“A short story is a different thing altogether — a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” — Stephen King
17 posts about how to write a short story. I shared everything I’ve learned on my own journey. Whether this is the first post you encounter or whether you’ve read them all, I hope you got something useful out of it!
I know I’ve benefited much from my writing journey and documenting everything I’ve learned. The thing is, I’m never done learning (and neither are you). But that’s a good thing. This way, I can become better at the craft of writing and take the next steps in becoming a full-time writer.
In this post I’ll share the most important lessons from the entire series. Mind you, at the end I invite you to a short story writing challenge! I will personally critique your short story. For rules and the deadline, the the end of this article.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
1. What is a Short Story and Why Should You Write Them?
Are you interested in writing short stories? Are you starting out? Do you want to hone your writing skills or perhaps try expressing yourself through a short story for the first time?
I’ve published 20+ short stories so far. I’ve got at least five more drafts at hand for future release. Ever since I started writing short stories two years ago, I’ve studied the craft thoroughly.
Why did I start writing short stories? Well, because I wanted to become better at writing for starters.
Neil Gaiman has a good definition: “Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”
But why should you try writing short stories?
For practice, exercise and finding your voice: When you write short stories on a regular basis, you will become better at writing. It’s an ideal way to hone your craft, to practice and to exercise.
To find your genres and themes.
To try out new ideas in a short time: With a novel, you work with one main idea. One main story and one set of characters. With short story writing, you get to explore different universes, themes, stories and characters every time.
To see if a potential novel idea works.
To gain visibility: Short stories are great for marketing your work too. With thousands of both print and online publications, you can increase your visibility.
2. What’s in Your Writing Toolbox?
I first heard of this term when I read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. He envisions us writers to have a box of tools that we have at our disposal to perform the craft of writing. The toolbox consists of multiple layers. Drawers if you will. Every drawer contains different writing tools. You have your vocabulary in one drawer, style in another, grammar in the next, etc.
Reading about writing routines of other writers, studying their style, following writing courses or studying grammar, it all contributes to my toolbox. But I’m the only one able to select the right tools when the blank page stares back at me.
I already mentioned tools like vocabulary, style, and grammar. My advice here is: work with what you got. Don’t be pretentious, don’t use words you don’t know yourself. Use your own voice and say things as you would say it.
There’s no one way to write a story. There’s only your way. But it can’t hurt to inform yourself.
3. Determining Your Themes and Genre(s)
“Fiction lets us try different mental states and experience other minds in action.” — Lisa Zunshine
When you write a short story, your short story will usually fit into a genre. In addition, you’re dealing with themes fitting to your story, based on issues and values you hold dear.
First, you must determine what it is you want to say. What bothers you? What do you find intriguing? What do you hold dear or believe strongly in? You have to find one or several themes. However, one theme is usually the best decision when it comes to short stories. It gives you the space to explore and not confuse your readers with other ideas. Try to make one main point.
Approach your themes in an authentic way and don’t be afraid to pour your heart out, if you wrap it in beautiful prose. Hide your messages thoroughly, but leave clues to the reader, it’s like magic. Bring your experience into your writing.
In terms of determining a genre, I’d like to suggest to ask yourself what genres you like reading yourself. Have a look at your bookshelf. What genres are you unfamiliar with but curious about? Perhaps you find yourself in a totally new universe and bursting with story ideas!
You can use genre tropes to describe certain common recurring motives, tactics, images, language or even clichés of a particular genre. In terms of Fantasy, ‘the hero is orphaned’ and ‘you follow the Hero’s Journey’, are common tropes. However, don’t be a slave to the common tropes. You need to be a chef, not a cook. A chef comes up with something new and is inventive. A cook follows recipes. Create your own dish and serve it as a delicious short story. Off to work!
4. Who Do You Write For?
First ask yourself, why do people read? People read to escape our daily troubles. Books and stories grant us access to varied human views otherwise unattainable or perhaps even unimaginable. Reading is a way of thinking about yourself. You become a better person because of it and it aids in maintaining your intellectual and ethical integrity. Naturally, there are more reasons as to why people read. I mostly read out of curiosity.
“You can write whatever you want, but if you do not invite your readers in, to let them pierce through your stories, then you should save yourself the trouble.” — Renate Dorrestein
Write about you want but just bear in mind your readers. Writing is reciprocal. It’s true, you are creating alone. But on the other end are your readers, interacting with your ideas, characters, reflections, and issues. Readers invest in your work, therefore you should invest in your readers.
