5 Tips for Writing Short Stories

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How to write great short stories

As difficult as it may be to write an entire novel, short stories are their own challenge. When writing short stories, you have a limited amount of words to use to draw your readers in, engage them in your story, and make them care about your characters.

So how are short stories different from novels, and how do you write an effective short story that readers will care about? Read on for our tips!

What is a short story?

A short story is a fiction narrative ranging in length between 1,000 and 10,000 words. They are typically meant to be read in one sitting, whereas novels are anywhere from 50,000 words and up, and meant to be read over a longer period. Flash fiction is a type of short story that is typically less than 1,000 words. 

Short stories will still include all the common story elements found in novels: characters, plot, conflict, climax, etc., and may also include the common story beats found as well. However, short stories focus on a singular plot or one main event, rather than multiple plot lines or a series of events. They also have a much smaller cast of characters than novels and often occur within a shorter time frame.

Tips for writing short stories

Focus on critical characters

When writing short stories, you want to limit the number of characters in the story. The shorter the story, the smaller the cast should be. Sometimes you may have a short story with just one character following a brief moment in their journey or internal conflict. Focus on the characters that matter the most. You have little time for developing extra characters, so if a character isn’t essential to the story, you’ll need to cut them out or consider merging them with an essential character.

Center the story around one pivotal event or slice of life

You don't have much time to engage readers in a long, drawn-out plot, so your story has to move quickly. Choose one pivotal moment in your protagonist's life to be the center of your story. What is the climactic event of your hero's life? What is the moment they will go through a major change? That is what your story should be about.

For example, Roald Dahl's story "Lamb to the Slaughter" is centered around the main character, Mary, learning that her husband is leaving her, and her actions in the immediate aftermath— the entire plot takes place over just a few hours. Similarly, in Jhumpa Lahiri's "A Temporary Matter," the main characters learn that "for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight p.m.," and these five nights without electricity are the backdrop for the story's events.

You can also focus your story on one element from the hero's life, rather than a particular time frame. Kristen Roupenian's short story “Cat Person” doesn't center around one specific day or week, but rather follows the protagonist over the course of one relationship.

Whichever you choose, ask yourself, why is this period of time in the protagonist's life worthy of its own story? Why is this their defining moment? Being clear on this will help you cut to the heart of the story quickly, without getting bogged down in unnecessary story elements.

Open with a strong hook

With short stories, you have to get into the story quickly, which means you need a strong opening hook or scene. This can be done in a few different ways. You can open the story in the middle of the action. This doesn’t have to be big, like a car chase or an epic battle. It can be as simple as your character losing their mascot head and trying to find it right before they’re supposed to go on for the half-time show. This is exactly how Justin A. Reynold’s short story, "Our Dill," begins. 

Other ways to open your story are by using your hook to set the story's tone, raising questions in the reader’s mind, or using the story's theme, lesson, or moral as the opening line. Here are a few examples of how Soman Chainani uses these different methods in Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales, his collection of short stories based on classic fairy tales.

On the first day of spring, the wolves eat the prettiest girl.

In the first story, "Red Riding Hood," he uses the opening line above to set the overall tone of not only this story, but the collection. This line informs readers they’re in for a dark and twisted retelling. These aren’t the classic fairy tales you’ve grown up with.

Six months ago, Magdelena had plans to marry a handsome prince, but then she was turned into a mouse.

This opening raises a lot of questions in the reader’s mind. Who is Magdelena, and why was she turned into a mouse? Will she be able to change back? Will she still marry the prince? These questions entice readers to continue with the story and get answers to their questions.

This first line from Chainani's story "Rapunzel," opens up with the moral or lesson the story conveys:

Beware the parent who craves a child in order to mend a broken heart.

In this cautionary retelling of the fairy tale, we see the problems that are caused between a parent and child when that parent tries to use their child to fix their broken heart. These opening lines are a great way to hook readers into the story.

Explore different writing styles

Don’t be afraid to experiment and try out different structures, formats, or POVs. This is the perfect time to play around and try something new. Write in omniscient POV or in poetry/verse form or experiment with visual art. Write using all dialogue or no dialogue at all. See where your imagination takes you!

The classic short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper," is written in the form of the main character's journal entries:

The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.
There comes John, and I must put this away,—he hates to have me write a word.

In addition to the narrator referring to her journal, the short paragraphs and frequent line breaks of the writing itself suggest a person recording their thoughts in a diary. In contrast, Daniel Orozco's short story "Orientation" is one long monologue addressed entirely to a nameless "you," as if you, the reader, are participating in the story:

You must pace your work. What do I mean? I’m glad you asked that. We pace our work according to the eight-hour workday. If you have twelve hours of work in your in-box, for example, you must compress that work into the eight-hour day. If you have one hour of work in your in-box, you must expand that work to fill the eight- hour day. That was a good question. Feel free to ask questions. Ask too many questions, however, and you may be let go. 

Each of these styles could potentially exhaust the reader in a novel-length story, but with short fiction, you have more freedom to play with unconventional narrative forms.

End on a powerful note

End your story once you know you’ve said enough. Find a moment in the story you want to leave readers thinking about. This can be once the lesson is learned so readers can ponder it once the story is done or once you’ve hit the tone you want your readers to leave with— joyful, somber, or melancholy. 

Shirley Jackson's famous short story "The Lottery," ends at what is arguably the climax: the moment when the lottery's "winner" is chosen, and the story's chilling twist is revealed:

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone. ” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

Jackson doesn't need to go into detail about what happens next— the real horror occurs in the reader's mind. By choosing to end the story there, Jackson creates a more powerful emotional punch than if she had spelled everything out for the audience.

You're ready to write your own short stories!

Focus on one or two crucial characters, find the defining moment in their lives, start and end your story on powerful notes, and give yourself the freedom to play with different narrative styles. You may find that you enjoy writing short stories as much as—or more than— writing novels!

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