How to Write a Short Story: The 12 Most Important Steps

Posted on May 9, 2024

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Learning how to write a short story can help tremendously in the process of becoming a successful author.

Remember that becoming a successful author is a journey, many start with short stories, blogging, or even poetry before going on to writing a book.

You probably don’t think short stories are very hard to write.

In fact, you might be the type who assumes short stories are even easier because, well…they’re short.

But that’s just not the case (there’s an art to writing an amazing short story)—and I’ll tell you why in just a minute.

Short stories, and getting good at writing them, can actually set you up for success in other writing ventures as well. That’s why we’re showcasing the most important steps for writing a short story.

They may be difficult to get good at, but we’re breaking down how to make them much easier, and what makes for a good one to begin with.

Short stories are as popular as ever in 2024, as evidenced by the diverse and vibrant tales found in the compilation of this year’s O. Henry prize winners.

Want to learn how to write a short story, and get better at this style of writing?

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Our guide on how to write a short story covers:

  1. How do you find a short story idea?
  2. How do you develop characters in a short story?
  3. How do you outline a short story?
  4. How do you start writing a short story?
  5. How should you write the first draft of your short story?
  6. How do you edit a short story?
  7. How do you title a short story?
  8. How do you know if your short story idea is good?
  9. How do you get better at writing short stories?
  10. How can you make short story writing part of your routine?
  11. How can you use short story writing to share a message?
  12. How do you end a short story?
  13. Answers to frequently asked short story questions

Once you get through the steps for writing a short story, make sure to take a look at the short story ideas, tips for writing them, and common questions with answers all about short stories.

What are the 12 steps of writing 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.

Step 1 – How do you find a short story idea?

You can pull ideas from short stories from everywhere.

Former short story editor and now-published short story author (with 2 collections), Hannah Lee Kidder says, “The best short story ideas will always come from you yourself. Those are the ideas that you’ll care the most about and be able to bring to life the easiest.”

That said, we know it can take a trigger to come up with short story ideas that make you want to craft great writing around.

Ultimately, you’ll have the best results by tweaking any idea you have of your own, but we also wanted to provide some short story ideas to help you get started.

You can read our full guide to finding short story ideas here, but for now, here are three example short story prompts to get your ideas flowing:

1. A painter finds mysterious artwork in their old family home that seems to depict their own life.

2. In a world where memories can be bought and sold, a detective is hired to track down a valuable stolen memory.

3. In a coastal town known for strange legends, a writer becomes captivated by whispers of a hidden island paradise.

Sometimes short story ideas are enough but if you want to utilize them effectively, keep these tips in mind:

  • Keep it simple and focus on a single portion of a character’s life
  • Make sure the reader has a clear picture of your main character right away
  • Focus on the theme and message you’re trying to get across
  • Let the short story idea create a life of its own
  • Be unique and think of many possible endings to the story before outlining your story

Step 2 – How do you develop characters in a short story?

In order for a short story to be impactful, you have to know your character well. Character building is essential in short stories since your main 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. Creative writing techniques can help you bring out the best or most compelling things about your characters.

The same goes for your fictional characters.

But when writing a short story, you won’t have the same type of character arc as you would when writing a novel.

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.

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 your main character development within short stories.

Spend enough time on character development when you’re learning how to write a short story or improving your creative writing skills will pay off by introducing your readers to memorable characters.

Step 3 – How do you outline a short story?

Thankfully, the outlining process for short stories 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.

  • 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 the art of how to write a short story can close with something that ends 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. Practicing this for short stories can help you create an outline for your book, too.

Step 4 – How do you start writing a short story?

In order to hook readers from the start of your story, you should write an opening scene that’ll catch someone’s attention right off the bat.

Here’s what that looks like at the start of the short story:

Short Story Opening Example:

How To Write A Short Story - Opening Example

Odd? Yes. Attention-grabbing? You bet! This is how to write a short story with an opening that gets readers engaged, invested in your character, and motivated to read the entire story.

Because we’re automatically intrigued by the fact that people don’t normally go around collecting roadkill. It’s another place using creative writing examples can really help you draw in your readers in a short story.

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.

Short Story Opening Example

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.

If you want to learn how to write a short story, read the opening paragraphs of short stories. And pay attention to the many different ways writers hook readers.

Step 5 – How should you write the first draft of your short story?

Done is better than perfect.

That’s the best way to approach the process of writing a short story or anything else. 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. When you’re learning how to write a short story, resist the urge to get it perfect.

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.

The process of how to write a short story is rarely one-and-done but usually takes writing, rewriting, and editing to create your best work.

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Step 6 – How do you edit a short story?

Editing is where the real magic happens when you’re learning how to write a short story. 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.

