How to Write a Short Story
Short stories should have compelling characters and clear conflict. But how do you write a cohesive work of fiction in just a few thousand words? In this article, we take a closer look at short story writing.
January 16, 2022 · 13 Min Read
Novels and short stories share many of the same considerations. Characters must be well developed, and conflict must be present. There must be a theme—a strand of something that ties the prose together. It should have structure. Yet the limitation on how many words can be used in short stories adds an additional layer of complexity.
Overview of Short Story Writing
Overview of Short Story Writing
What is a short story?
A short story is a story with a word count of between 1000 and 10,000 words. Stories with less than 1000 words are usually considered flash fiction. On the other hand, full-length novels (“regular” books) usually range from 60,000 to 100,000 words.
Elements of a short story
Like longer works of fiction, short stories consist of five elements. These are:
Characters: The cast of characters that populate the story.
Setting: Where and when the story takes place.
Theme: The underlining idea that ties together plot and character action.
Plot: The events that unfold during the story.
Conflict: The obstacles the protagonist has to overcome to achieve his goal.
Famous short stories
If you want to know how to write short stories, but you’re unfamiliar with short story writing, then it’s a good idea to read some stalwarts of the medium first. As the saying goes, “Great writers are great readers.” It is obvious when a writer of novel-length fiction switches to short stories for the first time. Usually, excessive backstory and plot pacing issues crop up. The following are some great short stories for adults:
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway
“A Way You’ll Never Be” by Ernest Hemingway
“Say Yes” by Tobias Wolff
“Next Door” by Tobias Wolff
“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
“Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
“The Silence of the Asonu” by Ursula K. Le Guin
Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Short Story
Step 1: Planning
There are writers who manage to craft successful stories without planning anything. However, it is almost always better to at least have a rough idea (and a few notes) before you start writing. You don’t have to use a dedicated outline, but you should at least know your protagonist, setting, and premise before you start your project. If you are not averse to planning in greater detail, then an outline may be helpful. Some of the more popular outlines include the flashlight method, the skeleton outline, and the snowflake method. These outlines are all worthy of their own write-ups; so, for the purposes of this article, we’ll stick to basic story planning.
Who is your protagonist and why are you writing about him? Plot and circumstance aside, what makes your main character interesting? Does he have an odd outlook on life? Is he brilliant at what he does? Remember, in fiction, characters should be remarkable. If your protagonist isn’t remarkable, then there should be a conscious reason why he isn’t. Is he a symbol of a greater whole? Does he become remarkable as the story progresses? In short, who is your character before your story commences?
Where and when is your story taking place? What role do the surroundings play in your protagonist’s life? If a woman returns to her childhood home after many years abroad, of what is she reminded? Do the walls make her feel claustrophobic? Does she remember how her mother used to bake cookies in the kitchen? Most importantly, how does her perception of her surroundings impact her mood and attitude? A setting loaded with memories or tension can have a significant impact on a scene.
Of course, settings don’t always have to influence a character’s disposition or actions. If the setting is, in effect, merely a locale where the story takes place, then the short story writer can get away with brief descriptions aimed at orienting the reader or generating atmosphere. We touch on physical descriptions later on in this article, but wordiness should be avoided when describing a scene. Short stories have a restrictive word limit—the writer cannot afford superfluous descriptions if those descriptions don’t serve a specific purpose.
Plot and Problem
After settling on a protagonist and a scene, a plot needs to be conceived. To start with, write a single sentence that sums up the crux of your story. Make sure it contains a contradiction; in fiction, the catalyst of plot is problem. What obstacle needs to be overcome? What has to be righted for things to get better or to go back to normal? Have a look at the following premise:
David dreams of becoming a pilot.
There is nothing noteworthy about this story idea—many individuals have dreamt of becoming pilots. To make the premise more interesting, a problem has to be introduced.
David dreams of becoming a pilot, but he is a quadriplegic.
In this rewritten version, a clear obstacle stands in the way of David’s dream. How will he ever become a certified pilot without using his arms or legs? His goal seems insurmountable, which gives the plot forward momentum.
There are exceptions—such as certain works of literary fiction—but almost all stories require a problem to be interesting. Short stories are no different in this regard. The problem in a short story links the protagonist and his actions to the surrounding events.
Theme in literature is the story beneath the plot—the underlining idea that ties the different components of a work together. For example, if the romance between two characters—the ups and downs of their relationship—is the plot, then love is the theme. In a courtroom thriller, if the struggle of an innocent man on trial for murder is the plot, then truth and justice might be considered themes.
