How to write a short story: 10 steps to a great read

Writing a short story differs from writing a novel in several key ways: There is less space to develop characters, less room for lengthy dialogue, and often a greater emphasis on a twist or an ‘a-ha’ realization. How to write a short story in ten steps:

Step 1: Devise an intriguing scenario.

Step 2: Plan what publications you will submit your final story to.

Step 3: Find the story’s focus before you start.

Step 4: Outline character and setting details.

Step 5: Choose a point of view for the story.

Step 6: Write the story as a one-page synopsis.

Step 7: Write a strong first paragraph.

Step 8: Write a satisfying climax and conclusion.

Step 9: Rewrite for clarity, concision and structure.

Step 10: Pick an intriguing story title and submit to short fiction publishers.

1: Find the scenario for your story

Writing a novel gives you more elbow room to develop characters and story arcs and symbols at a leisurely pace. Writing a short story differs in that often there is a single image, symbol, idea or concept underlying the story. Some examples of original story scenarios:

  • In Roald Dahl’s famous short story ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and serves the cooked evidence to the investigating officers
  • In William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily‘, a notorious town recluse dies, leaving the town to discover her grisly secret
  • In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’, the way of life of an entire village is changed by the discovery of a mysterious, handsome drowned man who washes up on the beachfront

Find a scenario you can write down in a sentence or two. An interesting or novel scenario that sets the story in motion has multiple benefits:

  • It sets up a range of possible developments and symbols (for example, in the Garcia Marquez, the plans the village makes for the man’s burial and the processes and emotions that follow the discovery of a body)
  • It gives you something to pitch to publications when submitting your story

On the topic of publishers:

2: Plan structure and themes around the publications you’ll submit to

One of the benefits of writing short stories either as preparation for writing a novel or for their own sake is that there are many publishing opportunities for short fiction. You can get your story published in:

  • Literary journals and magazines
  • Writing contest anthologies
  • Anthologies curated around specific topics or themes
  • Online publications (digital journals, writing websites and e-zines)

Make a list of possible publications, once you have decided on your core story scenario. Note:

  • Minimum and maximum submission word counts
  • Any specified formatting requirements
  • The contact details for the person in charge of submissions
  • The themes and topics most frequently featured by the publication

It’s wise to have these guidelines for formatting, word count and areas of interest worked out before you start, because this will enable you to make your story meet requirements for acceptance. This will save time later when it comes to revising.

Aerogramme Studio has a helpful post on 23 short story contests open for entry in 2016. Many carry substantial prizes. What’s more, being chosen as a finalist is something you can leverage when submitting stories for publication in the future.

So you have the story idea worked out and a list of publications and their requirements to guide your creative decisions? Now it’s time to find your short story’s focus:

3: Find the focus of your story

The scenario of your short story is the idea or image that sets the story in motion and opens narrative possibilities. The focus is the communicative aspect: What do you want to say? Why write a short story on this subject in particular? Finding the focus of your short story before you start is explained by Writer’s Relief via the Huffington Post thus:

‘Explore your motivations, determine what you want your story to do, then stick to your core message. Considering that the most marketable short stories tend to be 3,500 words or less, you’ll need to make every sentence count’.

If you were Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, and you had decided on the scenario for your short story, ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ (‘Dead man washes up on beach and his appearance causes momentous changes in a nearby village’s way of life’), then you might describe the focus of your story thus:

‘The story’s focus: Rural life and the way the introduction of new, unfamiliar things changes it. Also: Death and how people respond to and make sense of it.’

Once you have an idea of the topic, themes and focus of your short story, it’ll be easier to outline characters who are consistent with these elements:

4: Outline your characters and setting(s)

Writing a book makes outlining essential, given the complexity of long-form fiction. When writing short fiction, you might think ‘Why should I bother with outlining?’ The truth is that it is useful for similar reasons: It gives you creative direction and helps to make your writing structured and internally consistent.

Once you have the scenario, topics and themes for your story, make a list for each character you want to cast. Make notes on character elements such as:

  • Physical appearance (face, posture and mannerisms)
  • Personality
  • Occupation
  • Backstory
  • Preoccupations and interests
  • Role in the story

Similarly, for setting, write down:

  • Where the story will take place
  • What is significant about the setting for the story (does it underscore specific themes or foreshadow a particular climax?)

Have an idea before you start writing a short story as to who will star in it and where it will take place. This will give direction and a sense of purpose to your writing.

5: Choose a point of view for the story

Point of view (or POV) can create subtle shifts in characterisation. For example, a character who narrates the story  in the first-person may seem strong and self-possessed. You could make the same character seem much less powerful by using the second person instead.

An example of this is James Joyce’s use of the second person in his story ‘Clay’ from the collection Dubliners. The focal character is a cook named Maria. Joyce uses second-person throughout to describe Maria and her daily life, even though she is the focal character of the story. Maria’s own story not being told through the first person conveys a sense of her social position – she is a ‘she’ who is likely marshalled around by wealthy employers. The story simply wouldn’t achieve the same sense of Maria’s marginal status  were it written in first person.

Dennis Jerz and Kathy Kennedy share useful tips on choosing point of view:

‘Point of view is the narration of the story from the perspective of first, second, or third person. As a writer, you need to determine who is going to tell the story and how much information is available for the narrator to reveal.’

