How to Write a Short Story

How to Write a Short Story

Every writer knows what a short story is, but that does not mean they know how to write one.

If you asked most writers how to write a short story most of them would probably say it is just like writing a novel, only it is shorter. While it is true that short stories share many similar traits to novels they also share some key differences.

In this post, I will explain what exactly a short story is and how to write one.

What is a Short Story?

The concept of a short story is actually quite simple. It is in the name after all. A short story is simply a quick story to read. 

It gets a bit more complicated though. A short story is a piece of fiction that falls between 1,500 and 7,500 words. When you end up writing less you end up with flash fiction, which is a unique type of short story. Write more than 7,500 words and you end up with a novelette.

Even though they are under 7,500 words a short story can be pretty well rounded. You would be surprised what you can do with so few words. A complete short story typically contains a fully developed theme, a plot, and a character arc.

They are almost always self-contained. While they may be left open-ended there should be a sense of conclusion to a short story. They are not like novels in the sense that you can write a sequel. If you find yourself writing sequels to short stories then the chances are you have a novel on your hands, or at least a novelette or novella.

A key feature of short stories is they should be readable in a single sitting. So long as you stick to under 7,500 words this should take care of itself.

Find the Inciting Incident Before You Write Your Short Story

One issue in many novels is the author takes a long time to get to the inciting incident. If you do not know, the inciting incident of any story is the event that hooks the reader in your story. It is the change, or lack of change, that sets your story into motion. This event should have a profound effect on your protagonist.

With novels, you can take your time getting to the inciting incident. It is recommended that you include it in the first chapter. Many authors will wait for several chapters before they get to this incident. When it comes to short stories you do not have the words to work your way into the inciting incident.

As a result, your story should start at the inciting incident. For authors who struggle to find the inciting incident, writing short stories can be a great tool to practice. For a short story to work the inciting incident has to be covered right away.

Readers tend to have shorter attention spans when it comes to shorter works of fiction. If you do not grab onto their attention right away, you may risk losing them. 

You may want to describe and build up your main character before you get into the inciting incident. Do not fall into that trap. You will have plenty of time to develop your character by showing the effects these events have on them. 

If you are having trouble finding the inciting incident ask yourself what is the cause of your story. A good inciting incident is the cause of the story. The rest of the story is the effect.

While the inciting incident does not have to be a huge change, it should have a direct effect on your character. It should alter their life in some way.

Find the Emotional Tone of Your Short Story

When it comes to all stories, emotion is a tool that can make your writing more powerful. This is especially so with shorter works of fiction where you do not have to worry about balancing separate emotions. In a short story, you can choose to focus on one emotion. This emotion is like the soul of your story.

You do not have too many words to connect to the reader and portray a message when it comes to short stories. To make up for this, you should emotionally charge as many words as you possibly can.

There are plenty of emotions you can choose from. A lot of people write short stories that centralize the emotion of sorrow. Some sites that publish flash fiction and short stories report that they receive too many depressing stories. I used to think it is best to write a sad short story because it is easier to have a deep effect on the reader.

While it is true that sadness is a strong emotion, it is not the only powerful one by any means. Anger, jealousy, curiosity, embarrassment, and happiness are all great emotions to centralize a story around. Any emotion can work well if you find a way to emphasize it in your writing.

When writing an emotional short story you want to emphasize this emotion in each and every scene. You should substitute bland words with words that pack an emotional punch.

You should also pick an emotion that compliments your theme. A strong emotional identity in a short story can help it stick in your reader’s mind.

Build a Character Without Boring the Reader

Once again, most readers who enjoy short fiction do not have super long attention spans. It is not like a novel where the author gets a bit more leeway. 

Write a short story

The truth is long descriptions of characters with winding descriptions of their appearance, personality traits, and motivations can get boring. They are boring in novels too. The difference is things like these can be forgiven in a longer work, but they will not fly on a shorter piece of fiction. If you gain nothing else from it, writing short stories is a great way to iron out bad writing habits.

Rather than having a bulk description of a character, sprinkle details about them into the story as needed. If a detail about them is not too important feel free to leave it out entirely. As for a character’s personality traits you can sprinkle them into the narrative as the story unfolds.

It is important you do that because you do want to flesh out a character when it comes to short fiction. Even though they will not have as much development as the main character in a novel it is important that the reader gets a feel for these characters as people. This is because it is hard to care for a character you can not relate to, and you can not relate to a character that is underdeveloped.

