,” says Dakota Fanning’s character in Uptown Girls.
- A talented young man’s deepest fear is holding his life back. Your character’s biggest fear is your story’s secret weapon. Don’t run from it; write about it.
- A poor young boy or girl comes into an unexpected fortune. Not all fortunes are good. Sometimes discovering a fortune will destroy your life.
- A shy, young woman unexpectedly bumps into her soulmate (literally bumps into him). In film, this is called the “meet cute,” when the hero bumps into the heroine in the hallway, knocking her books to the floor, and forcing them into conversation.
- A long journey is interrupted by a disaster. Who hasn’t been longing to get to a destination only to be delayed by something unexpected? This is the plot of Gravity, The Odyssey, and even Lord of the Rings.
- A young couple run into the path of a psychopath. Monsters, whether people who do monstrous things or scaly beasts or a monster of a natural disaster, reveal what’s really inside a person. Let your character fall into the path of a monster and see how they handle themselves.
Start In Media Res
You might never have heard the term In Media Res, and if not, then you are in for a writing treat.
'A narrative work beginning in media res (Classical Latin: [ɪn ˈmɛdɪ.aːs ˈreːs], lit. "into the middle of things") opens in the midst of the plot. Often, exposition is bypassed and filled in gradually, through dialogue, flashbacks or description of past events. For example, Hamlet begins after the death of Hamlet's father. Characters make reference to King Hamlet's death without the plot's first establishment of said fact. Since the play is about Hamlet and the revenge more so than the motivation, Shakespeare uses in medias res to bypass superfluous exposition.'
In simple terms, it means ‘opens in the midst of the plot.’
Unlike a traditional story, the short story setup (exposition) is skipped over, and any relevant backstory is filled in via conversation between the characters as the short story unfolds.
This is not to say you will not be writing out a complete story, rather that you will start the story as far into the action as you dare and then 'fill in' the reader as the story progresses. However, even this is not always essential. As long as you, the writer, understand the motivations for your characters it is not always vital that you explain these to the reader.
The beauty of this approach is that it immediately creates narrative tension. You open narrative questions, which hook the reader, who must keep reading to find out what happens to the characters.
For a short story writer, this is gold dust.
Using In Media Res does a lot of heavy lifting in regard to your storytelling. By starting knee-deep in action, you can skip the exposition, which saves on words, and in the process, creates the tension needed to hook the reader.
Perhaps one of the best illustrative examples of In Media Res was Marget Attwood, who is quoted as saying that she would start the story Little Red Riding Hood with the line - ‘It was dark inside the wolf.’
Employ a Recognizable Short Story Structure
There are many different types of narrative structures for telling stories. (If you are interested in delving into this in more detail, the snowflake method is a good place to start). This is especially true for long-form fiction (novels), with popular story structures such as three- and five-act structure dominating the way stories are written and told.
Short stories offer more freedom and over the years, writers have experimented with just about every narrative storytelling form you can imagine, from stories consisting of a single multi-page sentence to short stories told with Twitter. In short, story structure in short stories is important, but you have more space to experiment.
However, suppose you want to make sure you are not wasting precious writing time, especially when experimenting with short stories. In that case, you need to ensure you are creating solid, readable pieces of fiction.
Below is a formula you can use to ensure that your next short story is hitting home.
Start with an inciting incident. This event unbalances the main character (protagonist) and pushes them from their ‘comfortable existence’. This could be something literal such as being kidnapped, or something less tangible such as discovering a close friend is no longer speaking to them.
The reader must be aware that the protagonist has been unbalanced and that they must regain that balance. This inciting incident throws the character into a quest for the object of their desire, which will restore life’s balance. Once again, this object of desire might be a physical object, but it also might be a piece of knowledge or an understanding of human nature.
For example, let’s say we are writing a story about a girl moving to a new school (inciting incident). She goes from a school where she has many friends, is happy, and, importantly, is the chess team captain, to a school where she knows no one. She quickly becomes unhappy. In order to become happy, she feels that she must make new friends (object of desire).
The second stage of the story is for the protagonist to take ‘minimal action’ to overcome the problem and restore balance. The action taken must be ‘minimal.’ The protagonist begins by believing that this action will be sufficient but will quickly come to meet resistance in the form of conflict. In other words, some force will counter the action stop them from reaching the object of their desire. This conflict will be either inner (thoughts in their mind), personal (friends, family, etc.) i.e., social (police, government, etc.).
