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Monday, March 23, 2020

Tips on Writing a Great Short Story

Weeks ago I was asked to do an article on short stories, specifically. What makes a short story great? And how is it different from writing a novel?

To be honest, writing a novel and writing a short story are very similar in many ways, and most of the techniques I've written about on my blog apply: creating complex characters, writing great dialogue, utilizing subtext, including hooks . . .

Sure, there are some exceptions, as always. You can find famous short stories that don't really have complex characters, for example, but often such stories are really short stories--maybe by today's standard, considered flash fiction. Here is a famous flash fiction story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn

Does that really tell us much about the complexity of the characters? Not really. But it does still have great subtext.

So keep in mind that there are always exceptions when it comes to writing, but they are just that, exceptions.

So let's got started.


One of the most important things about writing a short story is to keep it focused. Technically, novels should be focused too, but their focus has a broader range whereas short stories need to be narrower, like a flashlight beam compared to a laser beam. A common problem I've seen with newer writers is that they try to fit a novel-length concept into 50 pages. Problematic. Here are some ways to avoid that.

Limit Plotlines--In a novel, you will need a lot of plotlines to carry the story; if you don't have that, a novel will start to feel repetitious since it lacks variety for so many pages. But in a short story, you need to limit your plotlines. Many short stories really have one plotline, with two components working closely together: the outer journey and the inner journey. Think about the premise or main concept of your short story, and keep a laser-beam focus on that. Aim to go deep into the concept, not broad on the topic.

Limit Your Characters--In a short story, you'll usually focus largely on one main character and that character's arc. The more focal characters you include, the more length you typically add. Sure, you can write a story with more than one focal character--you might be able to get away with maybe two. If you have more than that though, usually the focal characters--while individuals--have the same goals and function as a unit. As opposed to most novels, where each focal (or viewpoint) character may have somewhat different goals and more of their own, individualized journeys. (Again, keep in mind that everything in this post is generally speaking).

A good word of advice that gets pushed around in the industry, related to character and plot, is that in a short story, you should specifically write about the most important event that happened in that character's life. I don't know that I agree with this 100%, but it's a good thing to keep in mind when evaluating plot and character. Capture the most important event, which naturally means that it will be an event that changed the character.

Laser-Beam the Theme--Unfortunately, people still talk and treat theme like it's this elusive animal--something wild and beautiful, but dangerous if caged. In reality, the more you understand about theme, the more intentional you can be about it. It's only dangerous when you try to tame it improperly, because you don't understand it. For a recap on how theme actually works, check out this post, "How to Write Your Story's Theme"

Themes are fantastic for focusing stories (and especially in short stories that may seem to lack a feeling of . . . cohesion). And because a lot of people don't understand how to do them, you can really stand out if you master the theme in your story. Theme is what makes a story feel timeless. It sticks with us after we are done, so we aren't left closing the book and thinking, Well that was entertaining, time to get back to normal life! If you read five excellent stories, but only one of them has a powerful theme that changed you, guess which one you will think about long, long after you've finished it?

In a novel, you have room to explore a theme topic rather broadly. Consider all the ways the theme topics of mercy and justice are illustrated and explored in Les Mis. In a novel, you can also explore how the theme topic interacts with other theme topics, societies, and ideologies. In a short story, you are going to be more laser-focused. Take the classic fable of The Tortoise and The Hare--it stays laser-focused on really one illustration of the theme. It doesn't go into, say how in some situations in the real world, getting a head start can have benefits. So focus in on a particular rendition or two (but probably no more than three) of your thematic statement.

Often the most famous and powerful short stories are so great because they say something profound in a small amount of space. In a way, it's similar to poetry. Professional poetry isn't actually about using beautiful words (which is what a lot of people who have never legit studied it seem to think)--it's about capturing specific, significant ideas, concepts, and images, in a brief space, for maximum impact. Great short stories function in similar ways, except you have more room to develop a powerful thematic thread. It can be hard to impact a reader in such a short space with the characters and plot, but you can really hit them in the feels with the theme.

Significance and Stakes

Like a novel, you need to make sure what you write in a short story holds significance--maybe even more so, since you have fewer words. Theme, as we touched on, lends significance to a story, but, in general, you'll want to make sure that what's happening in the plot, concretely, is significant as well.  Remember how I defined significance in my post on writing stakes (significance relates to stakes):

What makes something "significant"?

    1 - It has important personal consequences, or
    2 - It has far-reaching, broad consequences

In a short piece of fiction, my opinion is that you'll more likely be focusing more heavily on personal stakes/significance. Because it's a short length, it's difficult to properly and satisfyingly address very broad stakes/significance. Like anything, it has and can be done, but keep in mind that often in those cases, that means that, probably, the story opened with already rather broad stakes and a protagonist already involved in those--say the president of the United States. Unlike a novel, where you have hundreds of pages, it's difficult to really broaden the stakes in say 7k words and get the audience properly invested in the far-reaching consequences at the same time. Generally speaking.