A good tip I like to follow is basing characters off people you know. This way you will be able to sprinkle their characteristics into the narrative better by picturing what they would do if they were put in the situation of your story. You do not have to do this, but it is an interesting thing to try even if it is just practice.

Write the First Draft of Your Short Story

A lot of writing is brainstorming new ideas. When you are writing a novel it is great to spend a good portion of time brainstorming scene ideas and outlining your story. You would think this would be a good idea for short fiction, but it can be extremely problematic.

If you brainstorm too many scenes the next thing you know you have enough ideas to fill 20,000 words. At this point, you are well on your way to writing a full-fledged novel. While there is nothing wrong with this if you want to write a short story this is going to be problematic.

Spending too much time thinking before you draft a short story can also cause you to overthink everything. 

Write a short story meme

When writing short fiction there is a feeling that every word has to be perfect since there are so few. It can be easy to write each sentence over and over until it feels right. If you do this in your first draft you will never finish your story. While it is never good to edit while you write this is especially so when it comes to writing a short story.

You want to get your story written as quickly as possible. This will get the basics ironed out. You can always make changes in the editing phase. 

I would actually recommend that you attempt to write out your entire short story in one day. This is especially so if you are writing one on the shorter end. Once it is written you have something concrete you can make all the edits your heart wants to make. The draft is by no means your final copy.

When You Write a Short Story Cut Unnecessary Details

Sure with a short story, you have about 7,500 words at your disposal. However, that does not mean you should use them. If your story has a lot going on then it is perfectly fine to use the full 7,500 words. That being said, if your story has a lot of unnecessary information you may want to cut some of it.

Every word in a short story should serve a purpose. When a reader picks up a short story they are expecting a concise, fast-paced read. They are not expecting pages upon pages of fluff.

In a short story, you want to grab hold of the reader and keep that hold right to the end of the story. If you loosen that grip you may lose them. One of the easiest ways to lose the reader is to drag them through filler content.

Write a Fulfilling Ending to Your Short Story

One of the most important parts of any story is the ending. This is especially so for a short story. The ending is what you leave your reader with at the end of the story. A good ending will leave the reader pondering the themes of your story long after they finish reading it. A bad ending will leave the reader feeling cheated.

At the end of your short story, you are going to want to show a change in your main character or characters. Do not fall into the trap of telling them what happened as a result of everything. Show them. I know the phrase show don’t tell is said a lot when it comes to writing but it is especially important here.

Also, you do not want to end the story right at the final action. You want to reflect a bit on the climax of your story. This will give the reader a bit of time to reflect on the ending and also see how it affected the other elements of the story. Abrupt endings can leave them feeling cheated.

disappointing ending meme

You also want to be careful when it comes to leaving the ending open. Open endings can be great at provoking thought. You just want to ensure there are enough questions answered to satisfy the reader. An ending that is too open can leave a lot to be desired.

Naming Your Short Story

You might be thinking, why is this part last. Isn’t the name of your short story the first thing you should write? While it is true that sometimes a name for a short story can come to you from the start, a lot of time it will take time for the true name to reveal itself.

Two mistakes writers make when they name short stories are choosing bland names and going with names that reveal the ending of your story. Both of these titles are far from ideal.

With the name of a short story, you want to hook the reader into reading the rest of the story. If it is too bland you might lose them. As for the spoiler title, nobody likes a spoiler.

An ideal title will hint at an element of the story or even change the perspective the reader goes into it with. That is why it can be best to come up with the title after the story is complete.

If you are struggling to find a title try brainstorming a few potential titles and writing them on a list. You may fall in love with one of these titles right away. If not, the list of titles may help inspire a better one. 

It is important to put some thought into the title of a short story. Try not to overthink it though. You’re just trying to hook the reader with it, not win them over. That is what the story is for.


Sometimes you want to explore other ideas with your writing without committing a full novel to them. Perhaps you prefer to branch out into as many ideas as possible. Maybe you just want to improve some of your writing skills and fine-tune them for your novel. Short stories are great for all of these.

Short stories are a popular form of fiction for good reasons. At a basic level, they are great for readers that do not have the time to read a full book, but they are also much more than that. A short story has a way of portraying a theme or lesson in a small number of words in a way that other works of fiction simply cannot.

Even if you enjoy writing novels I encourage you to give short stories a try. Reading them is a great source of inspiration. Writing them is a unique way to express yourself.

Short stories have been around for a long time and for good reason. They offer many things in their limited words that a book simply cannot. Take the time to try and write your own today!

Author: Patrick Nilan

Just a young writer looking to take the mistakes I've made to aid the next generation.