Writing a short story differs from writing a novel in several key ways: There is less space to develop characters, less room for lengthy dialogue, and often a greater emphasis on a twist or an ‘a-ha’ realization. How to write a short story in ten steps:
Step 1: Devise an intriguing scenario.
Step 2: Plan what publications you will submit your final story to.
Step 3: Find the story’s focus before you start.
Step 4: Outline character and setting details.
Step 5: Choose a point of view for the story.
Step 6: Write the story as a one-page synopsis.
Step 7: Write a strong first paragraph.
Step 8: Write a satisfying climax and conclusion.
Step 9: Rewrite for clarity, concision and structure.
Step 10: Pick an intriguing story title and submit to short fiction publishers.
1: Find the scenario for your story
Writing a novel gives you more elbow room to develop characters and story arcs and symbols at a leisurely pace. Writing a short story differs in that often there is a single image, symbol, idea or concept underlying the story. Some examples of original story scenarios:
- In Roald Dahl’s famous short story ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and serves the cooked evidence to the investigating officers
- In William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily‘, a notorious town recluse dies, leaving the town to discover her grisly secret
- In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’, the way of life of an entire village is changed by the discovery of a mysterious, handsome drowned man who washes up on the beachfront
Find a scenario you can write down in a sentence or two. An interesting or novel scenario that sets the story in motion has multiple benefits:
- It sets up a range of possible developments and symbols (for example, in the Garcia Marquez, the plans the village makes for the man’s burial and the processes and emotions that follow the discovery of a body)
- It gives you something to pitch to publications when submitting your story
On the topic of publishers:
2: Plan structure and themes around the publications you’ll submit to
One of the benefits of writing short stories either as preparation for writing a novel or for their own sake is that there are many publishing opportunities for short fiction. You can get your story published in:
- Literary journals and magazines
- Writing contest anthologies
- Anthologies curated around specific topics or themes
- Online publications (digital journals, writing websites and e-zines)
Make a list of possible publications, once you have decided on your core story scenario. Note:
- Minimum and maximum submission word counts
- Any specified formatting requirements
- The contact details for the person in charge of submissions
- The themes and topics most frequently featured by the publication
It’s wise to have these guidelines for formatting, word count and areas of interest worked out before you start, because this will enable you to make your story meet requirements for acceptance. This will save time later when it comes to revising.
So you have the story idea worked out and a list of publications and their requirements to guide your creative decisions? Now it’s time to find your short story’s focus:
3: Find the focus of your story
The scenario of your short story is the idea or image that sets the story in motion and opens narrative possibilities. The focus is the communicative aspect: What do you want to say? Why write a short story on this subject in particular? The first step of Now Novel’s step-by-step story building process, ‘Central Idea’, will help you find your idea and express it as a single paragraph you can grow into a full-fledged novel. Try it now.
Finding the focus of your short story before you start is explained by Writer’s Relief via the Huffington Post thus:
‘Explore your motivations, determine what you want your story to do, then stick to your core message. Considering that the most marketable short stories tend to be 3,500 words or less, you’ll need to make every sentence count’.
If you were Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, and you had decided on the scenario for your short story, ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ (‘Dead man washes up on beach and his appearance causes momentous changes in a nearby village’s way of life’), then you might describe the focus of your story thus:
‘The story’s focus: Rural life and the way the introduction of new, unfamiliar things changes it. Also: Death and how people respond to and make sense of it.’
Once you have an idea of the topic, themes and focus of your short story, it’ll be easier to outline characters who are consistent with these elements:
4: Outline your characters and setting(s)
Writing a book makes outlining essential, given the complexity of long-form fiction. When writing short fiction, you might think ‘Why should I bother with outlining?’ The truth is that it is useful for similar reasons: It gives you creative direction and helps to make your writing structured and internally consistent.
Once you have the scenario, topics and themes for your story, make a list for each character you want to cast. Make notes on character elements such as:
- Physical appearance (face, posture and mannerisms)
- Preoccupations and interests
- Role in the story
[Get our guide ‘How to Write Real Characters’ for extra help crafting unique, believable characters.]
Similarly, for setting, write down:
- Where the story will take place
- What is significant about the setting for the story (does it underscore specific themes or foreshadow a particular climax?)
Have an idea before you start writing a short story as to who will star in it and where it will take place. This will give direction and a sense of purpose to your writing.
5: Choose a point of view for the story
Point of view (or POV) can create subtle shifts in characterisation. For example, a character who narrates the story in the first-person may seem strong and self-possessed. You could make the same character seem much less powerful by using the second person instead.