So even if you are writing about the president making a key decision that will save people from the zombie apocalypse, in a short story, it will probably be more satisfying if it focused more on his personal stakes and experiences.

Exceptions to this would be a short story that is more focused on an intriguing idea or event or world, where the protagonist is what's called an "everyman" character, where it's the event and concept that is the real point. But today, in cases like that, I would say that the idea, event, or world must be quite exceptional to carry such weight. After all, the modern audience has consumed a lot of fantastical fiction already.

In broad stakes, because the audience doesn't have enough time to appreciate the build-up, they can't appreciate the outcome as much. They likely aren't as invested. In contrast, all of us are humans with relationships, personal hopes and fears, so we can become deeply invested in personal stakes much more quickly. The personal stakes, the inner journey, are what usually speak to our human experience.

However, with all this said, this is not to say you can't broaden stakes at all. All I'm saying is if you are relying on starting a short story with an ordinary, modern day and ending it with the entire world possibly being obliterated, and that's your main focus, it will be much harder to pull off, than a character with personal things at stake. But you can (and should) broaden smaller stakes to smaller degrees. And you can still broaden them quite a bit, but it will be more satisfying if you focus on the personal in those cases.

Wow, was that confusing? I hope not. Focus on going deep and personal more than broad and far-reaching.

Utilize Subtext

Subtext is vital for any good story (except, perhaps, stories for young children). But in short fiction (like poetry), it is particularly important, precisely because you are working with less space.

Subtext makes the story bigger than what's on the page. It also helps draw in the audience, inviting them to become a participator in the story. It can create a powerful impact, in less words. For an example, check back at that baby shoes flash fiction story. It says a lot, begs for interpretation, and has impact. Remember, one of the things that can make short stories memorable is how profound they can be in so little space.

But it's more than that. Unlike a novel, you won't have a lot of space in a short story for explanations. Sure, you should never have info-dumps, but in a novel, it's much easier to weave in information when you have more space to tell the story. In a short story, you need to explain and imply enough, and probably not much more than that.

For example, it's unlikely you will focus much on character backstories--unless, of course, the backstory directly affects what's unfolding (see my post on flashbacks), and that's the main plot of the story. But that doesn't mean you should scrap a sense of backstory completely, because we are still trying to give the impression that this world and its characters are real. So instead, you'll hint at the backstories through subtext.

In speculative fiction, something similar will happen with worldbuilding. Some elements don't merit much space, so you'll be using subtext, along with context, to help the audience understand enough. If the worldbuilding element is a main focus of the story, it will have more explanation. If it's more on the outskirts, it will have little. Use context and validation to limit confusion, and subtext to hint at a bigger world and deeper magic system.

In a novel, you may have more space to eventually bring more subtext content to the surface of the text to be explored and discussed. In a short piece of work, you will have less space and may never bring things to the surface--you need to let the reader get a sense or fill things in themselves, and be okay with that.

Generally, this means in short stories, the narrator will likely be doing less "hand-holding" of the audience, less guiding of the reader, and instead, leaving more room for them to come to their own conclusions.

Subtext also increases the story's re-read value, which may be particularly important to short fiction. Again, I'm relating this back to how poetry functions. It's short, but it's condensed. Poetry is meant to be read over and over again. Why? Because in good poetry, you will appreciate and understand it more each time. It has more in it, than the reader initially thought. Great subtext in stories creates a similar effect. Not only will most people not complain about reading "The Yellow Wallpaper" more than once, but by the end of the first reading, most people want to read it more than once, to see what other subtext they can pull out of it for new interpretations.

So in short fiction in particular, you need to rely and utilize subtext more.


An obvious way short stories are different from novels is in structure.

Or is it?

Novels are obviously longer, so they have longer and more complicated structures.

But really, when you look at the basics, the short story is usually rather similar, just a smaller scale.

In my post about scene vs. sequence vs. act, I showed how all of those segments actually have the same structure, and each one actually fits within a bigger structure:

And in reality, this shape permeates just about any small or large structure in anything (creatively) written successfully. It's like the equivalent of breaking down a number forever, into infinity: it's a whole story, it's an act, it's a sequence, it's a scene, it's a beat, it's a description. (More on that here.)

