how to write a short story

A short story is a joy to craft. Not only do you not have the challenge of a long novel, but you can be creative and have some fun at the same time. A short story need not be elaborate and contain fewer ideas and characters.

A lot of famous novelists have played around with the short story form to perfect their craft, so even if you aim to write books, it can be worth perfecting your short story craft first. It might even be the start of an idea that develops into a novel.

The challenge and allure of short stories

While a short story may not take as long to write, it can be a challenge to develop a compelling plot, excellent characterisation and all the core elements needed in a good story in such a short time. Hence the challenge and allure to do it well.

To make it a little easier, it helps to have some useful items in your toolbox like knowing how to structure it, understanding what core elements it needs and what techniques might enhance your story.

Sources of inspiration for short stories

A good way to get started on short stories is to read some of the best. Did you know Agatha Christie wrote over 100 novels, plays and short stories? She might be a good place to get started (see Tragedy at Marson Manor, The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge or The Shadow on the Glass).

Ernest Hemingway (Indian Camp, Soldier’s Home, The Snows of Kilimanjaro), Virginia Woolf (The Mark on the Wall, Kew Gardens), and Graham Greene (The Destructors, The End of the Party) are also other options for inspiring literature.

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Using a strong central idea

It is important to have a strong central idea or conflict to drive the story and form your plot. Just note that short stories don’t have the time or space for subplots. These will pull away from the focus of the short story. So keep it simple and central and leave the subplots to novels.

Core elements of a short story

Characters: Like all good stories, strong, central characters help move a plot forward through their actions or engaging dialogue. A good protagonist with big goals or motivations is someone the audience can get behind, with side characters who assist or oppose them.

Plot: A plot should have a clear beginning, middle and end, but there are variations on this and you can also tell a story backwards by jumping into the action, then going back in time to explain the events leading to that point. A beginning always introduces a plot and the characters, the middle develops the tension or suspense by highlighting the central conflict or dilemma that faces the protagonist(s), and the end provides a climax that resolves this conflict and provides an outcome for the central character(s).

Setting: The setting includes the time, place and sensory detail of the story. Objects, weather, sensations or feelings can all be used to create an emotional impact or heighten elements of the story.

Conflict: Conflicts are what give a short story its mojo. They help develop tension and angst, and propel the characters and the reader forward. Conflicts can be between a character and an internal struggle (maybe an emotion of fear that prevents them from accomplishing a goal), with another character, or a hostile environment (a society, war, particular circumstances, etc).

Theme: A theme differs from a plot in that it is present but might not ever be fully described, or there could be several themes running hand-in-hand throughout the story. For example, a plot could be about four boys that go looking for a dead boy along the railway tracks (The Body by Stephen King that was later made into the film Stand by Me) but engage in themes of growing up, coming from a dysfunctional family, dealing with death, and trying to make a future for themselves in a small town.

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Story structure concepts

The five main structural features of a short story are exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Let’s take a look at these.

Exposition: This is the part of the story where you create a background for your plot, layering in characters and setting details. Generally, there is a main protagonist who is the main character the reader will follow throughout the story and we get an idea of what their life is like, who they are, where they live, and how they function.

Rising Action: In this part of the story, the protagonist will face a challenge or crisis that forces them out of their comfort zone and into action. This tension or conflict will be the catalyst to drive the story forward, as something will have to change to resolve the situation.

Climax: This is where the height of tension, action, suspense and drama culminates. The protagonist will face their ultimate test and the reader will be flipping through the pages to find out the final outcome.

Falling Action: This part of the story refers to events that follow the climax. If the protagonist has succeeded or failed, this starts to deal with the fallout of those particular events. Let’s hope it’s ended well.

Resolution: By now, all conflict has been resolved and the protagonist comes to grips with the outcome of either getting what she/she wanted, failing to get what he/she wanted, or failing but discovering they have something far better. How they resolve those issues make up this final part of the story, and it should (mostly) resolve all loose ends for the reader as well.

Three effective techniques to enhance your short story

Start near the end: You can pull your reader in straight from the get-go by telling them what’s happening at a particularly important part of your story, then going back and giving them the backstory that leads to this moment.

Pace: A short story is short by definition, so you don’t want to lose time in all the detail and a slow-paced plot. Get it going and keep it going to catapult the reader headlong through the entire story.

Keep character numbers short: In a short story, you don’t have the time to develop many characters in any detail, so it’s best to keep it simple. You may only need a protagonist and an antagonist. Give a reader someone to cheer for and someone or something to rail against and you will have the makings of an excellent story.

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