How to Write a Short Story
A short story is a genre of prose, normally composed in a narrative manner, which is smaller than a novel and usually has only one storyline. It is often what many writers start their career with, later moving on to more challenging and extensive prose genres. It also usually has a limited number of characters and, unlike a novelette or a novel, it evolves around one major problem, conflict or event. However, unlike an essay, a short story can develop such an event, problem or conflict into a variety of directions, or show it from different perspectives as seen by the characters in the story.
Short stories can be written in a variety of styles, whether it is science fiction, fantasy, realism, psychodrama or any other stylistic preference. It may be written from a first person perspective, or from the perspective of a detached narrator, or from the different perspectives of characters in the story. It may include dialogue, or may be totally based on the author’s words. It can be based on real-life events and experiences, or can be completely fictional.
There are no strict limitations or rules when it comes to short story writing. One limitation however, is dictated by the very definition of a short story and is directly related to its length. Sometimes, one may start writing a short story, but later extend it to a full-blown novel by introducing more characters and covering more events than a short story can cover.
Steps of Writing a Short Story
- Any short story starts off with an idea arising from an event, conflict or situation: in other words, the general vision of the plot.
- Once you have an interesting idea in mind, think of the general setting where it could take place. Describe the setting for your story, introducing vivid details and specific descriptions, as if you were writing a screenplay and composing a set of instructions for the director and the crew.
- Next, think of your main characters. Create a profile for each of your story’s main heroes and/or villains, including information about their personality, typical behavior, looks, style and manner.
- Move onto creating a list of the supporting characters and their connection to the main characters. You can draw a scheme similar to a family tree in order to visualize the links between the different characters in your story.
- Once the list of characters is developed, create an outline or plan of events in your story.
- Now you can start writing your short story by progressively covering the steps created in your outline. Make sure to consult your graphical scheme of characters in order to avoid mixing up their names and relationship to each other.
- Finish your story, lay it aside and then re-read it a bit later. It often happens that after a break of a week or two, an author is able to look at their story from a more objective and fresh perspective, and comes up with a better ending, or changes some events in the plot to make the story a lot more interesting.
Key Points to Consider
- A lot of people who first attempt to write a short story wonder how long a short story should actually be. Well, there are no specific restrictions as to the number of words or pages. However, the rule is that a short story normally focuses on one major event, even though it may describe some minor incidents that lead up to it, and has a limited number of characters. Think of a short story as an intermediate genre of prose, half-way between an essay and a novel.
- When the plot has been invented, decide upon a sequence of events and use specific time-words to guide the reader: at first, before, during, eventually, at once, while, until, suddenly, among others. Make sure to set the scene at the beginning of your story. Check whether your introductory part answers all of these questions: what happened? Where and when did it take place? Who was involved?
- Your description of the event, people and their appearance, places and objects is key since the readers will conceive their imaginary pictures based on your words. Therefore the more specific, bright and unusual your adjectives, adverbs and nouns are, the more vivid the picture will be in each reader’s mind. You can experiment with various techniques when describing the details. For instance, it can be much more elegant to develop a character by describing their favorite objects, the way they look and what they value, or even what they rave about. Don’t be too hasty and just give the description at the outset. Learn to develop your characters over time as the story evolves so that their actions speak for their personalities.
- There are various techniques of how to start and end your story. You can describe the weather, setting the mood for the events about to happen; you can use direct speech of your main characters, introducing them to the readers right away; you can create mystery or suspense by describing someone performing something without saying who it was and then go on to introduce all characters. The reader must then solve the question of who it was that you described at the beginning. You can even address the reader directly at the beginning or end of your story and, for example, ask a rhetorical question, such as: “Have you ever being to Prague in April? Seen the sunset over Vltava, or fed the pigeons on the Charles Bridge?”
Dos and Don’ts
- One rather common mistake is not developing your main characters enough. Even though it is a short story, you still need to develop at least the protagonist (main character) significantly so that the reader is able to understand why your protagonist does what he does, what he thinks and what motivated him, etc. These are crucial elements to help your readers empathize with the protagonist, which is normally the case.
- Changing the chronological order and constantly going back and forth in time is not a good idea for a short story. If you were writing a more extensive piece, say a book, and were more experienced as a writer, you could experiment with the sequence all you want. However, with a short story, it is best to describe events either as they occurred, or in reverse order (but choose one option only), so that the reader is able to easily follow the plot and be involved in the story together with the protagonist.
- Rushing into writing and being too ambitious about your speed is a common mistake that many beginners repeat. You might be mislead by the size of the short story and think that it should not take you more than a day or two of dedicated writing to complete it. However, literary writing differs from academic writing in that it requires a lot more time to let your ideas soak, mature and ripen. You will need to come back to your piece a few times and refine it, rewrite some parts, and perfect your story until it is ready to be presented to a wider readership.