Invite the reader in. Make your character(s) relatable. Make readers wonder, think and daydream about the issues you present. Create “What would I do in that situation?” conditions. A writer and his or her reader together shape a story. That’s where the magic happens. A transcendental experience from writer to reader.
Spend time thinking about who your readers might be. What can they get out of your work? What other stories do they read? What magazines and blogs would they read?
5. Coming Up With Ideas
Step 1: Idea Mining
When you have a notebook or a note app full of ideas, fragments, character sketches, quotes, anything, you can use that for your short stories. I have a list of about 10-15 story ideas, with a synopsis.
Pick an idea and start from there.
Step 2: Finetune Your Story Setting
So, we’ve picked an idea. It’s important to think of a believable setting and background for our story.
What does the world look like? What’s our characters’ motivation? What conflict is there in the story?
Step 3: Research What You Don’t Know
The first steps are taken; we have a subject to write a story about and we’ve created a setting for the story. But what if it’s a subject you’re unfamiliar with? You have to do the research.
Step 4: List Your Ideas at the End of Your Document and Start Writing
Transfer your best ideas, plot points, pieces of dialogue or other phrases to the bottom of your document.
Now it’s time to write. At this point, you probably have an image in your mind as to how you want to start off your story. Go from there. Use the ideas at the bottom of your document as your guide in writing your story. Constantly refer back to them. Copy/paste and write.
Step 5: Bulletpoint Paragraphs
So you’ve started writing the story. Maybe it flows right out of you till the end. Maybe not. What helps me is to go back to my idea list at the bottom again and start mapping out the rest of the scenes of the story.
Step 6: Write 500 Words Every Day
Now you can (easily) finish your story. If you would write down 500 words a day, you have a 5,000-word story ready in ten days. And remember, it’s your first draft! It doesn’t need to be perfect. Sculpting comes later!
“The development of relationships creates plot.” — Anne Lamott
I like to view plotting a short story as setting up chapters for a manual to achieve the desired outcome. But some people never open the manual and just try out different stuff to reach the same result. It’s up to you!
Personally, I think it’s good to have a clear view of the message you want to bring across with your story and what your endgame is. About 75% of the time, I work like this with my short stories.
In your story, you make promises to your reader, usually at the beginning. You want twists and turns but you don’t want to disappoint the reader by turning the story into something different by the end. At the end of your story, you want to make sure you fulfill the promises you made to the reader.
“A plot is the purposeful progression of events. Such events must be logically connected, each being the outgrowth of the preceding and all leading up to the final climax. I stress the words events because you can have a purposeful progression of ideas, or of conversations, without action. But a novel is a story about human beings in action.” — Ayn Rand
How do I plot my short stories?
I start with my story idea and build a premise
Then I think of some promises I’d like to make
I think about what insights I want my main character(s) to have at the end
I come up with a route my character(s) have to walk on to reach that end
I think of ways to make that route as interesting as possible to my readers
I map out the route in scenes and create bulletpoints of important character moments, clues, insights, and progression in the story
7. Structuring Your Story
“You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot — the drama, the actions, the tension — will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?” — Anne Lamott
Every story is built around some form of logic, whether it’s explicit or not. Stories follow story arcs, which in turn closely follow the story’s plot.
The most typical way to structure a story is to divide it into three acts:
Act 1: Introduction. Here’s where you introduce your readers to your characters and establish your story setting and tone. Your protagonist is usually called to action here. Here you make some promises to your reader as to where the story leads to.
Act 2: Confrontation. The protagonist and his or her allies face some complications as they are moving along. Often things get worse for them and they need to find ways to tip the scale.
Act 3: Resolution. Which is what your main character tries to do in the last act. He or she is actually doing something to tip the balance, face trials, solve problems. As a writer, you have to build towards a satisfying conclusion here that is living up to the promises you’ve made early on in the story.
8. Finding Your Writing Style
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut… If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” — Stephen King
Every author has a style. How that style comes across depends on the choices you make, experience, and influences.
Don’t worry too much about finding your writing ‘voice’ though, it’s going to be an amalgamation of the things you’ve read and what appeals to you in prose.
To me, my style comes from studying the craft of writing, following writing courses, reading lots of (Medium) articles and analyzing the work of my favorite authors.
Study the greats! In the works of your favorite authors, notice how they describe people and places. How do they set up a scene? Identify how authors play around with plot twists and suspense. How do they make sure that you HAVE to continue reading?
