Short stories are hugely underappreciated. Most writers don’t know how to write short stories in general.
They pack just as big a punch as some novels in less than a quarter of the space, and they’re one of the best tools a writer has in their arsenal for improving their craft. Maybe you’re a strict novelist and you’ve got no interest in writing short stories, or maybe you’re a new writer wondering whether short stories work for them. Let’s break down a few pointers on writing short stories.
- Plot: because short stories take less time, they’re a great way for an author to practice complete narrative arcs. When writers start and abandon multiple novels, they’ll get really good at starting stories, but struggle with resolving tension.
- Prose: short stories have fewer words, so each word needs to matter, especially when you get into shorter short stories like flash fiction and microfiction.
- Publishing: practice in publishing short stories can get you ready to publish something bigger and more cost-intensive, whether you’re self-publishing or finding an agent.
Now that we’ve broken down the reasons why everyone should be writing short stories, at least as a writing exercise, let’s do a deep dive. In this article, we’re going to talk about what short stories are, how to write them, and how to get them published.
1. How Long is a Short Story? What’s In it?
By definition, a short story runs between 5,000 to 10,000 words. Anything longer than 10,000 words starts to veer into novella or novel territory. However, there are some short stories as short as 1,000 words. Some people also group flash fiction (about 1,000 words or less) and microfiction (less than 300 words) in with short stories, while others consider flash and microfiction to be their own category.
The advice in this article applies to short stories, flash fiction, and microfiction alike, so whatever you’re looking to try, this will apply to you!
Short stories are complete unto themselves and should follow one central character through a complete arc.
A Few Famous Examples:
- “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
- “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe
- “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
There’s no genre limit to short stories. You can write a sci-fi short story, a fantasy short-story, or a Western–anything goes, as long as it’s under 10,000 words and it tells a complete narrative.
Now that we know what a short story is and we have a few examples to reference, let’s get into how to write one ourselves.
2. How to Write A Short Story
Short stories and novels are very different mediums, but in many ways, the writing processes are very similar. Just like for a novel, the first thing you’ll need for a short story is a solid idea. If you’re not sure how to get an idea or if nothing’s coming, you might need a brainstorming session.
In the brainstorming stage, you’re coming up with new ideas to write about. Don’t worry too much about outlining, marketability, or anything else–this stage is just for getting some ideas on the page and getting those creative gears turning.
There’s lots of ways to brainstorm, and no one way is objectively correct. Like everything else, it’ll be a matter of figuring out what works for you.
4 Brainstorming Methods to Generate Some Short Story Ideas:
- Stream of consciousness: try sitting down and writing for short bursts of time uninterrupted. Set a timer for five minutes and write literally whatever comes to mind, even if it’s just ‘I can’t think of anything to write.’ If five minutes is too long, try a minute, or even thirty seconds. Something will eventually work its way free for you to develop into a short story!
- Word Map: if you’re a visual person, word mapping might be perfect for you. Start with a core concept–it could be an image, a person, a taste, whatever you want, and draw a line out from it. Write down whatever else comes up when you think of that thing. Keep going until you’ve got something you can work with.
- Visiting Old Favorites: if you’re really just feeling uninspired, take another look at some of your favorite stories. Watch a favorite movie or revisit the best passage from your favorite book! Consuming great art is often what inspires us to make our own. This doesn’t mean you should copy it, but listen to how you feel when you consume it. What do you want to make? Write it down!
- Writing Prompts: If nothing else works, it can never hurt to try a writing prompt! SPS has a ton of writing prompts for you to try out. Feel free to tinker with them to fit them to the sort of story you’d like to tell–don’t feel like you have to follow these prompts exactly. They’re just to help you get started!
Alright, so now you’ve got your idea, be a map of images or a paragraph of information. How do we turn this into a short story?
4. Outline Your Short Story
Believe it or not, outlining isn’t just for novelists! Short stories can still get pretty wordy–remember, it’s up to 10,000 words–and whether you’re writing something quick or something more technically complicated, it can still be a huge help to have a roadmap to back you up.
You don’t necessarily have to follow your outline every step of the way. Think of it as a safety net. It’s there if you need it, even if you end up veering a little off-course. Having an outline helps you visualize each point in your story, and it minimizes the chances that you’ll lose your way. Why not give it a try?
