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How to Write a Great Short Story

A great story has the power to captivate and move us. Some of my favorite tales have come in the form of a short story. They’re easy to read and often pack the biggest punch due to their simplicity.

Short stories are also a highly respected form in the literary world. Many writers, like Sylvia Plath, began their careers by writing short stories. They’re also an excellent way for you to attract an audience.

Because of all these reasons, writing a short story can be the perfect place to start your writing career. It’ll also help reveal many of the obstacles, dilemmas, and questions you’ll face when creating fiction of any length.

As long as you follow my simple writing tips as well as these five short story essentials, you’ll be well on your way to writing a tale that’ll get you noticed and published.

Before We Begin

Before we get into the step-by-step portion of writing a short story, I wanted to look at short story length, the golden rule, and time requirements. All three of these things will give you a better idea of what to expect before getting into the nitty-gritty of writing a short story.

Short Story Length

As I mentioned in a previous post, short stories have a specific length requirement that we must adhere to. The typical short story does not exceed 7,500 words, with a few exceptions.

But to make things more complicated, there are different types of short stories, such as flash or micro-fiction. You can also have longer short stories that hit up to 20,000 words in length.

Short Story Length

To make things easy, we’re going to stick to the 7,500-word length for this article.

The Golden Rule of a Short Story

It may be intuitive to start plotting your short story like you would a novel, but it’s not as simple (or complicated) as that. Short stories are meant to be short, so don’t plan complex overarching narratives with several characters, plot points, and themes.

Instead, you’re going to want to keep things simple.

Here’s what this is going to look like in practice, let’s look at William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily. The story is just shy of 3,700-words. There is one narrator, one main character (Emily), and a handful of secondary characters mentioned in passing (i.e., Emily’s father, her husband, and a few town members).

Nothing was taken for granted in A Rose for Emily. Faulkner meticulously weaved in the main themes he wanted to portray within a limited space. He did that by blending in the attitude of the narrator (which has been interpreted as the collective voice of the town) and of Emily herself. The secondary characters in the story help reinforce the overall attitudes displayed either by the narrator or Emily.

Faulkner kept things simple by not going into the thoughts and feelings of every person in town. He held the focus on the local gossips and how Emily behaved.

Time Requirements

As I was researching this post, I came across an article by The Write Practice that outlined the time requirements needed to write a short story. It got me thinking about my process and how long it takes to get the tale down onto the computer, and they’ve got the timing right.

Here’s how much time you will approximately need to write a short story:

Short Story Time Requirement Infographic.

The take away of this is that writing a short story does not take a lot of time. And don’t worry if you fall outside of this guide either as everyone writes at their own pace. No matter how you do it, it shouldn’t take you an obscene amount of time (like a year) to go through the process.

How to Write a Short Story

As I mentioned in my how to write a novel post, you’re going to want to make sure you’re comfortable and ready to start writing, so find a place where you can concentrate, fill it with your favorite goodies and tools, and get in the right mindset.

Here are the six steps you need to take to write a short story:

How to write a short story infographic.

We’re going to look at these six steps in a bit more detail below.

Read Short Stories

Most of us writers go into writing with the desire to write a novel, so that’s what we read. And on some level, we all know how to structure our books.

Short stories are a little different. They’re short and structured differently, which means you need to read more short stories to figure out what to do. You have a different form and style of writing to emulate until things click.

The best thing for you to do is read as many short stories as you can. It won’t take you very long to get through a lot of them. They’re called short stories for a reason.

And make sure you read tales from several decades. Look at contemporary short stories as well as ones from long ago. It’s an excellent way to look at how the short story has changed over the years, and you may find you like older short story styles more than the contemporary ones.

Some sites to check out

Here are some places for you to check out some short stories:

  • The Short Story Project is free to use. They have everything from the classics to new releases, and the content is categorized by genre.
  • Narrative Magazine is a free space for readers to enjoy some of the best short stories, essays, and poetry written by both established and emerging writers.
  • Tor.com is a fantasy and science fiction website that provides free access to short stories published on their website. 
  • Lightspeed Magazine publishes short stories by authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, N.K. Jemisin, Ted Chiang, and Ken Liu. You can subscribe for 12 months to access over 100 short stories, author interviews, and other nonfiction content. You can also choose not to subscribe and still view tons of free content.
  • American Short Fiction publishes short fiction by established and emerging writers. Many of their stories have appeared in the end-of-year collection The Best American Short Stories.
  • Project Gutenberg is your best source for public domain books, short stories, and poetry.
  • Classic Short Stories has, well, the classics, which you can view for free.

