5 Tips for How to Write a Short Story

Short stories are the afternoon snack of the writing world. They’re diverse, quick, and easy to digest in one sitting. Use these 5 tips to write a short story that surprises and delights your readers so much they come back for more.

1. Start with voice

Voice is an important element in any story, but in short stories, it’s crucial. You have far fewer pages to get your reader on board when writing a short story, so choosing the right narrative voice is key. Is your story told from the perspective of a child? An adult? Is he/she educated? Poor? What about this particular voice makes your story compelling? Connect with your audience from the very beginning, and they will gladly stay with you for the next few pages.

2. Determine length

“Short fiction” is a broad term that describes stories ranging from 100 to 10,000 words. Short story and flash fiction are two popular types of short fiction, with flash fiction falling in the lower range of 100 to 1,500 words and short stories landing in the 1,500 to 10,000 area (big difference, I know).

If you plan to enter writing contests or submit to literary magazines, check out their guidelines. Every publication categorizes them differently, and I find it helpful to have a rough idea of the word count I’m aiming for before I start writing.

3. Keep the focus narrow

Whether you’re writing a flash fiction piece or a short story, you want to keep the focus narrow. Does a 6,000 word story give you more room for character development than a 600 word story? Of course. But, short stories should revolve around a single event, single thought, or single objective. In this moment, what do your characters want? Why do they want it? What thing will they do immediately to get it?

Give out the relevant details, but don’t dwell on your characters’ backstories. Drop hints. Allude to past events. You don’t need to provide all the answers to your readers. They’ll fill in the gaps based on their own experiences, which makes the experience of reading your story all the more memorable for them.

4. Leverage the unexpected

When I ask myself what makes a short story memorable for me, the answer is easy – it surprised me. In a long-form piece, you have pages and pages to introduce your characters, develop the plot, and make your readers fall in love with your writing. With a short piece, readers have the same expectations, but you’re doing a very different job. Short stories are a great place to take risks.

Some ideas:

  • Tell the story from the perspective of a bystander instead of a main character. There’s a great article in the July/August 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest about the perception gap and how it can drive your plot.
  • Write the first few paragraphs of your story in one setting, then rewrite it in a different setting (or two). How did it change the way your characters interacted? The tone? The overall feel?
  • Write the end of your story several times, exploring endings that are sad, happy, funny, or heartbreaking. How did the message change? Is one of the alternate endings better than what you originally had in mind?

5. Write with the whole story in mind

Although you should keep the focus of your short story narrow, you should write with the whole story in mind. Know what happened to your characters days, weeks, months, even years before the moment you’re capturing in your story. Just because you won’t develop backstory in the finished piece doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be one.

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