Pick the right point of view for your story. For instance in 1st person.
9. Creating Characters
Who are your characters? What motivates them? What do they want and why?
These questions are not to be taken lightly. Even if you have a great idea for a story, with an intriguing plot, if your characters are flat — or worse: not interesting — your story falters. Don’t fail at characters, fail on other things, but not your characters.
What elements make up for an interesting character?
Competence. If you have characters who aren’t very competent (yet), it raises the tension. If he/she tries hard at becoming competent, your readers will cheer them on. Have someone people can root for.
Proactivity (or motivation). Kurt Vonnegut famously said: “a character must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.” If your protagonist isn’t proactive (or forced into being proactive by another character), your story isn’t moving forward. What’s at stake?
Development. Ideally, your character(s) are a different at the end of your story in comparison to who they were at the beginning. What lesson do they need to learn?
Conflict. Who or what gets in the way of your main character? What hurdles do they need to overcome to get from point A to B? Conflict between characters creates progress in a story.
Flaws. Flawed characters are likable, but it’s imperative that you make them overcome some of their flaws. No one is perfect. Plus it may remind your reader of themselves. It may inspire them to grow just like your character. After all, stories grant us a way to see life through a different lens and learn something about ourselves and our place in the world.
10. Fictional Worldbuilding
If your story is set in a dystopian future or in a fantastical world, you have to paint a believable picture.
The last thing you want to do is bore your reader with long descriptions of how awesome your fantastical world or dystopian future is. That’s not storytelling.
You can use the Iceberg Technique for instance to prevent that. Icebergs exist both above and below sea-level. Imagine the iceberg to be your fictional world. The top (above sea level) is the part you actually share in your story. That’s what you show your reader. The part below sea level (which is usually way bigger) is the rest of your world. This can be background information, complete magical systems, technological developments, governmental issues, etc.
In a short story, you have limited space to introduce your reader to this world. You can only show the tip of the iceberg so to say. So how can you do that?
Create a learning curve of discovering your world. Make it gradual, and make the reader slowly part of your world. Introduce them to the necessary pieces of information that are required for the scene.
Make a character introduce you to the setting. I always prefer this over plain descriptions. Even better, use it in a dialogue between characters. Move the story forward, while you sneak in some exciting and unusual world building.
11. Scene Writing
How you start your story, how you set up the first scene, can make or break it. You have to lure the reader in straight away. Often writers start with a great character moment. I think this is one of the best tips out there.
“Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention. The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff — just like a joke. The setup tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, Why are we here anyway? What is it that you’ve been trying to give?” — Anne Lamott
Use your talents to put in all the moves of your character, make the journey towards their destination as interesting and gripping as possible.
Scenes are a mix of descriptive prose and dialogue. The most important thing to consider (in any act) is that your descriptions or dialogue move the plot forward.
“Dialogue is the way to nail character, so you have to work on getting the voice right.” — Anne Lamott
I love this quote by Anne Lamott. Dialogue should be dramatic.
Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson uses the MICRO rules for writing good dialogue:
Motive: Let the motivations of your characters seep through what they say.
Individuality: Write dialogue in such a way so you can tell the characters apart.
Conflict: Good dialogue has its own innate conflict in it.
Realism: How realistic do you want your writing to be? Make a decision.
Objective: Why do the characters say something? What is their aim?
Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound right? Do people talk that way? Reading your words out loud is always a good way to self-edit.
Use the correct interpunction. I never studied writing or English. One of the best things to do when you want to learn to write is to read a lot. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
13. Develop a Writing Habit and Routine
Some authors aim to write a book a year (Stephen King, Brandon Sanderson), others take ten years to finish a novel. Everyone’s routine is different. The most important thing is that you find both what works best for you and that you find a way to be productive, actually produce work, and bring it to the masses.
The following things help me to create a working writing habit and routine:
Write 500 words a day. I recommend that you write every day. That way you’ll never lose focus, flow and most importantly, the connection with your characters.
Find your writing moment. For me, that’s first thing in the morning.
Develop a habit for the ‘other stuff’. By this I mean answering emails, promoting your work, creating social media posts. I usually use the late afternoon for this.
Learn and connect. Allocate some time for learning. Writing is a lonely endeavor. Many authors suggest to get in touch with other writers, to learn and grow together.
