How to Write a Short Story in 6 Simple Steps
Knowing exactly how to write a short story is not always obvious to even the most seasoned readers. So whether you’re looking to write a story that will get you published, win a prize, ace your school assignment, or simply touch the heart of a single reader, we’ve got you covered. With our simple 6-step process, we’ll show you how to take a blank page and spin it into short-form narrative gold.
Step 1. Find a simple idea
Before you can put your head down and write your story, you first need an idea you can run with. Some writers can seemingly pluck interesting ideas out of thin air but if that’s not you, then fear not. Here are some tips and tricks that will get your creative juices flowing and have you drumming up ideas in no time.
Start with an interesting character or setting
Short stories, by their very nature, tend to be narrower in scope than a novel. There’s less pressure to have a rich narrative mapped out from A to Z before your pen hits the paper. Short story writers often find it fruitful to focus on a single character, setting, or event — an approach that is responsible for some true classics.
John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is about one character: a suburban American father who decides to swim through all of his neighbor’s pools. While Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” has a larger cast of characters, the story takes place perhaps over one hour in a town square. By limiting yourself to a few characters and one or two locations, you may find it easier to keep your story from getting out of hand and spiraling off into tangents.
Mine your own anecdotes
When it comes to establishing a story’s premise, real-life experiences can be your first port of call — “write what you know”, as the old adage goes. While you might not have lived through an epic saga akin to Gulliver’s Travels, you probably have an anecdote or two that would easily form the basis of a short story. If there’s a funny story you always reach for at a party or a family dinner, you could repurpose for a piece of writing or let it serve as a launchpad for your imagination.
Eavesdrop and steal
There is beauty in the mundane. Writers these days often have a document open in their phone’s notes app to remember things that might spark their imagination at a later date. After all, something you overhear in a conversation between your aunties could be perfect short story fodder — as could a colorful character who turns up at your workplace. Whether these experiences are the basis for a story or function as a small piece of embellishment, they can save your imagination from having to do all the heavy lifting.
It’s not just your own life you can take inspiration from either. Pay extra attention to the news, the stories your friends tell you, and all the things that go on around — it will surely serve you well when it comes to brainstorming a story.
Try a writing prompt on for size
If you’re still stumped, looking through some short story ideas or writing prompts for inspiration. Any stories that are written with these resources are still your intellectual property, so you can freely share or publish them if they turn out well!
Once you have your idea (which could be a setting, character, or event), try to associate it with a strong emotion. Think of short stories as a study of feeling — rather than a full-blown plot, you can home in on an emotion and let that dictate the tone and narrative arc. Without this emotion core, you may find that your story lacks drive and will struggle to engage the reader.
With your emotionally charged idea ready to go, let’s look at structure.
Step 2. Concoct a tight structure
You might be tempted to apply standard novel-writing strategies to your story: intricately plotting each event, creating detailed character profiles, and of course, painstakingly mapping it onto a popular story framework with a beginning, middle, and end. But all you really need is a well-developed main character and one or two big events at most.
Short stories should have an inciting incident and a climax
A short story, though more concise, can still have all of the narrative components we’d expect from a novel — though the set up, inciting incident, and climax might just be a sentence or two. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, writers should aim to start their stories “as close to the end as possible”. Taking this advice to the extreme, you could begin your story in medias res, skipping all exposition and starting in the middle of the action, and sustaining tension from there on in.
What’s most important to remember is that short stories don't have the same privilege of time when it comes to exposition. To save time and make for a snappier piece of writing, it’s usually better to fold backstory into the rising action.
Each scene should escalate the tension
Another effective short story structure is the Fichtean Curve, which also skips over exposition and the inciting incident and starts with rising action. Typically, this part of the story will see the main character meet and overcome several smaller obstacles (with exposition snuck in), crescendoing with the climax. This approach encourages writers to craft tension-packed narratives that get straight to the point. Rarely do you want to resolve things in the middle of the story — if there’s an opportunity for tension, leave it open to keep the momentum going until the very end.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with structure and form
Short stories by design don’t really have the time to settle into the familiar shape of a classic narrative. However, this restriction gives you free rein to play around with chronology and point of view — to take risks, and be experimental. After all, if you’re only asking for 20 minutes of your readers’ time, they’re more likely to go along with an unusual storytelling style. Classic short stories like Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” did so well precisely because O’Connor redrew the parameters of the South Gothic genre as it was known — with its cast of characters, artfully sustained suspense and its shocking, gruesome ending.
Step 3. Capture your reader with a strong opening
A lot rides on the opening lines of a short story. You’ll want to strike the right tone, introduce the characters, and capture the reader’s attention all at once — and you need to do it quickly because you don’t have many words to work with! There are a few ways to do this, so let’s take a look at the options.
Start with an action
Starting with a bang — literally and figuratively — is a surefire way to grab your reader’s attention. Action is a great way to immediately establish tension that you can sustain throughout the story. This doesn’t have to be something hugely dramatic like a car crash (though it can be) — it can be as small and simple as missing a bus by a matter of seconds. So long as the reader understands that this action is in some way unusual, it can set the scene for the emotional turmoil that is to unfold.
Start with an insight
One highly effective method for starting a short story is to write an opening hook. A 'hook' can seem an obtuse word, but what it really means is a sentence that immediately garners intrigue and encourages your reader to read on. For example, in “Mrs Dalloway” (originally a short story), Virginia Woolf opens with the line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The reader then wonders: who is Mrs. Dalloway, why is she buying flowers, and is it unusual that she would do so herself? Such questions prompt the reader to continue with interest, looking for answers.
Start with an image
Another popular way of opening a story by presenting your reader with a strong image. It could be a description of an object, a person, or even a location. It’s not to everyone’s taste (especially if you love plot driven stories), but when done well, a well-drawn image has the ability to linger on the reader’s mind. Let’s go back to our example of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. This story starts opens with a vivid and detailed description of a village:
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.
Though this description seems to be setting the stage for a pleasant, lighthearted tale, “The Lottery” actually takes a darker turn — making this opening image of an idyllic summer’s day even more eerie. When this story was published in The New Yorker, readers responded by sending in more letters than for any story that had come before — that’s how you know you’ve made an impact, right?
[PRO-TIP: To read some of the best short stories, head here to find 31 must-read short story collections.]
Step 4. Write drunk (metaphorically)
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.
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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.
Step 5. Hit them with a strong 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.
Step 6. Make sure every sentence earns its keep
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 progress 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.
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.
What to do if it’s too long
Maybe you’re entering a writing contest with a strict word limit, or perhaps you realize your story is dragging. A simple way to trim your story is to see if each sentence passes the ‘so what?’ test — i.e., would your reader miss it if it was deleted?
See also if there are any convoluted phrases that can be swapped out for snappier words. Do you need to describe a ‘400ft canvas-covered, steel-skeleton hydrogen dirigible’ when ‘massive airship’ might suffice?
Get a second opinion
Send your story to another writer. Sure, you may feel self-conscious but all writers have been embarrassed to share their work at some point in their lives— plus, it could save you from making major mistakes. There’s nothing like a fresh pair of eyes to point out something you missed. More than one pair of eyes is even better!
Consider professional editing
If you decide to go with a professional editor, it’s your lucky day! Freelance literary editors will work on short stories for a lot less than they would for novels (from as little as $100 for a story under 5,000 words) — and it’s the perfect opportunity to get some experience working with a professional who knows exactly what a great short story should look like.
Now that you know how to a short story people will want to read, why not get it out into the world? In the next post in this series, discover your best options for getting your short story published.