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Readers' Corner

How to Write a Short Story

From idea generation to publication, learn every step of the short story writing process

Table of contents

What is a short story, developing ideas and premises, creating characters, plotting the story, structuring your story, refining your revision process, publishing and promoting your story, examples of classic short stories.

Writing a short story may seem like an easy or simple task, but crafting an engaging and compelling piece of short fiction takes skill and practice. In this guide, we will explore the key elements that go into writing an effective short story, including developing characters, crafting a plot, using narrative techniques, and revising and polishing your work. By the end, you’ll have a solid understanding of the short story writing process and be ready to draft your own tales.

Before diving into the how-tos of writing short fiction, it’s important to understand exactly what constitutes a short story. At its most basic, a short story is a brief work of prose fiction that is shorter in length than a novel. But there are some key distinguishing characteristics of short stories versus longer works of fiction:

  • Length  – Most short stories range from 1,000 to 7,500 words, though some can be shorter or a bit longer. Anything over 15,000 words is generally considered a novella or novel.
  • Single focused plot  – Short stories focus on one core conflict or storythread, without subplots. The narrative is more tightly-woven than a novel.
  • Few main characters  – There are usually only a handful of major characters rather than dozens or more. Background on characters is limited.
  • Swift pacing  – Events move at a brisker clip since there is less time/space. Exposition and backstory are kept to a minimum.
  • Condensed context  – Less emphasis is placed on extensive descriptions of setting or character backgrounds. Context is revealed through events.

Remember that these are guidelines rather than hard rules. Experimental or creative stories may play with conventions. The key point is that short stories aim to packs a narrative punch within a tighter, more focused scope than a novel.

When drafting a short story, one of the first steps is coming up with a core idea or premise to build the narrative around. Here are some effective techniques for generating initial story concepts:

Brainstorming Prompts  – Use writing prompts, either from online lists or ones you generate yourself, as a springboard. Things like “A woman finds $5,000 that isn’t hers” can spark ideas.

Personal Anecdotes  – Draw on interesting real-life experiences , people you know, odd things that happen to you and turn them into fictional tales.

Research Topics  – Browse news stories, history facts, current events for intriguing details or social issues to explore.

Reader Challenges  – Propose a narrative challenge, like “A story told through instant messages” to ignite creativity.

Mindmaps/Freewriting – Jot down any concepts, images, or questions without filtering, as these nonlinear methods stimulate new connections.

The premise should present a central conflict or character decision that neatly sets up the story’s focus and stakes. Keep tweaking ideas until you land on one with potential layers to unpack.

Short stories hinge upon vibrant, multilayered characters. Take time to craft appealing protagonists and supporting cast through character profiles addressing:

  • Basic Details – Describe appearance, mannerisms, and background details.
  • Motivations and Goals  – What drives this character? What do they want deep down?
  • Flaws and Contradictions  – No one is one-dimensional. Give characters nuanced weaknesses or inconsistencies.
  • Perspective and Voice  – How do they view themselves and others? What is their tone/speech patterns like?

Round out profiles by exploring each character’s dynamic with others, life experiences shaping them, and how they change through the story. Even side characters should feel authentic to avoid flat stock figures.

Short stories require tight, elevated storylining with a beginning, middle, and end. Develop the narrative arc by:

Identifying the Central Conflict  – What dramatic question or problem fuels the narrative drive?

Outlining Key Scenes  – Map the rising action, pivotal climax/turning point, and resolution of the central conflict.

Scheduling Reveals  – Parcel out contextual details and backstory judiciously, saving mysteries for climactic moments.

Foreshadowing Effectively  – Drop subtle hints that heighten foreboding, tie into later beats, and optimize surprises without logical leaps.

Crafting Satisfying Closures  – Resolve critical narrative strands while leaving room for interpretation or further questions. Avoid pat or simplistic endings.

Use this scheme to stay grounded, yet leave room for organic discoveries in the first draft. Continually assess if scenes refine character or propel plotting forward efficiently.

While short story structure is adaptable, many classics follow reliable models that help maintain pace and audience engagement. Consider opening with:

  • In Medias Res  – Throw readers directly into the action/conflict without extensive setup.
  • Character in Dilemma  – Pose a thought-provoking choice, want, or obstacle for protagonists up front.

Additional effective structural techniques include:

  • flashbacks  – Punctuate scenes with limited retrospectives that add nuance, not confusion.
  • dual timelines  – Layer two storylines, with climaxes aligning fruitfully versus disjointedly.
  • Frame narratives  – Bookend the central tale with another sequence setting context or posing implications.

The structure should unfold purposefully yet economically, without dragging or wasted space. Maintain suspense and curiosity right up through a resonant closure. Functional plots serve characters and themes over arbitrary story beats.

The initial draft gets the raw content on paper, but the real crafting happens in rewriting and refinement. Hone the story by:

  • Reading aloud  – Hear where language/pacing/tone feels awkward versus fluid and absorbing.
  • Getting feedback  – Consult critique partners to flag ambiguities, weak areas, emotional impacts, and logical gaps
  • Self-editing  – Cut excess flab while tightening prose, trimming redundant lines, sharpening dialogue/action, and finessing flow.
  • Replotting  – Restructure scenes, timelines, reveals, and conclusion as needed based on editorial insights and storytelling impact.
  • Polishing prose  – refine phrasing, vocabulary, sentence variation, vivid descriptions, evocative metaphor upon subsequent drafts.

Leave revisions to simmer, then revisit with fresh eyes later. The goal is a dynamic, cohesive end product where every element elevates the narrative and reader experience.

After polishing your story to a fine sheen, explore options for featuring your work:

  • Submit to literary journals – Research submission guidelines for print and online publications.
  • Self-publish eBooks /paperbacks – Easy-to-use platforms host and distribute your work digitally and in print.
  • Create a blog/website – Post stories and build an audience through promotion on social networking platforms.
  • Enter writing contests – Competitions offer exposure, potential awards, and craft feedback opportunities.
  • Pitch to anthologies/magazines – Inquire about one-off story reprint/syndication opportunities in specific publications or annual collections.

Always maintain professionalism with editors and respect revision/acceptance policies. View initial publications as a learning experience and resume builder toward higher impact placements. Networking widens your supporter base as well.

To help understand the range, depth and mastery possible within the short form, explore acclaimed works like:

  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson – A chilling glimpse into blind social conformity and ritual with an unforgettably jarring climax.
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – A feminist examination of postpartum depression and oppressive gender roles through a haunting first-person narrative.
  • “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates – A psychological thriller following the manipulation and downfall of a naive teenage girl.
  • “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs – A cautionary tale imbued with Gothic suspense sparked by a family’s fateful wishes upon a mystical talisman.
  • “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin – A poignant exploration of familial bonds, the ravages of addiction, and the universal language of jazz seen through two troubled brothers.

Studying classics like these spotlights concise yet immersive storytelling , economic character development, mastery of voice , and the heights short fiction can reach when approached with vision and skill.

That covers the essentials for crafting compelling short stories that entertain audiences and advance your writing practice. Keep experimenting and learning with each new story drafted. Above all, believe in your ability to meaningfully distill life’s complexities into vivid glimpses of truth through short fiction.

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The short story is a fiction writer’s laboratory: here is where you can experiment with characters, plots, and ideas without the heavy lifting of writing a novel. Learning how to write a short story is essential to mastering the art of storytelling . With far fewer words to worry about, storytellers can make many more mistakes—and strokes of genius!—through experimentation and the fun of fiction writing.

Nonetheless, the art of writing short stories is not easy to master. How do you tell a complete story in so few words? What does a story need to have in order to be successful? Whether you’re struggling with how to write a short story outline, or how to fully develop a character in so few words, this guide is your starting point.

Famous authors like Virginia Woolf, Haruki Murakami, and Agatha Christie have used the short story form to play with ideas before turning those stories into novels. Whether you want to master the elements of fiction, experiment with novel ideas, or simply have fun with storytelling, here’s everything you need on how to write a short story step by step.

The Core Elements of a Short Story

There’s no secret formula to writing a short story. However, a good short story will have most or all of the following elements:

  • A protagonist with a certain desire or need. It is essential for the protagonist to want something they don’t have, otherwise they will not drive the story forward.
  • A clear dilemma. We don’t need much backstory to see how the dilemma started; we’re primarily concerned with how the protagonist resolves it.
  • A decision. What does the protagonist do to resolve their dilemma?
  • A climax. In Freytag’s Pyramid , the climax of a story is when the tension reaches its peak, and the reader discovers the outcome of the protagonist’s decision(s).
  • An outcome. How does the climax change the protagonist? Are they a different person? Do they have a different philosophy or outlook on life?

