How to Write a Short Story: Don’t Miss These 7 Simple Tips From Best-Sellers

Short stories have always been an interesting piece of literature. No matter how short it gets, the story behind the words still has the power to captivate our minds, even our hearts. Let’s talk about how to write a short story.

You may think that writing a short story is easy because, well… they’re short. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It can be just as hard as writing a full novel. But you don’t have to be intimidated — challenges are fun!

Now you may be thinking, “How can I write a short story that creates an impact?” Worry no more because we got you covered. In this article, we’ll help you write your very own short story like a champ!

“I love inventing worlds and characters and settings and scenarios.”

Jerry B. Jenkins

What is a short story?

A short story is known as a brief fictional prose narrative that is shorter than a novel. Because of its shorter length, a short story usually focuses on a single plot, a main character (with some additional minor characters), and one central theme. Unlike longer stories like novels which could tackle multiple plots and themes, with a variety of prominent characters.

“A short story must have a single mood, and every sentence must build towards it.”

Edgar Allan Poe

Short stories usually convey a single effect in only one or a few significant scenes or episodes. This nature encourages concise narrative, sparingness of setting, the omission of an elaborate plot, and characters seldom fully developed but is disclosed in action and dramatic encounters. Although, despite its relatively limited scope, a short story is often critiqued by its ability to provide a “complete” or satisfying treatment of its characters and subject.

A short story is mostly a short narrative which has few features. The standard features include exposition, complication, crisis, climax, and resolution of the crisis. However, not all short stories have to follow the same pattern.

How long are short stories?

The perfect length of a short story is quite tricky to figure out. Some say it can be as long as it takes to tell the whole story. However, there are specific word lengths that most editors prefer to see when submitting work. If you write it too long, it could exceed the reader’s attention span, and nobody would want to publish it. Write it too short then it’ll end up being flash fiction.

“If any literary work is too long to be read in one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.”

Edgar Allan Poe

This quote from Edgar Allan Poe, describes how long short stories should be. I like the fact that he did not measure it by pages or word count; he measured it by reading-time. Still, “one sitting” depends upon how long the reader is willing to sit down and read a book, so it’s only fair to describe the standard length of a short story through the number of words; to give you a more clear metrics of course.

Take a look at this breakdown:

Type of WritingWord CountTypical Page
Micro-Fictionup to 100 words1 page“For Sale: Baby shoes. Never Worn.” – Attributed to Ernest Hemingway
Flash Fiction100 – 1,000 words1-5 pages“Chapter V,” Ernest Hemingway
Short Story1,000 – 17,000 words1 – 24 pages“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
Novella17,000 – 50,000 words100 – 200 pages“A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess
Novel50,000 -110,000 words200 – 350 pages“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: by JK Rowling
Epic NovelOver 110,000 words400 – 750+ pages“Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin

How do you start writing a short story?

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

Ray Bradbury

The beginning can always be difficult, especially when you have minimal experience in doing a particular task. Writing a short story is no different. Have you ever experienced having a concept in your head, but you’re having a hard time putting it on paper? Do the ideas just come rushing through your head, and you can’t figure out how to collect them and make them coherent? I’ve been there. And it’s FRUSTRATING.

So to save you from the trouble of figuring out how to start, here are some points you need to set to help you start with your short story (especially when you have a short story homework due tomorrow morning.)

  • The goal – What does your protagonist want? – this will be the focus of your story. What is his/her goal, and what will he do to achieve it? The story will basically revolve on that.
  • Rising action– what morally significant action has your protagonist taken towards that goal?
  • Conflict – What obstacles must the protagonist overcome to reach the goal?
  • The plot twist – What unexpected consequences will happen? It has to be directly related to the protagonist’s goal-oriented actions. This part could ramp up the emotional energy of the story.
  • Climax – What morally significant choice does your protagonist make after overcoming the obstacles? 
  • End – Did your protagonist achieve his/her goal?

Having these points laid out and organized will help you write your story a lot easier. And faster too.

What are the steps to write a short story?

