But before we dive into these exact methods for how to write a short story, let’s talk about why any and all writers should learn how to craft solid, captivating short stories, even if your end writing goal is to write full-length novels or even nonfiction.
Why All Writers Should Learn How to Write a Good Short Story
There’s a lot more to writing short stories than you may think. Just because they’re shorter in length doesn’t mean it takes any less skill to execute a good one.
In fact, being able to tell a full story in such a short amount of time arguably takes more skill than writing a full-length novel or nonfiction book.
That being said, why is it beneficial for all writers to learn how to write a short story?
#3 – It makes the story sections of your nonfiction book more captivating
Every nonfiction book has portions where stories must be told in order to get the point across.
This is what allows people to relate to you as an author, which pulls them in deeper and makes the core message of your book resonate with them more.
But if those stories are weak, not well-written, and lackluster, it’s unlikely someone will enjoy them as much.
It’s also likely that your message will get lost because the book doesn’t carry the same impact.
How long are short stories?
Short stories should remain below 7,000 words in order to be considered a “short story.” They can be as short as only one sentence, as this is known as flash fiction.
You already know that short stories are…shorter than your average novel but do they have any other difference?
Here’s a chart detailing the main differences in how many words are in short stories, novels, novellas, and nonfiction works.
Type of Writing
Pages in a Typical Book
100 - 15,000
1 - 24 pages
"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry
30,000 - 60,000
100 - 200 pages
"A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess
60,000 - 100,000
200 - 350 pages
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone": by JK Rowling
120,00 - 220,000+
400 - 750+ pages
"Game of Thrones" by George R.R. Martin
As you can see, the main difference is length, but that’s not all. When you write a short story, you’re only writing a very impactful snippet of your character’s otherwise full life.
You don’t have to unpack your entire character’s life story in a few hundred words in order to write a great short story.
How to Write a Short Story
If you’re ready to tackle this avenue of creative writing or you just want to learn how to write a short story to strengthen the overall quality of your book, here’s how you can do that.
#1 – Focus on Character Development
In order for a short story to be impactful, you have to know your character well. Having good character development is essential in short stories, since your characters often drive the story.
You only have a certain amount of time to show your readers who that person is and you can’t do that if you don’t even know who they are.
Think about it.
If you write a short story about your best friend, whom you’ve known for many years, versus writing one about someone you just met yesterday, you’ll be able to craft a much stronger story about your best friend because you know them so well.
The same goes for your fictional characters.
You don’t have to spend a ton of time on your main character, but know their history, age, personality, family life, friend life, love life, and other details that shape the way someone sees the world.
Above is an example of what a character arc typically looks like in a full novel.
Keep in mind that since your short story is, well, shorter than a novel, you may remove a few steps. Knowing the overall character journey, however, can be helpful for character development within short stories.
#2 – Outline
Thankfully, the outlining process for a short story is much easier than a full novel, but I do still advise creating one in order to have a cohesive flow throughout the story.
This is definitely useful for those of you who prefer outlining versus just writing by the seat of your pants.
Here’s what your outline should encompass for a short story:
The point of view you’ll use
How you’ll start the story
How you’ll get from the beginning to the main issue
What happens at the “climax” (yes, even short stories have one!)
Resolution of the main issue
The very end
Keep in mind that your short story can end very abruptly or you can flesh it out until there’s a satisfying ending.
This is really up to you as an author to decide.
#3 – Start with something out of the ordinary
In order to hook readers with a short story, you should start with something that’ll catch someone’s attention right off the bat.
Because we’re automatically intrigued by the fact that people don’t normally go around collecting roadkill.
Now, you don’t have to start your short story with something as strange as that but you do want to give your readers a sense of who your character is by depicting something different right away that also has to do with the core focus of your short story.
Take this short story called The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, for example. This author starts with a very low money amount and then hits you with the fact that it’s Christmas the very next day.
This is out of the ordinary because many readers understand that having such little money (scraped up money, at that) right before Christmas isn’t typical. It’s odd – and also hits their emotions right away.
#4 – Get the draft done ASAP
Done is better than perfect. We’ve all heard or read these words time and time again – and that’s because they’re important; they’re true.
This is especially the case when it comes to short stories. Once you have your outline and know how to start writing, drafting the short story in full comes next.
Don’t worry about editing or polishing the story up in any way right now. After all, you can’t possibly make good edits until you know what the story looks like in full.
That would be like matching your earrings to your pants without first having the full outfit put together. You don’t know if those earrings work well with it until you see what else you’ll be wearing.
It’s the same for writing. Focus on getting your draft done so you can move on to the next step.
#5 – Edit your short story
Editing is where the real magic happens when it comes to writing. We all have this idea in our minds that we’ll get it perfect the first time and that’s just not how writing works.
Most of the time, your first draft is just the bare bones of what’s to come but through line editing, developmental edits, and proofreading, it will transform into something better.
Think of the actual writing as the wooden structure of a house and the editing as the drywall, paint, windows, light fixtures, doors, and anything else that’ll make the house complete.
Showing versus telling (readers need you to show more!)
The editing process for short stories is pretty much the same for novels. The only difference is that short stories tend to focus more on imagery and exposition than they do full character and plot development.