Of course, short stories also utilize the elements of fiction , such as a setting , plot , and point of view . It helps to study these elements and to understand their intricacies. But, when it comes to laying down the skeleton of a short story, the above elements are what you need to get started.

Note: a short story rarely, if ever, has subplots. The focus should be entirely on a single, central storyline. Subplots will either pull focus away from the main story, or else push the story into the territory of novellas and novels.

The shorter the story is, the fewer of these elements are essentials. If you’re interested in writing short-short stories, check out our guide on how to write flash fiction .

How to Write a Short Story Outline

Some writers are “pantsers”—they “write by the seat of their pants,” making things up on the go with little more than an idea for a story. Other writers are “plotters,” meaning they decide the story’s structure in advance of writing it.

You don’t need a short story outline to write a good short story. But, if you’d like to give yourself some scaffolding before putting words on the page, this article answers the question of how to write a short story outline:


How to Write a Short Story Step by Step

There are many ways to approach the short story craft, but this method is tried-and-tested for writers of all levels. Here’s how to write a short story step by step.

1. Start With an Idea

Often, generating an idea is the hardest part. You want to write, but what will you write about?

What’s more, it’s easy to start coming up with ideas and then dismissing them. You want to tell an authentic, original story, but everything you come up with has already been written, it seems.

Here are a few tips:

  • Originality presents itself in your storytelling, not in your ideas. For example, the premise of both Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ostrovsky’s The Snow Maiden are very similar: two men and two women, in intertwining love triangles, sort out their feelings for each other amidst mischievous forest spirits, love potions, and friendship drama. The way each story is written makes them very distinct from one another, to the point where, unless it’s pointed out to you, you might not even notice the similarities.
  • An idea is not a final draft. You will find that exploring the possibilities of your story will generate something far different than the idea you started out with. This is a good thing—it means you made the story your own!
  • Experiment with genres and tropes. Even if you want to write literary fiction , pay attention to the narrative structures that drive genre stories, and practice your storytelling using those structures. Again, you will naturally make the story your own simply by playing with ideas.

If you’re struggling simply to find ideas, try out this prompt generator , or pull prompts from this Twitter .

2. Outline, OR Conceive Your Characters

If you plan to outline, do so once you’ve generated an idea. You can learn about how to write a short story outline earlier in this article.

If you don’t plan to outline, you should at least start with a character or characters. Certainly, you need a protagonist, but you should also think about any characters that aid or inhibit your protagonist’s journey.

When thinking about character development, ask the following questions:

  • What is my character’s background? Where do they come from, how did they get here, where do they want to be?
  • What does your character desire the most? This can be both material or conceptual, like “fitting in” or “being loved.”
  • What is your character’s fatal flaw? In other words, what limitation prevents the protagonist from achieving their desire? Often, this flaw is a blind spot that directly counters their desire. For example, self hatred stands in the way of a protagonist searching for love.
  • How does your character think and speak? Think of examples, both fictional and in the real world, who might resemble your character.

In short stories, there are rarely more characters than a protagonist, an antagonist (if relevant), and a small group of supporting characters. The more characters you include, the longer your story will be. Focus on making only one or two characters complex: it is absolutely okay to have the rest of the cast be flat characters that move the story along.

Learn more about character development here:


3. Write Scenes Around Conflict

Once you have an outline or some characters, start building scenes around conflict. Every part of your story, including the opening sentence, should in some way relate to the protagonist’s conflict.

Conflict is the lifeblood of storytelling: without it, the reader doesn’t have a clear reason to keep reading. Loveable characters are not enough, as the story has to give the reader something to root for.

Take, for example, Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story The Cask of Amontillado . We start at the conflict: the narrator has been slighted by Fortunato, and plans to exact revenge. Every scene in the story builds tension and follows the protagonist as he exacts this revenge.

In your story, start writing scenes around conflict, and make sure each paragraph and piece of dialogue relates, in some way, to your protagonist’s unmet desires.

4. Write Your First Draft

The scenes you build around conflict will eventually be stitched into a complete story. Make sure as the story progresses that each scene heightens the story’s tension, and that this tension remains unbroken until the climax resolves whether or not your protagonist meets their desires.

Don’t stress too hard on writing a perfect story. Rather, take Anne Lamott’s advice, and “write a shitty first draft.” The goal is not to pen a complete story at first draft; rather, it’s to set ideas down on paper. You are simply, as Shannon Hale suggests, “shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build castles.”

5. Step Away, Breathe, Revise

Whenever Stephen King finishes a novel, he puts it in a drawer and doesn’t think about it for 6 weeks. With short stories, you probably don’t need to take as long of a break. But, the idea itself is true: when you’ve finished your first draft, set it aside for a while. Let yourself come back to the story with fresh eyes, so that you can confidently revise, revise, revise .

In revision, you want to make sure each word has an essential place in the story, that each scene ramps up tension, and that each character is clearly defined. The culmination of these elements allows a story to explore complex themes and ideas, giving the reader something to think about after the story has ended.

6. Compare Against Our Short Story Checklist

Does your story have everything it needs to succeed? Compare it against this short story checklist, as written by our instructor Rosemary Tantra Bensko.

Below is a collection of practical short story writing tips by Writers.com instructor Rosemary Tantra Bensko . Each paragraph is its own checklist item: a core element of short story writing advice to follow unless you have clear reasons to the contrary. We hope it’s a helpful resource in your own writing.

Update 9/1/2020: We’ve now made a summary of Rosemary’s short story checklist available as a PDF download . Enjoy!

writing short stories before novel

Click to download

How to Write a Short Story: Length and Setting

Your short story is 1000 to 7500 words in length.

The story takes place in one time period, not spread out or with gaps other than to drive someplace, sleep, etc. If there are those gaps, there is a space between the paragraphs, the new paragraph beginning flush left, to indicate a new scene.

Each scene takes place in one location, or in continual transit, such as driving a truck or flying in a plane.

How to Write a Short Story: Point of View

Unless it’s a very lengthy Romance story, in which there may be two Point of View (POV) characters, there is one POV character. If we are told what any character secretly thinks, it will only be the POV character. The degree to which we are privy to the unexpressed thoughts, memories and hopes of the POV character remains consistent throughout the story.

You avoid head-hopping by only having one POV character per scene, even in a Romance. You avoid straying into even brief moments of telling us what other characters think other than the POV character. You use words like “apparently,” “obviously,” or “supposedly” to suggest how non-POV-characters think rather than stating it.

How to Write a Short Story: Protagonist, Antagonist, Motivation

Your short story has one clear protagonist who is usually the character changing most.

Your story has a clear antagonist, who generally makes the protagonist change by thwarting his goals.

(Possible exception to the two short story writing tips above: In some types of Mystery and Action stories, particularly in a series, etc., the protagonist doesn’t necessarily grow personally, but instead his change relates to understanding the antagonist enough to arrest or kill him.)

The protagonist changes with an Arc arising out of how he is stuck in his Flaw at the beginning of the story, which makes the reader bond with him as a human, and feel the pain of his problems he causes himself. (Or if it’s the non-personal growth type plot: he’s presented at the beginning of the story with a high-stakes problem that requires him to prevent or punish a crime.)

The protagonist usually is shown to Want something, because that’s what people normally do, defining their personalities and behavior patterns, pushing them onward from day to day. This may be obvious from the beginning of the story, though it may not become heightened until the Inciting Incident , which happens near the beginning of Act 1. The Want is usually something the reader sort of wants the character to succeed in, while at the same time, knows the Want is not in his authentic best interests. This mixed feeling in the reader creates tension.

The protagonist is usually shown to Need something valid and beneficial, but at first, he doesn’t recognize it, admit it, honor it, integrate it with his Want, or let the Want go so he can achieve the Need instead. Ideally, the Want and Need can be combined in a satisfying way toward the end for the sake of continuity of forward momentum of victoriously achieving the goals set out from the beginning. It’s the encounters with the antagonist that forcibly teach the protagonist to prioritize his Needs correctly and overcome his Flaw so he can defeat the obstacles put in his path.