An example of this is James Joyce’s use of the second person in his story ‘Clay’ from the collection Dubliners. The focal character is a cook named Maria. Joyce uses second-person throughout to describe Maria and her daily life, even though she is the focal character of the story. Maria’s own story not being told through the first person conveys a sense of her social position – she is a ‘she’ who is likely marshalled around by wealthy employers. The story simply wouldn’t achieve the same sense of Maria’s marginal status were it written in first person.
Dennis Jerz and Kathy Kennedy share useful tips on choosing point of view:
‘Point of view is the narration of the story from the perspective of first, second, or third person. As a writer, you need to determine who is going to tell the story and how much information is available for the narrator to reveal.’
They go on to describe the pros and cons of each point of view:
- First person: The story is narrated by a character using the pronoun ‘I’. Pros: One of the easiest POVs for beginners; it allows readers to enter a single character’s mind and experience their perceptions. Cons: The reader doesn’t connect as strongly to other characters in the story.
- Second person: Much less common, this addresses the reader as a character in the story, using the pronoun ‘You’. Pros: Novel and uncommon; the reader becomes an active story participant. Cons: The environment of the story can feel intangible as the reader has to imagine the story setting as her immediate surroundings.
- Third person omniscient: The story is told using he/she/it. In omniscient POV, the narrative is told from multiple characters’ perspectives, though indirectly. Pros: Allows you to explore multiple characters’ thoughts and motivations. Cons: transitioning between different characters’ perspectives must be handled with care or the reader could lose track of who is the viewpoint character.
- Third person limited:The story is told using he/she but from one character’s perspective. Pros: The reader enjoys the intimacy of a single character’s perspective. Cons: Other characters’ views and actions are only understood through the perceptions of the viewpoint character.
As you can see, choosing POV requires thinking about both who you want to tell your story and what this decision will exclude. Think about the scenario of your story and what would fit best. Virginia Woolf, writing a dinner party scene, alternates between diners’ perspectives using third person omniscient. This creates a strong sense of a group of very different people coming together and bringing contrasting desires, opinions and impressions to the table.
6: Write your story as a one page synopsis
This might seem like a dubious idea. After all, how will you know where the story will take you once you start writing? The truth is that even just attempting this as an exercise will give you an idea of the strong and weak points of your story idea: Will there be sufficient climax? Is there an intriguing story that the initial premise makes possible?
You should at least try to write your short story in condensed form first for other reasons, too:
- You’ll begin with the bare essentials – having the most important elements at the centre of your process will stop you from writing boring filler
- You’ll be better able to work out the number and sequence of scenes you’ll need to do your topic and themes justice
Joe Bunting advocates breaking your story into a scene list so that you have a clear overview of the structure of your story and the parts that require additional work. If you don’t have a clear outline of your story to begin with and prefer to start writing immediately, you can do this at a later stage too.
7: Write a strong first paragraph
You don’t necessarily need to begin writing your story from the first paragraph. The chances are that you will need to go back and revise it substantially so that it matches with the rest of the story when you are finished. Bunting actually advises against starting a short story with the first paragraph because the pressure to create a great hook can inhibit you from making headway. Says Bunting:
‘Instead, just write. Just put pen to paper. Don’t worry about what comes out. It’s not important. You just need to get your short story started.’
Whether you are intent on starting with the beginning or prefer to follow Bunting’s advice, here are important things to remember about your opening paragraph:
- It should foreshadow the events of the story by introducing core subjects and themes (Garcia Marquez’s story begins with the discovery of the drowned man’s body).
- It should pique the reader’s interest and elicit questions (in the unsettling discovery of Marquez’s drowned man two immediate questions arise: ‘Who is he? What does the discovery portend?’)
- It should not waste time – the limited word count of a short story requires you to get to the meat of the story faster
Discussing writing catchy first paragraphs, Jerz and Kennedy suggest:
‘The first sentence of your narrative should catch your reader’s attention with the unusual, the unexpected, an action, or a conflict. Begin with tension and immediacy.’
8: Create a strong climax and resolution for a satisfying story arc
The climax of a story is crucial in long as well as short fiction. In short stories in particular, the climax helps to give the story a purpose and shape – a novel can meander more. Many short story writers have favoured a ‘twist in the tale’ ending (the American short story author O. Henry is famous for these).
The climax could be dramatically compelling. It could be the reader’s sudden realisation that a character was lying, for example, or an explosive conflict that seemed inevitable from the first page.
Writing a good short story ending can be achieved many ways. Besides using an element of surprise you can have an ending that:
- Is open: The reader must piece together the final pages’ implications
- Is resolved: The meaning of the outcome is clear and fits the preceding events’ pattern of cause and effect
- Returns to the beginning: An opening image or action returns and the story is given a circular structure
These are just three possible types of short story resolution. After the final full stop the crucial revision process begins:
9: How to write a short story that gets published: Rewrite for clarity and structure
Revising is just as important when writing short stories as it is when writing novels. A polished story greatly increases your chance of publication. While revising your short story, see to it that:
- The expectations set up on the first page are dealt with subsequently (see ‘Chekhov’s Gun’)
- All information, characters and scenes that don’t contribute to the main story focus are cut
- Each line adds something significant to the overarching effect of the story
See further pointers on editing your own writing.