So yes, a short story works on a smaller scale, but it will, in some sense, almost always have this shape with these elements:

inciting incident
rising action (progressive complications)
falling action/denouement

Decades ago, there was a school of thought that a great short story cuts off the beginning and the ending of the narrative and only gives the audience the middle, but really . . . on a smaller scale, the middle should still have this shape, if you are writing genre or commercial fiction. Think of it as the "Act II" in the plot image above. Sure, maybe there is more background (beginning) and more resolution (ending) in the big picture, but even the middle section should really still have an inciting incident, rising action, climax, and a falling action. So maybe it would be helpful for some to think of a short story as a single act, or a sequence.

In a sense, I personally believe you can really shrink down any "story structure" to the small scale. It's just that the inciting incident might happen in a single sentence, the pinch points in single paragraphs, The Ordeal in a page, etc. It's just a shorter space, with smaller and more simplistic things. 

Of course, you will find stories that break the rule, but personally, I don't think you can go wrong with following this. And usually those that deviate and are well done are breaking the rule to good effect. 

In some short stories, you can cut off the denouement. I've seen this done very well on a few occasions--great for short stories that are posing a thematic choice or decision to the audience, where perhaps the protagonist is an everyman character--but almost always, a story needs some denouement to be satisfying, even if it's only a few lines. While most people will tell you that the point of a denouement is to wrap up loose ends, I would strongly argue the true, structural purpose is to validate what has (or hasn't) changed in the story.

Bring Something New to the Table

As we've been talking about, with short stories, you need to impact the audience in less space. It's harder to do this if you aren't bringing anything original to the narrative. If it's just a repeat of what we've seen before, what's the point, really? And since it's a repeat, it won't hold as much power as our first experience with the subject. Instead, we'll be reminded of the first time we read a similar story, rather than just enjoying the story. I mean, I can't read a story about a protagonist discovering he's been dead the whole time without automatically thinking of The Sixth Sense and comparing it to that.

But if it's something fresh, it's like a whole new experience, or a playful twist on a familiar one.

Work to bring something new to the table.

Now, the original aspect doesn't have to be mind-blowing, so don't kill yourself trying to figure it out. When we say "original," we often think of the plot, premise, or overall concept, especially for speculative fiction. We might feel like we need to come up with something as original as Phillip Pullman who asked what it would be like if our souls lived outside our bodies. But originality can come from less obvious elements. An unexpected type of character thrown into a role we've seen a million times, for example. What if we made an old woman into a superhero instead? That brings something new to the table. It can sometimes just be a unique perspective or character voice that breathes fresh air into a tired trope. It might be an unexpected theme paired with a setup we've seen before.

People tend to think that originality means we must come up with something entirely new, but often it means we twist, turn, flip, combine what audiences are familiar with in new ways to make it fresh again, like I talked about when I did that post on obligatory scenes and conventions. Often what feels most original, is a familiar concept that has been pushed to an extreme, new direction, one we never imagined.

Navigating Slush Piles

Once you have your short story written, polished, and ready to go, you might think it's time to submit it for publication or a contest. Remember, about 80% - 90% of submissions get rejected in the first 1 - 5 pages. It sounds brutal to outsiders, but now that I've worked in the industry for this long, it makes sense; I can usually tell what level a writer is at within the first pages and most of them aren't writing at a professional level yet. That's okay, they just need to keep working at it. A professional is just someone who stuck with it.

There are a few things you should keep in mind though, to help you stand out. Follow the submission guidelines and make sure the manuscript is properly formatted. You'd be surprised how many submissions don't do those two things.

By the end of the first page, and especially by the end of the second page, we should have a clear sense of who the character is, when and where the story takes place, and a sense of the conflict. Maybe even a whiff of the theme topic as well. Sure, there are sometimes exceptions to that, but they are just that, exceptions. (Also, don't forget the main conflict may be the inner, personal journey in a short story, more so than the outer one).

If you want to read more about standing out in slush piles, I did a post about that here.

I hope this article is helpful to anyone wanting to writing better short stories.


  1. Like all your tips, this one is excellent - it might be as good as your recent 100+ questions. I think I worry most about bringing something new to the table and just lately have a tendency to plan (maybe too much), start writing, then self-reject after a few pages because the idea is a bit like some other story.

    1. I do think that learning to bring something new to the table is sort of like any other skill--it's something you can develop with practice. A lot of times you can take an idea you've already seen before, and twist it or bring a nuance to it to make it your own. Easier said than done. Sometimes you don't find that new nuance until you've worked at the story for a bit.

      Also, I do find that when starting something new, there is often a sort of "awkward" phase, where you want to stop--happens to me regularly.

  2. Wise words again. Yes, battling through the 'awkward' phase has worked for me in the past.
    BTW - I used your inversion idea for a character I have in mind.
    Now to work at the story some more.

    1. Great! That is kind of a fun technique. Battle away.


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