The protagonist in a personal growth plot needs to change his Flaw/Want but like most people, doesn’t automatically do that when faced with the problem. He tries the easy way, which doesn’t work. Only when the Crisis takes him to a low point does he boldly change enough to become victorious over himself and the external situation. What he learns becomes the Theme.

Each scene shows its main character’s goal at its beginning, which aligns in a significant way with the protagonist’s overall goal for the story. The scene has a “charge,” showing either progress toward the goal or regression away from the goal by the ending. Most scenes end with a negative charge, because a story is about not obtaining one’s goals easily, until the end, in which the scene/s end with a positive charge.

The protagonist’s goal of the story becomes triggered until the Inciting Incident near the beginning, when something happens to shake up his life. This is the only major thing in the story that is allowed to be a random event that occurs to him.

How to Write a Short Story: Characters

Your characters speak differently from one another, and their dialogue suggests subtext, what they are really thinking but not saying: subtle passive-aggressive jibes, their underlying emotions, etc.

Your characters are not illustrative of ideas and beliefs you are pushing for, but come across as real people.

How to Write a Short Story: Prose

Your language is succinct, fresh and exciting, specific, colorful, avoiding clichés and platitudes. Sentence structures vary. In Genre stories, the language is simple, the symbolism is direct, and words are well-known, and sentences are relatively short. In Literary stories, you are freer to use more sophisticated ideas, words, sentence structures and underlying metaphors and implied motifs.

How to Write a Short Story: Story Structure

Your plot elements occur in the proper places according to classical Act Structure so the reader feels he has vicariously gone through a harrowing trial with the protagonist and won, raising his sense of hope and possibility. Literary short stories may be more subtle, with lower stakes, experimenting beyond classical structures like the Hero’s Journey. They can be more like vignettes sometimes, or even slice-of-life, though these types are hard to place in publications.

In Genre stories, all the questions are answered, threads are tied up, problems are solved, though the results of carnage may be spread over the landscape. In Literary short stories, you are free to explore uncertainty, ambiguity, and inchoate, realistic endings that suggest multiple interpretations, and unresolved issues.

Some Literary stories may be nonrealistic, such as with Surrealism, Absurdism, New Wave Fabulism, Weird and Magical Realism . If this is what you write, they still need their own internal logic and they should not be bewildering as to the what the reader is meant to experience, whether it’s a nuanced, unnameable mood or a trip into the subconscious.

Literary stories may also go beyond any label other than Experimental. For example, a story could be a list of To Do items on a paper held by a magnet to a refrigerator for the housemate to read. The person writing the list may grow more passive-aggressive and manipulative as the list grows, and we learn about the relationship between the housemates through the implied threats and cajoling.

How to Write a Short Story: Capturing Reader Interest

Your short story is suspenseful, meaning readers hope the protagonist will achieve his best goal, his Need, by the Climax battle against the antagonist.

Your story entertains. This is especially necessary for Genre short stories.

The story captivates readers at the very beginning with a Hook, which can be a puzzling mystery to solve, an amazing character’s or narrator’s Voice, an astounding location, humor, a startling image, or a world the reader wants to become immersed in.

Expository prose (telling, like an essay) takes up very, very little space in your short story, and it does not appear near the beginning. The story is in Narrative format instead, in which one action follows the next. You’ve removed every unnecessary instance of Expository prose and replaced it with showing Narrative. Distancing words like “used to,” “he would often,” “over the years, he,” “each morning, he” indicate that you are reporting on a lengthy time period, summing it up, rather than sticking to Narrative format, in which immediacy makes the story engaging.

You’ve earned the right to include Expository Backstory by making the reader yearn for knowing what happened in the past to solve a mystery. This can’t possibly happen at the beginning, obviously. Expository Backstory does not take place in the first pages of your story.

Your reader cares what happens and there are high stakes (especially important in Genre stories). Your reader worries until the end, when the protagonist survives, succeeds in his quest to help the community, gets the girl, solves or prevents the crime, achieves new scientific developments, takes over rule of his realm, etc.

Every sentence is compelling enough to urge the reader to read the next one—because he really, really wants to—instead of doing something else he could be doing. Your story is not going to be assigned to people to analyze in school like the ones you studied, so you have found a way from the beginning to intrigue strangers to want to spend their time with your words.

Where to Read and Submit Short Stories

Whether you’re looking for inspiration or want to publish your own stories, you’ll find great literary journals for writers of all backgrounds at this article:


Learn How to Write a Short Story at Writers.com

The short story takes an hour to learn and a lifetime to master. Learn how to write a short story with Writers.com. Our upcoming fiction courses will give you the ropes to tell authentic, original short stories that captivate and entrance your readers.

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Rosemary – Is there any chance you could add a little something to your checklist? I’d love to know the best places to submit our short stories for publication. Thanks so much.

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Hi, Kim Hanson,

Some good places to find publications specific to your story are NewPages, Poets and Writers, Duotrope, and The Submission Grinder.

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“ In Genre stories, all the questions are answered, threads are tied up, problems are solved, though the results of carnage may be spread over the landscape.”

Not just no but NO.

See for example the work of MacArthur Fellow Kelly Link.

[…] How to Write a Short Story: The Short Story Checklist […]

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Thank you for these directions and tips. It’s very encouraging to someone like me, just NOW taking up writing.

[…] Writers.com. A great intro to writing. https://writers.com/how-to-write-a-short-story […]

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The Write Practice

How to Write a Short Story: 5 Major Steps from Start to Finish

by Sarah Gribble | 81 comments

Do you want to learn how to write a short story ? Maybe you'd like to try writing a short story instead of a novel-length work, or maybe you're hoping to get more writing practice without the lengthy time commitment that a novel requires.

The reality of writing stories? Not every short story writer wants to write a novel, but every novelist can benefit from writing short stories. However, short stories and novels are different—so naturally, how you write them has its differences, too.

how to write a short story

Short stories are often a fiction writer’s first introduction to writing, but they can be frustrating to write and difficult to master. How do you fit everything that makes a great story into something so short?

And then, once you do finish a short story you’re proud of, what do you do with it?

That's what we'll cover in this article, along with additional resources I'll link to that will help you get started step-by-step with shorts.

Short Stories Made Me a Better Writer

I fell into writing short stories when I first started writing.

I'd written a book , and it was terrible. But it opened up my mind and I kept having all these story ideas I just had to get out.

Before long, I had dozens of stories and within about two years, I had around three dozen of them published traditionally. That first book went nowhere, by the way. But my short stories surely did.

And I learned a whole lot about the writing craft because I spent so much time practicing writing with my short stories. This is why, whether you want to make money as a short story writer or experiment writing them, I think writing short stories is important for every writer who wants to become a novelist.

But how do you write a short story? And what do you do afterwards? I hope that by sharing my personal experiences and suggestions, I can help you write your own short stories with confidence.

Why Should You Write Short Stories?

I get a lot of pushback when I suggest new writers should write short stories.

Everyone wants to write a book. (Okay, maybe not everyone, but if you ask a hundred people if they’d like to write one, I’d bet seventy-something of them would say yes.) Anthologies and short story collections don’t make a ton of money because no one really wants to read them. So why waste time writing short stories when books are what people read ?

There are three main reasons you should be a short story writer:

1. Training

Short stories help you hone your writing skills .

Short stories are often only one scene and about one character. That’s a level of focus you can’t have in a novel. Writing short stories forces you to focus on writing clearly and concisely while still making a scene entertaining.

You’re working with the basic level of structure here (a scene) and learning to perfect it .

Short stories are a place to experiment with your creative process, to play with character development techniques, to dabble in different kinds of writing styles. 

And you're learning what a finished story feels like. So many aspiring novelists have only half-done drafts in drawers. A short is training yourself to finish.

2. Building contacts and readers

Most writers I know do not want to hear this, but this whole writing thing is the same as any other industry: if you want to make it, you better network.

When my first book, Surviving Death , was released, I had hundreds of people on my launch team. How? I’d had about three dozen short stories published traditionally by that time. I’d gathered a readership base, and not only that, I’d become acquainted with some fellow writers in my genre along the way. And those people were more than willing to help me get the word out about my book.

You want loyal readers and you want friends in the industry. And the way to get those is to continuously be writing.

Writing is like working out. If you take a ton of time off, you’re going to hurt when you get back into it.

It’s a little difficult to be working on a novel all the time. Most writers have one or two in them a year, and those aren’t written without a bit of a break in between.

