How to Write a Great Short Story

Storyteller’s Gambit Author Spotlight

How to Write a Great Short Story
by Hayley Zelda

How to write a great short story. Many aspiring authors, especially those who are new to short stories, are intimidated by their perceived brevity. Short stories are often seen as a truncated version of the novel, and thus viewed as not worthy of much attention.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Short stories are complex and nuanced forms that allow for the same kinds of character development and explorations of theme as novels. As with any other type of writing, there are a lot of elements you need to master to write a great short story.

The good news is that the same qualities that make a novel great are the same qualities that make a short story great.

Find what excites you personally

Writing a short story is a bit like sculpting. A piece of clay is given life by punching out details. Each sentence consists of material that can be shaped and moved with your hands.

That is the beauty of writing. You can do anything you want with an unwieldy wordsmithing block. There is no real rule when it comes to writing about what excites you. Think about the scene/character/setting that most excites you!

The idea of a specific genre should not be your parameter. Creatively speaking, it is okay to write about what you enjoy.

Under no circumstances should you be dissuaded from writing something else just because you never wrote about it before or you think it might be opposite to what you are “supposed to do”.

Don’t get yourself trapped by labels. Take a pen in hand, write about what you know, and then prove to the world how great you are!

Think About Theme

Though you can find examples of deliciously short-form concepts — think flash fiction on Twitter — most literary short stories are in the 1,500 word range, with the upper reaches reaching 5,000 words or more.

But no matter what the length, there are a few fundamental elements every short story must have — these are the elements you should take care to not only keep in mind during the writing process, but to make sure to include in your story no matter what the length.

Of these essential elements, the most important is theme. The strength of a story lies in the complexity of its theme, and the theme of a short story is fairly easy to follow because it usually includes the story’s central conflict in just one sentence.

To come up with your story’s theme, think about the question your main character is ultimately trying to answer.

Questions of personal identity, how society forms us, how important it is to stay true to oneself, and whether change is unavoidable are all dramatic questions that make for good theme statements or loglines.

You can also play around with conflict more explicitly than you can in a novel, but don’t make it explicit to the detriment of irony, metaphor, and the many other ways of speaking to the big picture without coming out and saying what you mean.

Any story about conflict is, ultimately, about how the conflict itself changes the characters — what are they left with at the end of the story? What did they learn? How do you bring this learning to the forefront of your readers’ minds? All of these questions are best answered by a look the story’s theme statement.

How to Write a Great Short Story

Write an outline

Whether you plan to write an entire short story, or just the first scene, you should always write an outline. Outlining serves you two major purposes.

First, it allows you to work out elements of the plot logically, one step at a time, rather than scribbling down a few ideas and then trying to force them together into an inelegant whole.

Second, an outline helps you see which elements of your story, on their own, will be satisfying for readers, and can cure you of the compulsion to elaborate. Make sure you know how to write a short story outline, since the way you manage information is what will allow you to write a great story.

Keep in mind that no matter how unexpected the events of a scene are, the story must work as a whole. Learn how to structure a short story outline, and make sure you have the skills to create your own book outline. Too often, writers try to jam too much into their own short story, without taking the time to set up the beginning properly.

Your readers will be much more engaged if you can find ways to set up the action, the relationships, and even the heavier thematic elements within your short story in a way that means they don’t feel jarred out of the ordinary world of your story.

Develop character voices

Most aspiring short-story writers don’t actually get into the meat of the story — they just introduce the plot and give a brief set-up. These beginners don’t understand the need to show their characters as well as tell them.

They’re not thinking about how different characters would approach a situation, or how they speak, eat, and relax. By making your protagonist your story’s focal character, you inventory those key qualities that make him memorable and interesting.

A well-drawn focal character is the one who decides whether the story will reach a conclusion. Your story may be driven by the fate of the characters in it, but there is no fate without the character to influence that fate.

