How to Write a Short Story (That’s Actually Short!)

Want to write a short story but struggling on the "short" part? Learn my top tips for trimming down your story!Most people probably think that it’s easier to write a novel than it is to write a short story. In reality, however, it’s actually harder to write a short story than a novel. Well, for many writers anyway. But how can this be? How can it be harder to writer 7,500 words or less compared to 50,000+ words?

Let’s say you go on a two-week vacation to the exotic location of your choice. When you get home you want to tell your best friend all about it, but she’s running short on time. You have two minutes to tell her about your two-week trip. How can you cram everything you did into a two-minute conversation? The thing is, you can’t.

You see, the short story is an art. Condensing a story into a compact form that is still functioning, interesting, and creates emotional impact is no small feat. It’s harder to tell a good story with fewer words, and this is why many writers find short stories so challenging.

The Short Story Trend

Lately, I’ve noticed a, interesting trend in Young Adult fiction. It seems the short story is making a comeback of sorts. I’ve noticed authors publishing short stories that relate to their novels that are prequels, sequels, tell a character’s backstory, or explore what a certain character was doing “off stage” during the events of the novel.

Some examples of this trend include Sarah J. Mass’ The Assassin’s Blade novellas, Cassandra Clare’s The Bane Chronicles, J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore website, and Marissa Meyer’s collection Stars Above. These are just a few examples–there are many more out there and I seem to be running across more and more every day, so this trend definitely seems to be growing.

And it makes sense. Not only to these short stories give readers more of their favorite tales and characters, but they’re great for the 21st century attention span. Readers can snack on these short stories without having to commit to a whole series of sequels or prequels or what-have-you.

I think we very well may see short story collections such as these grow in popularity in the near future, perhaps even to the point where we see more stand-alone collections that aren’t attached to novels! And with this growing trend, it might be worthwhile to learn how to write a short story even if you’re a novelist at heart.

Why Write a Short Story?

So why should you bother trying to write a short story? For me, I just wanted to take on the challenge. I wanted to have the skill, and it bothered me that I could write a 160,000 word novel but not a measly short story. I wanted to challenge myself to get outside of my comfort zone as a writer.

Here are some other reasons you might consider writing a short story:

  • A short story can be used to promote a novel and attract new readers
  • Publishing a short story in a magazine or online can help you build some publishing credibility for your novel
  • You can use a short story to give your readers more of a novel without having to write an entire series, or expand on a series (Ex. J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore stories)
  • Short stories allow you to experiment with writing styles and genres and allow you to explore new ideas without committing to writing an entire novel
  • Short stories challenge you to write succinctly, and help you learn how to say more with less

As you can see, even novelists can benefit from short stories! Ready to write a short story for yourself? Before you do, keep reading to get my top tips I learned during my own short story practice and study!

My Top Tips For Short Stories

1. Focus on a Turning Point

One of the first challenges you face when you set out to write a short story is figuring out a plot. What do you want this story to be about? How do you keep the story you want to tell to the length of a short story, yet still have it qualify as a true “story” and not a random scene?

First, let’s look at the elements you need for a story–a hero, goal, conflict, and growth. A story is about a hero who wants something (goal), sets out to attain it, but faces an obstacle that stands in his way (conflict), and as the result of achieving or failing the goal, grows or learns something.

So how can we pack all this into a short story? In terms of plot, you need to think tiny. Which is extremely hard if you’re a novelist like me. It’s my instinct to plot novels, so my short stories would always end up being too long. I’d make the plot too complicated and try to include too many scenes. I’d create conflicts that were so large and complex it would take an entire novel to resolve.

But after taking a Literature class in college in which we studied short stories, I was finally able to figure out the “secret” to creating a short-story-sized plot. The trick is to focus on a turning point in the hero’s life. Since a short story can only portray a moment, you need that moment to have an impact. A turning point provides you with the emotional significance you need to make the story matter and not seem random or pointless.

So what do I mean by a turning point? This is a moment in the character’s life where something happens that makes them grow, change their perspective, challenge their beliefs, realize something important, or impacts their life.

For example, in the Hunger Games the scene where Prim’s name is drawn and Katniss volunteers in her place is a turning point. Katniss’ life won’t be the same after this. Another example of a turning point is when Hagrid shows up at the sea shack in the first Harry Potter novel and says Harry’s a wizard.