Short story writing helps you keep up your writing habit , or develop one, and they make for a nice break in between larger projects.

I always write short stories between novels, and even between drafts of my novels. It keeps me going and puts use to all the random story ideas I had while working on the larger project. I've found over the years that keeping up the writing habit is the only way to actually keep yourself in “writer mode.”

All the cool kids are doing it. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Edgar Allan Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood . . . Google your favorite writers and they probably have a short story collection or two out there. Most successful authors have cut their teeth on short stories.

What is a Short Story?

Now that you know why you should be writing short stories, let’s talk about what a short story is. This might seem obvious, but it’s a question I’ve gotten a lot. A short story is short, right? Essentially, yes. But how short is short?

You can Google how long a short story is and get a bunch of different answers. There are a lot of different editors out there running a lot of different anthologies, magazines, ezines, podcasts, you name it. They all have slightly different definitions of what a short story is because they all have slightly different needs when it comes to providing content on their platform and meeting the expectations of their audiences.

A podcast, for instance, often wants a story to take up about thirty minutes of airtime. They know how long it takes their producers to read a story, so that thirty minutes means they’re looking for a very specific word count. An ezine might aim for a certain estimated reading time. A magazine or anthology might have a certain number of pages they’re trying to fill.

Everyone has a different definition of how short a short story is, so for the purpose of this series, I’m going to be broad in my definition of a short story.

What qualifies as a short story?

A short story word count normally falls somewhere between 1,000 words and 10,000 words. If you’re over ten thousand, you’re running into novelette territory, though some publications consider up to 20,000 words to be a short story. If you’re under a thousand words, you’re looking at flash fiction.

The sweet spot is between 2,000 and 5,000 words. The majority of short stories I’ve had published were between 2,500 words and 3,500 words.

That’s not a lot of words, and you’ve got a lot to fit in—backstory, world-building, a character arc—in that tiny amount of space. (A book, by the way, is normally 60,000 to 90,000 words or longer. Big difference.)

A short story is one to three scenes. That’s it. Think of it as a “slice of life,” as in someone peeked into your life for maybe an hour or two and this is what they saw.

You’re not going to flesh out every detail about your characters. (I normally don’t even know the last names of my short story characters, and it doesn’t matter.) You’re not trying to build a Tolkien-level world. You don’t need to worry about subplots.

To focus your writing, think of a short story as a short series of events happening to a single character. The rest of the cast of characters should be small.

How to Write a Short Story: The Short Version

Throughout this blog series, I’ll take a deep dive into the process of writing short stories. If you’re looking for the fast answer, here it is:

  • Write the story in one sitting.
  • Take a break.
  • Edit with a mind for brevity.
  • Get feedback and do a final edit.

Write the story in one sitting

For the most part, short stories are meant to be read in one sitting, so it makes sense that you should write them in one sitting.

Obviously, if you’re in the 10K range, that’s probably going to take more than one writing session, but a 2,500-word short story can easily be written in one sitting. This might seem a little daunting, but you’ll find your enthusiasm will drive you to the ending and your story will flow better for it.

You’re not aiming for prize-winning writing during this stage. You’re aiming to get the basic story out of your head and on paper.

Forget about grammar . Forget about beautiful prose. Forget about even making a ton of sense.

You’re not worrying about word count at this stage, either. Don’t research and don’t pause over trying to find the exact right word. Don't agonize over the perfect story title.

Just get the basic story out. You can’t edit a blank page.

Take a break

Don’t immediately begin the editing process. After you’ve written anything, books included, you need to take a step back . Your brain needs to shift from “writer mode” to “reader mode.” With a short story, I normally recommend a three-day break.

If you have research to do, this is the time to do it, though I highly recommend not thinking about your story at all.

The further away you can get from it, the better you’ll edit.

Edit with a mind for brevity

Now that you’ve had a break, you’re ready to come back with a vengeance. This is the part where you “kill your darlings” and have absolutely no mercy for the story you produced less than a week ago. The second draft is where you get critical.

Remember we’re writing a short story here, not a novel. You don’t have time to go into each and every detail about your characters’ lives. You don’t have time for B-plots, a ton of characters, or Stephen King-level droning on.

Short stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, though. They’re short, but they’re still stories.

As you edit , ask yourself if each bit of backstory, world building, and anything else is something your reader needs to know. If they do, do they need to know it right at that moment? If they don’t, cut it.

Get feedback

If this is your first time letting other people see your writing, this can be a scary step. No one wants to be given criticism. But getting feedback is the most important step in the writing process next to writing.

The more eyes you can get on a piece of writing, the better.

I highly recommend getting feedback from someone who knows about writing, not your mother or your best friend. People we love are great, but they love you and won’t give you honest feedback. If you want praise, go to them. If you want to grow as a writer, join a writing community and get feedback from other writers.

When you’ve gotten some feedback from a handful of people, make any changes you deem necessary and do a final edit for smaller issues like grammar and punctuation.

Here at The Write Practice, we’re huge fans of publishing your work . In fact, we don’t quite consider a story finished until it’s published.

Whether you’re going the traditional route and submitting your short story to anthologies and magazines, or you’re more into self- publishing , don’t let your story languish on your computer. Get it out into the world so you can build your reader base.

And it’s pretty cool getting to say you’re a published author.

That’s the short version of how to go about writing short stories. Throughout this series, I’ll be taking a more in-depth look at different elements of these steps. Stick with me throughout the series, and you’ll have a short story of your own ready to publish by the end.

A Preview of My How to Write a Short Story Series

My goal in this blog series is to walk you through the process of writing a short story from start to finish and then point you in the right direction for getting that story published.

By the end of this series, you’ll have a story ready to submit to publishers and a plan for how to submit.

Below is a list of topics I’ll be covering during this blog series. Keep coming back as these topics are updated over the coming months.

How to Come up With Ideas For Short Stories

Creative writing is like a muscle: use it or lose it. Coming up with ideas is part of the development of that muscle. In this post , I’ll go over how to train your mind to put out ideas consistently.

How to Plan a Short Story (Without Really Planning It)

Short stories often don’t require extensive planning. They’re short, after all. But a little bit of outlining can help. Don’t worry, I’m mostly a pantser! I promise this won’t be an intense method of planning. It will, however, give you a start with the elements of story structure—and motivation to get you to finish (and publish) your story. Read this article to see how a little planning can go a long way toward writing a successful story.

What You Need in a Short Story/Elements of a Short Story

One of the biggest mistakes I see from new writers is their short stories aren’t actually stories. They're often missing a climax, don't have an ending, or just ramble on in a stream-of-consciousness way without any story structure. In this article , I’ll show you what you need to make sure your short is a complete story.

Writing Strategies for Short Stories

The writing process varies from person to person, and often from project to project. In this blog , I’ll talk about different writing strategies you can use to write short stories.

How to Edit a Short Story

Editing is my least favorite part of writing. It’s overwhelming and often tedious. I’ll talk about short story editing strategies to take the confusion out of the process, and ensure you can edit with confidence.Learn how to confidently edit your story here .

Writing a Better Short Story

Short stories are their own art form, mainly because of the small word count. In this post, I’ll discuss ways to write a better short, including fitting everything you want and need into that tiny word count.

Weaving backstory and worldbuilding into your story without overdoing it. Remember, you don't need every detail about the world or a character's life in a short story—but the setting shouldn't be ignored. How your protagonist interacts with it should be significant and interesting.

How to Submit a Short Story to Publications

There are plenty of literary magazines, ezines, anthologies, etc. out there that accept short stories for publication (and you can self-publish your stories, too). In this article, I’ll demystify the submission process so you can submit your own stories to publications and start getting your work out there. You'll see your work in a short story anthology soon after using the tips in this article !

Professionalism in the Writing Industry

Emotions can run high when you put your work out there for others to see. In this article, I’ll talk about what’s expected of you in this profession and how to maintain professionalism so that you don't shoot yourself in the foot when you approach publishers, editors, and agents.

Write, Write, Write!

As you follow this series, I challenge you to begin writing at least one short story a week. I'll be giving you in-depth tips on creating a compelling story as we go along, but for now, I want you to write. That habit is the hardest thing to start and the hardest thing to keep up.

You may not use all the stories you're going to write over the next months. You may hate them and never want them to see the light of day. But you can't get better if you don't practice. Start practicing now.

