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If you’re looking to improve your writing skills in general or even learn how to write your first novel, you may have heard that writing short stories is a good way to start. But if you’re not sure how to write a short story, it can feel intimidating to begin. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. And we’re here to tell you that writing a good short story is easier than you think.

So, what’s a short story anyway, and how exactly do people write them?

We’ll guide you through everything you need to know about short stories, starting with what a short story is, the elements of a short story, the types of short stories, and six steps to start writing your first short story today.

pen on paper, writing "once upon a time"

What is a short story?

A short story is a type of prose fiction. By “fiction,” we mean that the characters and events in the story aren’t real. That said, a short story can also include events that happened in real life. This type of writing is historical fiction.

By “prose,” we mean that a short story isn’t a type of poetry with verses, rhyming, meter, and so on.

Short stories typically focus on a single plot incident or a series of closely linked incidents. They also tend to evoke a single mood, whether the mood is dark, happy, or mysterious. This is very different from a novel, which can involve many complicated plotlines and evoke many moods throughout.

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In addition, short stories often have fewer characters compared to novels. Short story characters are fully developed, but their interactions are limited to advancing the plot and evoking the mood of the short story.

Finally, short stories are usually meant for reading in a single sitting. Most short stories are between 5,000 and 10,000 words long, though some can be as short as a few hundred words or as long as 30,000 words.

How to write a short story in 6 easy steps

While writing your first short story shouldn’t take as long as writing your first book, it’s not always easy. That’s because short stories are so focused. There’s a single theme, a single mood, and a single conflict. So, if you’re having a hard time with your first short story, you’re not alone. Here are six easy steps to help you along as you write your short story.  

1. Pick a moral or theme for your short story

Remember that the moral or theme of the short story acts as a framework for everything else. That’s why it’s a good idea to think about a theme first. Will your story’s theme be about having the courage to be vulnerable? Or will it be about the power of love and family over money and possessions?

Writers rarely lack the overriding desire to change the world with the stories they tell. A moral argument doesn’t mean that you have to be religious and tell a religious story. It just means that you have something you believe is important for people to know, do, or believe, and you want to use the vehicle of a story to communicate it. What do you want to communicate to your reader about how people should behave in the world? 

Another way to think about it is realizing that all stories are about a conflict between good and evil. Your moral argument is the way your character overcomes a specific evil. Though the opportunity for character development is limited in short stories, your character should have a moral dilemma in the beginning that they solve by the end of the story, and how they do this is your theme.

Whenever you feel stuck during the writing process, think about your theme and how your characters or plot event can help readers better understand the theme you’ve chosen.

2. Develop a small cast of characters

It’s easier than you think to create a long list of characters, heroes, and villains for your story. But the trick to writing a short story is to keep the character list short. Each character you create should play a vital role in your story.

A rule of thumb is that a short story needs just two or three characters: a protagonist, a supporting character, and sometimes an antagonist.

The protagonist is the main character in your short story. The reader cares about your protagonist and will want to cheer them on during the story’s conflict. At the same time, no character is perfect. Your protagonist should have a weakness that makes it harder for them to win the conflict and keeps the readers in suspense.

Your supporting character is also on the side of your protagonist. Supporting characters, also called relationship characters, help the protagonist grow as a character so that they can triumph in the story’s conflict.

If your conflict involves two people, your short story should also include an antagonist, or villain. Readers need someone to root against in a conflict, and this is the main purpose of the antagonist.

3. Create an intense conflict

While characters are important in any short story, conflict is what brings those characters to life. Conflict will be the main source of tension and suspense that keeps your readers’ attention. Conflict is also what helps characters change and grow by the story’s end.

A short story only needs one conflict, and the readers should know what it is from the beginning. That said, even a single conflict can make an intense story. Don’t be afraid to put your characters in bad situations to show what they’re made of. Your readers will love it.

4. Write for the senses

It’s true that short stories are very plot-driven, but that doesn’t mean you should leave out the imagery. Transport readers to the world of your short story by describing how everything smells, feels, looks, and tastes.

For example, consider this line:

“The smell of gingerbread woke her from her nap.”

Then compare it to this one:

“The aroma of the warm spices wafted down the hall and pulled her from her sleep.”

The more you describe your world, the more your readers will be right there with you.

5. Proofread, revise, and edit your story

After you’ve written your story, you want to make sure you’ve produced a polished narrative, which means reading it through again and making sure your sentences flow, your dialogue sounds authentic, and there are no mechanical errors.

6. Start writing. Anything.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The perfect is the enemy of the good?” This is quite true when it comes to writing. It’s all too easy to feel like you can’t write down anything unless it’s perfect the first time. We suggest the opposite. The next time you sit down to continue your short story, write down what comes to mind. It doesn’t have to fit with what you’ve already written. It doesn’t even have to be in complete sentences. Start writing words, paragraphs, or even pages. Then look back at your work and start editing. Fill out the missing words and the plot gaps and delete what doesn’t make sense. Before you know it, you’ll be in your writing zone and totally immersed in the world of your short story.

Elements of a short story

Short stories have been around for thousands of years and are popular in every culture today. While there are many different styles and types of short stories, almost all short stories share the same basic elements:

Character

A character is a person or animal involved in the events of a short story. Characters interact with each other based on their personalities, motives, and what they know about other characters.

