Monday, April 2, 2012

How to Write A Short Story

I haven't written a ton of short stories, but I've written more than a few. One of my short stories was published in a teen writers' magazine (What If? Magazine) and another short story of mine won 3rd place in a local short story contest.

Short stories are very, very useful. They are perfect for entering contests or submitting to magazines, or posting on sites like or TeenInk. They also help you with your writing. I think it's always good to write stuff that might be more of a challenge. It helps you grow in your writing. Also, if you win a contest or get into a magazine, you build up your "writing resume" if you will. So, if you don't think so already, I'll just tell you: get on with writing those short stories!

However... short stories are also a huge pain. I'm sure most writers like sticking to writing their novels, where they have all the time in the world to work on characters, plot, etc. I think that's one big reason why short stories are such a pain to write: you have limited time.

Over the years, through writing and reading some good short stories, I've learned a bit about writing them and I'm here to help you, with my limited expertise!!

Step #1: Read short stories.

There are some really excellent short stories out there. Actually, this one teen writers magazine I know of, The Claremont Review  has some really awesome short stories. (Anyone 13-19 can submit stories, and I found out recently that it does accept international submissions... the website is here). I'm sure if you search around in your area you can find a Writer's Guild or organization that makes short story collections. Please, please look for good short stories though. You'll know them when you read them.

Step #2: The idea.

I think one of the most difficult parts about writing a short story is the idea. How can you think of an idea that's so contained, that's so limited? Well, I've found there's a few good ways to do it.

1. Use whims of ideas

You know how when you get an idea just randomly like... I don't know... "it would be cool to write a story about the relationship between a brother and a sister". Then you think of how you could make that idea into an entire book. Well, while you're coming up with all these whims of ideas, sift through them and ask yourself: could I make this into a short story instead?

2. Use a scene from your novel

Some scenes in novels can work well just on their own as a short story, with a bit of tweaking. Go through your novel and try to think what scenes might work well as a short story.

3. Think of a topic or message you want to focus on

For our lame provincial English exam, we have to do a "writing task" for the final part. Usually I do a short story. But the exam always has a theme, and we have to do our writing task on that theme. The theme for one of my exams was "Choices" another, "Responsibility". I find sometimes it's easier to think of an idea when you have to stick to a certain topic.

Step #3: The story

I watched some video once on short story-writing advice. One thing they said I didn't agree with, and that was that it's OK to use "telling" in short stories. I would say don't do that, because you could end up writing a really terrible short story if you don't do it right. Also, I think it shows you're a better writer when you avoid "telling".

I think some people (uh, okay, I think I) have trouble writing short stories because you don't have much time or space to tell your story. If you keep in mind a few simple things, it's much easier to write your story.

You don't have to have more than one problem

You know how in a story, you're supposed to have Hurdle #1 for your characters, then Hurdle #2, #3, to infinity? Well, in a short story you can't have that. There is one hurdle. However, this doesn't mean your short story has to be lame and boring because the character only tries once and the hurdle has been jumped.

In a short story you can focus a lot more on that single hurdle

Sure, you only have one problem. But go in depth with it. You don't have to spend a lot of time on plot development or a whole lot of character or relationship development like you do in novels, so you can focus more on one problem. Get your short story characters down and dirty with that one problem. Show how the problem affects different characters, maybe. There's a lot more that you can do with only one hurdle than you think. But don't just do a sort of fable thing (like that story, uh, Tortoise and the Hare or something?) where it's Problem-Character Overcomes Problem-Character Learns Lesson. Go deeper.

Step #4: The end

And when you're done, you can dance!
oh wait... there's editing too...

Um... so I don't think I'm really qualified to talk about endings. I'm really quite terrible at them. I guess I would say... don't finish the story too late. Sometimes I think writers tend to go on with their story when it isn't necessary because everything is already been resolved. Oh, that's another thing...

You don't have to resolve everything

Just like a normal novel, not everything has to be resolved. I would say especially in short stories. When you're focusing on one problem or one message, you just have to choose what exactly you want to be resolved about that problem.

Like I said, I'm not really an expert on short stories but I thought I'd share what I've learned... feel free to share your own advice/opinions!

In your experience, what have you learned about writing short stories?


  1. For me it's easier to put more detail into a short story, especially when I draw on very person experiences/details. I think one reason I can make it more detailed is that the planning is shorter. I'm more of a pantser and when I right a novel after a while it's "then this happened, then this, then this..." It drives me crazy and I have to go back and edit before I can figure out where it's going again.

    Right now I'm trying a new method where I write my novel in sections and I treat each section as a short story. I guess my attention span isn't novel length, but my ambition is. A bit if a problem.

  2. Thank you...I have such an awful time with short stories. :P Poetry? Good. Novels? Good. Anything in between? Nope. Although I do love flash fiction.

    It's very hard to finish things, short stories included. Argh. I'm working on 3 short stories at the moment, all of which are on the backburner. 2 horror, one about a gas station holdup.

    It's useful to think about Aristotle's 3 Unities: time, place, and action. No longer than 24 hrs; nowhere it would take more than 24 hrs to get to (basically: one room or one house or one town); and a linear plot about one main action/conflict, with no subplots. Kind of limiting rules for larger and longer works, but they really work well for short and flash fiction.

  3. hello! I used to write short stories, i loved the short stories from Roald Dahl, do you know him? Is a great writer, I wish i wrote as well as him! i recommend you his books, bye!! have a nice day!

  4. M.E. - the exact same thing happens to me when writing longer stories - it just becomes one event after another, and I have to go back an edit. I have yet to convince myself that I would save myself a lot of time if I did more plotting before I wrote. :) I think that's a good idea, to treat each scene as a short story, although in some cases that might be tricky.

    Laura - You're welcome! I like those rules, and I think they would definitely work well for short story writing.

    Lali - Yes, I have heard of Roald Dahl... I haven't read any of his short stories though, I will have to look into it!

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