As Ray Bradbury says:

“Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

When it comes to writing short stories, what do you find most challenging? Let me know in the comments .

For today’s practice, let’s just take on Step #1 (and begin tackling the challenge I laid down a moment ago): Write the basic story idea, the gist of the premise, as you’d tell it to a friend. Don’t think about it too much, and don’t worry about going into detail. Just write.

Write for fifteen minutes .

When your time is up, share your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop. And after you post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.

Happy writing!

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Sarah Gribble

Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death , her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.

Follow her on Instagram or join her email list for free scares.

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How to Write a Short Story: 10 Good Tips for Writers

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Hannah Yang

how to write a short story

Table of Contents

Short stories 101: what are they and where do you start, 10 tips on how to write a short story, examples of popular short stories for inspiration, conclusion on how to write a short story.

Short stories are an extremely versatile form of literature.

Because of their brevity, short stories allow writers to experiment with a large variety of forms and styles, even ones that wouldn’t be easy to sustain for an entire novel.

But just because they’re short, doesn’t mean they’re easy to write well. So, how exactly do you write a successful short story?

Read on to learn our top tips for how to write short stories, as well as some examples you can read to get inspired.

A short story is a fictional narrative that's between 2,000 and 7,000 words long.

The hallmark of a short story is its concision. A great short story can evoke an emotion, convey a theme, or depict a moment in time in just a few thousand words.

One common misconception is that a short story is just a novel squeezed into a smaller form. But short stories and novels are actually very different art forms.

Novels tend to follow a character across an arc or transformation, while short stories focus more on a single moment. Also, novels tend to focus more on story structure, while many short stories focus more on mood than on plot.

If you approach a short story like you’re writing a shorter version of a novel, you’ll end up with what feels like a synopsis of a longer story, rather than a short story that feels immersive and powerful. So, when you’re writing a short story, remember to lean into the specific strengths of short fiction rather than trying to mimic the characteristics of a novel.

If you want to write a short story, you’ve come to the right place! Here are our top ten tips for how to write a fantastic short story.

short story definition

Tip 1: Experiment With Form

A short story can take any form you want it to.

You could write a short story that takes the form of a cooking recipe, with each step telling the reader what to do next.

You could write a short story that takes the form of a series of text messages between two friends, with conflict starting to simmer between them.

Or you could even write a short story that takes the form of a real estate advertisement, using a salesperson’s writing style to describe a house and the events that happened inside.

Short stories come in all shapes and sizes, so the possibilities are bounded only by your own imagination. If you're not sure what to write about, try starting with an unusual form and see if that gives you any fun short story ideas.

Tip 2: Start With a Strong Hook

Because a short story has so few words, each line is important—especially the first line. This is your chance to hook the reader in and make them want to keep reading.

There are many different types of hooks you can consider using.

For example, you might start with an intriguing image that paints a picture in the reader’s head. Or you might start with a character doing something strange, which makes the reader wonder why they’re doing it.

No matter what type of hook you choose, make sure you grab the reader’s attention as quickly as possible.  

Tip 3: Identify the Inciting Incident and Climax

Due to their brevity, short stories usually don’t follow a plot structure, like the three-act structure or Freytag’s Pyramid.

However, you still need to identify two key plot points: the inciting incident and the climax.

The inciting incident is the moment that kicks off the story and causes the chain of events to unfold.

The climax is the highest point of tension within the story. It’s often a choice the character makes that reveals something important about who they are.

It’s important to make sure these plot points are present in your story, even if they’re just a few sentences long, to ensure that you're writing a complete story.

Tip 4: Evoke a Specific Mood

Many successful short stories do a great job encapsulating a certain mood. When you read a compelling story, you find yourself feeling the specific emotion that the author intended for you to feel.

Think about the mood you’re trying to evoke with your story. Do you want it to be funny? Creepy? Nostalgic? Heartbreaking?

Once you know the mood you want to evoke, you can let that mood inform all of your story decisions. For example, a creepy story might require different word choices compared to a funny story.

Tip 5: Keep the Timeline Short

Novels tend to follow the main character's life across several days, months, or years. Most short stories, on the other hand, exist within a much smaller time scale.  

Unless you have a lot of experience writing short stories, try to write one in as short a timeline as possible.

If you’re not sure how to compress your story’s timeline, try starting your story closer to the climax. Can your story begin five minutes before the core decision the character needs to make rather than five years before?

That way, you don’t have to worry about your story sprawling too much or having unnecessary scenes. Compressing your timeline also lets you explore a few scenes more deeply, instead of depicting a greater number of scenes with less depth.

Tip 6: Minimize the Cast of Characters

Many short stories focus on a relationship between two characters rather than filling the story with side characters. If those two main characters have a unique relationship with plenty of tension, you don’t need anyone else to make it interesting.

Some stories even revolve around a single main character, with no other characters involved. If you can show the reader who this one individual is, that can be a really powerful character study.

Remember that you’re not writing a novel, which might have sidekicks, comic relief characters, evil minions, and more. The fewer characters your short story has, the more you’ll be able to say about each of them.

Tip 7: Choose a Specific Theme

Many beginner writers aim for broad, vague themes, such as “love” or “ambition.”

But short stories are too small to explore every nuance of an abstract theme like love or ambition. There are too many different nuances to those abstract concepts.

It’s often much more effective to explore a narrower, more specific theme. Try to figure out what you’re saying about a specific character or a relationship between two specific characters, not about humankind in general.

Instead of exploring “love” as a concept, for example, you could explore what love looks like in a relationship between a working mother and her resentful daughter.

Or, instead of exploring “ambition” as a theme, you could explore what ambition looks like for a specific student at a high-pressure prep school.

Tip 8: Focus on “Knockout”

Argentinian author Julio Cortazar once said: “The novel wins by points, the short story by knockout.”

This quote is a great analogy for the difference between these two art forms.

After all, a great novel might have an action-packed battle sequence, a nostalgic flashback scene, and a romantic subplot, all in addition to the main storyline.

But a great short story only has room to do one thing—and it needs to do that one thing masterfully.

So, figure out the crux of the story—the thing your story is going to do masterfully. It might be a single moment in time you want to depict, or a single emotion you want to evoke.   

Every element of your short story needs to contribute to that crux. Nothing should be extraneous or out of place.

Tip 9: Give Your Story an Interesting Title

Many writers give their short stories common titles, such as “Dust” and “Home.”

If “Home” is the perfect title for your story, there’s no rule against using it as a title. But the downside is that your story will feel more forgettable to your readers.

Instead, consider using a unique title. For example, you might use a title that includes an unusual phrase, a character’s role or name, or even a song lyric.

Think of the title as the real first line of your story—it’s the first impression you’ll make on the reader. If you can hook them in with the title, your story will stand out from the crowd.

Tip 10: Edit, Edit, Edit

No short story comes out perfectly on the first draft, even if you’re an experienced writer.

It’s crucial to edit your story to make it as polished as possible.

Run your story through ProWritingAid. You can use the Word Explorer to check the connotations of each word you choose, which can ensure you evoke the right tone in your writing.

writing short stories before novel

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The best way to become a better writer is by reading great examples.

Here are some short stories you can read to inspire you.

Example 1: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

“The Lottery,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1948, is one of my favorite short stories.

The story depicts a group of villagers who gather together to hold a lottery. The nature of the lottery is left mysterious, but the sense of excitement and anticipation grows as everyone waits to see whose name will get drawn.

This is a great example of a short story that doesn’t waste any words. It begins with the moment the villagers start to gather and ends as soon as the lottery is conducted.

You’ll have to read the story to find out what the lottery turns out to be. It’s a quick read, and well worth your time.

Example 2: “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver

“Cathedral,” first published in a short story collection in 1983, is a story about two men forging an unexpected connection.

The story follows a cynical narrator whose wife invites her friend, a recently widowed blind man, to come stay with them. The narrator knows little about blindness except from the movies and isn’t particularly thrilled about having this guy stay at his house.

The narrator and the blind man end up spending time in front of the TV together, and when the camera shows a beautiful cathedral, the narrator realizes the blind man has no idea what a cathedral looks like. And so, painstakingly, he tries to describe it to him.

This story is all about the intimacy, beauty, and sadness of that moment—trying to describe a cathedral to a man who can never see one.

Example 3: “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison

Roberta and Twyla are two roommates in a shelter, both sent to live there because their mothers are unable to care for them.