Find out your (daily) writing goals . Plan them in your calendar. Are you at your best early in the morning? Do you like to write at night, when the house is quiet? Stick to it, and do it every day. Your work will accumulate fast.
14. Finishing Your First Draft
“You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.” — Anne Lamott
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open,” Stephen King said. You need to do exactly that. Write that first draft just for you. Pretend no one will read it. Ignore your spelling or grammar errors.
I always write like this. And boy my first drafts are shitty. Not necessarily the story or the idea. Coherence is usually an issue, grammar surely too, there’s rusty dialogue, inconsistencies, etc. But that’s okay. The words are out! I’m writing, not doubting. I can rearrange, rewrite and polish later in a second and third draft.
Perfection is your enemy when it comes to finishing that first draft. Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” So go ahead and make mistakes. Don’t look back on what you’ve written until you finish that first draft.
Let’s assume you’ve completed the first draft of a short story. Good for you! There’s one more step before you share your work with the world. You have to edit your story. Perhaps multiple times. And then you HAVE to ask for feedback.
Take some distance first and let your work rest. Take your mind off of it. For a short story, I recommend a couple of days to a week. Then, when you rewrite and work on your second draft make it even more clear what your story is about.
Here are some general and useful rules for self-editing I always use:
Read your story out loud. This way, you hear your mistakes. When you read your story in your head, you tend to miss more errors.
Check commas, are they necessary? I tend to write long sentences with lots of commas. Break up long sentences where possible.
Use shorter words instead of longer words. It quickens comprehension. Say ‘use’ instead of ‘utilize’. ‘Show’ instead of ‘demonstrate’. George Orwell once said: “Never use a long word when a short one will do.”
Avoid repetition of words, especially in the same paragraph. Here you are allowed to use longer versions of a similar word. Use synonyms.
Any word that can go, must go = a useful maxim!
To make quality work, you can’t rely on just you. You need others. Ask your (literary) friends, the avid readers, maybe even fellow writers or friends who studied literature or publishing to read and comment on your work. Join a writing group and critique each other’s work. Every short story I write is read and commented on by at least 3–5 people before I publish it.
16. Publish Your Short Story
Naturally, you want people to read your short stories. You need to publish them in some form.
First and foremost you must decide what your aim is. Do you want to be featured in literary magazines? Do you want to get yourself on the radar of agents and publishers?
With short stories, the best option you have is to send your story to literary journals. If you go the traditional route. There are tons of them out there. Just check Writer’s Market. In their yearly book, tons of publications and their focus are listed.
I launched my own website and to gain traffic I reached out to blogs who’s message fitted my stories. This resulted in much traffic. I posted my stories on Reddit (which I didn’t like). I posted my stories on Medium. Plus, I published an eBook and Paperback with a collection of my short stories on Amazon.
Depending on how much time and effort you want to put into promoting your stories, I would at least suggest doing the following:
Start a Medium page and publish your stories there
If you have time, set up your own blog (I opted for Squarespace and picked a template and literally had a site in about two days)
Find out which traditional magazines publish short stories and enter contests
If you have some stories collected, publish them on Amazon and learn the ropes
17. How to Attract Readers
“Publish your writing in as many places as humanly possible and do as many different types of writing as well. A stand-up comic doesn’t build an audience performing at home – they go anywhere there is a mic. Same with writers.” — Ryan Holiday
To attract readers, you must first determine what you want to achieve with your stories. This is in line with the previous part about publishing. Once you’ve published your stories, there are several ways to attract readers:
Start your own blog
Publish on Medium
Enter contests and apply to publications
Reach out to other blogs
Try to get published on other platforms
Use Social Media
Promote your Kindle books
Challenge - I Will Give Feedback on Your Story
That’s it! 17 Posts on how to write a short story summarized. I hope you learned something from this post or any of the other posts. I hope you feel confident to start writing and publishing your first short stories.
On to the challenge!
If you’re starting out and need help, I’m here to give it to you. I told you how valuable it is when someone provides you with feedback to your short story. Well, I’m going to give feedback on two stories. If you want me to provide you with feedback, let me know in the comments! Tell me what piece of advice spoke to you most and I’ll select two people and give feedback.
Your story must be between 2,000-6,000 words and written in English
Your story must be polished, that means you have self-edited your story at least once or twice
I have the most experience writing fantasy, science fiction, drama, and fairy tales. This is just to let you know what my areas of expertise are. Other genres are welcome!
Deadline: 21st of July, 2019
Good luck and I hope to hear from you!