Ever dived into a new interest hoping to be an expert from day one?
Bowling looked easy. So did racquetball. Someone even made banjo playing look simple.
So I skipped learning the basics, had no clue of the fundamentals, and jumped in.
You can guess the results—fall-on-my-face failure.
I see beginning fiction writers do this every day. They think writing could become a hobby, a diversion, something they could excel at “if only I had the time.”
So they try to begin their careers before learning the craft. Many even start by writing a novel.
That’s like starting your education in graduate school when you should be in kindergarten. Or like me hauling my brand new banjo onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
A novel is not where you start—it’s where you arrive.
So how should a fiction writer begin? By reading.
That’s right. Don’t even attempt to compete in the marketplace of your chosen genre without immersing yourself in the discipline.
What are the rules of the game, the assumptions, the expectations of readers? How do the best writers do what you want to do?
Maybe you aim to change the genre, improve on it, break the rules. Fine, but you’d better know what they are before your set about reforming them.
Next, when you try your hand at writing, don’t start with a 300-400-page manuscript. Learn the basics first: things like dialogue, point of view, characterization, description, tension, conflict, setups and payoffs, submitting your story, working with an editor.
Start with short stuff: short stories or even flash fiction.
Trying to write a short story is the perfect place to begin, because it reveals many of the obstacles, dilemmas, and questions you’ll face when creating fiction of any length. If you find these things knotty in a short story, imagine how profound they would be in a book-length tale.
Most writers need to get a quarter million clichés out of their systems before they hope to sell something. And they need to learn the difference between imitating their favorite writers and emulating their best techniques.
Mastering even a few of the elements of fiction while learning the craft will prove to be quick wins for you as you gain momentum as a writer.
I don’t mean to imply that learning to write a short story is easier than learning to write a novel—only that as a neophyte you might find the process more manageable in smaller bites.
So let’s start at the beginning.
What Is a Short Story?
Don’t make the mistake of referring to short nonfiction articles as short stories. In the publishing world, short story always refers to fiction. And short stories come varying shapes and sizes:
- Traditional: 1,500-5000 words
- Flash Fiction: 500-1,000 words
- Micro Fiction: 5 to 350 words
Is there really a market for a short story of 5,000 words (roughly 20 double-spaced manuscript pages)? Some publications and contests accept entries that long, but it’s easier and more common to sell a short story in the 1,500- to 3,000-word range.
And on the other end of the spectrum, you may wonder if I’m serious about short stories of fewer than 10 words (Micro Fiction). Well, sort of. They are really more gimmicks, but they exist. The most famous was Ernest Hemingway’s response to a bet that he couldn’t write fiction that short. He wrote: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
That implied a vast backstory and deep emotion.
Writing a compelling short story is an art, despite that they are so much more concise than novels. Which is why I created this complete guide:
9 Steps to Writing a Short Story
1. Read as Many Great Short Stories as You Can Find
Read hundreds of them—especially the classics.
You learn this genre by familiarizing yourself with the best. See yourself as an apprentice. Watch, evaluate, analyze the experts, then try to emulate their work. Soon you’ll learn enough about how to write a short story that you can start developing your own style.
A lot of the skills you need can be learned through osmosis.
Reading two or three dozen short stories should give you an idea of their structure and style. That should spur you to try one of your own while continuing to read dozens more.
Remember, you won’t likely start with something sensational, but what you’ve learned through your reading—as well as what you’ll learn from your own writing—should give you confidence. You’ll be on your way.
2. Aim for the Heart
The most effective short stories evoke deep emotions in the reader.
What will move them? The same things that probably move you:
- Heroic sacrifice
- What else?
3. Narrow Your Scope
It should go without saying that there’s a drastic difference between a 450-page, 100,000-word novel and a 10-page, 2000-word short story. One can accommodate an epic sweep of a story and cover decades with an extensive cast of characters. The other must pack an emotional wallop and tell a compelling story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—with about 2% of the number of words.
Naturally, that dramatically restricts your number of characters, scenes, and even plot points. The best short stories usually encompass only a short slice of the main character’s life—often only one scene or incident that must also bear the weight of your Deeper Question, your theme or what it is you’re really trying to say.
- If your main character needs a cohort or a sounding board, don’t give her two. Combine characters where you can.
- Avoid long blocks of description; rather, write just enough to trigger the theater of your reader’s mind.
- Eliminate scenes that merely get your characters from one place to another. The reader doesn’t care how they got there, so you can simply write: Late that afternoon, Jim met Sharon at a coffee shop…
Your goal is to get to a resounding ending by portraying a poignant incident that tell a story in itself and represents a bigger picture.