The trick to writing a good short story is right there in the name: short. All you need is a couple of main characters and one or two significant events at most. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to plan on your story. It’s just you don’t have to put too much effort into it, unlike novels. Writing short stories isn’t about the intricate, masterful plotting — it’s about the feeling.

To help you strengthen the quality and impact of your short story, here are 7 steps on how to write a short story.

1. Write in One Sitting

Make the first draft of your story. It doesn’t have to be too detailed. Just write it as how it is in your head. Think of it as a version of how you would tell it to a friend.

If you’re not really into that, you can also try creating an outline fo your story. I’ll explain more about outlines later, so keep reading.

2.  Find your key emotion

“Find the key emotion; this may be all you need.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

The key emotion is similar to the core meaning or heart of the matter of your story. It is the impression you want to give your readers that will stick with them, possibly for the rest of their lives.

Despite the name, devising a key emotion is more complicated than simply picking an adjective (“happy,” “sad,” “angry,” etc.). You must focus on more than just the feeling — think about the context you will use to articulate it. What kind of story do you want to tell, and how will you tell it?

3. Write a Catchy First Line

To entice your readers into reading more of your story, you must grab their attention by starting with a catchy first line.  To do that, you need to start with something unexpected, unusual, an action, or a conflict. Try starting it with tension and immediacy. This creates more impact and curiosity to the readers.

4. Build your story

This step is where you have to establish your characters, the setting, build the mood, as well as the point of view of your story. Remember that you only have a finite amount of words so each sentence should either directly advance the action or give significant backstory. You also have to check if your sentences develop a single mood or emotion on your story. Take a look at this example from The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.

“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.”

Edgar Allan Poe

5. Write an impactful ending

Nothing can be more disappointing than reading a story with a weak ending, which is why it should have an impact on the audience. Will it be a sad, happy, or maybe a cliffhanger type of ending? Either way, it has to leave a mark.

Keep in mind that people tend to remember the endings more than any other part of your story.

Even if you’ve already figured out how your story will end, you still have to execute that final push of your key emotion. You have to look back and see if your ending makes sense based on the preceding scenes. 

6. Re-read and edit

Once you wrap up your story, the next thing you should do is go back and reread the entire thing.

Even if you think you have written it carefully, you should check how it looks like as a whole. If you can, read it three to five times. Look into the flow of words, the emotion, the consistency of your plot, and your characters. Note down any inconsistencies you may find, even if you don’t think they matter — something extremely minor can throw the whole narrative out of whack.

Then, you may proceed to edit the inconsistencies. This process can be a total hassle, but if your story needs it, you should do it. This is your chance to remove unnecessary details and rewrite substantial portions.

Just make sure you keep your key emotion, and everything is still on the plot.

7. Get feedback

No matter how amazing you think your story is, it’s always a good thing to get some feedback from others.

May it be good or bad, both of it will be helpful not only for your story but also for you, as a writer. Getting feedback from others will help you see the details you may have overlooked or the parts you could still improve on.

Besides, you’re not writing this just for yourself, but for the people who will read it. Hence, the benefit of getting feedback even before you publish your story.

How to write a short story outline?

“The great thing about a short story is that it doesn’t have to trawl through someone’s whole life; it can come in glancingly from the side.”

Emma Donoghue

I have mentioned about creating a short story outline on the previous section. This is one of the steps you can do to make you write your short story a bit easier.

Thankfully, outlining a short story is much easier than outlining a novel. So what exactly is an outline, and how will you do it? 

Your outline is basically the plan on how your short story would be written. You need to make an outline first before jumping into the writing process to ensure a good flow in the end. An outline makes the short story cohesive and related to each other.

Here are some guidelines on how to write an outline:

Start with your major premise

Your premise will be the theme of the story or what your story is all about. This is a basic element and can be written in a single sentence. Or you can also build a rough structure of the story itself to make the core of your story clearer.

Draft scene ideas

Now let your imagination run wild and think about the scenarios you want to see in your story. It doesn’t have to be a lot since this is a short story. You have to layout the setting, which characters will be involved in the scene, and what should happen. Don’t hold back on your ideas and just let your creativity flow.