Originally published in a short story anthology in 1983, “Recitatif” follows these two girls as they grow up and start families.

A major focus of the story is on the fact that Twyla and Roberta are different races and therefore get treated differently by society. Here’s the catch: Morrison never tells you which girl is the Black character and which girl is the white character. She just lets you make your own assumptions.  

This story is masterfully written, and one thing I love about it is that you can interpret it in a different way each time you reread it.

Example 4: “Eating Bitterness” by Hannah Yang

For this last example, I’ll discuss one of my own short stories and the choices I made while writing it.

“Eating Bitterness,” which you can read online in The Dark Magazine , is a story about a world where all women have two mouths. The second mouth is used to eat all the negative emotions their families feel.

Once I’d decided on the core idea that would the “knockout” punch of the story, I crafted the details of the story to match.

Thematically, I wanted the story to explore the relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter, who have very different feelings about their second mouths. Because this is a short story, I tried to focus on that core mother-daughter relationship throughout the piece and added only a few other family members to keep it simple.

Finally, I made sure to choose a title that felt specific and unique. “Chi ku” is a Chinese idiom for suffering, which translates to “eating bitterness” in English. I liked the double meaning that this title might evoke for bilingual readers, but I also felt like the title works well on its own, whether or not you’ve heard the idiom before.

There you have it—our top tips for how to write a short story, as well as some examples to inspire you.

Short stories are one of my favorite forms of literature, and there’s so much you can do with them.

So, pick up a pen and try writing one! If you enjoy writing your own stories, you can even submit short stories to literary magazines.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Hannah is a speculative fiction writer who loves all things strange and surreal. She holds a BA from Yale University and lives in Colorado. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her painting watercolors, playing her ukulele, or hiking in the Rockies. Follow her work on hannahyang.com or on Twitter at @hannahxyang.

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How to write short stories

How to Write a Short Story That Captivates Your Reader

Trying to write a short story is the perfect place to begin your writing career .

Because it reveals many of the obstacles, dilemmas, and questions you’ll face when creating fiction of any length.

If you find these things knotty in a short story, imagine how profound they would be in a book-length tale.

Most writers need to get a quarter million clichés out of their systems before they hope to sell something.

And they need to learn the difference between imitating their favorite writers and emulating their best techniques.

Mastering even a few of the elements of fiction while learning the craft will prove to be quick wins for you as you gain momentum as a writer.

I don’t mean to imply that learning how to write a short story is easier than learning how to write a novel —only that as a neophyte you might find the process more manageable in smaller bites.

So let’s start at the beginning.

  • What Is a Short Story?

Don’t make the mistake of referring to short nonfiction articles as short stories. In the publishing world, short story always refers to fiction. And short stories come varying shapes and sizes:

  • Traditional: 1,500-5000 words
  • Flash Fiction: 500-1,000 words
  • Micro Fiction: 5 to 350 words

Is there really a market for a short story of 5,000 words (roughly 20 double-spaced manuscript pages)?

Some publications and contests accept entries that long, but it’s easier and more common to sell a short story in the 1,500- to 3,000-word range.

And on the other end of the spectrum, you may wonder if I’m serious about short stories of fewer than 10 words (Micro Fiction). Well, sort of.

They are really more gimmicks, but they exist. The most famous was Ernest Hemingway’s response to a bet that he couldn’t write fiction that short. He wrote: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

That implied a vast backstory and deep emotion.

Here are some other examples of micro fiction from my Facebook page.

Writing a short story is an art, despite that they are so much more concise than novels. Which is why I created this complete guide.

  • How to Come Up with Great Short Story Ideas

Do you struggle coming up with short story ideas?

Or is your list so long you don’t know where to start?

Writing fiction i s not about rules or techniques or someone else’s ideas. 

It’s about a story well told .

Short story ideas are all around you, and you can learn to recognize them. Then you can write with confidence and enjoy the process.

I recommend these strategies to generate story ideas:

1. Recognize the germ.

Much fiction starts with a memory—a person, a problem, tension, fear, conflict that resonates with you and grows in your mind. 

That’s the germ of an idea that can become your story.

2. Write it down.

Write your first draft to simply get the basics of the story down without worrying about grammar, cliches, redundancy or anything but the plot.

3. Create characters from people you know.

Characters come from people you’ve or have known all your life (relatives). 

Brainstorming interesting, quirky, inspiring, influential people and mix and match their looks, ages, genders, traits, voices , tics, habits, characteristics. The resulting character will be an amalgam of those.

4. Get writing.

The outlining and research has to end at some point.  

You’ve got to start getting words onto the page.

Interested in reading more about these strategies?

Click here to read my in-depth blog post on how to come up with story ideas .

  • How to Structure Your Short Story

Regardless whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser like me (one who writes by the seat of their pants),  I recommend a basic story structure .

It looks like this, according to bestsellin g Dean Koontz :

  • Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible. (That trouble will mean something different depending on your genre. For a thriller it might be life-threatening. For a romance it might mean choosing between two suitors.)
  • Everything your character does to try to get out of the trouble makes it only worse.
  • Eventually things appear hopeless.
  • Finally, everything your character has learned through all that trouble gives him what he needs to win the day—or fail.

That structure will keep you —and your reader—engaged.

  • How to Write a Short Story in 9 Steps
  • Read as Many Great Short Stories as You Can Find
  • Aim for the Heart
  • Narrow Your Scope
  • Make Your Title Sing
  • Use the Classic Story Structure
  • Suggest Backstory, Don’t Elaborate
  • When in Doubt, Leave it Out
  • Ensure a Satisfying Ending
  • Cut Like Your Story’s Life Depends on It

How to Write a Short Story Step 1. Read as Many Great Short Stories as You Can Find

Read hundreds of them—especially the classics .

You learn this genre by familiarizing yourself with the best. See yourself as an apprentice. Watch, evaluate, analyze the experts, then try to emulate their work.

Soon you’ll learn enough about how to write a short story that you can start developing your own style.

A lot of the skills you need can be learned through osmosis .

Where to start? Read Bret Lott , a modern-day master. (He chose one of my short stories for one of his collections .)

Reading two or three dozen short stories should give you an idea of their structure and style. That should spur you to try one of your own while continuing to read dozens more.

Remember, you won’t likely start with something sensational, but what you’ve learned through your reading—as well as what you’ll learn from your own writing—should give you confidence. You’ll be on your way.

How to Write a Short Story Step 2. Aim for the Heart

The most effective short stories evoke deep emotions in the reader.

What will move them? The same things that probably move you:

  • Heroic sacrifice

How to Write a Short Story Step 3. Narrow Your Scope

It should go without saying that there’s a drastic difference between a 450-page, 100,000-word novel and a 10-page, 2000-word short story.

One can accommodate an epic sweep of a story and cover decades with an extensive cast of characters .

The other must pack an emotional wallop and tell a compelling story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—with about 2% of the number of words.

Naturally, that dramatically restricts your number of characters, scenes, and even plot points .

The best short stories usually encompass only a short slice of the main character’s life —often only one scene or incident that must also bear the weight of your Deeper Question, your theme or what it is you’re really trying to say.

Tightening Tips

  • If your main character needs a cohort or a sounding board, don’t give her two. Combine characters where you can.
  • Avoid long blocks of description; rather, write just enough to trigger the theater of your reader’s mind.
  • Eliminate scenes that merely get your characters from one place to another. The reader doesn’t care how they got there, so you can simply write: Late that afternoon, Jim met Sharon at a coffee shop…

Your goal is to get to a resounding ending by portraying a poignant incident that tell a story in itself and represents a bigger picture.

How to Write a Short Story Step 4. Make Your Title Sing

Work hard on what to call your short story.

Yes, it might get changed by editors, but it must grab their attention first. They’ll want it to stand out to readers among a wide range of competing stories, and so do you.

How to Write a Short Story Step 5. Use the Classic Story Structure

Once your title has pulled the reader in, how do you hold his interest?

As you might imagine, this is as crucial in a short story as it is in a novel. So use the same basic approach:

Plunge your character into terrible trouble from the get-go .

Of course, terrible trouble means something different for different genres.

  • In a thriller, your character might find himself in physical danger, a life or death situation.
  • In a love story, the trouble might be emotional, a heroine torn between two lovers.
  • In a mystery, your main character might witness a crime, and then be accused of it.

