How to Write a Short Story

how to write a short story

Ever read a short story that made you go, ‘Oh My God, this was truly something!’? How can you write one such compelling story? 

Even before that, how do you describe a short story? 

A short story is a form of narrative writing; it’s a brief work of fiction which uses the same elements (plot, character design, setting, and central theme) found in a novel. 

Short stories are presented in fewer words; their word count usually ranges between 1000 to 10,000 words and sometimes more than that, as there is no specific limit to the word count in a short story. Short stories captivate the readers through the constant thrill and excitement they offer. However, they are equally impactful as a novel in delivering a central message, theme, or idea. 

A common misconception is that short stories are easy to write, but in reality, they come with unique challenges, and one must master the art of story writing before a short story can be perceived as quality work. We will show you some of the steps that help you write a short story.

Steps for writing a good short story

1.  Generating ideas and central theme

Before writing, a theme or idea around the story must be thought of. For example, writers can generate a statement from their personal experiences, looking at the things happening around them, or any other source of inspiration that would lead to an original idea.

Brainstorming is a technique that proves to be quite beneficial in this regard, putting oneself through simple questions or scenarios like, what message am I delivering with the story? Or how I want the readers to feel after reading the story? Questions like these can pave the way for generating ideas as they later serve as building blocks for the story.

Using writing prompts (which are also accessible on the internet) is a terrific way to set up an opening and theme of a story, for instance:

  • Starting a story with the office fire alarm going off
  • Or starting a story with a character smirking and saying that today would be the perfect day to do a certain thing

It’s better to focus on a single character and build the story around it with the theme revolving around the specific character, as composing a short story around multiple main characters can prove to be challenging given its precise nature.

One Summer Night by Ambrose Bierce is a great example of a story with limited characters, and it does a great job of captivating the readers, keeping them at the edge of their seats till the very end.

2.  Building characters, conflicts, and setting

The importance of character development cannot be emphasized enough; as the story revolves around the main character, it’s crucial for the readers to feel a connection or an emotional bond with the character. Readers need to feel the characters as if they are alive.

For this to be achievable, writers must be cautious in building the characters, providing the right amount of backstory to engage readers and make the characters come to life by giving them traits, for instance, showing them as mysterious, interesting, or vibrant, etc.

Since short stories don’t provide the same freedom that one might get in a novel due to the concise and snappier nature of short stories, therefore writers have to be cautious about giving the right and appropriate details for the necessary character development or bonding.

Describing the setting, environment, occurring events, and how they affect the character needs to be analyzed beforehand. There also needs to be a conflict, a goal, and a challenge that the character pursues throughout the story. This would help keep the readers engaged and captivated until the end. Adding aspects of thrill and drama are also an effective way to keep the readers hooked on the storyline.

One of the best examples of character development and character traits can be seen in Amy’s Question by T.S. Arthur, where young Amy is a curious, thoughtful, and contemplative person. In contrast, her mother is a deep, logical, and philosophical person.

3.  Outlining your story    

Outlining the story is a reference for the writer to stay on track and match their progress against the reference points. Creating these reference points aids the writer in shaping the story exactly how he wants it to be. This may include:

  • What message does the writer want to convey to the readers?
  • What emotion does the writer want the readers to feel?
  • Creating a setting and plot that suits and is consistent with the story’s central theme.
  • Impactful opening of the story.
  • Setting up the climax and conflicts within the story.
  • Delivering the ending in the finest manner possible.

4.  Impressive opening and using medias res

A strong opening entails an engaging subject to keep the readers interested and to help them know where the story is heading. Due to the lower word limit, every sentence should be built around the central theme or idea and make the reader want to know more. Writers may also start their story in a manner or style that gets readers immediately hooked on the plot, arousing curiosity.

In A Dead Woman’s Secret by Guy de Maupassant, the writer has beautifully written a mystery short story where he starts by stating that the woman had died peacefully as an innocent soul should. This intrigues the readers as to how the woman may have died knowing she was innocent; creating interesting scenarios like these makes the readers glued to the story to figure out more.

Due to the snappier nature of short stories, they start differently than traditional stories highlighting every single piece of information like in an exposition. Instead, writers sometimes use Medias Res, where the writer starts a story by directly jumping into action. At the same time, the other necessary details transpire as the story moves on.