They go on to describe the pros and cons of each point of view:

  • First person: The story is narrated by a character using the pronoun ‘I’. Pros: One of the easiest POVs for beginners; it allows readers to enter a single character’s mind and experience their perceptions. Cons: The reader doesn’t connect as strongly to other characters in the story.

 

  • Second person: Much less common, this addresses the reader as a character in the story, using the pronoun ‘You’. Pros: Novel and uncommon; the reader becomes an active story participant. Cons: The environment of the story can feel intangible as the reader has to imagine the story setting as her immediate surroundings.

 

  • Third person omniscient: The story is told using he/she/it. In omniscient POV, the narrative is told from multiple characters’ perspectives, though indirectly. Pros: Allows you to explore multiple characters’ thoughts and motivations. Cons: transitioning between different characters’ perspectives must be handled with care or the reader could lose track of  who is the viewpoint character.

 

  • Third person limited:The story is told using he/she but from one character’s perspective. Pros: The reader enjoys the intimacy of a single character’s perspective. Cons: Other characters’ views and actions are only understood through the perceptions of the viewpoint character.

As you can see, choosing POV requires thinking about both who you want to tell your story and what this decision will exclude. Think about the scenario of your story and what would fit best. Virginia Woolf, writing a dinner party scene, alternates between diners’ perspectives using third person omniscient. This creates a strong sense of a group of very different people coming together and bringing contrasting desires, opinions and impressions to the table.

6: Write your story as a one page synopsis

This might seem like a dubious idea. After all, how will you know where the story will take you once you start writing? The truth is that even just attempting this as an exercise will give you an idea of the strong and weak points of your story idea: Will there be sufficient climax? Is there an intriguing story that the initial premise makes possible?

You should at least try to write your short story in condensed form first for other reasons, too:

  • You’ll begin with the bare essentials – having the most important elements at the centre of your process will stop you from writing boring filler
  • You’ll be better able to work out the number and sequence of scenes you’ll need to do your topic and themes justice

Joe Bunting advocates breaking your story into a scene list so that you have a clear overview of the structure of your story and the parts that require additional work. If you don’t have a clear outline of your story to begin with and prefer to start writing immediately, you can do this at a later stage too.

7: Write a strong first paragraph

You don’t necessarily need to begin writing your story from the first paragraph. The chances are that you will need to go back and revise it substantially so that it matches with the rest of the story when you are finished. Bunting actually advises against starting a short story with the first paragraph because the pressure to create a great hook can inhibit you from making headway. Says Bunting:

‘Instead, just write. Just put pen to paper. Don’t worry about what comes out. It’s not important. You just need to get your short story started.’

Whether you are intent on starting with the beginning or prefer to follow Bunting’s advice, here are important things to remember about your opening paragraph:

  • It should foreshadow the events of the story by introducing core subjects and themes (Garcia Marquez’s story begins with the discovery of the drowned man’s body).
  • It should pique the reader’s interest and elicit questions (in the unsettling discovery of Marquez’s drowned man two immediate questions arise: ‘Who is he? What does the discovery portend?’)
  • It should not waste time – the limited word count of a short story requires you to get to the meat of the story faster

Discussing writing catchy first paragraphs, Jerz and Kennedy suggest:

‘The first sentence of your narrative should catch your reader’s attention with the unusual, the unexpected, an action, or a conflict. Begin with tension and immediacy.’

8: Create a strong climax and resolution for a satisfying story arc

The climax of a story is crucial in long as well as short fiction. In short stories in particular, the climax helps to give the story a purpose and shape – a novel can meander more. Many short story writers have favoured a ‘twist in the tale’ ending (the American short story author O. Henry is famous for these).

The climax could be dramatically compelling. It could be the reader’s sudden realisation that a character was lying, for example, or an explosive conflict that seemed inevitable from the first page.

Writing a good short story ending can be achieved many ways. Besides using an element of surprise you can have an ending that:

  • Is open: The reader must piece together the final pages’ implications
  • Is resolved: The meaning of the outcome is clear and fits the preceding events’ pattern of cause and effect
  • Returns to the beginning: An opening image or action returns and the story is given a circular structure

These are just three possible types of short story resolution. After the final full stop the crucial revision process begins:

9: How to write a short story that gets published: Rewrite for clarity and structure

Revising is just as important when writing short stories as it is when writing novels. A polished story greatly increases your chance of publication. While revising your short story, see to it that:

  • The expectations set up on the first page are dealt with subsequently (see ‘Chekhov’s Gun’)
  • All information, characters and scenes that don’t contribute to the main story focus are cut
  • Each line adds something significant to the overarching effect of the story

See further pointers on editing your own writing.

10: Pick a great story title and submit your revised story to contests and publishers

Choosing a title for your short story should come last because you will have the entire narrative to draw on. A great title achieves at least two things:

    1. It creates intrigue (Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ makes the reader ask ‘Who is Emily and what occasions this gift of a single rose?’)
    2. It establishes the key characters, subjects, symbols or objects of the short story (such as ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’)

Once you have created an alluring title, you can set about submitting your story to publications. If you are not yet an established author, it may be easier to get published on a digital platform such as an online creative writing journal. Spread the net wide, however, and submit wherever your short story meets guidelines and topical preferences. This will maximize the chance your short story will be published.

Ready to write a winning short story? The shot story writers’ group on Now Novel is the place to get helpful feedback on story ideas and drafts.

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