How To Write A Short Story: 8 Steps to Successful Short Story Writing

BY Gloria Russell | Sep 09, 2020 | Writing, Fiction

So, you’re trying to learn how to write a short story.

You might be a brand-new writer, or an established novelist looking to try out a new medium–maybe you’ve been trying to write a novel for a while and you’re finding it’s not working for you. 

Whatever the case may be, I’m going to break down a streamlined process that’s guaranteed to turn you into a short story writing pro. But first, let’s talk about short stories.  

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What is a Short Story? 

A short story is a piece of fiction ranging between 1,500 and 30,000 words.

This range lets us practice writing stories with varying levels of complexity and plot–a short story can be very short with one character and character arc, or it can be fairly long with a full cast and a few subplots. 

How Can Short Stories Help Me? 

Whether you’re an established pro or a brand new writer, short stories are a great way to hone and develop your skills. Here are just a few reasons why learning how to write short stories can help you along your writing journey: 

#1 – Practice Plot Construction 

One of the downsides to starting your writing journey with a novel is simply that novels are long, and it can be hard to get through them. Even experienced writers will often abandon a novel halfway in because it isn’t working out. This leads to writers getting excellent at character setups, first chapters, and introductions, but weak when it comes to payoffs and finishing character arcs. 

Since short stories are shorter, it allows you to zero in on a small plot instead of worrying about an entire novel. This way, you get to practice every stage of plot development. Even if you want to write novels in the long run, practicing plot structure like this will be a surefire way to give you a jumpstart when you sit down to write that next draft of your manuscript. 

#2 – Short Stories Mean Smaller Stakes 

Like I said before, short stories let you work in a smaller space. This means the risks are way lower–instead of throwing out an entire novel, which can feel like an anxiety-inducing endeavor, scrapping a short story or starting over often just means deleting a few pages. 

Plus, since it takes less time, you’ll feel rewarded by a complete project much sooner than you would if you started on a novel. This is especially great for new writers–it’s important to feel that satisfaction from a completed project! 

#3 – Back to Basics 

If you’re writing something short, then the basics need to shine. If you’ve only got a few thousand words to tell a story, then every word needs to matter.

Writing short stories is the perfect activity for getting back to the basics.

This is the chance to get down to making every image pop, every plot point neat, everything tidy and sharp–there’s less space to worry about, but there’s also less margin for fudging with plot and character. When you focus on short stories and get back to the basics, you’ll come out of it a better writer all around. 

How to Start Your Short Story 

#1 – Brainstorm Ideas For Your Story

Before you start writing a short story, you need an idea! It’s time for a brainstorming session. Get a writing prompt or a particularly inspiring album, go for a walk, or watch your favorite movie–whatever gets your creative gears turning, get to it. Write down whatever comes to mind, no matter how strange. 

For writing exercises, you can even take elements of your favorite stories and twist them. What if Frankenstein had fallen in love with his monster? 

If you’re having a hard time putting down words, try writing a stream of consciousness–set a timer for a minute or two and write whatever comes to mind. 

#2 – Identify Your Short Story's Characters 

Now that you’ve got some ideas, let’s pick out your characters. Before they’re drawn to anything else in your story, readers are drawn to characters, so it’s important to develop them first. If you can get your audience invested in your characters, they’ll follow your story to the last sentence every time. 

Take a look at your ideas. Who are the main characters? Who are the side characters, if you have any? What do they want, and how do they change? 

The answers to these questions will form your plot and make up your outline, which leads us to our next step. 

#3 – Outline Your Short Story

Before we get into it, a disclaimer: outlining isn’t for anyone. Some people go straight from brainstorming into a first draft. But if you’re a new writer and you don’t have an established routine, outlining can be super helpful for making sure you’ve got a roadmap, even if the story you’re working on is short. 

A short story outline should be a brief overview of the plot of your story. It can be bullet points, or index cards with each scene detailed on them. The idea is just to know where your story is supposed to go so that if you get stuck later, you’ve got something to refer back to. 

If you’re totally lost on how to approach this, circle back to your character. Who is your character at the start of the story? What do they want? How do they try to get this, and do they succeed? The answers to these questions make up an outline all on their own. 

#4 – Draft! 

You’ve got your short story outline, so you’re ready to get started! Find some way to draft that works for you. Writing sprints can be a great way to keep focused for short periods of time–sprinting with friends can add some friendly competition to the work. 