A character can be one-dimensional or multidimensional. One-dimensional characters have one personality trait that affects everything they do. A stereotypical fairy-tale villain is an example of a one-dimensional character. On the other hand, multidimensional characters have several personality traits that sometimes conflict with each other. An example of a multidimensional character might be a greedy businessman who also cares about his family.

Characters in short stories are less complex than those in novels. Short story writers add to their characters’ personalities only when it will help enhance the mood or move the story’s plot.

Point of View

Point of view (POV) is the angle from which your story is told. Will your main character tell the story or will someone else? Will the one telling the story even be a part of the story or just be an outside observer? There are three main POVs you can choose to tell your story from:

Setting

All stories have to happen somewhere. The setting of a short story is the time and place where the story takes place. But keep in mind that the setting is more than just a specific place. For example, if your story occurs in a house, it’s important to know the country or region too. At the same time, the setting should include the general time period and the time of the year or even the time of day.

Short story writers can use setting as a very effective literary device to express the mood of their short story. For example, a story that happens on a winter night in a lonely mountain village already conveys a dark, ominous mood. But a story set on a spring day in a prosperous town expresses a cheerful mood.

Conflict

A conflict is a problem within a short story. For example, in O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi,” a married couple wants to give each other expensive gifts but can’t afford to do so. Thus, poverty is the main conflict in this short story.

The main characters are always on one side of a conflict in a short story. But there are several types of possible conflict. They include:

Most short stories end by ending, or resolving, the conflict. Typically, the main character comes out as the winner, but this doesn’t always happen. 

Plot

The plot is the series of events and actions that happen in a short story. The plot of a short story drives character interactions and develops the conflict. In fact, one way to think of the plot is as the glue that brings together the characters, setting, and conflict of the short story.

The easiest way to think about the plot of your story is to start with your protagonist. What is your main character’s flaw, and what is their goal in the story? For example, in the short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan, a story that was adapted into the movie “Memento,” the main character wants to find the person responsible for murdering his wife. 

The next thing to think through is what is opposing your character from reaching their goal? In “Memento Mori,” the main character’s inability to remember anything is his opposition to reaching his goal. In the movie adaptation, the opposition is compounded by antagonists who take advantage of the protagonist’s amnesia. 

The plot of your story is the journey your character goes through to overcome the opposition to reach their goal or not. In fact, your character may realize that the goal they were pursuing was the wrong goal and will end up reaching a different goal. Because of the brevity of short stories, your story will usually focus on one major story event that decides whether or not the protagonist reaches the story goal. Short story plots typically follow the structure below:

Just remember that you’re writing a short story, so you’ll have to move through these plot points quickly without making the story feel rushed.

Theme

The theme of the short story is the central point or idea of the story. Common short story themes include:

The theme acts as a framework for the short story, and all other parts of the story should relate to the story’s theme.

Types of short stories

Chances are that you’ve already come across many short stories throughout your life. Here are a few common types of short stories and their characteristics to help give you some short story ideas.

Anecdote

An anecdote is often called “a story with a point.” People write and tell anecdotes to express a message through a short narrative. By the end of the anecdote, the readers understand not only the story but also the larger point or “lesson” of the story. Typically, characters in an anecdote are people in believable situations.

Fable

While an anecdote involves humans and realistic settings, fables are the opposite. Almost everyone can think of a fable, which involve talking animals, legendary beings, or other fantastical elements. Fables can be set on Earth or take place in magical lands far away and long ago.

But, like anecdotes, fables are stories with a point. The main purpose of a fable is to convey a moral.

Feghoot

A vulture boards an airplane with two dead raccoons. The flight attendant turns to the vulture and says, “I’m sorry, only one carrion allowed per passenger.”

If you love puns, then you’ll love feghoots. This funny type of short story has one goal in mind: to lead the reader to a groan-worthy pun. And, of course, the best feghoot writers keep the reader guessing until the very end.

Flash fiction

On the shorter end of the short story spectrum is flash fiction. This type of short story is less than 1,000 words long. Yet just because flash fiction is short doesn’t mean it’s easy. Good flash fiction writers include all of the important elements of a short story in less than two pages of writing. That’s why flash fiction competitions are so popular all over the world. There are even competitions that limit short stories to 500 or even 100 words.

Vignette

A short story meant to be part of a larger story or work is a vignette. The purpose of a vignette is to focus on a single moment about one part of the larger story. This could be a particular character, idea, or object.

Writing a short story is easier than you think

Writing short stories is a lot of fun, and it’s great practice for writing longer stories. It forces you to focus on what’s most important to the story you’re telling, and you get the unmatched feeling of knowing you took a story idea from concept to completion. If you decide to start writing short stories, you’re in great company. Stephen King, arguably one of the greatest storytellers around, began his career writing short stories for literary magazines. You can begin your journey to writing success by writing short stories as well.
Learning how to write a short story can seem daunting, but we’re here to tell you that it’s easier than you think. Professional writers from all over the world help people like you become better short story writers through online courses, master classes, and seminars. Once you have mastered the art of short story writing, you’ll find yourself better prepared to learn how to write a novel too. All it takes is a little learning and practice.

Page Last Updated: December 2021

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