If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, check out this article by Book Riot. They’ve got several additional options with reviews. And if you want a physical book, check out your local libraries and bookstores in the anthology sections.

Start with an Idea

short story idea lightbulb

Once you’ve read all of the short stories that you can take in one sitting, you’ll probably have some ideas. Unlike with novels, you can’t choose too broad of an idea. You don’t have the space to give it the attention that it needs.

You want to choose a “simple idea.” And by simple I don’t mean humdrum or boring. Many short story ideas are quite complex due to their simplicity.

Essentially, the idea you want to go with should contain the following:

  • One main character
  • A limited number of scenes and plot points
  • One main theme or central idea
  • Invoke a strong emotional response from your reader

You want to leave an impact on your reader. Novels have the chance to do this over 300 pages, but you’ve got ten pages. So keep it simple and find something that’s going to resonate with you and your readers.

Develop an Outline

This step is for all of you planners out there. You can write an outline for your short story if you really want to. You can make up full character profiles and sketch out your scenes and plot points.

But don’t go overboard. Short stories aren’t meant to be complicated. To help you out, here’s what your short story outline should contain:

  • The point of view you’ll use
  • How the story starts
  • Your inciting incident/rising action
  • The climax
  • The resolution
  • A killer ending

Remember that this isn’t a big complicated document like your novel outline would be. Your focus is going to be on your characters and your overarching theme. What happens plot-wise needs to be driven by these two things.

(For more on short story outlines, check out E. M. Welsh’s article here.)

Write Your Short Story

Once you’ve got that idea figured out, you need to write. Get it all out on the page. Don’t worry about the character(s), plot, setting, etc. You can fix whatever you put down later.

Your only job right now is to put that idea onto the page. So don’t worry too much about it.

As with novels, you should do your research and planning beforehand. But your writing experience shouldn’t be as tough as writing a book. It shouldn’t take you longer than 20 hours to write it down.

But you do need to think about the words you’re using. How many? Are they communicating things clearly? Can you say the same thing but in a simpler way?

Remember, each word, sentence, and paragraph has to further your story along. You have no room for wordiness. If you think (or know) you’ll have trouble with this, take a lesson from one of the greats.

Ernest Hemingway was known to write standing up because it forced him to get to the heart of his story in as few words as possible. If he didn’t do this, he’d be standing the entire day, and his feet and legs would hurt.

Ernest Hemingway at his standing desk in 1960.

Edit Ruthlessly

You’re story is on the page. Now, you have to go through it and cut things out. Simplify. Make things concise, especially if you went over your word limit.

Even if you wrote your story with intention and carefully chose your words, you’ll still need to cut things out. Thankfully, I’ve got a list of things you need to look for:

  • Overly artsy prose. I mentioned this in my five short story essentials post, and I’ll say it again. No one wants to read fluffy prose, especially in short stories. It doesn’t add to the story. Delete it.
  • Wavering. If you go back and forth over cutting something, just cut it. The doubt is there for a reason.
  • Cut out extraneous details. Every sentence must count. If even one word seems unnecessary, it has to go. If you have one too many characters, then get rid of them.
  • Delete backstory. If it’s not integral that the reader knows that the protagonist’s favorite color is blue or that their eyes are brown or that they had a traumatic childhood, then don’t add those details. And if we do need them, mention them quickly and get on with the story. No info dumps are required.

As with every other piece of writing that you do, make sure you catch any other mistakes that you make, such as spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, word choice, cliches, redundancies, etc.

It’s also a good idea to enlist the help of a professional editor and maybe a beta reader or two. They’re great for catching things that you may have missed in your self-editing process and can help you figure out what you did wrong.

Publish

Once your story is perfect, it’s time to publish. And publishing your short story is a bit different than publishing a novel.

You can still pursue traditional or self-publishing, but you won’t sell your story for a lot of money. It’s also hard to convince people to buy just one short story. It’s even harder to find a publisher who wants to pick up a short story collection.

I’m not saying that you can’t make money or get your short story published, but please keep your expectations in check. Short stories are great for building an audience and establishing yourself as an author, not for making boatloads of money.

