11 Short Story Forms to Expand Your Writing Practice
Has your writing practice become too predictable? Do you feel like you are always telling the same story, in the same way?
Writers can flex their creativity muscles and strengthen their craft by taking their words in new directions.
Short fiction writers might stimulate imagination by trying poetry on for size, or by taking a writing workshop. Reading short fiction by other authors is another great way to improve your own. Writing in another genre, like science fiction or horror, can be a great experience, too.
You can also stretch your wings by writing different styles or forms of short stories.
We have long defined short fiction as stories that can be read in one sitting. Poetry has dozens of forms—the pantoum, the sonnet, the couplet, the haiku-—but prose doesn’t work that way.
Or does it?
Here are 11 short story forms to try...
1. Flash Fiction
There's no consensus on the world length of a short story, but traditionally, most were at least a few thousand words. Once a story got to 10 thousand or longer, it became a “novella” or a short novel.
Flash fiction is also loosely defined with varying word counts, but is usually under 1000 words. A flash story should be just that—a flash. A flash of insight, a flash of lightning, a flash flood, and never a flash in the pan!
Flash stories have a small word count but a big impact. Writing one is a great exercise in separating the wheat from the chaff.
2. The Micro
Microfiction is the new kid on the block, taking flash fiction down to size. Can a story be reduced to its essence, with nothing superfluous? What kind of feats of imagination and craft would it take to make a story under 400 words complete?
Microfiction is usually defined by word count but it can be helpful to define it as a story of the microcosm. Forget the Big Story and the universe and all its complexities for now, and zoom right in to find the story in the smallest detail.
Instead of many events or conversations, instead of sequences of insights and activities, focus on the meaning of what’s in front of you.
3. The Drabble
How low can you go? If 300 words seems like an exercise in excision, could a 100 word story make the cut?
The drabble started in the 80s, established by Birmingham University’s Science Fiction Society. They borrowed the term from Monty Python, a game of the same name, where the winner would be the first to write a complete novel.
In the real world, writing a complete story in 100 words could be the winning formula.
Drabble contests became popular among sci-fi writing communities, but started to spread across genres as Internet use became widespread.
There are several literary journals that only publish 100 word stories, including The Drabble (thedrabble.wordpress.com), 100 Word Story (100wordstory.org) and The Centrifictionist (thecentifictionist.home.blog).
4. 55 Fiction
Go even shorter, if you dare…
5. The Six Sentence Story
Tell a story in six sentences.
It’s not the word count that matters in this form, but the number of sentences.
There are several journals devoted to the six-sentence story, including Six Sentences (sixsentences.blogspot.com).
Ironically, constraints and limits can liberate your literary mettle in surprising ways. Playing around with different constrictions opens your mind and takes you to unexpected places.
6. The One-Sentence Story
Writing a story in one sentence is less an exercise in brevity than it is breathlessness. Think of it as the spilled story. Think about the times you have rushed in from some exciting or unbelievable news, and spilled the whole thing to your partner or bestie in one breath?
Maybe you worked up the courage to share a terrible betrayal or bad news, and you let out the confession in a tumble of words. Even if it took some time to tell, it was still all in one sentence.
7. The Prose Poem
The prose poem doesn’t exist, according to testy naysayers from both “prose” and “poetry” worlds, and yet you’ll find whole volumes of them if you know where to look.
While the prose poem is technically a poem, as defended by its advocates, it is also prose, as stated right there in the name.
Writing prose poetry will make your prose better, period. Get some exercise using poetic techniques in your prose.
Detractors argue that too much focus on poetry can mean losing track of the action in short fiction. Fair enough. But without some emphasis on the beauty of language, on alliteration, perhaps, or rhyme, or dissonance, or metre, you may as well read an Ikea instruction manual.
It’s a good idea to engage in regular poetry play, both reading it and writing it. Poetry in your stories can keep your writing fresh and flexible.
8. The Cadralor
A new form of prose poetry that works wonders on your creative muscle is the cadralor.
The cadralor is a new poetic form invented by Lori Howe, Christopher Cadra and Mary Carroll-Hackett, the editors of Gleam magazine. The cadralor contains five unrelated, numbered stanzas.
Each stanza is less than ten lines and stands on its own. The fifth stanza must pull the stanzas together somehow, by “illuminating the gleaming thread that runs obliquely through the unrelated stanzas…” The fifth stanza answers the question, “for what do you yearn?”
Get the rules of the form from the horse’s mouth here: gleampoets.org/about/.
I see the cadralor as a scrapbook story. There are five different images that each tell a story, and together they tell another story.
To be true to the inventors of this new art form, it might serve us to remember their poetic intentions. But there is no rule against telling a poetic story in five parts, with the additional restraint challenges like limiting sentence numbers and using imagist language and a love theme.
The restrictions and proscriptions of this form make it tricky to work with, and so rewarding to finish.
9. The Listicle
Internet blogs have popularized lists as ways of organizing information and imparting it to an audience with a short attention span. Lists (like this one) are easy to skim, give the reader a break every few seconds, and organize information into digestible bites.
The listicle is everywhere. “Ten Great Poems for Remembrance Day.” “Twelve Keto Hacks for Restaurant Eating.” “16 Smashing Lippy Shades for Women of Color.”
The literary list is a little different. While it is still about organizing information, it does so in order to tell a story. A list on someone’s fridge can reveal a great deal about a character. If you found your narrator’s New Year's resolutions from last decade, what would they tell you about her?
10. The Hermit Crab
The hermit crab is infamous for taking someone else’s shell and occupying it as its own. The hermit crab story does the same: it borrows its shell ready-made and makes use of it for its own purposes.
The hermit crab writer mines ready-made templates like recipes, mechanical instructions, prescription medicine directions, meeting bullets, and more, for ways to tell a story.
The list story is just one form of many that can be put to creative use.
11. The Novelette
Experimenting with short story forms doesn’t always mean going shorter. Go longer, and play with weaving different plot threads together and using more characters. If a novella is a short novel, or the gray area between short story and novel, the novelette is the gray area between a short story and a novella.
Don’t concern yourself too much with arbitrary word counts for purposes of definition. Simply choose a length that isn’t familiar to your personal writing practice.
If you always write microfiction, creating a story of twelve thousand words will be an amazing way to understand backstory or character development. Give yourself a taste of the depth that can happen when you plan a story with outlines and character sketches.
Enjoy spending some time setting up the place and chronology and getting to know your characters and their community.
Want to write better short stories? Sign up for a 1-on-1 consultation with our short story expert, Author Tevis Shkodra.
About The Author
Lorette C. Luzajic is the founder and editor of The Ekphrastic Review, a journal devoted entirely to literature inspired by visual art. Her prose poetry and small fictions have been published widely in hundreds of journals and anthologies and nominated for several Best of Net and Pushcart prizes. Her most recent book, Pretty Time Machine, is a collection of ekphrases, and she is working to complete another this year. Her flash story recently won first place in a contest at Macqueen’s Quinterly. Lorette is also an award-winning visual artist with collectors in over 25 countries.