Detail your characters

Next is to list down more details about your characters. This includes their appearance, age, gender, what their personalities are, and a little bit of backstory of who they are. This will help you with portraying them later on in the story. There should be a reason why every character exists. Each one should be useful in the story so that no character would end up a big waste.

Picture the setting

When you’re done with your characters, next is your setting. Where will your story take place? You have to list it down whether it is a particular place or a specific period in time. There can be multiple settings in your story. Some even make fictional settings to fit their story. It’s your choice. Be as descriptive as you can for accuracy.

Set your tone

Now, you need to set a specific tonne for your story. Depending on the premise, your tone should complement the theme. If it’s a love story, you can set a light tone, maybe comedic, or a sad tone, if it’s tragic. If it’s about supernatural beings, you can go for dark, gloomy or suspense.

Make your outline

Finally, you can now put your outline together.

Plot out everything you want to happen in the story. You can do this by writing a sentence for each scene you plan to include in your story. You don’t have to follow a specific order in writing your outline. You can start from the beginning and jump to the ending if you already know what the ending will be, and work in the middle again.

After that, you can arrange your events. As you write your outline, take note of some gaps or loopholes that might get in the way of how one event leads to another. There should still be a sense of cohesion, even if it’s just an outline.

Short story writing format

“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”

Somerset Maugham

Short stories don’t really have a prescribed format. Writers give more importance to the content and the flow of the story rather than the form it should look like. All you can do is to follow a basic structure to help write it cohesively and keeps the flow of the story. This structure includes the following.

  • Title – the title of the story
  • Beginning – opening paragraph of your story
  • Body – this includes the plot of the story. It should contain the following:
    • Goal: The storyteller creates a protagonist(the main character) of his story to achieve a goal.
    • Conflict: The events in the story gradually build up towards some difficulty or a crisis or obstacles which the character must face to achieve his/her goals.
    • Challenge and Obstacles: The protagonist must face obstacles and must face said backs throughout the story before he/she can achieve his/her goals
    • Climax: The story must include a turning point where his/her difficulties reach a peak. It may be a situation which creates problems.
  • Resolution or Conclusion The final part of the story where the protagonist resolves his/her problem. It can be both positive or negative

If you want to take to a more professional level (like submitting short story manuscripts to publishers or contests), here is the recommended format:

  • 1″ margin on all sides.
  • Don’t put a number on the first page.
  • Put your name and contact information on the upper center, on the first page.
  • Put the word count and rights offered on the upper right corner.
  • Put the story’s title on the center, written in all caps, and approximately one-third below the upper margin.
  • Skip a line and write “by,” then skip another line and put the name of the author in all caps. (If you’re using a pseudonym, put that name in all caps, and on the next line put the real name in parentheses.)
  • Drop four lines, indent, and begin your story.
  • Use double-spacing on the entire text of the story.
  • Put a header at the top of every page (except the first) including the title, your last name, and page number).
  • Optional: Type “THE END” in all caps when your story is finished. (Some editors like this because it closes the story; others do not. It’s your call.)

How do you begin a short story?

“Write what you like; there is no other rule.”

– O. Henry

There are various ways on how you can begin your short story. How you begin or open your story plays a huge part in whether you get your readers hooked or not.

This opening statement doesn’t only hook the readers; it also sets the tone and launches the plot.

There are many great ways to start your short story. But not all types of openings are right for every story. It still depends on the emotion or mood of your story. To help you determine which one is right for you, here are five types of short story openings you can use.

1. The Third Person Narrator

This opening involves a narrator who explains something directly to the reader. You can use the narrator to present some useful information that helps the readers to get intrigued about your story.

2. The First Person Narrator

This opening is similar to the first one. However, in this case, the narrator is on the first-person point of view. The narrator may start by saying something reflective, that almost makes the story feel like a personal essay. The narrator may also begin with a rant or an extended monologue.

3. Scene-setting

This is possibly the most common type of short story opening. It involves the introduction of the characters and setting before the action. A scene-setting opening could be a description of what the character is doing, where he’s at, or just the setting of the story. You can do this by playing with adjectives, which sets the mood and creates a sharp image in the reader’s mind at the start of the story.