Don’t waste time setting up the story. Get on with it.

Tell your reader just enough to make her care about your main character, then get to the the problem, the quest, the challenge, the danger—whatever it is that drives your story.

How to Write a Short Story Step 6. Suggest Backstory, Don’t Elaborate

You don’t have the space or time to flash back or cover a character’s entire backstory.

Rather than recite how a Frenchman got to America, merely mention the accent he had hoped to leave behind when he emigrated to the U.S. from Paris.

Don’t spend a paragraph describing a winter morning.

Layer that bit of sensory detail into the narrative by showing your character covering her face with her scarf against the frigid wind.

How to Write a Short Story Step 7. When in Doubt, Leave it Out

Short stories are, by definition, short. Every sentence must count. If even one word seems extraneous, it has to go.

How to Write a Short Story Step 8. Ensure a Satisfying Ending

This is a must. Bring down the curtain with a satisfying thud.

In a short story this can often be accomplished quickly, as long as it resounds with the reader and makes her nod. It can’t seem forced or contrived or feel as if the story has ended too soon.

In a modern day version of the Prodigal Son, a character calls from a taxi and leaves a message that if he’s allowed to come home, his father should leave the front porch light on. Otherwise, he’ll understand and just move on.

The rest of the story is him telling the cabbie how deeply his life choices have hurt his family.

The story ends with the taxi pulling into view of his childhood home, only to find not only the porch light on, but also every light in the house and more out in the yard.

That ending needed no elaboration. We don’t even need to be shown the reunion, the embrace, the tears, the talk. The lights say it all.

How to Write a Short Story Step 9. Cut Like Your Story’s Life Depends on It

Because it does.

When you’ve finished your story, the real work has just begun.

It’s time for you to become a ferocious self-editor .

Once you’re happy with the flow of the story, every other element should be examined for perfection: spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, word choice , elimination of clichés, redundancies, you name it.

Also, pour over the manuscript looking for ways to engage your reader’s senses and emotions.

All writing is rewriting . And remember, tightening nearly always adds power. Omit needless words.

She shrugged her shoulders .

He blinked his eyes .

Jim walked in through the open door and sat down in a chair .

The crowd clapped their hands and stomped their feet .

Learn to tighten and give yourself the best chance to write short stories that captivate your reader.

  • Short Story Examples
  • The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
  • The Bet by Anton Chekhov
  • The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
  • To Build a Fire by Jack London
  • Journalism In Tennessee by Mark Twain
  • Transients in Arcadia by O. Henry
  • A New England Nun by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
  • Miggles by Bret Harte
  • The McWilliamses And The Burglar Alarm by Mark Twain
  • Vanka by Anton Chekhov
  • Where to Sell Your Short Stories

1. Contests

Writing contests are great because the winners usually get published in either a magazine or online—which means instant visibility for your name.

Many pay cash prizes up to $5,000. But even those that don’t offer cash give you awards that lend credibility to your next short story pitch .

2. Genre-Specific Periodicals

Such publications cater to audiences who love stories written in their particular literary category.

If you can score with one of these, the editor will likely come back to you for more.

Any time you can work with an editor, you’re developing a skill that will well serve your writing.

3. Popular Magazines

Plenty of print and online magazines still buy and publish short stories. A few examples:

  • The Atlantic
  • Harper’s Magazine
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine
  • The New Yorker
  • Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
  • Woman’s World

4. Literary Magazines

While, admittedly, this market calls for a more intellectual than mass market approach to writing, getting published in one is still a win.

Here’s a list of literary magazine short story markets .

5. Short Story Books

Yes, some publishers still publish these.

They might consist entirely of short stories from one author, or they might contain the work of several, but they’re usually tied together by theme.

Regardless which style you’re interested in, remember that while each story should fit the whole, it must also work on its own, complete and satisfying in itself.

  • What’s Your Short Story Idea?

You’ll know yours has potential when you can distill its idea to a single sentence. You’ll find that this will keep you on track during the writing stage. Here’s mine for a piece I titled Midnight Clear (which became a movie starring Stephen Baldwin):

An estranged son visits his lonely mother on Christmas Eve before his planned suicide, unaware she is planning the same, and the encounter gives them each reasons to go on.

Amateur writing mistake

Are You Making This #1 Amateur Writing Mistake?

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Faith-Based Words and Phrases

writing short stories before novel

What You and I Can Learn From Patricia Raybon

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The Complete Guide to Writing Short Stories

Publishing your work doesn’t have to be a difficult, complex process..

Publishing a book can feel like a monumental task, especially when you do it on your own. There’s a whole world of design choices, marketing strategies, and printing options that you need to navigate before your book finds its audience. Count on Palmetto Publishing to guide you along the way.

Anyone can write short stories. You don’t have to be a world-class talent or have bestselling hardcover books on the shelves. You don’t even need writing experience.

Like any other type of writing, short stories are a craft. This guide will help you learn that craft and create the kind of short stories people love to read.

What is a Short Story?

A short story is a self-contained piece of fiction told in 1,500 to 7,500 words. Any shorter, and you’re writing flash fiction. Any longer, and you’re in novella territory.

A short story might share characters or a world with another story or novel, but readers should be able to understand it on its own.

Short stories can be any genre of fiction. Some of the most popular short story genres include:

  • Literary fiction
  • Science fiction
  • Children’s fiction
  • Young adult

Feel free to use this list as inspiration, but don’t worry if you don’t have a genre in mind. Focus on the story.

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How to Write a Short Story, Step By Step

Non-writers often think of short story writing as a mysterious process. You feel the muse, and suddenly, a short story exists.

That’s rarely how it works. By following this simple process, you can get your short story on the page.

Step 1: Develop Your Idea

An idea is your jumping-off point, but you need to develop it before it becomes a short story.

Any story has a beginning, middle, and end. “A man gets a concussion and wakes up in the year 1652” isn’t a story — it’s an idea. From there, you have to add conflict and narrative.

“A man wakes up in 1652 and has to figure out how to get home” is a good next step, but it still needs more. Without a narrative, your story will get stuck.

To create one, ask yourself two questions:

  • What’s at stake? Maybe the man wants to get home so badly because his wife is having a baby, or he has a date with the man of his dreams.
  • What’s getting in the way? Your main character needs to overcome obstacles to get what they want. These obstacles can be internal (he’s too stubborn), or external (he’s trapped in a dungeon) — or both.

Your conflict can be extremely small-scale in a short story. It’s a great format to explore writing a vignette — a snapshot of a character’s life focused on one fleeting moment.

Don’t go too large-scale. Too many characters, scene changes, and layers, and you have a novel.

Aim for no more than five or six short scenes. You can write a great short story in a single scene if it’s well-developed.

Step 2: Develop Your Main Characters

All great short stories have a well-developed protagonist — the person who moves the story forward as they pursue their goal. Remember the time traveler from Step 1?

If you want people to engage with him, you have to develop him as a person. You’ll write a better story about a character you know intimately versus one who only exists as a name on paper.

Think about what makes a person who they are, such as:

  • Backstory. Where are they from and how did they get to where they are today?
  • Personality. If this character was a real person, how would you describe them to a friend?
  • Values. What matters to this character?
  • Social circle. Who’s important in their life?
  • Circumstances. What’s their age, hometown, job background, etc.?

The more you know, the richer your story will be. Plus, it’s a fun process.

Step 3: Outline the Story

Not all writers create formal outlines, but it’s a smart way for new writers to stay focused.

With an outline, you don’t have to worry about getting halfway through your narrative and not knowing what comes next. You’ll have that down on paper already so you can focus on development.

The format doesn’t matter. This is just for you. Just begin writing how the story will go, from the opening to the action’s climax and through to the end.

Step 4: Write the First Draft

This will be your messiest, least polished version of the story. That’s okay. At this point, your goal is to get the story down on paper, not to make it perfect.

Don’t second-guess yourself or try to make any edits. Just write the story — there’ll be time for editing later.

And don’t go back to read what you wrote. If that’s hard, cover your computer screen or hand-write your story.

Step 5: Edit Your Story

After you’ve finished your draft, set it aside for a while — at least a few days. Then pull it back out and read it out loud to yourself. Don’t stop to edit. When you finish, write down your initial reactions.

Remember, you’re not supposed to be fully happy with it yet. This stage is about analyzing what doesn’t work and making it better.

