The Top 10 Tips For Writing Great Short Stories

September 30, 2020 5 min read

74 Comments

The Top 10 Tips For Writing Great Short Stories

Guest post byWillie Handler, author of two satirical novels, The Road Ahead and Loved Mars Hated The Food.


Not every writer has the passion and time to write a novel. Or maybe you do write novels but want to try something different. If so, writing short stories might be for you. 

Short stories are in demand by magazines, newspapers, blogs, and anthologies, and many of these publications pay authors for short stories. 

In fact, you can earn more money per word writing short stories than you can publishing a novel. 

So how do you go about writing a short story that will be accepted by a publication or website? Here are my top ten tips for writing a great short story.

1. Understand that a short story is not the same as a novel

Novels and short stories share some common characteristics. They need to be coherent, grammatically correct, and have proper spelling. And, no matter the length, they need to tell a story. 

That means they both need to have these elements: inciting incident, rising action (progressive complications), climax, and falling action.

Still, the two formats differ. 

Whereas novelists decide the length of their books, short story writers have to work within the confines of the word limit they're given. To tell a complete story on a smaller scale, they have to cut their stories down to the bone, excluding all fatty detail. And they need to resolve problems quickly.

This is why short stories, unlike novels, usually focus on one aspect of a character’s life, or one aspect of a problem/relationship in a character’s life.

 

2. Start as close to the end as possible

Newspaper articles include the entirety of the story as close to the opening of the article as possible. Why? Because giving a reader the details upfront is one way to let them know whether they want to read on.

Good short story writers do this as well, sharpening their opening lines and paragraphs to ensure readers are pulled in off the bat, and keep reading.

So, get the reader right into your unfolding story. Bypass the “before” and the “also related” and the “vaguely interesting thing that is also true of my character’s life” snapshots. 

Make the plot obvious.

3. Keep up the pace

A fast pace is essential for short stories. Normally, the pace increases as the hero approaches the final conflict. Since a short story starts close to the final conflict, it needs to hit the ground running and catapult the reader headlong into the action from page one.

Example:

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Keith Cavernaugh got murdered last night.”

Fred almost dropped his rake. “I hadn’t heard,” he said.

4. Keep the number of characters small

It’s difficult to properly develop a larger number of characters in a short story, and it's hard for a reader to keep track of them.

A short story only needs three characters – a protagonist, antagonist, and what is referred to as a wrench or relationship character.The reader needs someone to cheer on, someone to hate, and, occasionally, someone who serves to advance the character arc for either the protagonist or antagonist.

A short story can even have as few as one character. In the Tom Hanks film Cast Away, the main character is alone for most of the movie. This is a great example of how you can build a story with just a single character.

5. Give the reader someone to root for

Again, every story needs a protagonist. The trick is to make the reader care about that character. There are a few techniques to strengthen the connection between your protagonist and the reader.

Give your main character a passion, hopefully one that will be shared by the reader. Give your character determination that brings them out of their comfort zone. Give your character a weakness, one that is only shared with the reader. 

A glimpse into your character’s psyche is another good approach. This will make your character feel real and go on to draw in the reader.

6. Create conflict!

Every short story needs to have a single point of conflict. As a rule, no more than one is required for a short story. 

The character should have either a dilemma, a revelation, or be faced with a decision of some kind. Surrounding that conflict should be a good dose of tension. Conflict and tension keep readers engaged and invested in your story. 

Kurt Vonnegut suggests that writers should be sadists. Make bad things happen to your main characters to show readers what they are made of. A short story can never have too much tension.

7. Suggest a backstory but don’t elaborate

You don’t have the space to flesh out a character’s backstory. So, if in doubt, leave it out. Every sentence must count. If even one word seems extraneous, it has to go. 

Even though you may not describe much of the backstory on paper, you need to have it worked out in your head. You need to understand a character’s motivation to write a compelling story.

