How to Write a Short Story in 10 Steps

If writing a novel feels too daunting, start with a short story! Writing short fiction allows you to test out your story ideas and develop your own creative writing style while having a clear endpoint in sight. It’s not necessarily easier to write a great short story than it is to write a book, but working on a smaller scale can feel more manageable.

Renowned mystery writer Edgar Allen Poe claimed that the power of the short story form comes from its brevity. He believed short stories are designed to be read in one sitting, which allows the reader to become fully immersed in the fictional world, without interruption. Considering most short stories are between 1,000 and 7,500 words, each sentence needs to work extra hard toward creating an overall mood and meaning. With a little practice and patience, you can craft a story with compelling characters, surprising plot points, and a memorable conclusion. Check out our short story writing tips to get started.

1. Read all kinds of short stories

Before you start writing, get to know the work of your fellow short story authors! Reading should become part of your creative process—for literary inspiration and for concrete examples of plot structure, story pacing, and dialogue. Pay attention to each author’s word choices, even the way they put together sentences. The goal is not to imitate someone else’s storyline or characters or style, but rather to broaden your understanding of the short story format. You will discover a million different short stories, but upon closer look you’ll notice they have elements in common. Start with a few well-known short stories and popular short story collections to build your own reading list today.

Read all kinds of short stories

2. Establish a clear setting

When writing a short story, it’s important to establish a clear setting. Simply put, this is “when” and “where” the story takes place. In literary terms, it can be so much more. The location and time period can be used to set up the character’s dilemma or motivation at the outset of the story or to establish a sense of mystery or oddity. Just make sure the details are consistent (for example, if the action starts inside a car, the characters cannot walk away mid-scene). The setting doesn’t have to be revealed in the first sentence, but after a page or two, your reader should be able to identify a historical time and place, even if it’s as simple as: a diner in a small town, present day.

3. Create memorable characters

When you’re just getting started with writing your short story, it can help to sketch out the traits of your protagonist (main character). What do they look like? How would you describe their personality? Could you list their hopes, fears, quirky habits, likes and dislikes? What does an average day look like for them? What do they find challenging or rewarding? Even if some of these details are not explicitly revealed or included at all in the story, it is important for you to know the answers. Readers will connect with the people in your story, so you want to create believable characters with their own set of strengths and faults.

Create memorable characters and settings

4. Select a unique opening line

The first sentence of your short story is like an invitation to your reader. It sets the mood for the rest of the action. Think about mentioning a person, a secret, an obstacle, a question, a conflict, or even a statement that piques interest. You may want to write an opening scene which is particularly significant or dramatic for the protagonist, even if the situation feels ordinary to someone else. This is also your chance to choose a point of view for the story. Will your main character be telling the story in first person (“I” statements), or will there be an all-powerful narrator? As an experiment, write the first paragraph of your story, then go back and switch the perspective just to see how it affects the tone of the story.

5. Plan the ending in advance

Some writers find it helpful to outline the major plot points, characters, and scenes in their short story. Regardless of what your planning phase looks like, knowing where your characters and story will end up can help you make the most of every moment that comes before. For instance, you may want to build suspense with foreshadowing (hinting at upcoming events through descriptive imagery or symbolism, plot details, flashbacks, or character dialogue). It’s hard to foreshadow unless you know what happens next! Creating tension and anticipation keeps your audience emotionally invested and wanting to read more.

Plan the ending in advance

6. Use consistent language, tone, and style

Since you only have a short time to create an emotional impact, using consistent language is key to short story writing. If you start off using a lot of flowery, formal language and complex sentences, then switch to simple, conversational diction (word choice) and short sentences, it can be jarring for your reader. Likewise, if the tone of your story changes from ominous to lighthearted to comedic over the course of a few paragraphs, your readers will be confused. Also, make sure the story is written in the same verb tense and doesn’t fluctuate between past and present (unless it’s a flashback scene). You want to use literary techniques like imagery, point of view, and figurative language (metaphors, similes, idioms) to strengthen your story theme, not distract your readers.

7. Read dialogue aloud

Just because we talk to each other all day doesn’t mean writing good story dialogue is simple! Beginner writers often fall into the habit of including unnecessary greetings (“Hello, how are you?” “Hi, I’m fine.”), overly formal phrases, or repetitive information. These extraneous bits of conversation can make an otherwise great scene fall flat. Instead of talking around the issue, just dive right in. What questions feel most urgent to your character? Think of someone you know with the same personality and focus on how they speak. A great remedy for editing dialogue is to find a friend to run lines with you out loud. With real speakers, you can hear what sounds natural and where to pause.

Run dialogue with a friend

8. Include a turning point or climax

A traditional story arc includes exposition (description), rising action (a series of events that create tension), a climax (peak moment of conflict or crisis), and a resolution. However, a lot of contemporary short stories begin in the middle of the action (in medias res). No matter what plot structure you choose, captivating short stories involve a moment where the character faces a major conflict. This turning point or climax should add tension and show the true nature of your character. Consider your favorite fictional characters from literature, movies, or television and think about what motivates them. Do they act out of fear, love, redemption, desire, vengeance, jealousy, ambition, justice?

9. Get feedback to help you revise

Every author reaches the moment of writing when it’s time to stop and ask for help. Receiving constructive feedback can be a tremendous gift for a story writer. You can give someone a list of areas to focus on, and practice editing your own work at the same time. Are there too many characters or changes in setting? Try to streamline the story by combining characters or cutting extra scenes. Do you have long descriptive passages that are not advancing the plot or adding substance? Challenge yourself to make one strong sentence out of five weaker ones. Is the dialogue revealing new character details or key plot points? If not, trim those unnecessary lines!

10. Choose a captivating title

Don’t rush this step when writing your short story. A strong short story title can create intrigue, introduce key images, and even convey the tone or theme before the first sentence begins. Some authors use a phrase or important symbol from the story to serve as the title. You don’t want to give all your story secrets away here; you want to show just enough to grab your reader’s attention. Let this task be fun, and make a list of possible titles you can add to as you write and revise your story.

 

Do you have a work of fiction ready for print? Design a Trade Book to showcase your short story collection! Our free, desktop software, BookWright, comes with built-in tutorials to help you through the design process.

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