The process of conflict creates a gap between success and failure. The reader is aware of the gap and the protagonist’s consequences if they fail to bridge this gap. Readers see that the protagonist will not overcome the gap with minimal action and, therefore, they must take more extreme action to overcome the gap and restore balance.
This is known as the point of no return.
For example, let’s return to our unhappy schoolgirl. She decides that to make new friends, she will do the one thing she is best at in the world, play chess (joining the chess club is minimal action). However, when she tries to sign up, the headmaster informs her that only boys can join the chess club (social and personal conflict).
The reader is now aware that a gap exists and that the schoolgirl must take more extreme action.
The final step is for the protagonist to take greater action repeatedly. At this point, the protagonist will take more action and will either succeed or fail. If they fail, further, more significant action is required. This process is repeated until the gap is overcome and the goal is reached.
In other words, the remainder of the story is a process of the protagonist taking new action and being countered by the conflict you have established until they gain their object of desire.
The number of times the process is repeated will depend on the story; if writing a novel, it might be three or four times, but it is more likely to be twice for a short story.
Remember, you should be using In Media Red, which means that you start as far ‘into’ the story as you might dare. In the example above, you could start the story with the girl in the headmaster’s office asking why she can’t be part of the chess team.
This structure will allow you to create an immediately engaging story that will hook readers from the first sentence.
Develop a Sense of Movement
When you are writing short stories it is essential, like any other writing, that reader remains engaged from start to finish. One important way to do this in short stories is to create a sense of movement.
You might not have heard the term ‘movement’ applied to writing, but if not, don’t worry.
Movement in writing is simply the ‘feel’ that a story is moving inexorably forward to a final, emotionally satisfying conclusion.
It’s that feeling you get as a story progresses and weaves its way to a climax.
This is important in a novel, but it is essential in a short story.
When writing a short story, you have a limited number of words to ‘show’ the reader the story is moving and draw out that emotionally satisfying climax.
Therefore, it is essential that you can produce sufficient movement within your work.
Luckily, there are two simple ways to weave the sense of movement into your writing.
The first way to create movement you are already doing and is to show the protagonist overcoming conflict to reach their goals. The act of fighting against conflict will automatically create movement in your work.
The second way to create movement in short stories is to show the main character being influenced and altered by the events. In other words, the main character is changed, starting the story as one thing and ending as another.
This change might be physical, but more commonly will be intellectual and emotional.
For example, in our story with the chess-playing schoolgirl, the protagonist believes that if she can show everyone her chess skills, they will become her friend. Perhaps, in their story we have a string of events that show her that friends come from sharing trust, not being good at chess. The protagonist is therefore altered by the events, creating movement.
Tips and Tricks
As was explained at the beginning of this article, short story writing is a more experimental way to write. There were hundreds of ways to write a short story, and part of your writer’s journey will be to find the way that works for you.
You have been shown some techniques you can use to create a story and these are a good start point; however, there some less formal tips and tricks you can use to develop your writing muscles.
One great place to look for tips in writing short stories is with experienced writers, and one of the best writing teachers is Kurt Vonnegut.
He once tried to warn people away from using semicolons by characterizing them as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” And, in a master’s thesis rejected by The University of Chicago, he made the tantalizing argument that “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.”
In this brief video, Vonnegut offers eight essential tips on how to write a short story:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such a complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some frequently asked questions that will provide you more information.
What is a short story example?
What is an example of a short story? Most short stories are between 1,600 and 20,000 words (beyond this it becomes classed as a novella). Two examples of a famous short stories are Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl and The Veldt by Ray Bradbury.
What is the best story ever?
Deciding on the best short story is an almost impossible task. However, the following short stories are often considered some of the best ever written.
- The Dead by James Joyce
- The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
- The Swimmer by John Cheever
- A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
- The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter
Learning to write a short story can be a rewarding process for writers. In fact, writing short stories is often a great place to start your writing journey.
As addressed in this article, you can employ several ‘best practices' when you write a short story to ensure you are producing readable and engaging stories.
However, below are a few parting thoughts.
- When you begin writing short stories, don’t worry about the word count on the first draft. Too many writers become obsessed with the length of their stories. Forget the length; just write what you can write and correct later. As Alice Munro said, ‘Any story that’s going to be any good is usually going to change.’
- All writers should be reading other writer’s work, but this is especially true for short stories. Get into the habit of reading short story collections, if only to familiarize yourself with the many ways a short story can be told.
- Developing a writing habit is important, and one thing you can do to help the writing process is to get into the habit of writing down your ideas for short stories. When you have an idea, just jot it down and come back to it later.
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