What is a Short Story?

I think that the idea of short stories is more ambiguous than a full novel. A short story is like one story arc of a complete novel, but it can stand on it’s own or be added to.

Start at the Beginning, Middle or End

In a short story you can start at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of any story that is running through your mind. A short story can be anywhere in anyone's timeline.

We can look at The Hero and how he has just started his quest, this is his first encounter with the trials that await him and how he overcomes this first trial. We can see The Hero, ragged and scarred, in the middle of his overarching quest. He has discovered that while he has been away from home, something happened. He makes the choice to go home, fix the issue, and get back on track before the big bad thing happens in his main story. We can also enter with The Hero, finally at the end. With what seems like years of hard work for him to get to this point making him clever, strong, and ready to finally face his greatest enemy.

Take for example, Harry Potter. In “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” We come in and see Harry sitting in the main hall enjoying his Halloween dinner with Ron. Hermione has just gone to the bathroom. Harry gets his quest when Professor Quarrel comes in, shouting about how there is a troll in the girls bathroom. From that moment until Ron and Harry defeat the terrifying troll we see a full story arc. From hope in saving their friend, to despair, and finally to triumph.

The thing with short stories is that they can be anywhere in anyone’s time line. That might make it a little harder to start any particular story (especially when you begin in the middle), but it’s not impossible. Bonus, you don’t have to see the entire thing out to the end. I am not saying that you should just leave The Hero or Harry in the middle of a battle and not finish the current arc though. Think of your short story as a mini-arc within the entire arc of what might have been The Hero’s or Harry’s novel.

A Compressed Novel

A short story still has all of the elements of a full novel, it’s just more compressed. We still see The Hero realize that he wants or needs to do something, we still see him struggle, and we still see him as either the triumphant victor or the unfortunate loser. We just see all of this happen in 1.5-30k words rather than 60-100k.

An example of a true short story would be Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote short stories about this detective in a London magazine. I hardly think that Mr. Doyle ever thought that his short stories would leave such an impression on his great city that when he killed off Sherlock, a fictional character, that people would go into mourning. They even went so far as wearing black bands on their arms in public. We only see snippets of Sherlock’s life, and yet he was mourned in the real world by real people. What I am trying to say, is that a short story need not be an enigma that writers should shy away from. They can be some of the most amazing stories ever told.

Write that Idea into a Short Story

Personally, I love short stories. They take the pressure off when you aren’t looking to write an entire novel. They make it easier to get those pesky little ideas that crop up while you’re writing out of your head. When I am writing and get a new idea that doesn’t really fit into my current novel, I write that idea into a short story. That way that idea is out and it leaves room for what I am working on at that moment.

In short, a short story is simply a mini novel, between 1,500 and 30,000 words. It has a story arc, from beginning to end and it can start in any place in a character’s life and story. Short stories can stand alone or be a part of a greater story. They can help the author with their creativity and they are something that I think all writers should dabble in at least a few times.


photo of Samantha CraneSam Crane lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and two children. She is first and foremost a wife and mother, who has joyfully taken on the additional responsibility of homeschooling a preschooler. In her free time. Sam began reading when she was 4 years old but never really tried to write fiction until she was an adult. Encouraged by one of her good friends, she is now currently working on her first novel combining her love of the Fantasy with a bit of Horror.