Popular Outlining Methods:
- Storyboard: again, this one’s for our visual learners. Lots of directors and screenwriters use storyboards to map out their scenes, but these can be helpful for fiction writers, too! Block off a comic strip and try drawing out your scenes. These can be artful renderings, or they can be labeled stick figures–the objective isn’t to create a compelling piece of comic art, but rather to see your story mapped out in front of you.
- Bullet points: if you’re looking for something a little more streamlined and low-fuss, look no further. Grab a piece of paper or open a new Word doc and make a bulleted list of what you want to happen in your story. Get as detailed as you want, or keep it as vague as you prefer, but it’s helpful to at least get the inciting incident, climax, and resolution down as reference points.
- Graph It Out: this sort of meshes the storyboard method and the bullet point method. Grab a story graph and write all the events in your story along the key points–not every story will line up exactly with ‘rising action, climax, falling action’ beats, but these can at least help you see where your story is going and how you’ll get there.
A note on shorter fiction: remember those super short stories we talked about, flash fiction and microfiction? Often, these pieces don’t necessarily follow a full narrative arc, but instead capture a mood or convey a feeling. Since these stories don’t always have room for a full outline, a helpful outlining step might be to note what emotion you’re trying to convey, or what image you’d like to focus on.
5. Drafting Time
You’ve got an idea, an outline, and you’re ready to draft! It’s time to take all of your story points and convert them to prose. There’s no hard and fast rule for how you should draft, but there are a few helpful things to keep in mind while you’re putting your short story down on paper for the very first time.
A Few Elements For Short Stories:
- Drama: you don’t have a lot of space in a short story, so a dramatic premise will help leave an impact on your reader.
- Hook: a short story should start strong and grab the reader. Think of it as buckling up for the ride to come–while a novel can have a more meandering start to let the reader settle in, a short story needs to get going as soon as possible.
- Depth: Novelists might be used to having lots of room to explore their themes, but a short story demands conciseness. This doesn’t mean you keep things simple, though. A short story should still include nuance and complexity, even if the word count isn’t as high.
6. Get Your Short Story Published
Congratulations! You wrote a short story! Whether you intend to publish it or not, you’ve just learned a new skill and added a new tool to your writing arsenal.
If you write novels, it might not make sense to bother publishing a short story, but short story publications can offer exposure for new authors and experience in breaking into the industry. Plenty of famous novelists also write short stories–Stephen King and George R.R. Martin are just two contemporary examples.
There are plenty of options to consider when it comes to short stories. You can publish each on its own, or you can publish a collection.
- Submitting to literary magazines/anthologies: this will involve finding magazines or anthologies to publish your short story. Websites like Submittable will give you a list of magazines currently accepting publications, but be sure to check whether they’re open and whether your short story matches the required word count and formatting.
- Self-publishing: you can, of course, always self-publish your short stories! Publishing somewhere like Wattpad or even posting microfiction on Twitter is a free, accessible way to get your work out there, but you can also try publishing short story collections for a profit. Consider what works best for you! Keep in mind that some magazines won’t accept stories that have been published elsewhere, including social media, so be careful about what you decide to post.
It’s important to note that these routes aren’t mutually exclusive, and if you’re trying to make a name for yourself, it’s probably best to submit as many places as possible. Even so, before you submit your story to the first magazines you see on Submittable, here’s a checklist to consult:
- Does my short story match with what they’re asking for? Sometimes, magazines make a call for specific genres or themes. It’s probably best not to send your adventure sci-fi to a magazine asking for contemporary romance pieces.
- Are they asking for submission fees? As a general rule, it’s best to avoid submitting to magazines that require fees, unless you personally know that they’re a reputable group. These fees can get expensive if you’re submitting to lots of places at once.
- Can I see my work alongside their other publications? Take a quick second to click through their past issues and see if your short story fits in. This is also a good chance to check quality. While it can be tempting to submit your short story to anyone in the world who will take it, it’s important to remember that they need to fit you, too.
In summary, while it’s important to make sure you’re a good fit for the anthology, magazine, or page to which you’re submitting, it’s also important to make sure they’re a good fit for you. It’s better to wait on a good fit than to submit somewhere that might not be ideal.
With these tips and tricks in your arsenal, you’re prepped to write a stellar short story. Do you have any additional advice for fellow short story writers? Let us know down below!