How to Write a Compelling Short Story

Shorts hanging on a clothes line.
Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

I’ve been writing for a few years and tried many forms of writing, including a novel and a book of poetry. But I’ve learned something about my work recently. I don’t enjoy reading or writing long pieces anymore. It could be that I get overwhelmed easier now, or it could just be age. Either way, I’ll pick up a short read any day over an 800-page epic novel.

For this reason, I’ve been studying the art of short form in all my writing, from haiku poetry to micro-memoirs in my stories.

What is a short story?

Short stories can be a way to create a story without the daunting task of writing a full-length novel. It doesn’t mean writing short fiction is easy. Like all forms of writing, it comes with its unique challenges.

In a short story, you can build a world but not to the extent you would in a novel. You don’t need all the details of magical powers and interior design. You can give your characters a whole backstory and arc, but multiple subplots and complicated twists are better left for longer projects. A short story can typically be read in one sitting.

Short stories have fewer words, specific settings, and smaller casts than novels. But they can be just as impactful on readers. Here are a few short stories that pack a punch (some are part of a collection):

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”

G. K. Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man

C. S. Lewis’s “Ministering Angels”

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

How long is short?

A short story is generally between 1,000 and 10,000 words. It has the same elements as a novel but relays them in fewer words.

Stories under 1,000 words are flash fiction, and stories of 500 or fewer are micro-fiction.

However, there’s no limit to how short a story can be. Consider Hemingway’s famous six-word story:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Ernest Hemingway

“In just six words, Hemingway evokes an entire scene and the backstory that led to that scene. This is an extreme example of a short story, and it relies on the reader extrapolating meaning from the words, but because it does so successfully, it counts as a short story.”

Lindsay Kramer, Grammarly Blogger

The Five Elements of a Short Story

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Theme
  • Plot
  • Conflict

The characters are the people, animals, aliens, or mythical creatures the story is written around. In a short story, four to five main characters are usually sufficient. Your protagonistis the character who undergoes some change (or lack thereof) due to the conflict. Your antagonist is the character who wants to thwart the protagonist’s plans. The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. For example, it could be something in the protagonist’s personality, an environmental event, or an accident.

The setting is the time and place where a story’s action occurs.

The plot is the series of events that tells the story and the conflict. Keep it short. You may begin partway through what you initially thought of as the beginning. The backstory can be written later through timely dialogue and action. Begin with a rough outline.

The theme is its central message. What do you want the reader to know, feel, or ponder?

Conflict is the action that drives the story’s plot. It’s the obstacle the protagonist has to overcome. A conflict can be internal, like an inner struggle with self-esteem or something from their past they need to overcome, like a fear of rabid rabbits. Conflict is crucial to the theme and plot. So, think of that first before you go on to brainstorming.

Brainstorm your ideas for the setting, characters, the conflict they face, and any key plot points you already have in mind. Start with that and fill in the gaps later.

Waste basket with crumpled papers.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Outlining Your Story

Organize the notes from your brainstorming session and create a skeletal plot of the story from beginning to end. This will allow you to see if the storyline flows and if the conflict makes sense, fulfilling the theme.

Don’t worry about grammar or formatting in your initial draft. No one will read your story in this initial stage. So, throw down the words and fix your errors after you finish.

  • You don’t need to explain everything. Cut it out if it doesn’t matter to the rest of the story.
  • Keep the ending in mind so, as you write, the story flows.
  • Write dialogue frequently rather than narrative to drive the plot forward.
  • Let your story sit for a day or two before reading it through for revisions.

Writing Your Short Story

Most short story readers want an easy read that won’t take them six months to finish. Use everyday language and precise words to convey your thoughts.

“While an advanced vocabulary can lead to good writing, it isn’t a requirement for it.” 

 Stephen King.

Editing Your Story

The easiest way to correct grammatical errors is to run your manuscript through Grammarly or a similar writing tool. I downloaded the Grammarly app to Word on my laptop. So, it’s right there when I’m ready.

After edits, send your manuscript to a few beta readers to get some feedback, and revise it again if necessary. You can find beta readers in writing communities.

Distributing Your Short Story

You need to find an outlet if you want people to read your story. Most writers will either choose a traditional publisher or self-publish. Traditional publishers have a set of guidelines on their websites that you must adhere to. Writers often self-publish through Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon). There are also many magazines looking for short stories.

I write for several online publications through the Medium distribution. No matter what short story I write, I know I have a publication looking for my work there.

You may also be interested in sending your work to authors compiling an anthology.

Other venues to consider would be:

Happy short-form writing!

~ Lynne

*(Originally published by Lynne on the InScribe Professional Blog).

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