Writing your best short story: 7 ideas

Writing your best short story: 7 ideas

The best short story anthologies and collections show us how a brief snapshot can excite us, move us, surprise us, make us laugh. How do you write the best short story you can? Read 7 ideas:

1. Learn from the great short story writers

Many authors have been hailed as masters of the short story medium. A partial list includes Alice Munro (recipient of the Nobel Prize for a body of work only consisting of short stories), William Baldwin, Anton Chekhov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, H.P. Lovecraft and Hans Christian Andersen.

Reading different short story authors gives us great insights into the varied strengths authors have. It’s easier to see at a glance what this particular author’s skill is. And to learn something from their craft.

Alice Munro, for example, excels in writing stories about ordinary lives unfolding in her native Canada, and the moments of disruption that alter a life forever.

Franz Kafka excels in ‘mood’, in creating claustrophobia, mystery, alienation.

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales are rich with beautiful description and moral fables about broad concepts such as ‘love’ or ‘sacrifice’.

Read story compilations and single-author collections. Read as a reader first, simply enjoying the story, then read closely, asking questions about the author’s style and other choices.

2. Choose an interesting premise

What makes a story good? We attempt to answer this question in our article here. Intrigue, mystery and suspense; tension, immersive setting, memorable characters. These are some elements.

Choosing an interesting premise ensures you have a foundation that allows these interesting elements to emerge.

For example, in Haruki Murakami’s dream-like short story Kino, a man opens a bar and flees his feelings after walking in on his wife cheating on him with a colleague.

The bar becomes the setting for strange events – a mysterious regular who takes on rowdy patrons, an unnerving tryst between Kino and a scarred woman, a cat that disappears after snakes start appearing in the streets around the bar.

Murakami’s premise is interesting because it contains dramatic and unexpected events (the spousal infidelity, Kino opening a bar, the arrival of the snakes). From the outset, the premise promises:

  • Change
  • Conflict
  • Mystery
  • Surprise

To find a premise for a short story, it’s helpful to try to write a logline, a two-line ‘concept’ or summary for your unwritten story. This will help you flesh out your vision for your story.

3. Find a compelling situation

Many great short stories begin with a character in a compelling initial situation that is gradually made clearer over the course of the story.

Alice Munro’s short story Dimension is one of the best short stories when it comes to hard-hitting surprises. Munro doesn’t make it immediately obvious what Doree, her protagonist’s starting situation is. When we meet Doree, she’s a chambermaid at an inn:

She was a chambermaid at the Comfort Inn. She scrubbed bathrooms and stripped and made beds and vacuumed rugs and wiped mirrors. She liked the work—it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out so that she could sleep at night.

Alice Munro, ‘Dimension’, available here.

Only as Munro’s story unfolds do we learn the compelling background situation, the tragic reason Doree appreciates work that tires her out so she can sleep. We learn of a traumatic event in Doree’s past, and the story subtly builds to another crisis moment that offers a kind of redemption, a chance to face life’s accidents head-on.

Munro is a master of creating compelling human situations. She teases out gradual, sometimes subtle revelations that deepen our empathy towards characters. Because we come to understand their origins and emotions.

4. Develop characters

Character development may seem reserved for longer story forms. Many of the best short stories, however, develop characters well.

In the Murakami and Munro examples above, for example, the protagonists undergo transformations. Doree confronts a traumatic past at the scene of an accident, being present in a way she could not before. Kino, in Murakami’s story, confronts the hurt he’s bottled up at his spouse’s betrayal at last.

In short stories, characters often make important discoveries about themselves and others. Once you know your character’s starting situation, ask:

[Find prompts that help you flesh out your story in easy steps in the Now Novel dashboard.]

Best short story quotes - Neil Gaiman | Now Novel

5. Condense and connect

The best short stories often condense and connect things – characters’ lives and pivotal experiences, themes and events – effectively. This enables us to ‘journey’ with a character’s growth, or an unfolding idea, in a shorter space of time.

In his introduction to M is for Magic, Neil Gaiman writes:

Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.

Neil Gaiman, M is for Magic (2007)

Making events connect to each other is key in a good short story. No words should be wasted.

Example of concise connection in Murkami’s short story ‘Kino’

Take, for example, Murakami’s story linked above. When Kino tells his aunt he’s been seeing mysterious snakes around his bar, she says:

“In ancient legends, they often help guide people. But, when a snake leads you, you don’t know whether it’s taking you in a good direction or a bad one. In most cases, it’s a combination of good and evil.”
“It’s ambiguous,” Kino said.
“Snakes are essentially ambiguous creatures. In these legends, the biggest, smartest snake hides its heart somewhere outside its body, so that it doesn’t get killed. If you want to kill that snake, you need to go to its hideout when it’s not there, locate the beating heart, and cut it in two. Not an easy task, for sure.”

Haruki Murakami, ‘Kino’.

Later in the story, in the scene where Kino realizes how hurt he was by his wife’s infidelity, he thinks:

When I should have felt real pain, I stifled it. I didn’t want to take it on, so I avoided facing up to it. Which is why my heart is so empty now. The snakes have grabbed that spot and are trying to hide their coldly beating hearts there.

Murakami, ‘Kino’.

Murakami connects the aunt’s puzzling words to Kino’s situation. His aunt’s story gives him a metaphor that helps him to see and describe his feelings.

6. Use short stories for practice

Unlike a novel, a short story is not as large a commitment. You can thus use short story writing to focus on something specific you want to learn. How to create an interesting world, for example. Or how to create the perfect, shocking twist.

George R. R. Martin gives this advice to aspiring fantasy epic authors:

Start with short stories. After all, if you were taking up rock climbing, you wouldn’t start with Mount Everest. So if you’re starting fantasy, don’t start with a nine-book series.

Brian Rowe, ‘5 Quotes by George R. R. Martin to Make you a Better Writer’, available on Medium here.

Having a clear idea of what you want your short story to achieve will help you write a more purpose-driven story.

7. Take risks

Another joy of writing short stories is you can take greater risks. Pulitzer-winning author Anthony Doerr puts it thus:

Short stories are wonderful and extremely challenging, and the joy of them, because it only takes me three or four months to write, I can take more risks with them. It’s just less of your life invested.

Anthony Doerr, in Off the Page: Writers Talk about Beginnings, Endings, and Everything In Between, ed. Carole Burns, p. 107

If there’s a strange concept teasing your curiosity, a certain type of character or POV you’ve always wanted to try, use a short story to play language games and have fun. You may end up writing the best short story you could imagine.

Looking for feedback on your short stories? Join our supportive writing community or get a professional editor’s guidance.

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