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 also commonly has a limited number of characters and, unlike a novelette or a novel, it revolves around one major problem, conflict or event.

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 solely based on the author’s words. It can be based on real-life events and experiences, or can be completely fictional.

Steps of Writing a Short Story

  1. Any short story starts off with an idea arising from an event, conflict or situation: in other words, the general vision of the plot.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Move onto creating a list of 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.
  5. Once the list of characters is developed, create an outline or plan of events.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 more interesting.

Key Points to Consider

  • 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, halfway 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 events, people and their appearance, places and objects are key since the readers will form their imagination based on your words. 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 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 for starting and ending a story. You can describe the weather, setting the mood for the events about to happen; you can use direct speech from 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 the characters. 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 been to Prague in April? Seen the sunset over Vltava, or fed the pigeons on the Charles Bridge?”

Do and Don’t

Do

  • Do work on your beginning meticulously. It is supposed to arouse the reader’s interest in your story.
  • Do decide upon a genre (comedy, drama, love story, horror, detective story, tragedy, etc.) before you start writing.
  • Do use the senses (smell, touch, sight, taste, hearing) to set the scene and help your readers become a part of the story.
  • Do blend some dialogue or monologue into indirect speech to make your story more vivid. Use direct speech when you are trying to speed up the story and show the fast development of the characters’ relationships. Accompany it with short indirect points specifying with what tone, intonation and manner the words were spoken to give a better idea of what each character actually meant.
  • Do use symbolic language to depict events, characters, moods, reactions and situations. Use changes in weather to draw a parallel between changes in the setting or moods of your main characters. Use metaphors, alliterations, similes, hyperboles, personifications, etc.
Don’t

  • Don’t start your story before having decided on the ending.
  • Don’t attempt to say it all. Leave some concepts for the readers to decide for themselves, for their imagination to finish up the painting of the imagery rather than giving away every detail.
  • Don’t start the story from the culmination of your conflict, unless you are attempting to use the flashback narration technique (in using that technique, you need to be an experienced writer). If you decided to describe events in the sequence they occurred, then think of some preliminary incidents and develop your story gradually, like starting with a white canvas, drawing a sketch, then adding more colors as you paint the details.
  • Don’t use just long or just short sentences. Learn to use the technique of changing the way you form sentences to insinuate a change of events and the speed with which they occur. Use shorter and more abrupt sentences closer to the culmination of your story to emphasize the tension and the strain of the situation.

Common Mistakes

  • One rather common mistake is not developing the 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 or she does, what he or she thinks and what motivates the character, etc.
  • Changing the chronological order and constantly going back and forth in time. If you were writing a more extensive piece, say a book, 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. 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.
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Samples for Short Story

Fathers and Sons

The other day I was sitting on a veranda and wrote some text for a website. A big mug of green tea stood on a table nearby, and my old laptop quietly murmured songs from the good old days, something bluesy, directly from the epoch of Kerouac, Bradbury, and...
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Sweeping the Zen Courtyard

Every other Saturday, Master Rick of the Seattle Zen Monastery asked me to sweep the courtyard with a brittle straw broom. This week was more than the usual load: pigeons had left their excrement over the courtyard–which meant I had to mop up their mess ...
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5/5