How to Write a Short Story

Writing Jul 8, 2021
In this article

Today we discuss the ins and outs of writing a short story, which can be a lot more complicated than you’d think (no, really).

A short story is not just a stepping stone to writing a novel; it is an art form entirely unto itself, filled with twists, turns, and language as sharp as knives.

Writing a short story takes discipline, inventiveness, and plenty of planning, so let’s begin while we’re ahead.

What is a Short Story?

A short story is a nebulous, misunderstood thing. Short stories are always fiction, and depict a snippet of a larger world. They can be of any genre, so long as they stay within the length range. With such a short window to work within, short story writers must pare down their ideas to only the most important aspects.

As Edgar Allen Poe had once said, “A short story must have a single mood, and every sentence must build towards it.” Let this advice be  the guiding force for you as you embark on your own short story-writing journey.

How long should a short story be?

Traditional short stories (excluding micro- and flash-fiction) are usually between 1,500 to 7,500 words, but not even that is set in stone. Some say short stories can be up to 5,000 words, while others still say 10,000.

All literary magazines have different submission requirements, so if you're looking to get published, it's important to check those out.

So, how long should a short story be? As long as it takes to tell the story properly.

Types of Short Stories

Believe it or not, short stories are defined by more than their length. Like any other form of writing, there are different types of short stories and different genre categories for each.

Anecdote

You've definitely told an anecdote before. It's very possible that you've even written one before.

An anecdote is a short story that shares relevant information. This is usually biographical and entertaining.

For example, if someone is talking about cars, and you say "When I was growing up, my uncle owned a car dealership named Krazy Kars and never sold a single one," that would be considered an anecdote.

Drabble

Great word, huh?

A drabble is a 100 word story. No more, no less. The content doesn't define it; the word count is all that matters.

And here's a fun fact: a 50 word story is called a dribble.

Feghoot

This word's even better than the last.

A feghoot is a short story (usually between 300 and 500 words) that ends in a pun that is pretty clearly the only reason the story was written.

If you're going to write a feghoot, get ready for lots of eye rolls and frustrated sighs. The more impatient readers won't be able to handle the absurdity!

Fable

A fable is a story that conveys a particular moral or lesson. They are oftentimes for children and lay the moral out very clearly.

Examples of fables include "The Tortoise and the Hare" and "The Jungle Book."

Flash and Micro Fiction

Flash fiction and micro fiction are short short stories.

Word count requirements vary by source, but generally speaking, flash fiction stories are under 1000 words, and micro fiction stories are under 100 words (not to be confused with a drabble, which is exactly 100 words).

Vignette

A vignette is a part of a whole. Whereas short stories are complete works with beginnings, middles, and ends, vignettes are snippets in time.

They usually describe a moment and are more description based, rather than plot based. They help to give context to a larger story.

How to Write a Short Story in 5 Steps

If you're interested in writing short stories, it might be helpful to break the writing process down into just a few steps.

Short stories tend to be underestimated by writers; just because they're short doesn't mean they don't need as much planning and care as a longer piece of writing.

  1. Create your characters: Without characters, you have no story. It's time to decide who your protagonist is, who your antagonist is, and how you want the readers to view each.
  2. Create a setting: Unless your story takes place in a complete void, you'll need to set your characters down somewhere. The setting always impacts the story, so it's important that the setting you choose will either benefit or complicate things in your story.
  3. Create conflict: Story = conflict. There has got to be a problem that your characters face. This is the whole point. Whether or not it's resolved by the end is up to you.
  4. Outline: This is the step where you really put all the pieces together. What happens when, and where? What order of events is your story going to follow? The outline is the bones of your short story.
  5. Write! Take that outline and fill in the blanks. It's time to type, type type, and whatever you don't like, you can edit later. A lot of people overthink this step, which is when they give up. Don't get stuck on trying to use fancy creative writing techniques. Just get the words out, any way you can!

What You Need Before You Begin Writing a Short Story

Quote by Edgar Allen Poe with an image of his face to the left of the text.
Remember this while writing and you'll always shoot straight. (Source:A-Z Quotes)

Before diving into an outline, you’ll need to understand your story. This includes creating a character, a setting, and a problem.

Once you have a general idea of what/who these are, you’ll be ready to outline.

Creating Lasting, Memorable Characters for a Short Story

Despite the limiting length of a short story, your main character has to be as well-rounded and realistic as any character in a longer work of fiction; truthfully, all of your characters, including side characters and villains, need to be well-rounded, but depending on the length of your short story, you may just have one.