Instead, draw in your readers with tight dialogue, tension, and by engaging their senses.

On that note...

8. Appeal to the five senses

Don't restrict your readers to only the visual experience of your story. Transport them into your world by letting them touch, smell, taste and hear it. This is what we mean when we say, "Show, don't tell." Invite your readers to explore the full breadth of what your world has to offer, as if they were really there.

The dense fog engulfs your character and she can no longer make out the path through the woods.

The smell of bacon cooking in the kitchen pulls him from his sleep.

The fan blades thwack the air and keep her from drifting to sleep.

9. Dialogue should bring your story to life

Don’t spend too much time setting scenes because a short story needs to come to a relatively quick conclusion. Good dialogue can make the characters, and therefore the story, come to life.  

When putting characters in a scene, give them something to do, like washing dishes. But then focus on the dialogue to advance the story and set up conflict. 

There’s no better way to build drama than through tight dialogue. I always try to read my dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t feel real, or if it seems out of character, I have a problem.

Example:

“Come quick! Jack is trapped in the mineshaft.”

“I can’t help rescue Jack. I’m claustrophobic.”

“That mineshaft floods in wet weather. If this storm breaks, Jack will drown.”

10. Edit until it hurts

No matter how good a writer thinks their story is, it can be made more concise and compelling. To be a good writer, one needs to be a ruthless editor

Some ways to do that...

  • Combine characters where possible.
  • Delete transitory scenes and get right to the meat of the story.
  • Show, remember, don’t tell.
  • Get rid of repetitive words.
  • Toss out unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.
  • Make every sentence count. 

This is the time to look at the backstory and decide how much of it is critical to the story. Remember, just because short stories are short, they aren't necessarily easier to write. 

----------------------------------------

Check out short story anthologies includingRaconteur Magazine for examples of how to apply these tips well. Reading is always a great way to learn how to write.

In sum, keep it spare. Limit plot lines, the number of characters, the amount of backstory provided, and whittle down your conflict to just one event.

And remember, as with all things, practice makes perfect. 

So, commit to your craft. Write a 500 to a 1,000-word story every month. Once you get the hang of that, try to churn one out every two weeks. And then every week. And then every day. 

Soon, you’ll be able to create short stories with ease, and you’ll have trained yourself to write consistently, too.

Just don’t forget to edit!

Want to write better short stories? Sign up for a 1-on-1 consultation with our short story expert, Author Tevis Shkodra.

74 Responses

Canna Taylor
Canna Taylor

August 09, 2022

Wish I could find words to express myself on how thankful and honored I am to receive such assistance from this amazing article. Thank you.

Canna Taylor
Canna Taylor

August 09, 2022

I’m so thankful and I MEAN IT

Regina Mary
Regina Mary

August 09, 2022

Helpful tips. Thanks for sharing

King Bell
King Bell

July 15, 2022

This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.

Atta Dhe Titan
Atta Dhe Titan

July 04, 2022

The article is truly a brilliant guide to writing of short stories. It has armed me with tips that improves writing skills. I can’t say thank enough to the initiator of this guide.

Samkelisiwe
Samkelisiwe

June 14, 2022

This is absolutely helpful. I am planning on writing a short story this July and the article has just paved a way for me.

Boluwatife Babs
Boluwatife Babs

June 14, 2022

Wow it’s really helpful

Boluwatife Babs
Boluwatife Babs

June 14, 2022

Wow it’s really helpful

Maxwell Jailos
Maxwell Jailos

May 30, 2022

this is so helpful I really like it as much as I like writing

Isabella
Isabella

May 19, 2022

The tips were excellent it was kept short and on point. Amazing 😍😉

Walter Otieno
Walter Otieno

May 17, 2022

Fantastic peace

Anthony Ochare
Anthony Ochare

May 09, 2022

Thank you so much. I have learnt a lot.

Anthony Ochare
Anthony Ochare

May 09, 2022

Thank you so much. I have learnt a lot.

