A Brief Guide to Writing Short Stories

by V. Shalace [October 12, 2020]

For me, learning how to write short stories has been, I have to admit, a long and arduous process, especially because I’ve always preferred long stories as a reader. I looked up tips, ran through articles, and most of all, read plenty of short stories and short story collections to try and figure out how to make a short story work. So then, why write short stories at all? Well, there are a number of reasons, but here are just a few.

As a writer, short stories don’t take as long to write. They’re a great way to test out new characters, settings, or ideas that you’re not sure you want to spend an entire novel with, and they’re easy to share with people who might not have the time or energy to commit to reading something longer. If you’re interested in submitting your story to potential publishers, it’s also easier to submit short stories, since there are more places that will look at unsolicited short story manuscripts, meaning that you don’t have to have an agent.

As a teacher and a student, short stories are a great way to both teach about and learn about narrative writing and story structure—not to mention the writing and revising process—within a reasonable amount of time and without getting tied up in the complexities of a novel-length plot. It’s relatively easy to read multiple examples, and it can be a fun way to learn about writing in general with more creative freedom than a typical essay.

So, What is a Short Story?

An article I read recently defined a short story as a story that someone can read in one sitting—say, about one to two hours. This was a little ambiguous to me, however, since people read at different speeds, and it’s hard to judge how long it might take someone to read your work without a few more concrete guidelines. So, to elaborate, the more technical definition of a short story is a story that is about 1,000 to 10,000 words in length. This is a good general reference, but of course, feel free to give yourself some leeway.

Things to Think About Before You Begin

There are a few things that you need to think about before you start writing your story: your characters, your setting, and your plot. In this section, we’ll talk briefly about each of these. (For a more detailed discussion of how to start generating ideas on what to write about, see “….”)

    • Your Characters: Who is your story going to be about? Generally speaking, stories are about characters—what they want, why they want it, what’s happening around them, and what they do to achieve their goals. There is no “right” number of characters to have, but it’s difficult to write an interesting story without at least two characters since stories are largely built upon the interactions between different people. For a short story, it’s easiest to stick with only one main character, so choose carefully. Remember, you’ll be spending an entire story with this person, so you want this person to be interesting to you. Here are some questions you can think about:

      • How old is this character?

      • Is this character a girl? A boy? Something else?

      • How would you describe this character as a person? Does she have any personality traits that really stand out to you?

      • What does this character do? Is she a student? A teacher? A magician? A warrior?

      • At this point in time, what does this character want most?

      • What are some of the character’s dreams? Fears? Hobbies?

      • At this point in time, what is this character’s life like? Is she working? Going to school? Moving into a new apartment?

It is often helpful to create a profile for each of your main characters. This could include, for example, what they look like, a few personality traits, hobbies, dreams, fears, etc. You will not use all of this information when you write, but keeping track of these details helps you build a more complete picture of who a character is. It also helps you remember what you decided, so that you don’t start your story with a blue-eyed brunet and end your story with a brown-eyed blond.

    • Your Setting: Where does your story take place? The setting of your story is important, because it provides the context and background information that readers need to understand your story. For example, if Character A screams while running through a graveyard, maybe he’s being chased by the undead. Whereas if Character A screams while sitting in a crowded theatre, maybe he’s just watching a scary movie. Where things happen matters. Some questions you can ask yourself:

      • Does my story take place in a world like ours? In the future? In the past? On another planet?

      • Is there a setting that I know more about, or that I am more comfortable writing about? Because the story will feel more real if I can provide specific details.

      • When you think about the kinds of stories that you like, whether the story is in a book or a television show, is there a particular kind of world or setting that really appeals to you?

      • Does the kind of story you want to write need a certain setting to work? For example, do I need my story to take place in a world where people can use magic? If yes, how common is magic? What kind of magic can people use?

