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.
How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps
How to Overcome Writer’s Block Once and for All: My Surprising Solution
How to Write a Memoir: A 3-Step Guide
This is an abbreviated and adapted version of Appendix 3 from Ann Charters,The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction (3rd ed. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1991), a very useful anthology with a broad selection of short fiction and related commentaries.
In writing an essay about literature, you clarify your relationship to what you have read. This relationship goes beyond a basic emotional response to the story, whether you enjoyed it or not. You write to reveal what Ernest Hemingway referred to as "the measure of what you brought to the reading." As soon as you ask the smallest question about the meaning or structure of a story and try to answer it, you are beginning a critical inquiry that involves your intellect as well as your emotions. This activity is called the interpretation of the text. What makes it valuable is that it reveals to you and to others how you respond to the stories after they have entertained, instructed, and perhaps enchanted you. Now it is your turn to explain their effect on you, and to analyze how they did it. Once you have asked yourself what there is about a story that gives you pleasure the style, the form, the meaning - you have begun discovering "the measure of what you brought to the reading." The next stage is to communicate your ideas to someone else. Turning yourself from a reader into a writer takes time, but if you understand the various steps involved, the process becomes much easier.
Writing the Paper
An essay about literature can take various forms and be various lengths, depending on the nature of the assignment. But whether you are writing an essay of only a few paragraphs or a research paper of several thousand words, the basic requirement is always the same. You must keep in mind that an essay on short stories (or on any subject, for that matter) is a type of expository writing, and expository means "serving to clarify, set forth, or explain in detail" an idea about the subject. Writing about literature helps you clarify your ideas. If you want your essay to communicate these ideas clearly to a reader, you must understand that it always requires two things to be effective: a strong thesis sentence or central idea about your topic, and an adequate development of your thesis sentence. How you organize your paper will depend on the way you choose to develop your central idea. The three principal ways of organizing essays about short stories - explication, analysis, and comparison and contrast - will be taken up after a discussion of ways to find a thesis sentence.
Getting Ideas for Your Topic and Thesis Sentence
Most effective short papers (about 500 words) usually treat one aspect of the story: its theme, characterization, setting, point of view, or literary style. These are some of the possible topics for your paper, the general subject you are going to write about. Usually your first response to a story is a jumble of impressions that do not separate themselves into neat categories of topics and thesis sentences. You must sort through these impressions to select a topic on which to concentrate in order to get ideas for your thesis sentence.
Before you can start your essay, you should feel that you understand the story thoroughly as a whole. Read it again to remind yourself of the passages that strike you with particular force. Underline the words and sentences you consider significant -- or, even better, make a list of what seems important while you are reading the story. These can be outstanding descriptions of the characters or settings, passages of meaningful dialogue, details showing the way the author builds toward the story's climax, or hints that foreshadow the conclusion. To stimulate ideas about topics, you may want to jot down answers to the following questions about the elements of the story as you reread it.
Does the plot depend on chance or coincidence, or does it grow out of the personalities of the characters? Are any later incidents foreshadowed early in the story? Are the episodes presented in chronological order? If not, why not? Does the climax indicate a change in a situation or a change in a character? How dramatic is this change? Or is there no change at all?
Are the characters believable? Are they stereotypes? Do they suggest real people, or abstract qualities? Is there one protagonist or are there several? Does the story have an antagonist? How does the author tell you about the main character through description of physical appearance, actions, thoughts, and emotions, or through contrast with a minor character? Does the main character change in the course of the story? If so, how? Why?
How does the setting influence the plot and the characters? Does it help to suggest or develop the meaning of the story?
Point of View.
How does the point of view shape the theme? Would the story change if told from a different viewpoint? In first-person narration, can you trust the narrator?
Is the author's prose style primarily literal or figurative? Can you find examples of irony in dialogue or narrative passages? If dialect or colloquial speech is used, what is its effect? Does the author call attention to the way he or she uses words, or is the literary style inconspicuous?
Does the story's title help explain its meaning? Can you find a suggestion of the theme in specific passages or dialogue or description? Are certain symbols or repetitions of images important in revealing the author's intent in the story, what Poe would call "the single effect"?
Now put the text aside and look over your notes. Can you see any pattern in them? You may find that you have been most impressed by the way the author developed characterizations, for example. Then you will have a possible topic for your paper. Certainly if you have a choice, you should pick whatever appeals to you the most in the story and concentrate on it.
If you still cannot come up with a topic, ask for help in your next class. Perhaps your instructor will suggest something: "Why don't you discuss the way Hawthorne used irony in 'Young Goodman Brown'?" Often the class will be assigned one topic to write about. Some students think assigned topics make writing more difficult; others find they make it easier to begin to write.
A topic, however, is not the same as a thesis sentence. A topic is a general subject (for example, the character of Goodman Brown). A thesis sentence, by contrast, makes a statement about a topic; it is usually the result of thinking about the topic and narrowing it down to focus on some relationship of the topic to the story as a whole. A good thesis sentence has two important functions. First, it suggests a way for you to write about the story. Second, it makes clear to your reader the approach you have taken toward the topic. To write critically about short fiction, you must think critically about it. You start with an interpretation of the entire story and then show how some particular aspect of it contributes to what you think is its overall pattern and meaning.
Narrowing Ideas to a Thesis
A thesis sentence states the central idea you will develop in your paper. It should be easy for the reader of your essay to recognize - even if it's sometimes hard for you to formulate. A thesis sentence is a complete sentence that points the way you will take to clarify your interpretation of the story. In Hawthorne's story, for example, you might decide to write about the character of Goodman Brown (topic). You interpret the story to be a warning about the danger of losing religious faith (theme). If you think about the way your topic relates to the theme, your analysis might lead you to the idea that Goodman Brown lost his religious faith through the sin of pride. This thought process narrows the topic into a thesis, which you can state as the sentence "The story 'Young Goodman Brown' shows how a man can lose his religious faith through the sin of pride."