Sahil Gupta
Sahil Gupta

May 09, 2022

Nice tips on how to write short stories. “Edit until it hurts”….wow…so true.

b
b

May 09, 2022

At this point, almost everyone has read at least some Alice Munro, right? This story is one of the best from one of the greats, and was also adapted into a fantastic but heartbreaking film, Away From Her.

Andy
Andy

April 27, 2022

thanks for your tips. it’s really helpful for me to create short audio stories. I believe a shorter one is easy to digest for young generations.

Sanskriti
Sanskriti

April 27, 2022

Nice tips they are really helpful. :D

Violet Chavula
Violet Chavula

April 27, 2022

Very interesting

Glory Christopher
Glory Christopher

April 19, 2022

Thank you so much for this information. I’ve learnt so much more.

Simphiwe Twethiso
Simphiwe Twethiso

April 19, 2022

You save me ,got it lastly

Vokdaou
Vokdaou

April 12, 2022

Very interesting

Josephine
Josephine

March 22, 2022

Sharing your beautiful ideas to the people is awesome… thank you so much… i am so interested

Mitchell M
Mitchell M

March 22, 2022

Very informative and well versed, thank you

Bilyaminu Ali Sani
Bilyaminu Ali Sani

March 14, 2022

This tips gives writing absolute inspirations.
Thanks

Jawan Joony
Jawan Joony

March 14, 2022

Thanks it is helpfull and informative

mr davis
mr davis

March 07, 2022

tysm for this

Jeffrey Brown
Jeffrey Brown

February 21, 2022

Thank you for sharing this information.

NIFEMI
NIFEMI

February 14, 2022

Thank you for the guidelines to writing a short story. I will ensure to use them.

Shamin
Shamin

February 14, 2022

This article is super good and truly tells me what I need to do . Thank you

Cindy Z
Cindy Z

February 07, 2022

This article inspired me. I have ALWAYS wanted to write short stories and now I’m going to do it! Thank you so much!

Jennifer
Jennifer

January 25, 2022

Amazing! You should be so proud.

Sam Bleicher
Sam Bleicher

January 19, 2022

If you ever wondered why you get so caught up in a story. Or if you want to learn the reason behind how a group of words can keep you on your toes. This blog will show you the foundation of it.

siqi
siqi

January 14, 2022

it is really useful and helpful;

joe mamma
joe mamma

January 11, 2022

Thanks now I can write a short story about the time I almost killed my grandma <3

Sofie
Sofie

January 11, 2022

This was so well put together! Extremely helpful ! thank you!

Cody
Cody

December 21, 2021

Really great help, Thanks

Andre Jackson
Andre Jackson

December 21, 2021

This was terrific! Helped me out so much.

big pp
big pp

December 21, 2021

this was horrid. in a good way. now i can write about the one time i had bloody diarrhea <3

shahid jamal
shahid jamal

December 06, 2021

These tips are great, these will help a lot.

User 101
User 101

November 30, 2021

This is really helpful

Marien
Marien

November 30, 2021

Great! Really helped me develope a well-written narrative.

Rodelyn Alibangbang
Rodelyn Alibangbang

November 30, 2021

These tips really help me a lot. It made me realize that writing short stories is possible to someone like me.Thank you so much!

Haftbefehl
Haftbefehl

November 30, 2021

Stabile tips

Gurpal singh
Gurpal singh

November 30, 2021

Thanks for the tips.I have been thinking about writing about my village in India,where I lived for 25 years.

nuthi
nuthi

November 30, 2021

thank you!! i love writing and this was super helpful:)

Greegy
Greegy

November 30, 2021

Thank you, this will help me with my 11+ preparation this was so quick to read yet so informative.

Kelvin Jatwa
Kelvin Jatwa

November 30, 2021

The tips, outlined here, are written with passion and captivating explanation. I like this article. It is just what I needed right now!