#6 – Title it!
This can be one of the most difficult things for any book, let alone a story that’s only a few hundred to a few thousand words.
The good news? Short story titles are a little less important than titles for novels. They can also be very abstract.
What you want to think of when titling your short story is this:
What’s the overarching theme?
What is something unique about the story?
What sounds intriguing but not explanatory?
What makes sense after reading the short story?
These questions will help you develop a title that not only makes sense, but is also intriguing enough to pull readers in while staying true to what the story is about.
#7 – Get feedback
No matter how experienced (or inexperienced) you are as a writer, you need feedback.
In order to learn and improve and ensure your message is coming across as desired, you need someone else’s fresh eyes on it.
Here’s an example of what feedback might look like if you’re using Google Docs to write your short story:
We need this help because the simple fact is, we’re too close to our writing.
It’s impossible to read your story with a critical eye when you’re the one who came up with and wrote it in the first place.
Allowing others to read your work and offer feedback is one of the best ways to improve and make sure your story is exactly how you want it.
#8 – Practice by writing short stories often
The number one best way to learn how to write good short stories is by writing them often.
When you’re writing regularly, your brain falls into the habit of being creative and thinking in terms of short stories.
The more you do it, the easier it will get and the more you’ll improve. So focus on writing a certain number of short stories per week and stick to that – even if they aren’t your favorite.
#9 – Write one short story every day for 30 days
This is separate from writing short stories often. If you really want to kickstart your progress and get really good quickly, then create a challenge for yourself.
Write one short story, whether it’s 500 or 1,000 words, per day for an entire month.
When you’re done, you’ll have 30 full short stories to review, edit, and improve upon. Doing this not only builds a habit, but it also gives you a lot of experience quickly.
After those 30 days, you’ll know more about how you like to write short stories, which mean more to you, and how to write them to be good.
#10 – Focus on a single message to share
Short stories are known for being impactful even though they’re not novel-length.
And that means they have to have a core theme or message you want to get across. This can be anything from loving yourself to ignoring societal expectations.
In order to do this, think about what you want people to walk away from your story feeling.
What is the desired outcome?
If you just want people to enjoy the story, that’s great. However, what makes a story impactful and enjoyable is what readers take away from it.
Brainstorm some themes that are important to you and work your short story around them. This will not only make you care about your story more (which means it’ll be written better), but it’ll also make ti more satisfying for readers.
#11 – Tie it up with a satisfying ending
Nobody likes a story that ends on a major cliffhanger.
It’s okay for your short story to have an unresolved ending. In fact, that’ll likely be the case simply because the story is…well, short.
But you do want to tie your story up in a way that leaves the reader feeling satisfied even if they didn’t get all the answers.
Many times, this means circling back to an idea or element presented in the beginning.
This structure often allows readers to feel as though they’ve read a complete story versus just a snippet of a larger one.
Now that you know how to write a short story, it’s time to put these new skills to the test with some short story ideas guaranteed to produce something interesting and intriguing.
Here are 20 short story ideas to take your writing to the next level:
Your character opens the mailbox to find their biggest fear inside.
After a devastating fall, your character is learning the hardships of healing after an accident.
Your character accidentally insults their company’s CEO – right before a big promotion.
Your character lost a child years ago but lives as if it just happened the day before.
Your character’s village wise woman tells the story of how magic was lost due to abuse.
Your character lives in a space pod traveling space, and they’re also claustrophobic.
Ash floated from the mountaintop and awoke your character from their night’s sleep.
Your character hasn’t eaten in days and stumbles upon real berries, and so does a starving bear.
When your character’s heart is broken, they must find a way to heal it – any way.
Your character is an orphaned 7-year-old who hears voices.
Your character just found out they have a rare disease…that hasn’t been detected anywhere in centuries.
After a fight with their ex, your character decides to go on a trip to the neighboring town that hosts very…unusual tales.
Your character accidentally runs into the wrong person on the street…and now they can’t sleep at night.
When your character moves schools, they didn’t expect to find a secret lurking throughout the school…that all the teachers know about.
It’s your character’s turn in their culture’s ritual of fighting a lion barehanded. They’ve never been good in fights.
After extreme weather conditions plague your character’s town, they finally leave home to find everybody has gone missing.
Your character is in the back of an ambulance, trying desperately to revive someone who’s apparently dead…so why are they still away and breathing?
After a short stint at a hospital as a nurse, your character decides to take their skills to the mountains as a wilderness medical professional. They just didn’t expect to find odd and interesting injuries among campers.
An apple appears at your character’s front door every morning and they can’t figure out who’s putting it there.
When an avalanche quakes the mountains in your character’s town, it unveils something that’s been hidden for…millenia.
Tips for Writing with Short Story Ideas:
Sometimes short story ideas are enough but if you want to utilize them effectively, keep these tips in mind:
#1 – Keep it simple and focus on a single portion of a character’s life
#2 – Make sure the reader has a clear picture of your character right away
#3 – Focus on the theme and message you’re trying to get across
#4 – Let the short story idea create a life of its own
#5 – Be unique and think of many possible endings to the story before outlining
Now you know how to write a short story! It can seem a little scary, but with these tips, you’ll be off to creating some really captivating stories.