In full-length novels, theme is sometimes relegated in favor of action. However, good short stories almost always have strong thematic undertones. For example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is ostensibly about an idyllic city. However, it’s unspoken theme concerns utilitarianism—a doctrine of morality that many believe unethical. In Tobias Wolff’s “Say Yes”, the plot is about a man and a wife arguing. However, the implications of the argument (the underlining themes) are much darker and concern racism and spousal domination.
You should identify the theme of your short story before you write it. Theme can be identified by describing your story in a single word. After you’ve decided on the theme, keep it in mind as you write.
Step 2: Write Your Short Story
Finish Your First Draft in One or Two Sittings
After you have decided on the protagonist, setting, premise, and theme, it is time to start writing. Like longer works of fiction, short stories rarely benefit from over-editing during the first draft. As the writer, you should focus on getting the entire story down on paper first. Editing and proofing are important steps in any writing project—but revision should be conducted only after the first draft’s completion.
Because of the length of short stories (most range from about 2000 to 4000 words), it is advisable to finish the entire story in one or two writing sessions. The fewer the better—the more breaks you take, the more likely you are to overthink it. During your first draft, don’t worry about typos, the suspension of disbelief, dialogue, or any other facet that gives you reason to pause or reflect. If anything needs to be changed, change it after the first draft.
Write Your Story With Conflict, Climax, and Resolution in Mind
Many stories use the three-act structure of storytelling: 1.) a beginning that introduces the characters and the setting to the reader, 2.) a middle that introduces the problem and ends in defeat for the protagonist, 3.) an end where the protagonist overcomes the odds and triumphs. There are other story structures, of course, but all encompass conflict, climax, and resolution.
In short stories, exposition (the introduction of characters and settings) is brief—the writer should not linger on backstory. Short stories do not have any chapters, and scene breaks are seldomly used. Problem and conflict (whether external or internal) should be almost immediately apparent. Often, conflict is apparent from the first few lines. A good example of a short story where problem and conflict take center stage from the beginning is “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. In it, the narrator narrates the visit of a blind man, his wife’s former boss. From the first paragraph, it is clear from how the narrator eschews the man’s name in favor of “the blind man” that he has prejudice toward his condition and that he doesn’t want him to visit. However, his wife has invited him, and now the narrator has to pick him up at the train station. This internal conflict leaps off of the page. The beginning serves a dual purpose: the protagonist and the story’s conflict are introduced simultaneously. Apart from making for an enjoyable introduction, Carver’s judicious use of words also stands the rest of the tale in good stead.
Short stories should also contain a clear climax—a moment near the end where the conflict comes to a head. In “Cathedral”, the story climax commences when, after dinner, Robert (the blind man) tries to make friendly conversation with the narrator. The narrator is dismissive and eventually switches on the TV so that Robert can’t ask any more questions. When a program about cathedrals starts, the narrator reluctantly tries to explain to Robert how to architecture looks. This is the turning point for the narrator: he now has to imagine what it is to be blind. The narrator struggles to articulate how a cathedral looks, and instead draws a picture—while Robert’s hand rests on his. The narrator eventually closes his eyes as he draws, and when Robert tells him afterward to open them, he chooses to keep them shut. The reader is left in no doubt as to the story’s resolution: the narrator’s newfound empathy for Robert’s blindness.
Carver’s “Cathedral” is an exceptional short story. The protagonist and conflict are established early, and there is clear climax and resolution. The resolution is of particular importance: once the character has changed, the story concludes.
Step 3: Revision
Revision is a crucial part of any story’s journey. This does not include only proofing (correcting grammar and spelling), but also editing (cutting, adding, and condensing). In fiction, reader enjoyment is in large part dependent on the conciseness of the prose. There are genres where ideas and plot often take precedent over lean prose—such as genre fiction—but for the most part, wordiness should be avoided at all costs. This is doubly true for short stories, which have restrictive word counts and usually attract readers who have a keen eye for lean writing. This conciseness applies to two aspects of the prose: sentences and descriptive passages.
Concise Sentence Construction
Concise sentences are important for all types of writing, but they take on added importance when writing short stories. But what constitutes a concise sentence? In short, one that says the bare minimum. Let’s have a look at the following example:
My new shoes, which are red, helped me to win the marathon that took place on Sunday. I try not to overexert myself after a race, so I rested the following week.
The above passage, although detailed, lacks conciseness. Have a look at the adjusted version below:
My shoes helped me to win the marathon. I was tired afterward, so I rested the following week.
