The Ultimate Guide to Learning Writing: Short Story

Less is More: How to Write a Short Story

The art of the short story lays in its name - the length. Novels and even novelas allow more wriggle room to meander and explore, whereas short stories demand a gripped audience from the start. Every word counts and the editing chopping block is swift. At the same time, short stories can allow us to zoom in and explore characters and subplots of larger stories, uncovering stories within stories. The most concentrated plots can allow us to explore themes more profoundly.

Before writing your short story, consider the format - what do you want to say, how is this your best story to tell, and why write it as a short story? Consider if your idea is appropriately told as a short story. Rather than trying to tell the birth to death story of your protagonist, which moment(s) of their life are best to focus on? Finding and exploring these moments will yield your best short story.

In this guide, you will learn the basic steps of how to write a short story, including:

  • How to structure your short story
  • What makes a good short story
  • How long should a short story be
  • How to write a short story outline

Short Story Structure: The Classic Arc

Short stories don’t break the classic story arc: problem, rising action, climax, and resolution. However, short stories do approach the story arc in a different manner than novels do. While novels may have more leeway to build momentum throughout various full-blown scenes and develop more backstories, short stories may simply mention or imply certain plot developments at each stage. This is why short story writers should inform themselves with the art form that is effective short story writing.

Here is a step-by-step guide for what to include in a general short story structure:

  1. Problem
    Introduce your protagonist or main character, their setting, and situation. What is their point of view and what do they desire? How will you establish a bond between your protagonist and your audience? How will you hook your audience in this instant - how will you show your audience what to expect, yet still keep the best tricks up your sleeve? You may introduce what is called a “doorway” here, a slight shift that aids in revealing the protagonist’s desires and signals coming obstacles.
  2. Rising Action
    The challenges roll in at this stage. What stands in the way of your protagonist achieving what they want - how will you introduce these conflicts and tension that lead to the climax? How does your character handle these obstacles, and what does this reveal about them? Does it deepen your story to include a subplot here or a complementary strand of the plot that supports the story you are telling? If so, which supporting character(s) are necessary?
  3. Climax
    What is the biggest challenge your protagonist faces - what second doorway did they step through to face this test? What choice do they make? Every story needs to have a climax to work toward's in order to hold the reader's attention.
  4. Resolution
    What consequences follow your protagonist’s choice and actions? How does your character respond?

Tips for developing your short story structure:

  • Weigh how much time you devote to each stage and the effect it has on your story. Given your theme and purpose for telling this story, what effect can it have to devote more time to the problem and rising action versus the climax and resolution? Reversely, what benefits are there to starting closer to the climax?
  • Consider using your short story as a character sketch. How can you explore the different aspects and layers of your protagonist in this format?

What Makes a Good Short Story?

Short stories are a dime a dozen - what are the characteristics of a story that grips its audience from the first to last sentence? Some suggestions include:

  • Ensure a clear core message
  • In developing your story outline (more below), ensure you have explored your theme and that your scenes tie to this theme. What are your motivations in telling this story? What do you want to achieve?
  • Zoom in just enough

You’re telling a slice of life, not a life story. Which moment(s), when you focus on them, inspect them and turn them over, communicate your message and evoke the strongest emotions in your audience?

  • Brainstorm strong titles and pick your favorite

This is the first impression your readers will have of your story and will either draw interest or fall into insignificance. If you are struggling to think of an intriguing title, consider having a few other people read your story and note words or phrases that stand out to them (from the story itself or simply words that come to mind)

  • Grab your reader with the first lines

Your first few lines need to be enticing enough to hook your reader. Think of them like the opening montage of a film. What feeling or mood do you want to set? You are establishing your voice here so it's a good time to adopt some creative writing ideas. How will you introduce your protagonist? What will keep your audience reading? Note: if the pressure of beginning becomes paralyzing, don’t get hung up here. Simply start writing and return later to refine this part.

  • Define your protagonist and explore their layers

“The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story.” - Stephen Koch, bestselling author. Ensure your protagonist’s desires are clear. Pitting opposing elements against your protagonist will not only bring intrigue to your audience but also cause natural action, momentum, and consequences. How will your protagonist struggle with the choices presented to them? What unexpected consequences will they face and how will they react? What does this reveal about them, and how does this reinforce your story’s core message? Your protagonist’s journey should generate an emotional response in your reader.

