How to Write a Short Story

I have no idea.

Seriously.

But…here’s how I write a short story. I think of it as cutting out the middle man. Instead of doing this -

A <————————> B <————————> C

you do this -

A <—————–> C

A is your start. The beginning of your story. The event/s that start the ball rolling and spur on the characters/events that lead to the ending. B is the middle. The part where you give the directions. Where you show your characters the path they have to follow and let them decide if they’re going to take it or not. This part, in novels, is where all the will-they-wont-they and the action-packed adventure comes in. In a short story you don’t have time for that. Which brings us to C: the ending. The part where it all comes together under the beautiful umbrella of they-did or they-didnt and boy-gets-the-girl/boy or cop-gets-bad-guy.

For me, the only way I can write a short story is to cut out B altogether. I know, everyone will tell you that the middle is the important part, but when you’re limited to 10,000-15,000 words and you have this incredible story to tell you want to be able to explore it and give the characters some excitement, to put some road blocks in their way and make them work for the happy ending. You can’t do that in a short story. Like I said, as far as I’m concerned you don’t have time.

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My plan is this:

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- I pick a story that is simple and has few characters. The more characters you have the more difficult it is to be concise and keep it short.

- I then organise those characters into importance and their role in the story.

- I write out, in note form, how the story is going to go in as much detail as possible. I don’t always do this for a novel because I like the characters to tell me what direction they want to go, but in a short story I don’t have time for that so they go where I tell them to go.

- I start writing. This is the crucial part.

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To write the actual story, I have to force myself to comply with the following guidelines:

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- I write the entire story in one document, with only *** as a break between scenes. This doesn’t divide into chapters and will go on as long as the story does. Then I check word count and if it fits, I divide it into chapters.

- The Beginning (the main event that spurs on everything else) is only allowed the cover 1 or 2 pages of the first chapter.

- 10-15,000 words is not a lot, so keep it short and to the point. Immediately delete unnecessary scenes/conversations/characters.

- The Middle (the how-they-get-there part) can take 2-3 chapters and a half.

- 10-15,000 also doesn’t leave you a lot of room to move. I tend to keep my shorts to about 3-4 chapters. You can get a good 3-4,000 words in each chapter.

- The End should take either the entire/half of the last chapter or the last page. It depends if the ending leads to another scene or if it ends abruptly.

- If you have words left in your word count and there’s more you want to add, use them.

- I plan to always leave the final story (before editing) about 10-20 words short of the goal, if I can. This means I have space in my word count for the title, my name and chapter headers. This varies depending on the length of the title and if I’m naming chapters anything other than ‘Chapter 1′.

- If chapters have a headline, e.g. ‘The Moment of Truth’ then I miss out the above. Instead I add each headline as I write and then, when the story is finished, I check the word count and edit until it fits.

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Here are some tips on how to keep your story from becoming a novel:

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 – Stick to 1-2 main characters.

- Tell the story from 1 POV (Point of View).

- Keep your scenes to the point. In a novel you can point out things that will be interesting or be important later, but you don’t have time for that in a short story. If it’s important, make sure the readers knows about it without acting stopping to say ‘this character realised that this would be important.’

- Subtle does not work! You don’t have time!

- You can create suspense and anticipation in a short story. It is possible, but you have to be clever about it.

- Small actions and words can have the biggest impact. Use this to your advantage.

- KNOW where your story starts and ends and how you get there. If you don’t know this, you can’t write it into a novel, never mind a short story.

- Focus! If you get distracted and start rambling, you’re going to use up precious word count on nothing. It will be filler and your editor will cut it.

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How do you write a short story?

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I want to know. Leave me a comment, send me a link – anything.

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Want more tips? Check these out:

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8 Unstoppable Rules For Writing Killer Short Stories

Short Story Tips: 10 Ways to Improve Your Creative Writing

5 Secret Tips To Writing A Successful Short Story

How to Write a Short Story

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6 thoughts on “How to Write a Short Story

  1. Most of what I write is short stories or novellas, or non-fiction. Character numbers have varied widely from one to six (?). The important thing, I think, is to think either in terms of simple plot (less than an hour up to one day) or in short scenes. But, 10k sounds like an awful lot of space for a short (~30-40 pages), I think those are more novella length, IMHO. For short stories, I tend to think 6-15 pages (1500-4500 words)

    • That’s really interesting. I’m writing for an anthology so 10k was my word count. It actually scares me to think of only writing 15-4500 words lol. I have enough trouble cutting down to 10k. Any tips?

      • For 10k, I think focus is important. The ones that were the most fun to write at that length were 2-4 main characters and typically involved only a few hours of time. I generally started with an action scene (mostly because that’s my preference), although the intensity of action varied.

        But, I’m also a Heinlein-type writer, in that I know more or less where I’m starting and where I want to end, but let the in-between take care of itself.

        I’ve had a lot of practice writing 10-20 page articles (for conferences and journals) and a ton of under 10 page essays (English major, History minor) that probably carried over somewhat.

        I think that just as there are theses that are suited for books and theses suited for 4-5 page essays, there are plots suited to novels and plots suited to short stories. The trick is figuring out which are which, but I think that only comes with some experience or borrowing someone else’s experience (an editor, an instructor, a tutor as appropriate). I’d recommend pitching the plot to someone (preferably with experience in the genre) and seeing what they think as far as viability in the length restrictions.

        You could also think of it as a self-contained chapter, that might help.

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