These are a few things to keep an eye out for when editing your short story. The elements of story structure to look for include:

If you want to learn how to write a short story, editing is a necessary part of the process. So what’s that look like? 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.

Step 7 – How do you title a short story?

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?
  • Something unique about the story?
  • Sounds intriguing but not explanatory?
  • What makes sense after reading the short story?
  • What could be mysterious enough to be intriguing?

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.

It’s also great practice to help you come up with titles when you write and publish your book.

Learning how to write a short story includes learning how to write a great title or headline. And let’s face it, a great title or headline gets readers to pay attention. Put your creative writing skills to work here. Come up with a bunch of different titles, and ask our writing partners or target audience for feedback.

Step 8 – How do you know if your short story is good?

No matter how experienced (or inexperienced) you are as a writer, you need feedback.

To create your best work, it’s just part of the process when you’re learning how to write a short story. I know…it can feel scary. But feedback from the right people will help you make your short story better.

In order to learn and improve and ensure your message is coming across as desired, you need someone else’s fresh eyes on it.

Google Docs is a great option to write your short story and get feedback from others all in one place.

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. That’s just we’re wired when we’re learning how to write a short story or anything else. We need feedback to improve.

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. This is why writing partners and even beta readers are so important.

Step 9 – How do you get better at writing short stories?

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.

If you want to learn how to write a short story and get good at it…practice. 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.

Step 10 – How can you make short story writing part of your routine?

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.

Want to learn how to write a short story, get good at it, and write faster? Do this…

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 give 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. If you want to learn how to write a short story, give this challenge a try. Seriously, it’s just 30 days.

Step 11 – How can you use short story writing to share a message?

Short stories are known for being impactful even though they’re not novel-length.

Learning how to write a short story forces you to think of ways to take your reader on a journey in a much shorter space than a book.

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. When you understand how to write a short story this way, it will not only make you care about your story more (which means it’ll be written better), but it’ll also make it more satisfying for readers.

Step 12 – How do you end a short story?

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. It’s one storytelling strategy of how to write a short story and wrap everything up.

This story structure often allows readers to feel as though they’ve read a complete story versus just a snippet of a larger one.

How to write a short story – answers to frequently asked questions

Now that you know the steps to go from finding a short story idea to writing a satisfying ending, it’s time to go deeper.

If you’re curious about the ins and outs of short story writing, read on!

We’ve got you covered with answers to the most important frequently asked questions about short story writing.

Are short stories good for beginner writers?

For sure, short stories are a great starting point for beginner writers!

The shorter format allows you to experiment with different writing styles, themes, and characters without the commitment of a full-length novel.

You can explore your creativity, practice your writing skills, and build your confidence.

But it’s not just for beginners—short stories are a wonderful medium for writers of all experience levels.

Whether you’re a seasoned novelist or just starting out, you’ll find short stories to be a rewarding and fulfilling part of your writing life.

What are the elements of a short story?

Writing a short story involves combining several key elements to create a compelling narrative.

Here are the essential elements of a short story:

1. Characters: Your story’s characters drive the narrative, and it’s important to create well-developed, believable characters.

2. Setting: The setting establishes the time and place of your story, helping readers immerse themselves in your world.

3. Plot: The plot is the sequence of events that drives the story forward, creating tension and interest.

4. Conflict: Every story needs a conflict or problem that the characters must face and eventually resolve.

5. Resolution: The resolution is where the conflict is resolved and the story comes to a satisfying conclusion.

6. Theme: The theme is the underlying message or idea that your story conveys to the readers.

7. Point of View: The point of view determines who is telling the story and how it’s presented to the reader.

What makes a good short story?

Crafting a good short story requires a thoughtful combination of several key elements.

Here’s what makes a great short story:

1. Uniqueness: A good short story has a unique perspective, voice, or twist that sets it apart from others.

2. Emotion: A strong emotional connection between the characters and the readers is crucial for a successful short story.

3. Conciseness: In a short story, every word counts, so it’s important to be concise and avoid unnecessary details.

4. Climax: A well-timed climax creates tension and keeps readers engaged until the very end.

5. Impact: A good short story leaves a lasting impression on the reader, whether through a thought-provoking ending or a memorable character.

Is it hard to write a short story?

Writing short stories can be challenging, but it’s also an incredibly rewarding experience.

Like any form of writing, it requires practice and dedication.

Don’t be discouraged if your first attempts don’t turn out exactly as you envisioned. Keep writing, experimenting with different styles and ideas, and most importantly, have fun with it!

Embrace the creative process, and you’ll find that writing short stories can be a fun and fulfilling pastime. .

Can you write a short story in a day?

Absolutely, you can write a short story in a day!

In fact, many writers thrive on the creative energy of a tight deadline.

While it’s a challenge, it’s entirely possible to draft a compelling short story in a day by focusing on a single idea, keeping the plot simple, and embracing your creativity.