With a little tinkering, these scenes could be fashioned into short stories. They are both turning points with emotional impact and force the character to make a decision and overcome an internal obstacle–Katniss must find the courage to volunteer for her sister, and Harry must take a leap of faith and decide if he’ll believe magic is real. Of course there’s much more to both of these tales, but a short story is simply the tip of the iceberg.

Find your character’s life-changing moment and then tell that story of that turning point.

2. It’s Okay to Tell

One piece of writing advice we get drilled into us all the time is show don’t tell. While that’s good advice for a novel, it’s not going to work for a short story. Showing takes longer than telling, and we don’t have time for that. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to tell everything, but just realize that in a short story not only is telling acceptable, but it’s expected.

Think of fairy tales, Greek mythology, and other folklore. These are are types of short stories, and if you’ve ever read any of them, you will quickly notice that they involve a lot of telling. For example, take this opening paragraph from the Brother’s Grimm Red Riding Hood:

“Once upon a time there was a dear little girl who was loved by everyone who looked at her, but most of all by her grandmother, and there was nothing that she would not have given to the child. Once she gave her a little riding hood of red velvet, which suited her so well that she would never wear anything else; so she was always called ‘Little Red Riding Hood.'”

This is all telling, and in a novel it wouldn’t be acceptable. We would be expected to show the reader this information, which could take several scenes or an entire chapter. But in a short story we can get away with telling because we have a limited amount of page space and the reader knows this.

Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to tell!

3. Don’t Start With Fantasy or Romance

If you’re just starting out trying to write a short story, I’d highly recommend staying away from the Fantasy, Sci-fi-, and Romance genres until you get some practice. Why? These are some of the most challenging genres in which to write short stories because Fantasy and Sci-fi require a lot of world-building, which requires more page space, and a romance is very hard to pull off without lots of page space to develop the characters and their relationship.

Unfortunately for me, Fantasy and Romance are my favorite genres to write, especially with the two mixed together. So of course these were the sort of short stories I attempted to write, and it was extremely difficult and frustrating. Once you get better at short stories you can start experimenting with these genres, but for now try to get the hang of things with genres that work well for short stories like mystery/crime, thriller, horror, and contemporary.

I will note though that the exception to this would probably be Fantasy that takes place in the modern-day world that involve story lines like time travel, super powers, magic, and mythical creatures that require little explanation because audiences are already familiar with them. Because it takes place in our world, the audience is also familiar with the world and how it works so little world-building is required.

4. Be a Minimalist

When you write a short story, the key is less of everything. Fewer settings, scenes, and characters; bare-minimum backstory, world-building, and plot; succinct description, dialogue, and word choice. If you can make do without it, then it needs to go. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Recommended Short Stories to Study

I’ve found the best way to learn how to write short stories is by reading them yourself, just like you learn how to write a novel by reading novels. At first I tried to write short stories without reading them (confession: I was being lazy), but I didn’t “get it” until I started studying them. It’s always harder to create something without seeing examples of it first.

I’ve compiled a list of some short stories for you below. I would also recommend buying (or obtaining from the library) a book of short stories from modern writers. The stories below are classics (with the exception of “The Lottery”), and while they’re extremely helpful for learning how to write short stories, it’s also a good idea to study modern short stories because the writing style is different from the classics to cater to modern readers.

Recommended Short Stories:

1. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe

2. The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant

3. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

4. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

5. A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury

6. Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy

7. The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde

8. The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs

9. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

10. Snow White and Rose Red by the Brothers Grimm

Need More Help With Your Story?

If you need more help, you might want to check out my $5 workbook Zero to Story. It breaks down how to find an idea and develop it into a short story (or novel!) step-by-step. Learn all about it here!

What’s your biggest challenge when writing short stories? Let me know in the comments below!


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16 thoughts on “How to Write a Short Story (That’s Actually Short!)

  1. I really enjoyed these 3 quick tips, gave me a lot to think about. Thank you. Also I’m glad you noted an exception for ‘fantasy’ set in the ‘modern world.’ ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Yes, fantasy is always a little easier to handle in short stories when you’re using the modern world, which readers are familiar with, rather than creating something new from scratch ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks for reading!

  2. “The Necklace” is one of my absolute favorite short stories! I think short stories are an amazingly artistic way to get across a deep message. Another favorite short story is “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield.