One such great example is Killing Floor by Lee Child. In this example, the writer starts the story with Jack Reacher, the protagonist, being arrested at gunpoint, but Jack is very calm and doesn’t speak. He is then taken to the police station for further interrogation. Here the writer starts the story by jumping straight to the action, and other details unfold as the story proceeds.

5.  Impactful ending

A writer should always try to give a memorable ending that provides satisfaction to the readers, along with answers to some of the challenges and conflicts that the character has to face throughout the story. The conclusion may not necessarily favor the protagonist; it could end up in any way so long as it is consistent with the story’s central theme. The writer should check whether ending the story in a particular way successfully delivers the message, sentiment, or emotion that the writer wanted.

The writer has complete freedom with the choice of ending. They can conclude the story in various ways, from giving a plot twist to giving it a cliché ending, as long as the end does not turn out to be unsatisfactory or displeasing.

The ending should be impactful, which means that readers should be able to develop an emotional bond with the characters. This connection is necessary to make the readers care about the ending. Such an ending can only be achieved if all the previous events of the story leading up to the end are coherently executed. 

The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde is a story with an impactful ending where the writer conveys the message that true happiness lies in giving rather than holding. In his story, the Giant scared away the kids from his garden as he wanted the garden all for himself. The kids eventually found a new place to play and stopped visiting the Giant’s garden. As time passed, all the flowers in the Giant’s garden withered away while the flowers blossomed in the park where the children played. This made the Giant unhappy and lonely, and he soon realized that true happiness is in giving and sharing with others, so he invited the kids back to his garden.

6.  Editing the story

The real magic in turning a short story from good to great lies in its execution and editing, along with the factors of refining and polishing. It’s highly advisable that while writing the initial draft, writers should not edit, refine or polish the content. Once the write-up is complete, a writer should scrutinize the content as they have a better view of the individual elements of the story and how they culminated into the final form. Adjustments are made to the write-up, including removing content that does not contribute to the story’s theme or subject. Alignment of the story with the central idea or theme, grammatical errors, and consistency in the content are also checked during this phase.

Proofreading and reading it out loud is a good way to get a good taste of the story, how it turned out, and whether it needs any adjustments or improvements. Getting feedback from credible sources or acquiring expert opinions can also improve your content significantly.

The McWilliams and the Burglar Alarm by Mark Twain & How the Widow Won the Deacon by William James Lampton are examples of two great short stories.

Tips on writing a horror short story

Horror stories tap into the emotion of fear and include a blend of thrill, terror, danger, and risk. Their purpose is to deliver a terrifying experience to the reader. The following points should be noted when writing a horror story.

1. Understanding the fundamentals

Reading horror content can develop a good insight into how horror stories work. The basics or the fundamentals should be understood as to how the introduction is transitioned into rising action and climax.

2. Engaging characters and plot

Characters and plot should be designed to arouse curiosity, tap into the emotions of fear and make the readers feel part of the environment and setting.

3. Descriptive imagery

Detailing the physical environment is an essential aspect of story writing. For instance, describing the story’s location as an empty building or a spooky motel on a highway will make the readers feel anxious and curious. As a result, they will be more invested in the story. All of this helps in a proper story build-up leading to the climax.

4. Be original or be imaginative

Writers may keep it real and create accurate stories inspired by real events pertinent to their own lives. Some believe that readers find the story more terrifying if it connects to them somehow. If readers can relate to a horror story in some way, it can turn out to be a spine-chilling experience for them. Writers may also choose the alternate path of relying on imagination to deliver a chilling and horrifying experience to the readers.

Horror story example

The Tower by Marghanita Laski is a quintessential horror story where the main character, Caroline, a newlywed girl, explores the Italian countryside, where she sees an old tower and tries to enter it. Later, ascending the tower through its spiral staircase, she witnesses some horrific supernatural things. This horror story displays themes of terror, danger, fright, and panic. Laski does a tremendous job of making readers feel the horrors that Caroline had to undergo.

Stories of various genres share some commonalities but also differ in some aspects. The key for every writer is to figure out what kind of story can evoke interest and emotions within the readers. These emotions and sentiments are what differentiate a masterpiece from any ordinary creation. In other words, connecting with the audience through your story is what matters in the end.