How to write a great short story?

  • The average short story is 5,000 - 10,000 words long. They often feature in magazines and anthologies. A short story can be anywhere between 1,000 and 20,000 words in length.
  • You can craft a great short story in just a few steps. Start with emotion, and build plot, characters, and dialogue around the feelings you want to convey.
  • Short stories are often used as the basis for films. Total Recall, Brokeback Mountain, and A Clockwork Orange are all based on short stories.

Short stories are a great way for writers to get their footing before diving into a full-fledged novel.

You might think that it is easier to write a short story because it needs to be short and to the point. Yet, it can be difficult to craft and build an entire world and characters within such a short amount of time.

If you're asking yourself, "how to write a short story," you've come to the right place!

But before we get started…

What is a short story?

A short story is a work of fiction that can be read in one sitting, usually within the hour.

Neil Gaiman once defined them as “Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”

Many well-known authors started their careers by writing short stories and publishing them in magazines. People like Stephen King, George Martin, Ray Bradbury, and even Kurt Vonnegut kick-started their writing careers by writing short fiction.

To give you a sense of how long a short story is:

  • The average short story is 5,000 - 10,000 words long.
  • But they can be anything above 1,000 words.
  • Flash fiction (or microfiction) is a short story that is 500 words or less.
  • A longer “short story” can reach 20,000 words and anything more would enter you in the novella area.

How can I write a good short story?

Short stories are in demand by magazines, newspapers, blogs, and anthologies, and many of these publications pay authors for short stories.

Whether you want to try making money by entering contests, dipping your toes into self-publishing or simply practice writing, there are things you can do to get you started.

Here’s how to go about crafting a good short story in six step:

Step 1: Start With Emotion

When you're trying to figure out how to begin a short story, you're going to want to decide the emotion you want to convey to the readers through your piece. That emotion will be the feeling and impression your readers get when they read your story.

The type of emotion you're looking to convey is a bit more than the feelings we experience every day, such as happy, angry, sad, or excited. Instead, we're looking for emotions that run a bit deeper.

On your path to figuring out how to write a good short story, you need to choose a specific type of emotion that can be felt throughout your entire piece. Your readers will be able to use context clues to figure out the emotion you're trying to convey.  

Step 2: Outline Your Story

Your next task in how to write a short step by step is to craft an outline. An outline is crucial for short stories because you have limited time to hit all your plot points and reach the climax of your story.

You might be asking, "how to write a short story outline?"

Luckily, an outline for a story will be much easier than one for a full-length novel. You'll want to start by figuring out your point of view and how the story will begin. Make sure at this point you've also chosen a setting and are ready to build the world for your characters.

Decide what the main issues of your story will be and what events will take place. The best part is figuring out the climax of your story and all the falling action that ties everything up in the end.

One of the best parts about short stories is that they can end abruptly, or you can spend time crafting an ending for your characters. Ambiguity is popular when it comes to writing short story endings.

Step 3: Build Characters

Another great tip when you're writing a short story for beginners is to flesh out your characters before you start writing. After you've completed an outline, you will already have an idea of how many characters will be in your short story.

Now it is time to give them names, ages, backstories, likes, dislikes, and so much more. Figuring out as much information about your characters can help you to let them grow and change even in a short story.

Sometimes in a short story, characters do remain the same, but as a writer, you will want to know as much about them as possible so you can write them to the best of your abilities. It is a great way to put them in your world and let them help you tell the story.

Step 4: Write Your Story

You have everything prepared, and you're ready to start writing your short story. One thing you should remember is that each sentence within your short story is vital to moving the plot along. You have a short amount of time to hit all your plot points and finish up your story, so you don't want any wasted space.

Make sure that each of your sentences is building toward your emotion that you developed in the first step.

If you're trying to figure out how to write a short story in an hour, you might want to skip right to this step. Many writers can skip to the writing process so they can craft and develop their story as they go.

It could be a great idea to check out some book writing software to help you stay focused and keep track of your writing.

Step 5: Include Natural Dialogue

Dialogue within short stories needs to help move the plot along in some way. Yet, you also want to make sure that it comes across to your reader as a natural conversation.

When you're crafting your dialogue make sure to ask yourself if each sentence is necessary for your story. It could be crucial to cut things out to shorten your story even more.

If you're writing a short story for kids, you might want to include simple and easy-to-read dialogue. It is a great way to show them how conversations work and are constructed within a story.

Step 6: Edit Your Short Story

After you've finished your first draft, it is time to start editing. There has never been a time when the first draft turned out to be the masterpiece you thought it was going to be. Instead, you'll probably have multiple drafts of the same story, with each time getting better and better.

Each time you edit your story, you could be adding, subtracting, or proofreading lines within your piece. You'll find that over time you will enjoy the story that you're creating even more. There are ways you can edit your manuscript on a shoestring budget!

When you're done editing, and you're ready to release your piece to your readers.

You’re probably going to submit it or try self-publishing. We have a comprehensive guide explaining the costs involved with self-publishing. If do go down that route, you will need a cover art. Learn more about our book cover design services.

How many paragraphs is a short story?

There is no defined number of paragraphs in a short story, as it’s up to the writer to decide how to structure their manuscript.

Generally speaking, if you’re expecting to write ~5,000 words, you could be looking at 25 paragraphs if they are 200 words long.

What is the shortest short story ever written?

Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway won a bet by writing the six-word story “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” This hasn’t been substantiated so don’t quote us on this!

Never the less, these few words can really create an emotion, build a feeling around the character and potential conflict.

5 popular movies based on short stories

Unsurprisingly, many great short stories have been adapted for the big screen. Check out the list, you may spot some you didn’t expect!

  1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) - based on Brian Aldiss’s “Supertoys Last All Summer Long”
  2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) - based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
  3. Total Recall (1990 & 2012) - based on Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale”
  4. Minority Report (2002) - based on Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report”
  5. Brokeback Mountain (2005) - based on Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain”
  6. Arrival (2016) – based on a story included in Ted Chiang “Story of Your Life and Others”
  7. A Clock Work Orange (1971) – based on Anthony Burgess’s “A Clock Work Orange”
  8. Children of the Corn (1984) – based on a story included in Stephen King’s “Night Shift”

Crafting great short fiction

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to master how to write a short story. You'll be able to craft your characters, setting, and create a plot to attract the type of audience that you want even in a short amount of time. If you want to learn more about structuring your story and how many chapters it should be, we have e guide on that too!

Our guide on writing compelling stories goes in a bit more depth, so you should go and check it out!

Be sure to use these tips the next time you sit down to write your short story.

You can get a quote from us on your book cover design, no matter how long or short your piece is!

Advice from a published writer

Maggie Holman, Save The White Stag

Put the reader straight into the situation at the start. You don't have time to build gradually to the conflict and scenario, as you do with a novel.

This article is always evolving and being updated regularly by our expert writers. Information featured in it has been fact-checked and verified.
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