Whatever your method, the most important thing for a first draft is that you don’t stop. Remember, we’re going to edit later, so not every word needs to be perfect. If you get stuck, refer to your outline. Push through scenes that aren’t working like you thought they might, or even skip them entirely. 

It’s totally fine to edit your outline as you go. If you think of a better idea than what you’d originally written down, go for it. Keep going until you hit the end, and then pat yourself on the back! You’ve got the first draft of a short story! 

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#5 – Editing

You may have heard the saying “all writing is rewriting.” That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but in any case, there’s a little truth to it. After you’ve written your first draft, you’ll need to go back and polish it to make sure it’s the best it can be. You’ll need to do two types of edits–developmental edits and copy edits. 

Developmental edits are structural changes to your work, and you should do this part first. Make sure your character motivations make sense. Does your ending go as cleanly as it should, and does it tie up the plot? Is there an extra scene that isn’t doing anything? This is the place to cut all the extra stuff that isn’t serving the plot or characters. 

Some people recommend retyping a second draft entirely from scratch to catch these sorts of errors. That might not be necessary, but if you do decide to delete entire pages of your story, try keeping those snippets in an extra word document so you’re not worried about losing them forever. 

Copy edits are more technical, grammatical changes. Do this part last, since you don’t want to spend a bunch of time fixing commas on a section you’re just going to delete later anyway. Check your formatting, your dialogue tags. 

Basically, when you’re editing your short story, you want to make sure of two things. 

  1. You want everything to be clean. This means no loose plot threads, as few grammatical mistakes as possible, and no excess scenes, words, or pieces of dialogue that don’t add to the story. 
  2. You want everything to be consistent. Make sure your character’s motives make sense to them, and that their motives drive their actions. Make sure their interactions with other characters match their personalities. 

Once you’ve finished editing, you’ve got a second draft of your story, just like that! 

#6 – Get a Second Opinion

Learning to self-edit is a vital part of becoming a better writer, but no matter how good you get at finding the flaws in your own work, you’re always going to want to have someone else look at your work. The same is true when it comes to mastering how to write short stories!

This can be a trusted friend or online writing partners. If you want to enlist a whole set of beta readers, all the better! But think of it like this: different people are going to bring different perspectives to your story and catch things you wouldn’t catch. So, if you want to catch as many errors as possible, you want to show it to as many people as you can, right? 

To get the most out of feedback, try asking your readers specific questions after they’ve read your story. What did they like about it, and why? If they didn’t like it, why didn’t it work for them? 

Not every person will love every story, and that’s okay. But getting constructive criticism on the parts that don’t work will help you grow your story into the best possible version of itself, so stay open to criticism. 

#7 – Title 

For some people, the title is the first thing to click into place. Sometimes the title is the brainstorming nugget from which the story came. More often, finding the perfect title for your story is one of the last things you do, and it can be tricky. Here are a few tips to finding the perfect title for your story: 

  1. Imagery: are there any specific images in your story that catch your eye? Any strong descriptions that stand out? Write down a list of these as a jumping-off point. 
  2. Theme: what are the overarching themes of the story? If your story is about death, maybe write down a list of words or phrases associated with death. Look for phrases in your story that speak to that theme and jot them down. 
  3. Tone: once you’ve settled on something that’s sharp and conveys your theme, make sure it matches the tone. You wouldn’t want to give your serious drama a comedic title, nor would you want to give a foreboding title to your romantic romp. Make sure the title fits the overall vibe, and you’re good to go! 

#8 – Keep Practicing Writing Short Stories

First of all, congratulations! If you’ve made it all the way here, that means you’ve finished writing a short story. 

Now that you know how to get through a short story, the best thing you can do is practice.

Just like anything else, you’ll come up with your own process the more you grow and develop, and whether you’re sticking to short stories or hoping to move on to bigger projects, these skills will be there for you. 

To keep your new skills sharp, try setting up a workshop group with some friends. Set a regular turn-in date and write stories with one another–this will also double as a way to ensure you’ve got a group of people to get feedback from. 

If groups aren’t your thing, set your own schedule. If you’re working solo, make a resolution to draft a short story every day, week, or month, and stick to it!  

Let’s Review: 

Mastering how to write short stories benefits new and experienced writers alike because it helps writers hone their prose and their plot structures.

To get started, do a brainstorming session and sketch an outline before you draft.

Go through and fix what you can see, and get a second pair of eyes to catch what you didn’t see the first time.

Keep practicing, and you’ll be a fiction writing pro in no time. 

How does your process work for writing short stories?

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