Remember, it’s okay if it’s not perfect—just get your short story down on paper, and you can always revise it later.

What should I not do when writing a short story?

While there are no strict rules in creative writing, there are some common pitfalls to avoid when writing a short story.

Here are five things not to do when writing a short story:

1. Overcomplicate: Avoid creating overly complex plots or introducing too many characters, as it can confuse readers in a short story.

2. Overexplain: Don’t spend too much time describing every detail; trust your readers to fill in the gaps with their imagination.

3. Rush: Don’t rush through the story, skipping important character development or emotional moments.

4. Preach: Avoid being overly preachy or moralistic in your story; let your characters and plot convey the message naturally.

5. Imitate: Don’t try to mimic another writer’s style; find your own voice and let it shine through your writing.

How do I know if my short story is high-quality and worth sharing?

Determining the quality of your short story can be a subjective process, but there are some practical ways to assess exactly that..

First, pay attention to your own feelings—do you feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment? Does the story resonate with you? If it does, that’s a great sign.

Share your story with trusted friends or fellow writers and seek their feedback. Positive reactions, emotional connections, or thoughtful questions are good indicators that your story is resonating with others.

Most importantly, remember that writing is a craft, and every story you write helps you improve. Celebrate your progress and keep honing your skills.

Where can I publish and share short stories?

There are many places to publish and share your stories, both online and offline – here are some options to consider:

1. Literary Magazines: Submit your stories to literary magazines like The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or Granta.

2. Anthologies: Look for open calls for anthologies in your preferred genre.

3. Self-Publishing: Publish your short stories as eBooks on platforms like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.

4. Blogs: Start a personal blog and share your stories with your audience.

5. Online Writing Communities: Share your work on platforms like Medium, Wattpad, or Reedsy.

6. Social Media: Share excerpts or entire stories on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

7. Writing Contests: Enter your short stories in writing contests to gain exposure and possibly win prizes.

8. Local Publications: Submit your work to local newspapers, magazines, or newsletters.

9. Reading Events: Participate in local reading events, open mics, or book clubs and share your stories with a live audience.

10. Writing Workshops: Join writing workshops or writing groups and share your stories for critique and feedback.

Remember, the most important thing is to keep writing, sharing, and enjoying the process.

The more you share your work, the more opportunities you’ll have to connect with readers and fellow writers.

Do short stories sell well?

Short stories can indeed sell well if they are crafted with care and resonate with a certain readership.

Many successful authors, like Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Jhumpa Lahiri, have found success with short stories.

While it may be more challenging to sell a single short story compared to a full-length novel, there are opportunities in literary magazines, anthologies, and online platforms.

Additionally, the rise of self-publishing and digital media has made it easier for writers to reach niche audiences and monetize their short stories.

Focus on crafting engaging, well-written stories that connect with readers, and you’ll find your opportunities. .

Is it worth writing and publishing short stories?

There’s a lot more to writing short stories than you may think. As a short story writer, keep in mind that just because they’re shorter in length doesn’t mean it takes any less skill to execute a good one.

Short story writers get this…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 worth learning how to write a short story?

1 – You learn the skill of showing

Short story writers have a challenge that requires some patience to overcome, but it’s worth it. When you only have a few pages to hook readers, paint a clear picture of the main character, and tell a story, you end up mastering the skill of showing instead of telling.

The reason for this is because, in order to accomplish a successful and good short story, showing is a major part of that.

It’s far too difficult to write a great short story without showing the details and using strong verbs to paint a clear image of your main character’s life.

Great short story writers understand the “show don’t tell” concept.

Those skills will transfer into anything you write, automatically making it that much better.

2 – You’ll strengthen individual chapters

No matter if you’re a fiction writer, short story writer, or if you prefer nonfiction, the idea here is the same.

A chapter is basically a short story that’s a part of a bigger whole. The same skills you apply to write a great short story will also help you write stronger chapters.

Each part of your book should be polished, strong, and enticing for your readers. Using short story writing methods will help you achieve that within your chapters!

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. It’s another part “how to write a short story” skills will help you connect with readers.

Keeping readers engaged from start to finish can feel like a tall order. But when you learn how to write a short story with a beginning, middle, end, and a message, readers will love you for it.

How long is a short story?

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 differences?

Here’s a chart detailing the main differences in how many words are in short stories, novels, novellas, and nonfiction works.

Type of writingWord countPages in a typical bookExample
Short story100 – 15,0001 – 24 pages“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
Novella30,000 – 60,000100 – 200 pages“A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess
Novel60,000 – 100,000200 – 350 pages“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: by JK Rowling
Epic Novel120,00 – 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 understand how to write a short story, you’re only writing a very impactful snippet of your main 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.

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