How to write a short story
The short story is a fiction writer’s laboratory: here is where you can experiment with characters, plots, and ideas without the heavy lifting of writing a novel. Learning how to write a short story is essential to mastering the art of storytelling. With far fewer words to worry about, storytellers can make many more mistakes—and strokes of genius!—through experimentation and the fun of fiction writing.
Nonetheless, the art of writing short stories is not easy to master. How do you tell a complete story in so few words? What does a story need to have in order to be successful? Whether you’re struggling with how to write a short story outline, or how to fully develop a character in so few words, this guide is your starting point.
Famous authors like Virginia Woolf, Haruki Murakami, and Agatha Christie have used the short story form to play with ideas before turning those stories into novels. Whether you want to master the elements of fiction, experiment with novel ideas, or simply have fun with storytelling, here’s everything you need on how to write a short story step by step.
Step 1: Planning
To know how to write a short story, you first need to understand what one is. Let’s start by answering the obvious question: how long should a short story be? Unfortunately, it’s not a question that’s easy to answer. Some say that anything that is between 500–7,500 words is a short story. Others say anything less than 10,000 words. Though, to add to the confusion, if you’re looking to submit short stories to magazines or online publications, most will set word limits that fall somewhere between 500–4,000 words. However, don’t worry too much about word limits when you start. Instead, focus on mastering short story outlines and then you can begin to worry about wordcounts (more on that in a bit).
Now we have a better idea of how long a short story can be, or at least, when a short story is too long, let’s look at what else we need to write a short story. Much like any story, short stories require conflict.
Conflict is when your main character wants something or wants to achieve something, but there is an opposing force or obstacle that stops them from having it. It can be anything from escaping a scary house to pursuing a relationship with someone or becoming a world-famous ballerina. Conflict can come in the form of a villain (or antagonist) or a societal issue (corrupt governing body, issues within society such as racism, homophobia, etc.) to name a couple of examples.
Before you start to write a short story, you need to know what your point of conflict is. While the process of writing a short story can be very similar to writing a novel, there is a difference that may come as a shock to any ‘pantsers’ (those who make up the story as they write). When writing a short story, you need to have an outline of what you want to happen. Not only does it help to know what you’re writing about and to avoid rambling but, by having an outline, you’ll have a clear pathway through your story and have the foundations of one which is well-paced.
If you’re a writer who likes to ‘go with the flow’, this may prove a challenge. To adapt to this change, have a clear idea of what you want your story to look like then add in ‘stepping stones’ to keep you on track.
A good rule of thumb is that the longer the short story is, the more that can happen. It might sound obvious, but a lot of people will try to cram in additional scenes or parts to a story that messes with the overall quality. When starting with short stories, it can help to stick to a simpler outline, at least until you become more used to the structure and can experiment a bit more.
When you first start writing short stories, it can be tempting to add in additional details that deviate from the key plot points (especially if you’re coming from a novel-writing background) so, by keeping your first short stories briefer, you’ll learn to recognise what parts of a short story are necessary to include and what is filler. If you find that your idea keeps growing and mutates as you plan, you may have accidentally come up with an idea for a novel rather than a short story. Save it for later and then have another think.
Short Story Writing Tools
Writing anything – short fiction, novels, nonfiction – can be daunting and difficult. Sometimes the shorter pieces are even harder than a novel-length work because you don’t have as much wiggle room.
This can come in the form of human help from your fellow writers, or you can turn to some writing software to guide you. There are many options when it comes to this, but I can recommend two that will no doubt help you create the best short story possible.
All of these things can come in handy when you are writing a short story. Depending on the style and genre of your story, you may need to do a lot of research despite the shorter length.
However, we are human and we make mistakes. Grammarly is there to help you through the editing process. Once it scans your work, it will pick out the spelling and grammatical errors, and show them to you.
In addition to pointing out the errors you’ve made, it tells you how to fix them. These can be small things like an unnecessary comma or a missing period. But, a lot of little things can add up.
Grammarly makes your writing better, but it also makes you a better writer. It will fix up your current writing, and if you pay attention to the corrections it makes, you can start learning from your own bad habits.
Grammarly is an effective editing tool for all types of writers, fiction or otherwise. It cleans up your work fast. This saves you time, improves your craft, and helps you remain professional and polished.
A good place to start is with this writing prompt generator. It offers you more than 500 options to inspire a story. Use the prompts for a first sentence idea or to solidify the end of the story. Sometimes creating that satisfying ending first actually helps you develop the rest of the plot.