      • How much do you know about the setting you want to use? For instance, if my story takes place in a library, perhaps I should visit a library near me and take some notes on what it’s like. How can I describe it? Who visits the place frequently? How do I feel when I am there? Again, having these details will help your readers immerse themselves in your story. Even if your story takes place in a place that is completely fictional or fantastical, you can use similar places in real life to help you build those settings.

    • Your Plot: What is your story about? Essentially, the plot is going to be the backbone or main idea of your story. It gives your story its shape and helps tie all the pieces together into a coherent whole. Oftentimes, a plot will consist of a character facing a particular problem and finding a way to overcome it. For example, in a murder mystery, usually, the plot involves the main character trying to figure out who killed the victim, why the victim was killed, and how the whole thing happened. This is not the only way to create a plot, however. The important thing to remember is that your plot needs to include some kind of major event which will serve as the climax or high point of your story. For example, in a murder mystery, this could be the moment when the main character confronts the killer, or it could be the moment when she figures out who the killer is. It can also be the turning point in the story, or the moment when the character makes some kind of important decision or major realization. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you think about this:

      • Is there a problem that the main character is dealing with? An obstacle that is preventing the character from accomplishing something that is very important to her, for example?

      • Is there something important that the main character has to do?

      • Is there a lesson that you want the main character to learn?

      • Looking at your own life, what are some experiences that really stand out to you or that really mattered to you? Why were those experiences impactful? Might your character deal with similar experiences?

We will talk more about story ideas later.

Structuring Your Story

A story typically consists of a series of events and scenes that are connected in a logical manner and presented in a purposeful way. This means that the events in your story and the order in which you present them to your readers should not be random. Instead, each event in your story should lead into the next and help the story unfold in some way.

There are many different ways to structure or organize your story.

For example, one common approach is to simply structure your story chronologically. This means that you talk about each event as it happens. It is easy to follow a story that is told chronologically, since you are following a character as he or she lives through the sequence of events.

Another common approach is to tell your story from the point of view of a character looking back on past events. This is very common, for instance, in creative nonfiction or personal essays or narratives where the author reflects back upon past experiences and the lessons learned from those past events.

Flashbacks are another way you can play around with time when structuring your story. When using flashbacks, you typically refer back to something that happened in the past and then jump backwards to write that scene in order to provide more vivid details about what happened. I have met people who dislike flashbacks and feel like they detract from the impact of a story or make it difficult to follow. Personally, I have never had problems with flashbacks myself as a reader and disagree with this point of view. However, it is something you may want to keep in mind when you write.

Certain structures will work better for certain stories. While planning your story, try playing around with the sequence of scenes to see what seems most appropriate to you.

Choosing Scenes and Creating an Outline

For me, outlining has been particularly important for writing short stories, because outlines help me keep stories short. I make a list for myself of the scenes that I think need to happen before I start to write. This might include, for example, Character A meeting Character B in X restaurant and talking about Y. I might end up changing, removing, or adding a few scenes as I write my first draft, but having this outline and trying to stick to it helps prevent me from adding a bunch of subplots and additional characters that would make the story into a novel.

When choosing scenes, a good place to start is where you want your story to begin and where you want your story to end.

One of the biggest differences between writing a short story and writing a novel is where you begin to tell the story. Novels give you a lot of room, so you can take your time building up to the main event. For a short story though, you generally want to start as close to the climax as possible.

For example, let’s say we’re writing a story about Character A dealing with the aftermath of being in a car accident. I could start before the car accident with whatever he was doing before he got into that car, I could start at the moment of the accident, or I could even start right after the accident with Character A waking up in the hospital. Depending on what I want the main point of my story to be, any of these could be perfectly good places to start. However, if my focus is on the aftermath, then perhaps I really don’t need to write out the actual accident. Deciding where to begin will have a huge impact on how long your story ends up being.

