For many writers, the short story is the perfect medium. It is a refreshing activity. For many, it is as natural as breathing is to lungs. While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, just about anybody can craft—and, most importantly, finish—a short story. Writing a novel can be a tiresome task, but writing a short story, it’s not the same. A short story includes setting, plot, character and message. Like a novel, a good short story will thrill and entertain your reader. With some brainstorming, drafting, and polishing, you can learn how to write a successful short story in no time. And the greatest benefit is that you can edit it frequently until you are satisfied.
1. Come up with a plot or scenario. Think about what the story is going to be about and what is going to happen in the story. Consider what you are trying to address or illustrate. Decide what your approach or angle on the story is going to be.
- For example, you can start with a simple plot like your main character has to deal with bad news or your main character gets an unwanted visit from a friend or family member.
- You can also try a more complicated plot like your main character wakes up in a parallel dimension or your main character discovers someone else’s deep dark secret.
2. Focus on a complicated main character. Most short stories will focus on one to two main characters at the most. Think about a main character who has a clear desire, or want, but who is also full of contradictions. Do not simply have a good character or a bad character. Give your main character interesting attributes and feelings so they feel complicated and well-rounded.
Making Characters that Pop:
Finding Inspiration: Characters are all around you. Spend some time people-watching in a public place, like a mall or busy pedestrian street. Make notes about interesting people you see and think about how you could incorporate them into your story. You can also borrow traits from people you know.
Crafting a Backstory: Delve into your main character’s past experiences to figure out what makes them tick. What was the lonely old man like as a child? Where did he get that scar on his hand? Even if you don’t include these details in the story, knowing your character deeply will help them ring true.
Characters Make the Plot: Create a character who makes your plot more interesting and complicated. For example, if your character is a teenage girl who really cares about her family, you might expect her to protect her brother from school bullies. If she hates her brother, though, and is friends with his bullies, she’s conflicted in a way that makes your plot even more interesting.
3. Create a central conflict for the main character. Every good short story will have a central conflict, where the main character has to deal with an issue or problem. Present a conflict for your main character early in your short story. Make your main character’s life difficult or hard.
- For example, maybe your main character has a desire or want that they have a hard time fulfilling. Or perhaps your main character is trapped in a bad or dangerous situation and must figure out how to stay alive.
4. Pick an interesting setting. Another key element of a short story is the setting, or where the events of the story are taking place. You may stick to one central setting for the short story and add details of the setting to scenes with your characters. Choose a setting that is interesting to you, and that you can make interesting for your reader.
Tips on Crafting a Setting:
Brainstorming descriptions: Write the down names of your settings, such as “small colony on Mars” or “the high school baseball field.” Visualize each place as vividly as you can and jot down whatever details come into your head. Set your characters down there and picture what they might do in this place.
Thinking about your plot: Based on your characters and the arc of your plot, where does your story need to take place? Make your setting a crucial part of your story, so that your readers couldn’t imagine it anywhere else. For example, if your main character is a man who gets into a car crash, setting the story in a small town in the winter creates a plausible reason for the crash (black ice), plus an added complication (now he’s stranded in the cold with a broken car).
Don’t overload the story. Using too many settings might confuse your reader or make it hard for them to get into the story. Using 1-2 settings is usually perfect for a short story.
5. Think about a particular theme. Many short stories center on a theme and explore it from the point of view of a narrator or main character. You may take a broad theme like “love,” “desire,” or “loss,” and think about it from the point of view of your main character.
- You can also focus on a more specific theme like “love between siblings,” “desire for friendship” or “loss of a parent.”
6. Plan an emotional climax. Every good short story has a shattering moment where the main character reaches an emotional high point. The climax usually occurs in the last half of the story or close to the end of the story. At the climax of the story, the main character may feel overwhelmed, trapped, desperate, or even out of control.
- For example, you may have an emotional climax where your main character, a lonely elderly man, has to confront his neighbor about his illegal activity. Or you may have an emotional climax where the main character, a young teenage girl, stands up for her brother against school bullies.
7. Think of an ending with a twist or surprise. Brainstorm an ending that will leave your reader surprised, shocked, or intrigued. Avoid obvious endings, where the reader can guess the ending before it happens. Give your reader a false sense of security, where they think they know how the story is going to end, and then redirect their attention to another character or an image that leaves them shocked.
Creating a Satisfying Ending:
Try out a few different endings. Outline a few different endings you could use. Visualize each option and see which ones feel more natural, surprising, or fulfilling. It’s okay if you don’t find the right ending right away—it’s one of the hardest parts of the story to write!
How do you want your readers to feel when they finish? Your ending is the last impression you’ll leave on your reader. How will they feel if your characters succeed, fail, or land somewhere in the middle? For example, if your main character decides to stand up to her brother’s bullies but gets scared at the last second, the readers will leave feeling like she still has a lot of soul-searching to do.
Stay away from clichés. Make sure you avoid gimmick endings, where you rely on familiar plot twists to surprise your reader. If your ending feels familiar or even boring, challenge yourself to make it more difficult for your characters.