The test of a good thesis sentence is whether your subject ("The story 'Young Goodman Brown'") is followed by a clearly focused predicate ("shows how a man can lose his religious faith through the sin of pride"). What you want is a statement of an idea that you can then develop in your essay.
Finding a thesis sentence is often the biggest stumbling block for writers of expository prose. How do you know if your idea is worth developing in a paper? Generally speaking, a thesis will work if it expresses a specific idea about the story that you want to develop. If you are not interested to begin with, or do not like the story you are writing about, you probably will not write effectively. You almost always write better about a story you have enjoyed reading. Certainly you will feel more sympathetic to the intent of the author if you are not hostile to the assignment in the first place. Remember also that as a literary critic you must always keep an open mind when interpreting a story. Your ideas about it are as valid as anyone else's, so long as you can support them with examples from the text. There are many possible ways to read a story, although the author may have felt the original impulse to write it because of a particular idea or feeling about the subject.
Sometimes the thesis sentence occurs to you while you are thinking about the story; then you can jot it down as a fully formed idea right away. Other times you may find that you are unable to formulate any definite idea about the story until you start to write. No single procedure works for all writers at all times. You might begin writing with a trial thesis in mind, putting down rough ideas or a string of sentences as you think about the general topic you have chosen. Or you might decide to go back to the notes you took while reading the story and try to organize them into a simple outline about your topic, looking for connections between things that might suggest a direction to take in a trial essay and then hoping a thesis sentence will emerge while you free-associate with paper and pencil in hand. You might also get an idea for a thesis sentence by talking about the story with a friend. Whatever way you start, do not settle for anything quick and easy. "Hawthorne's use of irony in 'Young Goodman Brown' is interesting" is much too general to be helpful to you in writing a good essay. Keep thinking or scribbling away at your first rough draft until you find an idea that gives you a specific direction to take in your paper. "Hawthorne's use of irony in 'Young Goodman Brown' suggests his judgment of the Puritan moral code" is a thesis sentence that has a clearly focused predicate. It states a definite relationship of the topic to the meaning of the thesis you want to explore. Then you know you are on your way to writing a good essay.
Writing and Revising
If you begin the first paragraph of your essay with a strong thesis sentence, your ideas will usually flow in writing and revising the paper. You will often discover further possibilities for refining your thesis while using it to interpret the text. That is one reason you should allow plenty of time to complete a writing assignment. It's an unusual first draft in which the central idea is developed coherently and fully enough to be turned in as a finished paper. Revision often stimulates further thought, sharpening and strengthening the development of your thesis. In the process of writing, you will come to understand the story more fully as your thesis takes you closer to its meaning.
Try not to become discouraged about writing by visualizing some distant final product - a well-organized essay, neatly typed on clean, white paper, shimmering on the page in what looks like pristine perfection. Remember that it took time to get that way. Your essay originated in halfformed, often confused thoughts that had to be coaxed to arrange themselves into coherent paragraphs linked by what only much later appear to be inevitable transitions. More often than not, the 500 words you might think are a perfect essay when you turn in your final paper will be the end result -- if you took enough time in writing -- of winnowing down 1,000 or more words from your rough drafts. You must amplify and clarify your thesis, editing your sentences and paragraphs so that each one relates coherently to your central idea. Then your essay will express your insights about the story so clearly that they can be understood as you intended.
At the beginning, it is best to forget about the end result and give all your thought and effort to the process of writing. If you find it useful, make an outline and try to follow it, but this practice varies with different writers. Some find it valuable to organize their notes about the story into a formal outline, whereas others prefer to make a rough sketch of the steps they plan to follow in developing their central idea. You may find that you do not want to use an outline at all, although in general it can help to keep you from straying too far from the point you are trying to make. Remember, too, that there is no fixed rule about the number of drafts or the amount of revision necessary before you have a finished essay. Every essay changes from the first rough draft through various revisions; an essay is often gone, over several times in the days or weeks between getting the assignment: and bringing the finished paper to class. In the various stages of writing different aspects of the central idea often reveal themselves and are integrated into the paper, depending on your degree of concentration and J involvement in the assignment. Even if you scrap sentences or whole paragraphs that do not relate to your final discussion, you have not waste& your time, because your early efforts to put your thoughts down on paper bring you to the point where you have better insights.
You will probably have to rewrite your opening paragraph many times to tailor your thesis sentence to the final shape your ideas have taken. So writers just sketch in the first paragraph and go back to polish it when I rest of the essay is finished. Often you will want to amplify and refine your thesis sentence, dividing it into several sentences in your introductory remarks. Then it becomes a thesis statement, rather than a single sentence.
Developing the Thesis
While it is possible to write many different kinds of papers about short fiction, most college instructors assign students the task of interpreting the text. The literary items used in the headnotes on each writer in this anthology and defined in the Glossary [of this book] can help you find a vocabulary to express your ideas. You cannot write intelligently about any subject without using the special terminology of that subject, whether it is English, economics, psychology, or engineering. At the same time, dropping the terms in your paper the way a person might drop names at a party will not impress your readers. Understand what the terms mean so you can use them to think and write critically about the elements of a story when you begin to interpret the text in the light of your central idea.
You will usually develop your thesis statement in the body of your essay by following one or more of the three common methods of writing about literature: explication, analysis, and comparison and contrast.