10: Pick a great story title and submit your revised story to contests and publishers
Choosing a title for your short story should come last because you will have the entire narrative to draw on. A great title achieves at least two things:
- It creates intrigue (Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ makes the reader ask ‘Who is Emily and what occasions this gift of a single rose?’)
- It establishes the key characters, subjects, symbols or objects of the short story (such as ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’)
Once you have created an alluring title, you can set about submitting your story to publications. If you are not yet an established author, it may be easier to get published on a digital platform such as an online creative writing journal. Spread the net wide, however, and submit wherever your short story meets guidelines and topical preferences. This will maximize the chance your short story will be published.
Ready to write a winning short story? The short story writers’ group on Now Novel is the place to get helpful feedback on story ideas and drafts.
Trying to write a short story is the perfect place to begin your writing career.
Because it reveals many of the obstacles, dilemmas, and questions you’ll face when creating fiction of any length.
If you find these things knotty in a short story, imagine how profound they would be in a book-length tale.
Most writers need to get a quarter million clichés out of their systems before they hope to sell something.
And they need to learn the difference between imitating their favorite writers and emulating their best techniques.
Mastering even a few of the elements of fiction while learning the craft will prove to be quick wins for you as you gain momentum as a writer.
I don’t mean to imply that learning how to write a short story is easier than learning how to write a novel—only that as a neophyte you might find the process more manageable in smaller bites.
So let’s start at the beginning.
What Is a Short Story?
Don’t make the mistake of referring to short nonfiction articles as short stories. In the publishing world, short story always refers to fiction. And short stories come varying shapes and sizes:
- Traditional: 1,500-5000 words
- Flash Fiction: 500-1,000 words
- Micro Fiction: 5 to 350 words
Is there really a market for a short story of 5,000 words (roughly 20 double-spaced manuscript pages)?
Some publications and contests accept entries that long, but it’s easier and more common to sell a short story in the 1,500- to 3,000-word range.
And on the other end of the spectrum, you may wonder if I’m serious about short stories of fewer than 10 words (Micro Fiction). Well, sort of.
They are really more gimmicks, but they exist. The most famous was Ernest Hemingway’s response to a bet that he couldn’t write fiction that short. He wrote: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
That implied a vast backstory and deep emotion.
Writing a compelling short story is an art, despite that they are so much more concise than novels. Which is why I created this complete guide:
9 Steps to Writing a Short Story
1. Read as Many Great Short Stories as You Can Find
Read hundreds of them—especially the classics.
You learn this genre by familiarizing yourself with the best. See yourself as an apprentice. Watch, evaluate, analyze the experts, then try to emulate their work.
Soon you’ll learn enough about how to write a short story that you can start developing your own style.
A lot of the skills you need can be learned through osmosis.
Where to start? Read Bret Lott, a modern-day master. (He chose one of my short stories for one of his collections.)
Reading two or three dozen short stories should give you an idea of their structure and style. That should spur you to try one of your own while continuing to read dozens more.
Remember, you won’t likely start with something sensational, but what you’ve learned through your reading—as well as what you’ll learn from your own writing—should give you confidence. You’ll be on your way.
2. Aim for the Heart
The most effective short stories evoke deep emotions in the reader.
What will move them? The same things that probably move you:
- Heroic sacrifice
- What else?
3. Narrow Your Scope
It should go without saying that there’s a drastic difference between a 450-page, 100,000-word novel and a 10-page, 2000-word short story.
One can accommodate an epic sweep of a story and cover decades with an extensive cast of characters.
The other must pack an emotional wallop and tell a compelling story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—with about 2% of the number of words.
Naturally, that dramatically restricts your number of characters, scenes, and even plot points.
The best short stories usually encompass only a short slice of the main character’s life—often only one scene or incident that must also bear the weight of your Deeper Question, your theme or what it is you’re really trying to say.
- If your main character needs a cohort or a sounding board, don’t give her two. Combine characters where you can.
- Avoid long blocks of description; rather, write just enough to trigger the theater of your reader’s mind.
- Eliminate scenes that merely get your characters from one place to another. The reader doesn’t care how they got there, so you can simply write: Late that afternoon, Jim met Sharon at a coffee shop…
Your goal is to get to a resounding ending by portraying a poignant incident that tell a story in itself and represents a bigger picture.
4. Make Your Title Sing
Work hard on what to call your short story.
