The Short Story

You have decided to write a short story. Congratulations! Short stories can be great fun to write, and like any writing project, they can be a bit daunting. So, what is a short story, and how do you write one?

It is Short

The first thing to keep in mind when writing a short story is pretty obvious, but I will say it anyway. Short stories are…well…short. They can range anywhere from 6 words (flash fiction) to 7,500 words. I have seen some accept 20,000 words as a short story, but that is more the realm of a novelette. I like to read short stories in one sitting so 7,500 is a nice top end.

It’s a Mini-Novel…Almost

Second thing to keep in mind is that a short story is almost a mini-novel. I want to emphasis the word almost. It is a mis-conception to think that a short story is written just like a novel because there are a lot of things a novel has that a short story doesn’t.

A novel will usually have many character and places, along with multiple story lines. A short story has only a few characters who may visit just a few places, and the plot lines through the story are limited to one or two. Of course, there is an exception to every rule, but in general this is how a short story plays out.

It is like a novel in that it has a beginning, middle and end. There are protagonists, antagonists, an inciting incident, a challenge to overcome, and a solution to the problem. All of these are squeezed into a compact story rather than an epic novel adventure.

Give it a Plot

When writing a short story the plot needs to be tight and concise. In short stories, every scene, paragraph, and sentence needs to be spot on with the plot. If you find yourself meandering between the North and South Poles then you might consider a novel instead.

The Hook

In the short story the hook looks a little different than in a novel. First, it usually comes in the first paragraph of a short, but better in the first few sentences. There isn’t much real estate in a short story so the hook may turn out to be only one or two words that are strategically placed to capture your reader’s attention.

The Draft

Everyone has their own way of getting words from their imagination to paper. My version of writing may not fit your’s, but that’s the beauty of writing. You can test different methods and find the one that fits you. My method is a bit sloppy, but it works for me. It’s like testing to see if spaghetti is cooked; slap it on the wall and see what sticks.

My mind skips around like a leaf blowing up the street. Sometimes it goes in a straight line, and sometimes it gets caught up in a dust devil. So goes my writing method. I usually don’t have a plan, goal, or idea when I start. I just crank out words that pop into my head and write them. Within about five or ten minutes of pure nonsense a plot forms and the story takes off.

Every once in awhile I will start with finding the main character’s name. I love odd or tongue-twister names. I wrote one story where I did an internet search for odd surnames and found Quackenbush then wrote a story around it.

The most important lesson I learned about writing short stories is to not fiddle too much. Frustrations will get you down and kill your creativity. If you get your story pounded out, without editing or second guessing as you write the draft, you will have an easier time in the editing phase.

The Hair Pulling

Once you have the bare bones of a draft you can move on to editing, revising, and hair pulling. During this phase you should be trimming the fat. Again, scenes need to be tight and concise. Make every word count.

In the draft you create where the story will start, where it will grow and thrive, then where it will conclude. The editing phase should only be about tweaking what you already have. Get rid of every word that doesn’t count, squeeze it until it sings.

But I Write Novels!

If you are a novel writer then you have to write short stories. They give you an opportunity to test out ideas without writing the entire book. Do a quick short story draft of your novel idea. See how it feels. If it writes into a good short story it could be a great novel too.

What if you already have several books under your belt? Then add a short story to your repertoire. If you’re not sure where to start here’s one idea; find a thread within the novel that you loved, but the story line didn’t let you fully explore. Expand the scene into a full short story that diverges from the main plot of your novel. Or, take a single character who is minor in your novel and write a short story with them as the protagonist.

Get Unstuck with a Short Story

If you get too bogged down in novel, then a short story will give your creativity a quick vacation away from the work. It may even give you ideas that will help move your novel forward. A quick short story will clear the cob webs.

When you are stuck on a short story then stop and write something else. Make it far out or goofy. Write about how Ford Parker learned to drive, or about Kenny Penny’s school days. A story can always be found in characters like Harry Baldz and his furry friend Shaggy. Have fun and keep on writing!


KJ Scrim, head shot

Kathie “KJ” Scrim is the Managing Editor at Writing from the Peak. She graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder the same year Roald Dahl published Matilda. Kathie’s inspiration for blogging, flash fiction, short stories, and the long haul of novel writing comes from her many life experiences. When she’s not writing you can find her somewhere in Colorado walking, hiking, or rock climbing at the local gym. She scribbles every now and again on her blog, and you can follow her on FB and Twitter (@kjscrim).