Where your story ends will depend on what you’ve decided your story is about. Let’s go back to the example of the car accident. Maybe Character A lost the use of his legs due to injuries from the accident, and I want my story to be about how he learns to cope with this. In that case, one place I could end my story would be when he starts to come to terms with the fact that he now has to use a wheelchair and must learn to navigate through the world in a new way. You want the ending of your story to give the story a sense of completeness. This could be the conclusion of a big event or the answering of a question. For instance, you generally wouldn’t want to end a murder mystery without telling the reader who the murderer is, because as a reader, that would be very unsatisfying. Try thinking about what you would want to know most or see happen by the time you finish reading the story. You don’t have to tell readers everything, but if there are any big questions or events in your story, you definitely don’t want to leave your readers hanging.

Once you know how and where you want to begin and end your story, choose a few scenes that help bridge the gap between these two events. Since this is a short story, you don’t want to have too many intervening events. Try starting out with, say, two to four steps that would help get your characters from where they are at the start of your story to where they are at the end. What needs to happen in order for them to reach that point? How do they need to change? What do they need to learn? And what might readers need to know to understand how the characters change, the choices they make, or how events end up happening?

Create your outline, and double check to make sure that each of your scenes leads logically into the next. I usually just use a bulleted list, but you can also try creating a flowchart if you like having a more visual representation. I will also often make notes in my outline to remind myself why a particular scene is important and how it relates to the main plot of my story or what I want the scene to show about a particular character.

Write and Share Your Story

Once you have your outline, it’s time to write your story. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to work.

It may be helpful to find somewhere quiet to work. Some people find it easier and less distracting to write their first draft by hand. Being legally blind, however, I always use some kind of digital device, usually a computer. So if you’re like me and you’re typing, close all the other programs on your computer or tablet. You don’t want to distract yourself by constantly checking your email, surfing the Internet, or perusing social media.

Once you’ve written your first draft, it’s often helpful to leave the story alone for a few days before reading it over. Try reading the story out loud to yourself. Rereading your story is a great way to help you decide if anything needs to be changed, if something sounds wrong, or if something is confusing and might need to be explained more.

Share your story with the people around you. Getting feedback from other people can really help you make your story better. It also helps you see things that you, as the writer, might take for granted or overlook.

Beyond that, stories play a major role in how we understand ourselves and each other. Sharing stories with those around us helps us enrich our views of the world and make our lives a little more colorful. So have fun with your writing and don’t be shy!

So... What Should You Write About?

The short answer? Anything you like.

Many writers draw inspiration from their own lives and the lives of the people around them. If something really matters to you, the chances are high that they will really matter to someone else too. Think about the experiences in your life that have had the greatest impact on you, the experiences that really stand out in your memory or that inspired some kind of strong emotional reaction. What do you care about? What makes you sad or excited?

Read some short stories—ideally by different authors and in different genres. Which ones really stick with you? Which ones do you most enjoy? These questions are great starting points for thinking about what kinds of stories you might want to write. I've always enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes short stories, for example. I also found that I often liked stories like "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" by Kurt Vonnegut, and while they might not be full blown short stories, I find it inspirational sometimes to look up superstitions and folktales.

You can also try browsing some writing prompts for inspiration. You can find a few different prompt sets on the resources page of this website, Poets & Writers posts weekly writing prompts that I visit sometimes, and, of course, there’s always Google search.

Here are a few prompts to start you off:

    • Unexpected coincidences can lead to some of the best things in our lives. Write a story about two people who run into one another more than once by pure coincidence and gradually fall in love. What brings them together? How does their relationship grow over time? (Tip: Try choosing 4-5 encounters and structuring your story as a series of snapshots of the way these two people meet and interact.)

    • You come home to find a ghost sitting at your kitchen table. Who is it? What does it want? How do you react? (Tip: It may help to consider what relationship there might have been between the ghost and the main character. To build this opening scene into a story, you will likely need to introduce some kind of problem that needs to be resolved—an old argument, for example, or some other kind of conflict.)

    • Write a conversation between a person and a gingerbread man he or she was about to eat. (Tip: Keep in mind what each of these two characters might want most out of this conversation. What do each of these characters want the end result or outcome of this scene to be?)