  • Be conservative with the backstory

You will always know more about your characters than your reader will. Stay central to your theme and only reveal what is necessary. Use the power of suggestion and layer details into actions. If you’re on the fence about including something, leave it out.

  • End with impact

Your resolution may be more open (allowing the reader to imagine the implications of the protagonists choices), resolved (with clear outcomes and finality), or circular (returning to an element from the beginning of the story). Think about the best film endings - you want to end without leaving plot holes, but you also don’t want to drag out the story. A great short story will pack a punch with its ending.

How Long Should a Short Story Be?

Traditional short stories generally run from 1,500-5000 words, whereas “flash fiction” or short fiction runs 500-1,000 words, and more recently emergent “micro fiction” a mere 5-350 words. The most common range for a short story is 1,500-3,000 words.

If you are having difficulty telling your story as a short story, consider returning to the sounding board. You shouldn’t need to compress your story if it’s appropriate for this format. Try zooming in your focus or approach your idea from different angles. Try exploring specific parts of your character or even just a moment in their lives - a story arc doesn’t need to traverse an ample time period.

Consider the following fiction writing tips for staying focused and concise:

  • Use an active versus passive voice. Engage your reader’s senses and emotions.
  • Describe just enough. Only include details necessary to tell the story.
  • Trim inefficient dialogue.
  • Avoid redundancies such as repetitive modifiers (ex: “personal opinion”, “join together”). Make each word count and omit all unnecessary words.
  • Combine characters when you’re able to. Consider each character’s purpose: does your character really need two best friends?
  • Eliminate scenes relating to transportation unless they are essential to the story. For example, don’t depict how a character gets from point A to B unless it is reinforcing your core message.

Getting Started: Developing a Short Story Outline

The word “outline” can cause controversy in writing circles - to many writers, outlines are either liberating or confining. However, outlines aren’t prescriptive nor are they meant to trap authors into a set plot. Instead, they may be better described as “roadmaps” to your story’s destination, and as with any road trip, you retain the control to make as many varied stops as you want. Without a short story outline, you may run into a fair amount of trial and error figuring out your plot and characters while simultaneously writing your first draft.

Having the base of an outline can actually allow you to write in a freer manner, as you will have already done the heavy lifting of plot development.

How to write a short story outline:

  1. Write the basic summary of your story
    This is your short pitch. Think one to two sentences, as you’d tell it to a friend. This isn’t artful - it’s just for you.
  2. Find and flesh out your protagonist
    What do they represent and what is their importance to your story? What do you want to say through this character?
  3. Define your story’s theme
    What is your story’s overall theme? This may or may not be the same as your character’s purpose. Sometimes these are different, yet complementing ideas. If so, how do they relate to one another?
  4. Outline your story from a bird’s eye view
    Outlining at this level is flexible and lays out the most basic structure of your story. You may take the classic story arc (Problem, Rising Action, Climax, Resolution), and write one to two sentences describing each stage.
  5. Optional: build out your outline (to the level you are comfortable with)
    Some prefer to work with just a bird’s eye view outline and uncover aspects of the story as it flows. Others, however, find that if more details are worked out ahead of time, they can write without the pressure of ploughing the way for the plot. If you choose to build out your outline, take major plot points and break them down into scenes to create a scene list. Lay out every scene you can think of and from these, choose what’s necessary and most compelling to the story. Write one or two sentences for each scene, or write out the beginning, middle, and end. A scene list helps you organize your story and can act as a reorientation each time you sit down to write. As a blueprint, it can also point to areas of the story that may need more development.

Improving Your Craft

Writing short stories allows us the chance to try on new ideas without the commitment to a novel or other longer texts. Take this opportunity to explore characters, or even revisit your old short stories - you may find opportunities to dive in to a part of a plot or a character that piques your interest. Which specific moment fascinates you; what can you further explore?

Finally, the fastest road to refining the art of short story writing is through feedback - send your story to friends or circulate it among a writing community. Work your stories and send them to journals, reviews, and online publications. Publishing, whether through informal circulation among your network or formal reproduction of your work is the last and necessary step. Let your story reach its audience.

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