In this rewritten version, the passage has been reduced from 32 to 18 words—nearly half. However, it still conveys the most important information. There’s no need for the nonessential clause, “… which are red…”, or specificities regarding the days of week.
Let’s have a look at another example of wordy writing:
I ran very fast—so fast that the tall, green trees flashed past and the blue sky revolved quickly.
The above sentence is loaded with adjectives and adverbs. These word classes have their place—you’ll be hard pressed to write fiction without them—but they make text wordy when overused. Have a look at how it reads after removing most of the adjectives and adverbs:
I ran so fast that the trees flashed past and the sky revolved.
Although the details are less specific, the shortened description still conveys the most important information. There’s no need to state the color of the trees or the sky—people already associated certain colors with them. The same goes for the other modifiers in the sentence: “very” and “quickly” don’t add anything to the description. If you want to know more about the impact adjectives and adverbs have on text, have a look at our article on the topic.
Concise sentence construction is important, no matter what you are writing. Wordiness is worthy of many articles on its own, but when condensing text, start by cutting nonessential clauses, adjective, and adverbs.
Brevity is just as important at paragraph-level as it is at sentence-level. A sentence can be brief and well written, but if it isn’t necessary, then it shouldn’t be there. Long-winded descriptions should be avoided no matter what you write, but overly long paragraphs can be especially detrimental to a short story. Remember, you have a limited number of words to work with, so you don’t want to use up the word count when you don’t have to.
But how do you determine which descriptions are superfluous? There are exceptions, but in short stories, physical descriptions (how something looks on the outside) should be kept to a minimum. However, if the physical description is a window into the narrator or another character’s psyche, then it is probably fine. Again, it depends on the story and the situation. Have a look at the following example:
The house stood beside a road full of holes. Usually, the town council kept everything in working order. The paint on the house’s shutters had peeled off, and there was no sign of Henry.
The above description is static—it delivers information to the reader without conveying anything about the narrator. It is the type of passage that can be cut with minimal adjustments to the surrounding text. Let’s see how we can make the observation more intimate:
The house stood beside a godforsaken stretch of dirt that tried its best to look like a road. Evidently, members of the town council were spending taxpayer money at the closest drinking establishment. I assumed this was where Henry was as well, for he was nowhere to be seen. The lout hadn’t even bothered to paint the shutters.
In the rewritten version, the narrator’s anger is evident. The reader is left in no doubt as to his feelings about the town council and Henry. Although this passage is slightly longer than the original, it achieves much more. Not only is the reader sufficiently oriented, but the narrator’s attitude is firmly established. Of course, physical descriptions devoid of character voice can work. Again, though, they should have a clear purpose in short stories. Tone, theme, contrast, foreshadowing, etc. can all be encapsulated in a physical description.
Try to cut all unnecessary detail when editing your short story. If a reader is sufficiently oriented without a descriptive passage, and the passage serves no other purpose, then it can probably be cut or condensed.
1.) Short stories are between 1000 and 10,000 words in length. If you are writing one with a short story competition in mind, be sure to check their word count limit for submissions before you start writing.
2.) Although short stories are much shorter than novels, they have the same story elements. Character, setting, theme, plot, and conflict all have to be present.
3.) When brainstorming your short story idea, identify your protagonist, setting, theme, premise, and problem:
The protagonist should be remarkable in one way or another. If she isn’t, then there should be a reason.
The setting is the place and timeframe of the story. Decide early on if the physical locale is relevant to the story—if it isn’t, keep descriptions of the surroundings to the bare minimum.
The premise is what your story is about. You should be able to sum it up in a single sentence.
Problem is the catalyst of story. It is the obstacle that makes the story interesting. A well-defined problem makes the process of writing a story easier.
Theme is the story beneath the story—the thread running through the work that is never explicitly mentioned.
4.) Write your short story within one or two sittings—the less the better. Keep conflict, climax, and resolution in mind as you write.
5.) Edit the work only after you’ve finished writing it. The more breaks you take, the more likely you are to overthink your first draft.
6.) While editing, try to cut and condense as much as possible. To begin with, cut all excessive adjectives and adverbs. Also, remove nonessential clauses when they aren’t crucial. Finally, condense static descriptions where needed.
Short stories can be difficult to write. Readers expect the same storytelling elements contained within longer works of fiction, but the writer has only a few thousand words to tell the story from start to finish. If you need help with your short story or anthology’s structure or prose, then have a look at Manuscript Mentoring’s Services page.