How to Write a Short Story

Edited by Acebrock, Ben Rubenstein, Waited, Sondra C and 200 others

For any writer, the short story is the perfect medium story. While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, just about anybody can craft and, most importantly, finish, a short story. That does not mean that short stories are easy to write, or that they aren’t as artistic and valuable as novels. With practice, patience, and a passion for writing, they can be every bit memorable as their much longer cousins. We'll give you some ideas on how to make it happen, or help you get through creative doldrums. Read on!

Part One: Writing a Short Story

1/ Collect ideas for your story. Inspiration can strike at any time, so carry a notepad with you wherever you go so that you can write down story ideas as they come to you.

Most of the time, you’ll just think of small snippets of information (a catastrophic event around which you can build a plot, a character’s name or appearance, etc.), but sometimes you’ll get lucky and a whole story will reveal itself to you in a couple of minutes.

If you have trouble finding inspiration, or if you need to write a story in a hurry (for a class, for example), learn how to brainstorm or if you can't come up with any ideas you might have to look to family and friends for inspiration.

Experience usually helps to build good plots. Many of Isaac Asimov's mysteries came from experience of certain incidents.

2/ Begin with basics of a short story. After you've chosen an idea, you need to remember the basics of a short story before writing one. Steps to a good short story are:

- Introduction: introduces characters, setting, time,weather, etc.
- Initiating action: the point of a story that starts the rising action.
- Rising action: events leading up to the climax or turning point.
- Climax: the most intense point or turning point of the story.
- Falling action: your story begins to conclude.
- Resolution: a satisfying ending to the story in which the central conflict is resolved—or not! You don't have to write your short story in order. If you have an idea for a great conclusion, write it down. Move backward or forward from your starting idea (it may or may not be the beginning of the story), and ask “What happens next?” or “What happened before this?”

3/ Find inspiration from real people. If you have trouble understanding or finding attributes of a character, turn to your life. You can easily borrow attributes of people you know or even strangers you notice.

For example, you might notice someone is always drinking coffee, they talk in a loud, booming voice, they are always typing away at the computer, etc. All of these observations would together make a very interesting character. Your character can even blend attributes of a number of people.

4/ Know your characters. For a story to be believable, the characters have to be believable and realistic. It can be a difficult task to create real characters that are interesting and realistic. But here are a few strategies to create "real people" to populate your story:

- Write a list, titled with the character's name, and write all the attributes you can think of, from their position in the orchestra to their favorite color. Know as much as possible about your characters, from what their central motivations are to what their favorite foods are. Do they talk with an accent? Do they have any quirky mannerisms? You won’t include all this information in your story, but the more you know, the more your characters will come to life, both for you and for the reader.

- Make sure your characters' personalities are not perfect. Every character needs to have some flaws, some problems, some imperfections, some insecurities. You might assume that people wouldn't like to read about a character with a lot of flaws, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. Batman wouldn't be The Dark Knight if he weren't a borderline sociopath!

- People can relate to characters with problems, as that's realistic. When trying to come up with flaws, you don't need to give your character some huge, bizarre issue (although you definitely can). For most characters, try to stick with things you know about. For example, the character could have anger issues, be afraid of water, be lonely, dislike being around other people, smoke too much, etc. All of these could be taken further in development.

5/ Limit the breadth of your story. A novel can occur over millions of years and include a multitude of subplots, a variety of locations, and an army of supporting characters. The main events of a short story should occur in a relatively short period of time (days or even minutes), and you typically won’t be able to develop effectively more than one plot, two or three main characters, and one setting. If your story has much more breadth, it probably needs to be a novella or novel.

6/ Decide who will tell the story. There are three main points of view from which to tell a story: first-person (“I”), second-person (“you”), and third-person (“he” or “she”). In a first-person story, a character in the story tells the story; in the second-person the reader is made a character in the story; and in the third-person, an outside narrator tells the story. (Second-person narration is rarely used.)

Keep in mind that first-person narrators can only tell what they know (which will be limited to what they see firsthand or are told by others), while third-person narrators can either know everything and explore every character’s thoughts, or be limited to only that which can be observed.

You can also mix-and-match. For example, you could switch between a first-person narrative in one chapter, and third-person in another, or even have more than one first-person point of view. An excellent example of this is the short story "Rashomon", by Akutagawa Ryunosuke[1]. This was later turned into a movie of the same name by Akira Kurasawa.

7/ Organize your thoughts. After you've prepared the basic elements of your story, it can be helpful to do out a time-line in some way to help you decide what should happen when. Your story should consist at least of an introduction, initiating incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. You can draw or write a visual with very simple descriptions of what should happen in each of these stages. Having this done will help you keep focused when writing the story, and you can easily make changes to it, so that you are able to keep a steady flow as you write the full story.