4. Establishing conflict

This type of opening presents the conflict of the story in the beginning. It creates a sense of urgency for the readers. You could then you can go back and fill in the details with the fact that exciting stuff is happening once people are on board.

5. The Quotation

You can also open your story with a quote, hanging on the first line by itself. If the quote is intriguing enough, it compels you to find out who’s speaking and what they’re talking about. It also has a type of story opening where you quote from a document or a transcript of an interview with someone.

Can short stories have chapters?

“Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.”

Henry Miller

Since short stories are meant to be short, it’s entirety is treated as a whole. Therefore, short stories are not divided into chapters. When you divide your story into chapters, It becomes a novella or a novel.

However, you could separate your story by creating sections. Writers often use markers like these: “————-,” “~:~:~:~:~::~,” etc.

What makes a short story short?

Aside from the length and its classification, different factors set a short story apart from others. Here are some of them:

  • The number of words: A short story is usually 1,000-17,000 words long.
  • The number of pages: Just like the standard number of words, the number of pages a short story is only a few. It usually has 1-24 pages.
  • Quickly presents the conflict: Short stories often don’t waste time talking about other shenanigans; it pulls you right through the heart of the conflict within the characters.
  • Presents only what’s critical to the moment: Considering its length, this type of story won’t feed you with too many backstories or unnecessary information. It presents only the essential information needed to build the story.
  • Not too artsy: Forget complicated vocabulary and flowery dialogues. Short stories often use simple and shortened words, which clearly details the plot.

Tip #5: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”

– George Orwell

How do you write a short story about yourself?

Tip #6: “Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”

– Barbara Kingsolver

Writing a short story about yourself isn’t as easy as telling something about yourself.

Most people want to write a story about their lives, but they don’t know how to start. However, with a few simple rules and pointers, you can do it.

Here are some points you can follow to help you write the short story of your life:

  • Use a recorder and start saying something about yourself. It doesn’t have to be perfect as this will only give you a rough idea of what your story will be like and the general flow of the narrative.
  • Listen to your recording and start doing your outline. Which parts will you include in your story? Who will be your supporting characters? Will you change the names or not? This is your deciding stage.
  • Once you have your outline done, you may start writing your story. Tell it straightforward and avoid using big words when they aren’t necessary. 
  • Be realistic. Avoid exaggeration and focus on your experiences. The real story will be far more believable and interesting if it is true without embellishments. 
  • Finish your story and reread it. You could edit it afterward when necessary. You can also get some help from an editor to give feedback and help make it the best short story of your life.

How do you write a short story in a day?

Writing a short story in a day is not an easy task. The added time pressure could definitely get into your nerves and hinder your creativity.

However, making a short story in one hour is still achievable. You only have to follow these simple steps to help you get that short story done in a day.

  1. Get your idea. List down ten short story ideas you have. Then pick one which appeals to you the most. If none of them appeals to you, list down another ten and select amongst them.
  2. Start doing an outline. Some authors just dive straight into writing. However, if you want to make things easier, writing a brief outline will be helpful. It will make your thought process more organized and coherent.
  3. Focus on your theme. All stories should have a core theme to focus on. You have to establish that and build your story around it.
  4. Give yourself time and commit to a word count. You can use a technique made by English novelist, Anthony Trollope, which involves writing 250 words every 15 minutes. It helps him kill procrastination and maintain a steady momentum. You can adjust the number of words per minute, depending on how many words you should write on a given time.

Tip #7: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

Final Thoughts

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.” 

-Kurt Vonnegut

If you feel like writing a short story, don’t hold back. Let your ideas out and unleash your creativity. Hopefully, these tips and techniques I shared with you will be helpful with your short story writing.

Start writing a short story — your best short story. Most of all, have fun!

Writer, marketer, and co-founder of Nicely Said by night. Women in Games Ambassador. Currently at Hyper Hippo, focusing on narrative and marketing communications. Past experience includes the BBC, Virgin, and Disney. With a Master’s Degree in Electronic Communication & Publishing, Emma brings her 20+ years of experience to the Nicely Said blog. Emma has worked on multiple award-winning games, apps, and websites. She also hates belly buttons.

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