4. Make Your Title Sing
Work hard on what to call your short story. Yes, it might get changed by editors, but it must grab their attention first. They’ll want it to stand out to readers among a wide range of competing stories, and so do you.
5. Use the Classic Story Structure
Once your title has pulled the reader in, how do you hold his interest? As you might imagine, this is as crucial in a short story as it is in a novel. So use the same basic approach:
Plunge your character into terrible trouble from the get-go.
Of course, terrible trouble means something different for different genres.
- In a thriller, your character might find himself in physical danger, a life or death situation.
- In a love story, the trouble might be emotional, a heroine torn between two lovers.
- In a mystery, your main character might witness a crime, and then be accused of it.
Don’t waste time setting up the story. Get on with it. Tell your reader just enough to make her care about your main character, then get to the the problem, the quest, the challenge, the danger—whatever it is that drives your story.
6. Suggest Backstory, Don’t Elaborate
You don’t have the space or time to flash back or cover a character’s entire backstory. Rather than recite how a Frenchman got to America, merely mention the accent he had hoped to leave behind when he emigrated to the U.S. from Paris.
Don’t spend a paragraph describing a winter morning. Layer that bit of sensory detail into the narrative by showing your character covering her face with her scarf against the frigid wind.
7. When in Doubt, Leave it Out
Short stories are, by definition, short. Every sentence must count. If even one word seems extraneous, it has to go.
8. Ensure a Satisfying Ending
This is a must. Bring down the curtain with a satisfying thud. In a short story this can often be accomplished quickly, as long as it resounds with the reader and makes her nod. It can’t seem forced or contrived or feel as if the story has ended too soon.
In a modern day version of the Prodigal Son, a character calls from a taxi and leaves a message that if he’s allowed to come home, his father should leave the front porch light on. Otherwise, he’ll understand and just move on.
The rest of the story is him telling the cabbie how deeply his life choices have hurt his family. The story ends with the taxi pulling into view of his childhood home, only to find not only the porch light on, but also every light in the house and more out in the yard.
That ending needed no elaboration. We don’t even need to be shown the reunion, the embrace, the tears, the talk. The lights say it all.
9. Cut Like Your Story’s Life Depends on It
Because it does.
When you’ve finished your story, the real work has just begun. It’s time for you to become a ferocious self-editor. Once you’re happy with the flow of the story, every other element should be examined for perfection: spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, word choice, elimination of clichés, redundancies, you name it. Also, pour over the manuscript looking for ways to engage your reader’s senses and emotions.
All writing is rewriting. And remember, tightening nearly always adds power. Omit needless words.
She shrugged her shoulders.
He blinked his eyes.
Jim walked in through the open door and sat down in a chair.
The crowd clapped their hands and stomped their feet.
Learn to tighten and give yourself the best chance to write short stories that captivate your reader.
Where to Sell Your Short Stories
To get the lowdown on this, I consulted my longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Dennis Hensley—director of Taylor University’s writing program (in my opinion the best in the country). Also a widely-published short story writer, Doc says that—contrary to what many believe—the short story market is NOT dead.
He recommends these main market targets:
Doc highly recommends entering contests, because the winners usually get published in either a magazine or online—which means instant visibility for your name.
Many pay cash prizes up to $5,000. But even those that don’t offer cash give you awards that lend credibility to your next short story pitch.
2. Genre-Specific Periodicals
Such publications cater to audiences who love stories written in their particular literary category. If you can score with one of these, the editor will likely come back to you for more.
Any time you can work with an editor, you’re developing a skill that will well serve your writing.
3. Popular Magazines
Plenty of print and online magazines still buy and publish short stories. A few examples:
- The Atlantic
- Harper’s Magazine
- Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine
- The New Yorker
- Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
- Woman’s World
4. Literary Magazines
While, admittedly, this market calls for a more intellectual than mass market approach to writing, getting published in one is still a win. If you enjoy this genre and can compete here, Doc Hensley says you get more than just exposure through a byline; it also helps you establish a track record and might even get you discovered by a book publisher, as editors and agents scour such magazines looking for talent.
5. Short Story Books
Yes, some publishers still publish these. They might consist entirely of short stories from one author, or they might contain the work of several, but usually tied together by theme.
Regardless which style you’re interested in, remember that while each story should fit the whole, it must also work on its own, complete and satisfying in itself.
What’s Your Story?
You’ll know yours has potential when you can distill its idea to a single sentence. You’ll find that this will keep you on track during the writing stage. Here’s mine for a piece I titled Midnight Clear (which became a movie starring Stephen Baldwin):
An estranged son visits his lonely mother on Christmas Eve before his planned suicide, unaware she is planning the same, and the encounter gives them each reasons to go on.
In the comments below, write the one-sentence essence of your short story.