8/ Start writing. Depending on how thoroughly you’ve sketched out your plot and characters, the actual writing process may simply be one of choosing the right words.

Generally, however, writing is arduous. You probably won’t know your characters and plot as well as you thought, but it doesn’t matter—in a sense, they will tell you what they need, even if you paint them into a corner. Plus, there's always the second draft! 9/ Come out swinging. The first page—some would say the first sentence—of any writing should grab the reader’s attention and leave him/her wanting more.

A quick start is especially important in short stories because you don’t have much room to tell your story. Don’t dillydally with long introductions of the characters or uninteresting descriptions of the setting: get right into the plot, and reveal details about the characters and setting piece-by-piece as you go along.

10/ Keep writing. You’re almost certain to hit some bumps in the road to finishing your story. You’ve got to work through them, though. Set aside a time to write each and every day, and make it a goal to finish, say, a page each day. Even if you end up throwing away what you wrote on that day, you’ve been writing and thinking about the story, and that will keep you going in the long run.

Consider participating in writing groups or activities. One very good activity for writers of all kinds is "National Novel Writing Month," or NaNoWriMo.[2] Every year, from November 1 through November 30th, your are tasked with writing a novel of at least 50,000 words. Brilliance and quality are off the table—the goal is the act of writing. Check out the reference link for more information.

11/ Let the story "write itself". As you develop your story, you may want to turn your plot in a different direction than you had planned, or you may want to substantially change or remove a character. Listen to your characters if they tell you to do something different, and don’t worry about scrapping your plans altogether if you can make a better story as you go.

Part Two: Editing a Short Story

1/ Revise and edit. When you’ve finished the story, go back through it and correct mechanical mistakes, as well as logical and semantic errors. In general, make sure the story flows and the characters and their problems are introduced and resolved appropriately.

If you have time, put the completed story down for a few days or weeks before editing. Distancing yourself from the story in this way will help you see it more clearly when you pick it back up.

2/ Get some second opinions. Send your revised and edited story off to a trusted friend or relative for revisions, edits, and suggestions. Let your reviewers know that you want to hear their real opinions of the story.

Give them time to read it and think about it, and give them a copy that they can write on.

Make sure you consider everything that your reviewers tell you—not just the parts you would like to hear. Thank your reviewers for reading your story, and don’t argue with them.

Incorporate whatever edits, revisions, and suggestions you feel are valid. Your writing will be better if you can carefully consider constructive criticism, but you don’t have to follow all the advice you get. Some of the suggestions may not be very good. It’s your story, and you need to make the final call! 3/ Don't give up. It may be frustrating if you're having trouble writing. You can run out of steam, get angry at characters, and feel sad—or even a little guilty—when a beloved character is killed.

Just know that you will, in all probability, doubt your own writing skills at some point. This is totally normal. You'll feel it's not worth continuing, and that you should give up and become a waiter in a dive cafe. When these thoughts arise, they can easily take over and make you quit then and there.

One of the hardest tasks as a writer is to learn to squash those feelings and continue writing. When you begin to have these doubtful feelings, or get tired or bored, stop writing! You can get up, take a walk, get a snack, watch TV, or anything to relax. When you return, do so with a fresh mind. You may still not want to write, but tell yourself a few good things about your story—anything about it, from one good passage you wrote, to a well-thought out dialogue, to an interesting character—and congratulate yourself. You're doing something most people can't do.

If someone else knows about your story and has read it, they can also be a good source of encouragement. Just tell yourself that you will finish this story because you want to. It doesn't matter if the story isn't the best ever written—there will be others. If you have a goal to finish it, that's what you'll do.

4/ Read! Nothing can help you learn how to write a good short story better than reading good short stories. Note the style and how the author uses brevity to their advantage.

Reading a variety of authors and styles will help you learn how to adopt different "voices" for each story you write, and broaden your creative palette. Pay attention to how the authors develop their characters, write dialogue, and structure their plots. Here are some suggestions:

"I, Robot", by Issac Asimov.

"Steps", by Jerzy Kosinski.

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County", by Mark Twain.

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", by James Thurber.

"A Sound of Thunder", by Ray Bradbury.

"Three Questions", by Leo Tolstoy

"Brokeback Mountain", by Annie Proulx

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", by Philip K. Dick.