Whether or not your story is told in flashback is up to the focal character’s perception, which is shaped by how he sees the past in relation to the present. The beginning of a story, likewise, depends upon the perspective of the focal character, whose eyes provide a context through which the rest of the reader sees the world.

On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of writers find short stories restrictive and stifling when it comes to character development. With word counts so much smaller than novels, you’d think it’d be easier to develop compelling characters in a short story.

But short stories aren’t easier — they’re just different. Consider how many films are paced. Where a novel reads, like a novel, and some work in installments like a serial, a short story progresses more cinematically.

A sustained scene can unfold, through which a major drama occurs. But be careful not to stretch the scene out too long or you risk losing your audience, who may be a shorter attention span than your great-grandparents were.

To play out this scene action-by-action, you need fast-paced dialogue and wit. The best dialogue for a short story should accomplish three things. First, it should advance the action of the story.

Remember, a pivotal event must occur to bring a plot to a conclusion. Nothing else will do. Second, this event should cause some change in the way a character perceives his life, either by causing or highlighting a major flaw. And third, this dialogue should be quick and snappy, like a punch to the gut.

How to Write a Great Short Story

Study The Best and Just Start Writing

One of the most important things to do is to just start writing. You can spend endless amounts of time studying and planning, but sometimes you do have to just put pen to paper. Start writing your stories, sharing them with others and learning from your mistakes.

Compare your stories to other great stories to see how you can improve.

There are many authors where you can learn how to write a great short story. Look up award-winning stories and try your hand at mimicking their successes and avoiding their missteps.

Pay close attention to tone and voice. Look for how important your word choices are to how you tell your story. You can learn everything you need to know through reading, asking questions and doing some critical thinking about the final product.

Short stories, sometimes called flash fiction or micro fiction, are frequently published in magazines or literary journals. Short stories are the most common place for a writer to begin.

Even many NY Times bestselling novelists such as Robert B. Parker and J.K. Rowling started by publishing short stories. You’ll find many places to read great short stories and even extremely short stories to learn from online.

Review your own work

All authors need editors, but not all editors are equal when it comes to serving as your personal fiction editor. A good fiction editor reviews the overall quality of the finished story as well as refining the details.

An editor will give you detailed suggestions on the overall story and help articulate your ideas if they’re too vague. Don’t just expect your editor to fix the syntax and spelling errors. Even the best editors screw up. Err on the side of censorship when you review your own work.

Wipe away the mistakes and hold yourself to a higher standard. The revision process is never going to be perfect and is going to involve sacrifices. The biggest one is that you will not be particularly happy with your own work after some of the edits are made. As a writer, you have to cultivate patience and sympathy for art that will take you time to come around to.

For this reason, your first round edits are like blueprints. Put them together at an aerial distance, without too much detail. After you have the skeleton together, focus your attention on the finer details. Paragraph syntax, word choice, grammar, characterization, balance, and dialogue are all important considerations. Take time to fix the typos without losing radical changes. The typos will still be there afterwards, but reducing them will help maintain the flow of your story.

If you just want casual feedback rather than a professional editor, you can turn to writing communities for feedback. Commaful and Wattpad are writing platforms with built in communities and many writing forums have feedback threads to ask for feedback. You can find a more comprehensive list of short story communities here.

Now that you have a clear vision, start making time to write. Commit to spending an hour a day or more working on your story. Organize your goals and the overarching themes you want to explore.

Then, get to work— and remember to take a break every so often. You’re moving through a long draft as you find your voice in your short story. Be patient with your process and know that as you follow your own personal vision the result will be a unique story that sets you apart from your peers.

How to Write a Great Short Story

Hayley Zelda

Hayley Zelda is a writer and marketer at heart. She’s written on all the major writing platforms and worked with a number of self-published authors on marketing books to the YA audience.

Other work by Hayley:
Teenagers and Writing
How to Market Your Book to Teens

How to Write a Great Short Story

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