8. Read examples of short stories. Learn what makes a short story successful and engaging for your reader by looking at examples by skilled writers. Read short stories in several genres, from literary fiction to science fiction to fantasy. Notice how the writer uses character, theme, setting, and plot to great effect in their short story. You may read:
- “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov
- “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” by Alice Munro
- “For Esme-With Love and Squalor” by J.D. Salinger
- “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury
- “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman
- “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx
- “Wants” by Grace Paley
- “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz
- “Seven” by Edwidge Danticat
Creating a First Draft
1. Make a plot outline. Organize your short story into a plot outline with five parts: exposition, an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution. Use the outline as a reference guide as you write the story to ensure it has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
- You can also try the snowflake method, where you have a one-sentence summary, a one-paragraph summary, a synopsis of all the characters in the story, and a spreadsheet of scenes.
2. Create an engaging opening. Your opening should have action, conflict, or an unusual image to catch your reader’s attention. Introduce the main character and the setting to your reader in the first paragraph. Set your reader up for the key themes and ideas in the story.
- For example, an opening line like: “I was lonely that day” does not tell your reader much about the narrator and is not unusual or engaging.
- Instead, try an opening line like: “The day after my wife left me, I rapped on the neighbor’s door to ask if she had any sugar for a cake I wasn’t going to bake.” This line gives the reader a past conflict, the wife leaving, and tension in the present between the narrator and the neighbor.
3. Stick to one point of view. A short story is usually told in the first-person point of view and stays with one point of view only. This helps to give the short story a clear focus and perspective. You can also try writing the short story in third person point of view, though this may create distance between you and your reader.
- Some stories are written in second person, where the narrator uses “you.” This is usually only done if the second person is essential to the narrative, such as in Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life” or Junot Diaz’s short story, “This is How You Lose Her.”
- Most short stories are written in the past tense, though you can use the present tense if you’d like to give the story more immediacy.
4. Use dialogue to reveal character and further the plot. The dialogue in your short story should always be doing more than one thing at a time. Make sure the dialogue tells your reader something about the character who is speaking and adds to the overall plot of the story. Include dialogue tags that reveal character and give scenes more tension or conflict.
Quick Dialogue Tips:
Develop a voice for each character. Your characters are all unique, so all of their dialogue will sound a little different. Experiment to see what voice sounds right for each character. For example, one character might greet a friend by saying, “Hey girl, what’s up?”, while another might say, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages.”
Use different dialogue tags—but not too many. Sprinkle descriptive dialogue tags, like “stammered” or “shouted,” throughout your story, but don’t make them overwhelming. You can continue to use “said,” in some situations, choosing a more descriptive tag when the scene really needs it.
5. Include sensory details about the setting. Think about how the setting feels, sounds, tastes, smells, and looks to your main character. Describe your setting using the senses so it comes alive for your reader.
- For example, you may describe your old high school as “a giant industrial-looking building that smells of gym socks, hair spray, lost dreams, and chalk.” Or you may describe the sky by your house as “a blank sheet covered in thick, gray haze from wildfires that crackled in the nearby forest in the early morning.”
6. End with a realization or revelation. The realization or revelation does not have to be major or obvious. It can be subtle, where your characters are beginning to change or see things differently. You can end with a revelation that feels open or a revelation that feels resolved and clear.
- You can also end on an interesting image or dialogue that reveals a character change or shift.
- For example, you may end your story when your main character decides to turn in their neighbor, even if that means losing them as a friend. Or you may end your story with the image of your main character helping her bloodied brother walk home, just in time for dinner.
Polishing the Draft
1. Read the short story out loud. Listen to how each sentence sounds, particularly the dialogue. Notice if the story flows well from paragraph to paragraph. Check for any awkward sentences or phrases and underline them so you can revise them later.
- Notice if your story follows your plot outline and that there is a clear conflict for your main character.
- Reading the story aloud can also help you catch any spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors.
2. Revise the short story for clarity and flow. With short stories, the general rule is that shorter is usually better. Most short stories are between 1,000 to 7,000 words or one to ten pages long. Be open to cutting scenes or removing sentences to shorten and tighten your story. Make sure you only include details or moments that are absolutely essential to the story you are trying to tell.
Parts to Delete:
Unnecessary description: Include just enough description to show the readers the most important characteristics of a place, a character, or an object while contributing to the story’s overall tone. If you have to clip out a particularly beautiful description, write it down and save it—you may be able to use in another story!
Scenes that don’t move the plot forward: If you think a scene might not be necessary to the plot, try crossing it out and reading through the scenes before and after it. If the story still flows well and makes sense, you can probably delete the scene.
Characters that don’t serve a purpose: You might have created a character to make a story seem realistic or to give your main character someone to talk to, but if that character isn’t important to the plot, they can probably be cut or merged into another character. Look carefully at a character’s extra friends, for example, or siblings who don’t have much dialogue.
3. Come up with an interesting title. Most editors, and readers, will check the title of the story first to determine if they want to continue reading. Pick a title that will intrigue or interest your reader and encourage them to read the actual story. Use a theme, image, or character name from the story as the title.
- For example, the title “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” by Alice Munro is a good one because it is a quote from a character in the story and it addresses the reader directly, where the “I” has something to share with readers.
- The title “Snow, Apple, Glass” by Neil Gaiman is also a good one because it presents three objects that are interesting on their own, but even more interesting when placed together in one story.
4. Let others read and critique the short story. Show the short story to friends, family members, and peers at school. Ask them if they find the story emotionally moving and engaging. Be open to constructive criticism from others, as it will only strengthen your story.
- You can also join a writing group and submit your short story for a workshop. Or you may start your own writing group with friends so you can all workshop each other’s stories.
- Once you get feedback from others, you should then revise the short story again so it is at its best draft.