Note: many of these short stories have been turned into successful films, or have become familiar cultural references. For example, "A Sound of Thunder", the most re-published sci-fi short story of all time, introduces us to the "butterfly effect." Philip K. Dick's stories have given us Blade Runner ("Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep"), Total Recall ("We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), Minority Report ("Minority Report"), A Scanner Darkly ("A Scanner Darkly"), and many others. It is important to have all these elements in order so you can have a head start of ideas to work with.


- If you're having trouble brainstorming, try making a web or table; create about five main sentences for your short story. It might help to do a "free write" which is to simply write or type everything that comes into your mind for a certain time period, say between 5 and 30 minutes.

- Do a brain storm before writing anything.

- While you may sometimes want to scrap a story, make sure you’ve got a really good reason—not just an excuse—to do so. If you’re just stuck temporarily, try to work through it. Sometimes you’ll come up with another idea that you’re more excited about. You may want to work on the new idea, but if this happens frequently, it can turn into a problem: you’ll start a lot of stories, but you won’t ever actually complete one.

- Is there a song or type of music that gets you connected to the emotions and events you want to convey through your writing? Try playing some during or before you start writing.

- You may not need or want to go through the brainstorming and pre-writing work; many writers skip these steps, and you may find going through all the steps of the writing process superfluous. That said, everybody should try pre -writing at some point, even if it’s just once. Also, without planning beforehand, it is very unlikely you will have a good story.

- Make sure you couldn't have ended your story earlier. Every reader hates a book that is right about to end, but drags on for another paragraph or two.

- Short stories are sometimes best ended with a cliffhanger. What really happened to Douglas Quail (aka Quaid) at the end of "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (aka Total Recall)?

- Develop your own style. Your unique voice will only come through practice. You can start by imitating other writers or, if you are trying to write for a particular genre, you can try to tune your thoughts to that frequency.

- In the end, though, you just need to write voluminously to develop your voice.

- Stories have at least two timelines. There is the order in which the events occurred, and then there is the order in which you reveal them to your readers.These timelines don't have to be the same.

- Think carefully about all the elements of a story, for example main character, setting, time period, genre, supporting characters, enemies and conflict, and plot.

- If something's running through your head, be it about home, or your dog, write it down and expand it. This works almost 100% of the time.

- You can write about a past event or a fantasy that you have. A really good way to write about a past event is to think of an event that occurred and change it to be maybe more exciting, and to your liking. Your main character can be an adaptation of yourself or someone you know. But be careful, because real people are often not as dynamic as story characters.

- Do research. If you are trying to set a story in the 1950's, research the family dynamics, clothing, slang, etc. of the period. If you try to write without knowing the background of what you are writing about, the story will probably seem amateurish, and people who know the era will not hold back their critique.

- Make sure you don't work your mind too hard at any one time. If you're having trouble coming up with ideas, just do something else. Come back to your story after a few hours or after a good night's sleep, and you'll be amazed at what you can then come up with!

- Can’t find friends or relatives honest enough to tell you what they really think about your story? Consider joining a writers’ group, where you can learn tips and tricks from other writers and get (hopefully) quality critiques. You can probably find a local club, but there are also online groups.

- Design a format. This is not particularly necessary unless you are showing it to other people. For instance: Is the story in center alignment? Are there chapters? Do the fonts differ? Are there paragraphs? Do you indent at the beginning of each paragraph? All of the above things are simply ideas that can help to organize your writing for better results if shown to others.


- Don’t get discouraged. If you’re trying to get your story published, it will most likely be rejected. Rejection is a big part of being a writer; sometimes it’s warranted, but sometimes it’s not. Be proud that you have completed a story and keep practicing your craft if you enjoy it.

- Short stories are the hardest kind of fiction to write. You have to do everything that happens in a novel (introduce characters, create conflict, develop characters, resolve conflict) inside of twenty or thirty pages.

- Respect the genre. It isn't easy.

- Don't get lazy about spelling and grammar. Show the readers you know what you're doing by presenting an error-free story. At the very least, run it through a spelling and grammar checker. It won't miss "their" and "they're" mistakes, but may flag the wrong use of "its."

- Ideas cannot be copyrighted, only the expression of ideas. Besides, there are only so many plots. Feel free to borrow the broad outlines of any masterpiece—every writer does it.

- Don't become too proud of your story after you've finished it. Don't set yourself up for disappointment, which, in all likelihood, will come—especially if you submit the story for publication. Instead, remain professionally detached from it.

- Don't get lazy about writing. Don't end the story with the reader still confused. Cliff hangers are okay, but only if you are planning to write a second book, or as in the case of "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale", if the cliffhanger is integral to the story.

(Sources and Citations:
↑ http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/196-akira-kurosawa-on-rashomon
↑ http://www.nanowrimo.org/)