They should have motivations, fears, and morals that inform every decision they make. Sounds heavy, right? Don’t worry: there’s an easy way to figure all of this out without boring your audience (or yourself!).

Questions to Ask Your Protagonist

You get to know someone by talking to them and asking questions about their life━building and understanding a character is no different. These questions don’t necessarily belong in your short, but rather they are for your own use when figuring out your character’s motivations and, in turn, their actions.

Here are a list of questions that will help you get to know your character on a deeper level:

  • What is their biggest strength, and what is their biggest weakness?
  • Do they have any secrets?
  • How do they want to be perceived, and how are they actually perceived by others?
  • What does your character want? What is their main goal?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What is their best memory, and what is their worst memory?

Again, the answers to these questions do not necessarily need to come up in your story, but they will be helpful in determining how your character makes decisions and the why/how of when they choose to act on them.

The short story format only shows a snapshot of this character at a single point, usually with a problem in their life, but they still need to have real depth and humanity, or they (and your story) might not be believable.

Creating a Realistic, Immersive Setting for a Short Story

The setting of your story is one of the most important factors because it can and will inform the decisions your characters may make, the emotions they feel, and could also provide obstacles for your characters to face within your plot.

The reader is grounded, and in many cases, enchanted by the setting, so it is important to describe it in sufficient detail so that the audience knows what is happening where, what the mood and feel of the environment is, and any other story-based tidbits the setting could inform.

For instance, if your story is set on a space station orbiting one of Saturn’s moons, and the population has just lost 90% of their water supply, the isolated setting speaks to the enormity of the issue.

Conversely, in a story where a groggy vampire leisurely awakens from his tomb in Transylvania, the mood and feeling might be more lavish and leisurely, albeit perhaps just as thirsty, as those on the space station.

A photo of a marketplace above a quote about setting.
Your job is to immerse the reader in your world. (Source: Now Novel)

Here are a few tips for constructing a captivating setting:

  • Use the 5 senses. What do your characters see, hear, taste, smell, and touch?
  • If your setting is a real place (e.g., New York City or your grandma’s house), make sure to do some research and describe it accurately. For example, there are no true alleyways in New York City, so you wouldn’t want to have a character running down an alley to get away from the bad guy in a story set in Manhattan. These details will make your setting more believable, and your readers will appreciate the extra touches.
  • Don’t forget emotion! How does your character react to this place? Does it have a positive effect on them, or do they want to get away? How do those feelings tie into the story as a whole?

You don’t need to describe every detail━in fact, please don’t━but your reader should know where they’re at when they begin your story. Remember to ground them in some sort of time, place, and the emotion that these details invoke.

Creating the Conflict within a Short Story

Without conflict, you’ve got no story. There are six types of literary conflict, and your character and setting will play a big part in influencing which type of conflict will make the most sense in your story.

Source: Nour Zikra (YouTube)
  1. Character vs. Character: when one character is in conflict with another. Think Clark Kent vs. Lex Luthor.
  2. Character vs. Self: when the protagonist is dealing with an internal conflict; this often means emotions and desires. Just picture an angel and a devil on their shoulders, giving them two sets of glaringly different advice.
  3. Character vs. God: when the protagonist is going up against fate. A great example is Odysseus in The Odyssey.
  4. Character vs. Society: when the protagonist fights injustices in their society. Often dystopian, but not always. Katniss Everdeen springs to mind here.
  5. Character vs. Nature: when the protagonist is battling against natural forces. Think disasters, oceans, conquering land. The story of Moby Dick is a classic example.
  6. Character vs. Technology: when the protagonist is fighting against an all-powerful piece of machinery or science that is posing a threat to humanity. Think Dr. Frankenstein and his electrically-charged monster.

No matter the size and scope of your conflict, it has to matter to your protagonist. That’s the most important advice you can receive on this subject. The conflict just has to be earth-shatteringly important to them, or your story will not be believable or captivating.

How to Write a Short Story Outline

Chart with spaces for introduction, rising acton, climax, characters, setting, and themes.
There's a lot to keep track of, but a chart like this should help you out. (Source: Unknown)

You need to know where you’re going when you set out to write a short story. Novels have the luxury of time and length, so they can include side quests and downtime. Short stories are to-the-point. Writers must get in and out of each scene quickly, and each scene must push the characters to the predetermined ending.

Here is a general example outline that may help you in figuring out how to fill in your own short story outline. It cycles through inciting conflict, plot, and resolution, and takes care to develop a theme and characterization.

