How to Write a Short Story in 12 Concrete Steps [Examples]


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

Be sure to check out our post on publishing short stories once you’ve mastered the writing part.

If you want to learn how to write a short story or be a better short story writer, you’ll have to go through these main steps:

  1. Generate your idea
  2. Know your character
  3. Outline your short story
  4. Start with something out of the ordinary
  5. Get your draft done as soon as possible
  6. Edit your short story
  7. Title your short story
  8. Get feedback about it
  9. Practice often
  10. How to write a short story every day
  11. Define your core message
  12. Write a satisfying ending

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 (including how long a short story is).

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How to Write a Short Story in 12 Full, Concrete Steps

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 – Come up with a strong 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.

Here are 20 short story ideas to take your writing to the next level:

  1. Your character opens the mailbox to find their biggest fear inside.
  2. After a devastating fall, your character is learning the hardships of healing after an accident.
  3. Character accidentally insults their company’s CEO – right before a big promotion.
  4. The character lost a child years ago but lives as if it just happened the day before.
  5. Your character’s village wise woman tells the story of how magic was lost due to abuse.
  6. Your character lives in a space pod traveling space, and they’re also claustrophobic.
  7. Ash floated from the mountaintop and awoke your character from their night’s sleep.
  8. Your character hasn’t eaten in days and stumbles upon real berries, and so does a starving bear.
  9. When your character’s heart is broken, they must find a way to heal it – any way.
  10. Your character is an orphaned 7-year-old who hears voices.
  11. Your character just found out they have a rare disease…that hasn’t been detected anywhere in centuries.
  12. After a fight with their ex, your character decides to go on a trip to the neighboring town that hosts very…unusual tales.
  13. Your character accidentally runs into the wrong person on the street…and now they can’t sleep at night.
  14. When your character moves schools, they didn’t expect to find a secret lurking throughout the school…that all the teachers know about.
  15. It’s your character’s turn in their culture’s ritual of fighting a lion barehanded. They’ve never been good in fights.
  16. After extreme weather conditions plague your character’s town, they finally leave home to find everybody has gone missing.
  17. 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?
  18. 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.
  19. An apple appears at your character’s front door every morning and they can’t figure out who’s putting it there.
  20. When an avalanche quakes the mountains in your character’s town, it unveils something that’s been hidden for…millenia.

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

#2 – 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 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 full-length 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.

#3 – Outline

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.

#4 – Start with something out of the ordinary

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.

Take Hannah Lee Kidder’s example from this video above. One of the short stories in her anthology, Little Birds, opens with a woman collecting roadkill.

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 creative writing skills 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.

#5 – Get the draft done ASAP

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.

#6 – Edit your 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.

#7 – 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?
  • 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.

#8 – Get feedback

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.

#9 – 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.

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.

#10 – 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.

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

#11 – Focus on a single message to share

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.

#12 – 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. 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.

Need help wrapping things up? Check out this VIDEO: How to End a Short Story and other valid concerns.

Why All Writers Should Learn How to Write a Short Story

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 beneficial for all writers to learn 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.
If you want to learn how to write a short story, getting clear on this will save you a lot of time.

Those skills will transfer into anything you write, automatically making it that much better. One more reason is that learning how to write a short story will help with other writing projects.

#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.

Why is writing good chapters important if there’s a whole book available for someone to read?

Because it hooks readers and keeps them turning that page.

And when readers look back on an entire book filled with incredible chapters, the entire book as a whole will be seen as being that much better. Spending time learning how to write a short story sets you up for success when you write your book or pursue other writing projects.

Hello, 5-star reviews!

#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.

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.

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 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 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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200+ Fiction Writing Prompts In the Most Profitable Genres

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Bella Rose Pope

Bella Rose Pope is the Content Marketing Specialist here at Self-Publishing School. While she's not whipping up content here, she's creating her own life (and teaching others how to) over at Own Your Ordinary, hanging out with her dog, and eating something with cheese! Give her a follow: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Youtube

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