Writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Rudyard Kipling have shown us the power of the short story to fascinate as well as impact readers. But how can you harness the same power in your own writing?
The short story is an ideal starting point for beginners thanks to its limited word count, and there are many reasons to write short stories. But don’t let the low word count fool you: it’s actually a perfect way to challenge yourself to be concise, yet effective.
In fact, some writers assert that the skill of telling a full-length story in a short time is more difficult to learn than writing it out in a longer novel.
How Long Is a Short Story?
Most short stories are consist of 2,000 to 5,000 words. “Microfiction” falls anywhere below 2,000 words, and might even wrap up neatly below 500 words.
Short stories generally do not exceed 8,000 words, but some writers have written longer ones that went up to 20,000 words.
Any longer than 20,000 words and you start to enter novella territory, which start at around 30,000 words.
What Is the Structure of a Short Story?
Although a short story definitely does not have the numerous plot points that a full-length novel includes, it still boasts many of the same key elements in its story structure.
A story becomes most intriguing when it begins in media res, a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things.” Because short stories are limited by time, writers normally deliver the exposition within the action.
Alternatively, a short story structure known as the Fichtean Curve opts to skip the exposition and instead goes straight to the rising action.
Without conflict, there is no story. Conflict is considered the most crucial part of any story, and for short stories, this must be clear right from the get-go.
Because short stories have time limitations, writers face the challenge of crafting high-tension narratives that show the reader the rising stakes.
Here, the story rises to its peak, where the most exciting events take place, leading towards the eventual resolution.
Another word for denouement would be the conclusion or ending, with a resolution to the problem or conflict that was introduced in the first part of the story.
How to Write a Short Story
Novel-writing techniques include creating character profiles and making an outline of the plot. While this also helps in crafting a short story, the keyword is “short.”
This means that you will likely only need one or two major events in your story.
A blog post on Reedsy sums it up neatly by quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald as saying:
“Find the key emotion; this may be all you need.”
So without further ado, here are the steps to writing a short story:
Step 1. Get to know your character.
Although a short story does not trace a character’s journey in depth the way a novel does, it’s still important to get to know your character.
Characters drive stories, whether they are full-length novels or short stories. So take the time to develop them. You may create a character profile to help you get started.
Whereas character development in novels can take quite a while to unfold, such as through a full character arc, in short stories, you will likely only be able to focus on one aspect of your character. If you can visualize the overall process of transformation, choose one aspect to zoom in on.
Sometimes, the story itself focuses on the unveiling of only one aspect of the character’s personality. This does not make it any less powerful; on the contrary, the focused exploration may resonate more deeply with your readers.
Step 2. Decide on your main point.
What is the main point you want to show through your story? What feeling do you want your readers to have after reading it? What transformation do you want to take place in their hearts?
No matter the length of your work, the main skill to focus on is storytelling. The best storytellers can sum up their story in one or two sentences. Think of your story through this angle and write a short summary before you start writing.
Step 3. Outline your story.
Although a short story outline will obviously be simpler than that of a novel, don’t underestimate the power of writing an outline. Your story outline will give you a logical flow for your writing.
The main points you need to include in your outline are:
- The point of view (POV) you will use
- How the story starts
- How you will escalate toward the main issue
- What the climax is
- How the main issue is resolved
- The closing or ending
Having a clear outline in place will help you tie up loose ends nicely instead of just having the story end too abruptly and leave your readers hanging.
Step 4. Start in media res.
As mentioned above, the Latin term “in media res” means “in the middle of something.” Use this as the opening scene for your story: start where something is already happening. Nothing is more boring than some narrative where nothing is taking place.
Also, note that the best place to start is when the action is something out of the ordinary. For example, an opening scene where someone finds a mummified dead body in a deserted yard will definitely pique readers’ curiosity more than just a description of a boy having a normal breakfast of eggs and toast.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every story should start with gory details. Anything unusual is an attention-grabber. For example, see this opening passage from L.M. Montgomery’s short story entitled “The Miracle at Carmody,” from The Chronicles of Avonlea:
Salome looked out of the kitchen window, and a pucker of distress appeared on her smooth forehead.
“Dear, dear, what has Lionel Hezekiah been doing now?” she murmured anxiously.
Despite the ordinary feel of a woman looking out of a window, the her distress is clear and calls out the readers’ curiosity.
Step 5. Start writing and keep writing.
Many writers say they’re writing a novel or a story, but they’re far from finishing it. Start writing and commit to writing every day until you reach the ending.
The important thing to remember is to just keep writing and don’t think about editing at this stage. Writers who edit as they go end up stuck with too many changes and revisions that they never get to the end.
Besides, editing a completed story will give you a greater feeling of satisfaction than erasing and replacing words or whole passages in a half-finished work.
Step 6. Edit your short story.
Now that you have the finished story, your next step is to edit. First, edit it on the story level, then by scene, and ultimately, by sentence and choice of words. Things you need to look out for include:
- Make sure you keep a consistent point of view
- Check your use of tenses to see if they make sense
- Replace weak verbs with stronger alternatives
- Ruthlessly edit out unnecessary words
- Check that you show more than you tell
- Check your spelling, grammar, and dialogue
Step 7. Give your story a title.
Some writers think of the title first before writing the story, but most of us tend to brainstorm better titles after we’ve completed the story. Some questions to help you think up an appropriate title are:
- What’s the story about?
- What unique thing does my story show?
- What words can intrigue readers without giving everything away?
- What thoughts come to mind after I read my story?
Thinking through these questions will help you think up a title that’s catchy while being a logical descriptor of your story.
Step 8. Ask others for feedback.
Both expert and amateur writers benefit from feedback. Someone else’s comments on your work will give you a better picture of how effective you have been in conveying your message.
Find trusted friends or beta readers to give honest feedback on your work. Better yet, find a writer you respect that might be able to give you feedback not only on the story but also on your writing in general.
Step 9. Write more short stories.
Practice makes perfect. Although nobody can claim to have perfected the art of writing, consistent practice will improve your writing. Write another story, then another, and another. You will find that the more you do it, the more the process becomes second nature.
How Do You Write a Short Story in One Day?
Now that you know the steps to writing a short story, nothing is more satisfying than finishing a story, sharing it with others, and seeing them moved by your message.
Practice writing a short story in one day by blocking off time. You might want to compile a list of ideas beforehand so that you can just follow these steps and write the full story in one sitting.
What To Do Next
There are many literary journals and magazines looking for great material. But if you’re not interested in publishing your story in journals or on your blog, the important thing is that you keep writing!
Have you ever written a short story? Tell us about it in the comments below!