  • World setup: shows the character in their world briefly before the conflict begins
  • Inciting incident: the beginning of conflict
  • Rising action: events leading up to the climax of the story. Should include conflict, change (internal or external), and choices
  • Climax: the highest point of tension, when your protagonist must make a decision
  • Resolution: the aftermath of the climax/crises

Write out a few bullet points for each item on that list detailing what will happen in each section. Once you have that done, you'll have a head start on drafting the story.

The Importance of Pacing in Short Stories

Like you read earlier, short stories do not have the luxury of an unlimited word count. You need to have the reader believing in the characters, setting, and circumstances right out of the gate, so that you can present them with the main conflict and sweep them off their feet ASAP.

Every scene, action, and piece of dialogue must move the plot along or reveal something about your character, or if possible, both. On the other hand, no one wants to read a barrage of action sequences with no respite or character development. Mix it up with the showing and the telling.

Pacing is the speed by which a story is told; it can be compared to the swell of waves in the ocean. A rhythm is present, and all of the pieces of the story work together to create this tempo.

Pacing is affected by a variety of factors that include, but are not limited to:

  • Sentence length/variance
  • Dialogue and exposition
  • Flashbacks/flashforwards
  • Number and length of scenes

By utilizing all of these components together, your story will automatically have rhythm and texture. How you layer and time these components will determine the pacing.

A great example of clear pacing is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It begins with an exciting adventure: Goldilocks finds a mysterious house! The pace slows as she goes inside and realizes that nothing fits her needs. One bowl of porridge is too hot, another too cold. The beds are either too firm or too soft. As soon as she finds the medium bed and tucks herself in, the story picks back up because the bear family comes home, and Goldilocks must face the consequences of breaking and entering.

How to Write a Short Story Title

Finally! You’ve come up with a character, a setting, and a problem. You’ve outlined to your heart's content, and you’ve written your story using all the elements of good storytelling. Now comes what may be the hardest part: titling your short story.

A good title is snappy and memorable, and it usually contains vivid imagery or turns of phrase. You don’t want to give everything away, but your title should reference some piece of the story you are telling.

An image of the cover of the book "PS Your Cat is Dead!"
...you've got my attention, James Kirkwood. (Source: Goodreads)

All’s Well that Ends Well is a great title. It is slightly repetitive with a play on words that makes it pleasing to the eye and to read. It also summarizes the overarching theme of the play and Shakespeare’s comedies as a whole, which is, essentially, don’t sweat the small stuff because it will all work out in the end.

One tried-and-true method for titling your work is to comb back through it for bits of great dialogue, strong images, or witty phrases. Is there any one piece that stands out above the rest? Does it capture the overall message of your story? If so, you’re on your way to your perfect title!

Sometimes it’s not always that easy, though. If you can’t or don’t want to use something from the story, brainstorm! What are the themes of your story━the deeper meanings, the main ideas?

If you wrote about X, and your message was Y, then your theme is Z. How do your themes shine through in your work? Your title can be a reference to the message or setting embedded in the story. Frankenstein is just the surname of the protagonist in Mary Shelley's story, but it’s taken on a significance greater than that because people resonate with it so much.

Just so long as the title is unique and somehow tied to your short, you’re in the clear.

Enlist the QuillBot Writing Tools for Help Crafting Your Short Story

Feeling stuck articulating your ideas? Try our Paraphraser to help you visually build your sentences to match the tone and style of your story. You can also sharpen character voices and dialogue using the different writing modes within the paraphraser as well.

Has research sucked away all of your time energy? Quickly review sources to find new information and compare or contrast sources with our Summarizer tool. You can also summarize pieces of your own work to make sure your plot points are loud and clear.

Sick of editing? Use our Grammar Checker to review your work for mistakes in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word misuse, once your content edits are done. It’s the easiest way to put the final polish on your short story, even when you don’t feel up to it.

Final Thoughts on Writing a Short Story

Reminder: There are no REAL rules to writing a short story, except for the word count. But even then, if you go too deep into your story, you could finish it out as a novel, make a collection of short stories within the universe or setting you created, or do anything else you want to with it. It’s yours, after all!

Writing a short story should ultimately be fun; it’s an exercise in letting your imagination run wild, allowing you to experiment with new techniques and ideas. Don’t overthink it, and don’t sell yourself short. Just type one word after another. Draft, edit, and repeat until your short story jumps off the page and into your readers’ hearts.

Tell Poe to move over, because there’s a new author in townyou!




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Paige Pfeifer

Along with Emily Perry, PhD

Paige Pfeifer is any number of things, which include a writer, an editor, and QuillBot’s Communications Manager.
There are a few things she is not, like a hater of lists, or a ghost.
She enjoys reading screenplays and listening to any band that used to play Warped Tour.

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