Yes, it might get changed by editors, but it must grab their attention first. They’ll want it to stand out to readers among a wide range of competing stories, and so do you.
5. Use the Classic Story Structure
Once your title has pulled the reader in, how do you hold his interest?
As you might imagine, this is as crucial in a short story as it is in a novel. So use the same basic approach:
Plunge your character into terrible trouble from the get-go.
Of course, terrible trouble means something different for different genres.
- In a thriller, your character might find himself in physical danger, a life or death situation.
- In a love story, the trouble might be emotional, a heroine torn between two lovers.
- In a mystery, your main character might witness a crime, and then be accused of it.
Don’t waste time setting up the story. Get on with it.
Tell your reader just enough to make her care about your main character, then get to the the problem, the quest, the challenge, the danger—whatever it is that drives your story.
6. Suggest Backstory, Don’t Elaborate
You don’t have the space or time to flash back or cover a character’s entire backstory.
Rather than recite how a Frenchman got to America, merely mention the accent he had hoped to leave behind when he emigrated to the U.S. from Paris.
Don’t spend a paragraph describing a winter morning.
Layer that bit of sensory detail into the narrative by showing your character covering her face with her scarf against the frigid wind.
7. When in Doubt, Leave it Out
Short stories are, by definition, short. Every sentence must count. If even one word seems extraneous, it has to go.
8. Ensure a Satisfying Ending
This is a must. Bring down the curtain with a satisfying thud.
In a short story this can often be accomplished quickly, as long as it resounds with the reader and makes her nod. It can’t seem forced or contrived or feel as if the story has ended too soon.
In a modern day version of the Prodigal Son, a character calls from a taxi and leaves a message that if he’s allowed to come home, his father should leave the front porch light on. Otherwise, he’ll understand and just move on.
The rest of the story is him telling the cabbie how deeply his life choices have hurt his family.
The story ends with the taxi pulling into view of his childhood home, only to find not only the porch light on, but also every light in the house and more out in the yard.
That ending needed no elaboration. We don’t even need to be shown the reunion, the embrace, the tears, the talk. The lights say it all.
9. Cut Like Your Story’s Life Depends on It
Because it does.
When you’ve finished your story, the real work has just begun.
It’s time for you to become a ferocious self-editor.
Once you’re happy with the flow of the story, every other element should be examined for perfection: spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, word choice, elimination of clichés, redundancies, you name it.
Also, pour over the manuscript looking for ways to engage your reader’s senses and emotions.
All writing is rewriting. And remember, tightening nearly always adds power. Omit needless words.
She shrugged her shoulders.
He blinked his eyes.
Jim walked in through the open door and sat down in a chair.
The crowd clapped their hands and stomped their feet.
Learn to tighten and give yourself the best chance to write short stories that captivate your reader.
Where to Sell Your Short Stories
To get the lowdown on this, I consulted my longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Dennis Hensley—director of Taylor University’s writing program (in my opinion the best in the country).
Also a widely-published short story writer, Doc says that—contrary to what many believe—the short story market is NOT dead.
He recommends these main market targets:
Doc highly recommends entering contests, because the winners usually get published in either a magazine or online—which means instant visibility for your name.
Many pay cash prizes up to $5,000. But even those that don’t offer cash give you awards that lend credibility to your next short story pitch.
2. Genre-Specific Periodicals
Such publications cater to audiences who love stories written in their particular literary category.
If you can score with one of these, the editor will likely come back to you for more.
Any time you can work with an editor, you’re developing a skill that will well serve your writing.
3. Popular Magazines
Plenty of print and online magazines still buy and publish short stories. A few examples:
- The Atlantic
- Harper’s Magazine
- Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine
- The New Yorker
- Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
- Woman’s World
4. Literary Magazines
While, admittedly, this market calls for a more intellectual than mass market approach to writing, getting published in one is still a win.
If you enjoy this genre and can compete here, Doc Hensley says you get more than just exposure through a byline; it also helps you establish a track record and might even get you discovered by a book publisher, as editors and agents scour such magazines looking for talent.
Here’s a list of literary magazine short story markets.
5. Short Story Books
Yes, some publishers still publish these.
They might consist entirely of short stories from one author, or they might contain the work of several, but usually tied together by theme.
Regardless which style you’re interested in, remember that while each story should fit the whole, it must also work on its own, complete and satisfying in itself.
What’s Your Story?
You’ll know yours has potential when you can distill its idea to a single sentence. You’ll find that this will keep you on track during the writing stage. Here’s mine for a piece I titled Midnight Clear(which became a movie starring Stephen Baldwin):
An estranged son visits his lonely mother on Christmas Eve before his planned suicide, unaware she is planning the same, and the encounter gives them each reasons to go on.
In the comments below, write the one-sentence essence of your short story.
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