    1. I love “The Necklace,” I think it might be my all-time favorite just because how effective it is in such a short amount of page space! I haven’t heard of that second one, I’ll have to look it up! Thanks for stopping by, Amanda ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. This was really helpful, Kaitlin! I have a novella project coming up, which isn’t *exactly* the same thing as a short story, but the concept is similar enough that this post was very useful. The idea of focusing on a “moment” turned on a lightbulb for me!

    1. Yay, glad to be of help ๐Ÿ˜€ Well, a novella is still somewhat compact so focus will be important to fit it all in. Best of luck with the new project, Brianna!

  4. Writers of short stories must have a special power of some kind! I struggle a lot with them even though they are incredible to crash test an idea/concept or just have some fun with your character, your world ! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Your post was very interesting Kaitlin and full of good advice, thank you ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Haha I know what you mean, Jemma, I’m kind of jealous of writers who can write amazing short stories. It’s always been a struggle for me, though it is fun to experiment. Thanks for reading!

  5. Thank you for this. Short story writing is something I’ve wanted to do but just couldn’t figure out for the same reason you suggested; a novelist mindset. I’m going to give it a shot though. I’m thinking minute mysteries – something along the lines of the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries I read as a pre-teen but definitely for adults.

    1. Short stories are challenging at first because you do have to approach it from a different mindset than novels, but the more you practice the more you start to figure them out. Mysteries are a great genre for short stories! Best of luck with your writing ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. I’m currently editing a short story I wrote a couple of years ago โ€” now thatโ€™s lazy! LOL I’m on my sixth pass through the story. The first time I wrote it, it was kinda short โ€” almost 8,500 words. For structure, I followed Algis Budrysโ€™s instructions found in his short book WRITING TO THE POINT (this volume is awfully hard to find these days). The current version of this story is now a few words shy of 7,000 words. I want to get it even shorter. To help me, I actually did a lot(!) of work on the background, specifically on the relationship between the two brothers featured in the story. That has made my rewrites much, much easier.

    I wrote the first draft for this tale way back in November 2009. Itโ€™s a fantasy tale and it actually follows some of your advice. Itโ€™s set in the modern world. It makes use of mythology โ€” specifically, naiads from Greek mythology. It also makes use of things I learned about dayflies and cicadas. It also borrows a little from the sirens in Greek mythology. The initial inspiration, however, came from something I had learned about some of Poeโ€™s fiction. He has several short stories that feature characters who are monomaniacal, and I wanted to write a story with a character who is similar (although the source of his monomania is external not internal). So, I read every story Poe wrote with a monomaniacal character. My story is more fantasy, though, than horror, although it would probably be considered more on the side of dark fantasy (especially considering its inspiration).

    In terms of an anthology of modern short fiction, you simply cannot go wrong with W. Somerset Maughamโ€™s TELLERS OF TALES: 100 SHORT STORIES FROM THE UNITED STATES, ENGLAND, FRANCE, RUSSIA AND GERMANY. It was originally published in 1939, so youโ€™d have to buy a used copy. Some of the stories are rather old โ€” one is by Sir Walter Scott, for example โ€” but it includes Washington Irving, Honorรฉ de Balzac, Poe, Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant (one of my faves), Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, Tolstoy, Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudyard Kipling (another fave) and many others.

    1. Haha I honestly believe short stories are harder to write than novels. It’s easy to use a lot of words to say little, but it’s so much harder to use few words to say a lot. Your short story sounds really interesting, good luck with fine-tuning all those details! Oooh I’m going to have to add that to my to-read list ASAP! I love so many of the authors you mentioned there, especially Doyle and Kipling. Thanks for the recommendation ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Mystery writer Lawrence Block, in his book, FROM PLOT TO PRINT, has said that short stories are, indeed, harder to write than novels. Novels, he says, are far more forgiving. You can actually make a couple of mistakes in a novel and get away with it. Not so in a short story. Short stories require devout attention to every word. Anything extraneous would ruin a short story.

        The main challenge of a novel is its sheer size and the time required to write that long of a story, even if it’s not a good story. Just completing a novel, even a bad one, is an accomplishment in and of itself.

        Plus, most people who sit down to write a novel for the first time often don’t realize just how much must go into one. Tell them that they’ll probably need 60 scenes or more, and they might faint. LOL And too often they have too many characters, and don’t realize that taking several of the bit players and either deleting them, or combining several characters into one can make the story stronger.

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