III
III

October 25, 2021

This is really great!!! Thank you so much 😊😊💗

Glendel Cayabyab
Glendel Cayabyab

October 25, 2021

I like the tips that given its help me a lot to make a short story being a student

Monali Sandeepani
Monali Sandeepani

October 25, 2021

Thank you very much. These tips are made crystal clear to everyone. I read from beginning to end with great interest. I will start writing from today.

Madelyn
Madelyn

October 15, 2021

The tips really help me a lot. Thanks..

Michael Ezekiel
Michael Ezekiel

October 15, 2021

Thanks for all the wonderful tips. I sincerely would like to try my hand in writing short stories.

christophe blain
christophe blain

October 04, 2021

thank you i am very gratefull for the help i am in a english class and have to write a short story

Mokoena Kgaogelo
Mokoena Kgaogelo

October 04, 2021

Hi! I was born talking Northern Sotho it’s my parents’ tongue, used tips .it really helped me alot. Now I’m enjoying writing my own short stories.

Bol Deng Piol
Bol Deng Piol

October 04, 2021

I really appreciated the availed tips and realized that ’’ Reading always a great way to learn how to write clearly and consistently. True indeed.
Ifechukwu
Ifechukwu

October 04, 2021

Thanks for this.
A guide indeed.

Edith
Edith

September 05, 2021

I really enjoyed this piece. I want to start publishing my short stories and this piece will go a long way for me.

unknown
unknown

September 05, 2021

this article really helped me out for my project! thank you!

Alberto
Alberto

September 05, 2021

Hello! My mother tongue is Spanish. I speak English so bad (think in English is my karma). However, I can read and write short stories for my own pleasure. This article was been very useful for me. Has been part of my practice. Thanks!

Kiddmel
Kiddmel

September 05, 2021

It helpful thank u 💙🤗❤

Iwan
Iwan

September 05, 2021

All points are relevant and straight to the core as you mean, thanks for this practical and yet useful tips. Will start my practise imminent .

Crystal Ray
Crystal Ray

September 05, 2021

Good read of good information. Any advice on where to start looking for places to sell my short stories? Thank you.

Mohlala MP
Mohlala MP

September 05, 2021

I really gained a lot , l was at a loss with regard to short story writing, but now l know where to start. Thanks.

Lando Michael
Lando Michael

September 05, 2021

I like it

Marlene Foster
Marlene Foster

July 15, 2021

Amazing article. I write posts and comments on social media and your steps will definitely make my writing more relatable. I’m also looking to write nonfiction to inspire businesses to take action. Your steps will be used in all of the genres that will be written. Looking forward to reading more of your articles. Do you write blogs or articles for magazine publications?

Q. Rivera
Q. Rivera

July 08, 2021

This has opened my eyes about what it takes to be a writer and I am excited to apply these methods to my short story ventures.

Laura
Laura

July 08, 2021

I am happy that I discovered this article.

Christopher Rivera
Christopher Rivera

July 08, 2021

I’ve been a Gamemaster (DM) for over 40 years – this is great stuff! This is also a great way to write an RPG adventure.

Nikitha
Nikitha

July 08, 2021

This was so informative and really helped me improve as a writer. Thank you!

Jo Ann Harris
Jo Ann Harris

July 08, 2021

This information really helped me to write a short story on Medium. Thanks for the tips.

Cabin #6 Resident
Cabin #6 Resident

July 08, 2021

Thank you! These tips are very useful!

Stewart Salisbury
Stewart Salisbury

July 08, 2021

Thanks for the tips…..I will succeed here….show me the money

Diana
Diana

July 08, 2021

I’ve been reading a lot lately about short stories, but this article is by far the most complex and complete!

Thank you! All the advice in it will be put to good use, as I am currently working on a short piece for a competition.

Philip Lazaro
Philip Lazaro

March 04, 2021

This article has really helped me as a short story writer. It is an eye opener. Big up!

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