Places to Publish

Places to publish your short story

While the money aspect can be a bit discouraging, you actually have a lot to cheer about. There is a substantial need for short stories, and it’s all due to literary magazines and journals.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of small independent presses and editors looking for short stories to include in their journals, magazines, and anthologies. All you have to do is some research and have some tales that fit the submission guidelines. Some literary journals and magazines will even pay you a small fee for your story.

(Psst. You can find some of these publishing opportunities on this website.)

Another option you can look into is writing contests. This option looks good in query letters and your author bio, especially if it’s a well-known contest, like Writer’s Digest’s Annual Competition. They also can come with heftier monetary prizes.

You can also post your short stories on your author’s website or send them out through your email list. Sending out short stories as bonus content in exchange for an email address is an excellent way to build your audience as a writer, which will help you down the line if you write a novel and get it traditionally published.


Short stories are amazing works of fiction, and I greatly admire those who have made such beautiful tales out of so little words. It’s one of the reasons why I write short stories.

They move people. They create emotion from their simplicity. As long as you breathe the feeling into your story, you’ll have something that touches your readers’ hearts.

So stay true to yourself and that emotion or idea that you started with. Bring it into its simplest form as you whittle the words down to its final resting place.

If you can do this, you’ll get your writing career off to a great start, and you’ll start building your audience. Next thing you know, you’ll be a bestselling author.

Do you like to write short stories? What’s your favorite short story, and why? Any recommendations?

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.

Cheers,

Danielle

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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.

Comments

21 Responses

  1. On the subject of length:
    The revision of my story is nearly done! Yayyyy! 😁
    My use of POV is improved and it reads much better! Yayyyy! 😁
    I ended up adding material and now it’s 115,000+ words! Waahhh! 😭

    1. Yay! That’s awesome to hear that you’re nearly done and that you’ve fixed some things. 🙂

      Oh no. Lol. Back to editing, I take it? 😛

      1. It’s about going back to those parts that you like but don’t necessarily move the story forward. It’s about writing (and editing) with intention. Is there any way you can say the same thing but with fewer words?

      2. I can point out the bad conditions for the villains, without talking about what they do to deal with those conditions. I’m telling part of the villains’ story from the POV of one of their low-ranking members. I guess the thing that matters is what happens when the villains encounter the heroine again.

      3. I wanted to show what the villains were going through, how they adapt, and then show how the heroine reacts to move her story forward.

      4. Can you show what the conditions are like for the villains without having to develop another POV? Can your heroine reflect on her enemy’s circumstances even while she battles them? It might be better to show her humility and empathy towards others (AKA, her soft side). I’m going in blind since I haven’t read your revisions, but this could be an excellent way to add depth to your heroine while also providing a sympathetic look at the enemy and cutting your word count.

      5. And I’m not saying what you’re doing can’t work – it can. But if you’re trying to cut your words down, then something’s got to go. 🙂

      6. Hmmm. The tri-cleorps – the tribe of humanoids she interacts with the most – are evil to the core. I’ve described her disdain for what they’ve done.
        Life is a precious thing, and she knows it. She fights to protect.
        Maybe I could describe how they have adapted to her victories by sending fewer against her, and she notes this. They think that as a bounty hunter, she’ll move on, she can conclude.
        As they send fewer against her, maybe I could describe how she thinks regretfully of how she must take lives in order to save lives (i.e. the people of the city).
        But they’re the ones who chose to commit their terrible acts, and she must either let the innocent suffer, or take up arms and defend them.

      7. Again for this, don’t describe – show it somehow. Display your heroine’s disdain in the words she says or in her body language. Show her initial hesitance to take life on her first kill. Have someone piss her off by questioning her decision to kill to save the lives of the innocent.

      8. The tribe has rivals. The last few weeks must have been hard on them, losing their own, which would surely make them lose face, in a world where only the strong survive. And it surely made them look bad in front of the ‘master wizard,’ or whoever is pulling their strings and giving them the powerful ‘portal magic’ , which has let them come and go in the forest so close to the human city.

      9. Here’s a little tweak to this:

        “The tribe has rivals. The last few weeks have been hard, losing their own means losing face in a world where only the strong survive. It surely made them look bad in front of their master. He may not be so willing to let them come through the forest portal if the losing continues.”

        Up until this point, your heroine, and hence your readers, don’t know who this person is. You don’t have to state her confusion over it. Plus, it’s a bit more concise.

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