Then read through it again, this time taking notes in the margins as you go. Mark when something works and when it’s confusing or takes you out of the narrative.

Put the story aside again for a few days, then read it through a third time. This time you’ll go paragraph-by-paragraph, taking notes on how each one advances the story.

If something doesn’t build the character, tell the reader about the world, or move the plot forward, mark it for cutting.

On the next read-through, focus specifically on character development. Notice whether their objective is clear and their thoughts and behavior are consistent.

For example, if your character desperately wants to escape 1652 and go home to his new baby, it doesn’t make sense for him to ask a village woman to marry him.

Finally, it’s time to edit the prose. Read each sentence aloud and listen to its flow. If something doesn’t work, mark it.

Step 6: Get a Second (and Maybe Third) Opinion

You might be the best editor in literature, but you can’t ever be completely objective about your own work.

Once you’ve done a few rounds of edits, give your story to a writer or editor friend — someone you trust to be constructively critical — and ask for their thoughts.

Ask them to tell you what works and doesn’t work for them, and why. You don’t have to take every suggestion, but be open to their feedback. If they say something is confusing or clunky, someone else could easily have the same opinion.

Many writers repeat this step multiple times before they publish. Some never release their stories to people they don’t know. It’s up to you as the writer.

Step 7: Rewrite and Repeat

When you have all your notes on your first draft, it’s time to work on your second. The easiest method is usually to write it all out a second time.

Copy the sections that don’t need edits and write from scratch when you do. Then, go through the editing steps for the second draft.

Repeat as necessary.

Tips for Writing Great Short Stories

A great short story engages the reader from beginning to end. It’s a brief experience that stays with you and makes you think, “What else does this author have to say?”

Start in the Thick of the Action

When you only have 4,000 words, you don’t have time to indulge in “how we got here.”

Think of your story as a mountain. The climax is the peak, and your rising action is the uphill slope.

A novel can afford to start a few miles away from the mountain, walking the reader through the normal life that leads up to it. With a short story, you need to already be moving uphill.

Look at your outline and the incidents that move toward the climax. Start with the first exciting incident and throw the reader into it.

Raise the Stakes

The short story format is digestible in one sitting. Your readers should need to keep going either to find out what happens next or because they’re so invested in the character that they can’t put the book down. Up the interest level by making everything more critical.

Keep It Moving

Every story has its rising and falling action, but short stories don’t have a lot of breathing room.

The more you write, the more familiar with pacing you’ll get and the easier it will be.

Show, Don’t Tell

This is the golden rule of fiction writing. You may have heard it before, but it’s the kind of advice you can’t hear too many times.

Your goal is to immerse the reader in your story. That means avoiding the temptation to explain or describe what’s going on. Instead, paint a picture for them. Write so that your words create a movie in their minds, then lead them through that movie.

Instead of:

She could tell he was drunk the moment he walked through the door,

The smell of stale whiskey wafted through the door as he stumbled through.

Use strong verbs and vivid imagery anywhere you can. Look for ways to replace adjectives with word pictures. Instead of:

Sam was tired,

Sam yawned, his eyelids drooping under the fluorescent office lights.

The more you practice this skill, the easier it becomes.

Getting Your Short Story Published

Anyone can share a short story with the world. As with novels, there are two ways to go about it — pursue traditional publication or take matters into your own hands.

Submit to Journals and Anthologies

This is the conventional way of publishing your short story. There are hundreds of literary journals and short story anthologies that accept submissions. Some want stories along a particular theme. Some accept certain genres and others are completely open.

If you’re new to short story publishing, the best way to find a publication is usually through a directory. Some of the most well-known include:

  • Duotrope.com
  • Submittable.com
  • Poets and Writers
  • Writer’s Market

You can also contact some of your favorite journals and literary magazines directly.

If you don’t know any, start familiarizing yourself. Reading journals in your chosen genre helps you learn what kind of material sells.

When you find a journal that’s a good fit, check the submission guidelines. Most publications have specific accepted formats, and some only accept pieces during certain periods of the year.

Don’t get discouraged if a publication doesn’t accept you. Most reputable journals reject far more pieces than they accept. Even accomplished writers get a story rejected 20 times or more before publication.

If your goal is to share your short stories, self-publishing with a company like Palmetto is the way to go.

Publish to a Platform

The internet has made it easy to publish your short stories online with no application process needed. Most online platforms have active user bases who comment on stories and offer feedback. It’s a great way to refine your latest story, whether or not you’re aiming for traditional publication.

Some of the most active platforms include:

  • Medium (better known for the business genre but has a thriving short story category)

You can also start a blog to publish your short stories. But unless you have an established reader base, you’ll have to promote it.

Self-Publish a Short Story Collection

If you’ve written multiple short stories, consider publishing them as a print collection. Include your own stories exclusively or collaborate with writer friends to create a collection.

Publishing a collection lets you release your short stories and enjoy the experience of book publishing. If you work with a top self-publishing company like Palmetto Publishing, that can include:

  • Professional book editing
  • Book cover design
  • Book layout and formatting
  • Paperback or hardcover book printing
  • Book marketing services

Palmetto’s editors and designers know the industry and can help you present your short story collection in its best light.

Getting Started as a Short Story Writer

Before you work with a book editor or think about book design, you need stories to share with the world. Get a notebook or create a file on your computer and start developing your ideas.

If you’re short on ideas, Google “short story prompts” and play with the ones that inspire you.

Publishing is great, but writing is the fun part. Enjoy it! And when you’re ready to share your stories, reach out to Palmetto. We’ll help you release something that reflects your hard work.

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Before You Write a Novel, Start With Something Shorter

  • Post author By Peter Lyle DeHaan
  • Post date May 27, 2022
  • 2 Comments on Before You Write a Novel, Start With Something Shorter

write a novel

Write short stories to master the art of fiction writing

May is short story month . I share this news in advance so you can consider how you want to celebrate. You might want to spend the month reading short stories or perhaps focus on writing a few. But regardless, give short stories some consideration in the month of May. Doing so will inform your other writing, whether you write fiction or not.

I know many beginning writers who sit down to write a novel. They have a vision and enthusiasm, but not much else. They start writing but soon give up in frustration. And for the few who do finish, their story isn’t that good.

I’ve often heard that novelists write several bad novels before penning a good one. Those first books serve as training for them to learn what works and doesn’t, to find their voice, and to hone their craft. They need to figure out plot and structure and story arc and character development and dialogue and a slew of other things. And they write several practice books to get there.

Why not write several practice short stories instead?

I took that path. In fact, I focused on flash fiction: short stories with fewer than one thousand words. I experimented with a first-person and third person, present tense and past tense. I even wrote a second-person, present-tense short story—something I’d hate doing for an entire book.

Using short stories, I fine-tuned my dialogue. I worked on intriguing titles, strong openings, and satisfying closes. I practiced “show, don’t tell” and worked on word choice.

I did all this in preparation to one day write a novel. You see, I didn’t want to waste several novels practicing. I used my short stories for that. I got feedback from critique groups, hired tutors, and studied.

Then one day I wrote a piece of flash fiction. It started out as 900 words. But I liked the premise and added to it to produce a 2,500-word short story. I fell in love with the characters and wanted to write more. I did write more, a lot more. By the time I finished my story arc I had a 28,000-word novella. But it needed more. Next, I added two secondary story arcs and the length grew to 46,000 words, enough for a short novel and about perfect for the YA (young adult) genre.

So my 800-word piece of flash fiction grew into a 46,000-word novel.

But the story isn’t over.

Last year, for NaNoWriMo , I wrote a 49,000-word sequel. Then I mapped out a series. I’m ready to start writing books three and four.

Writing short stories prepared me to write novels. And writing fiction helps me write better nonfiction and memoir.

To celebrate the short story. May is short story month . It even has its own Twitter account: @ShortStoryMonth , which often uses the hashtag #shortreads .

Learn more about writing and publishing in Peter’s book: Successful Author FAQs : Discover the Art of Writing, the Business of Publishing, and the Joy of Wielding Words. Get your copy today.

Peter Lyle DeHaan is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book Successful Author FAQs for insider tips and insights.

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By Peter Lyle DeHaan

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, publishes books about business, customer service, the call center industry, and business and writing.

2 replies on “Before You Write a Novel, Start With Something Shorter”

So, short stories contain the same elements of a novel, right? This encouraged me to get back at it. I so miss the writing culture! Thanks Peter! I would like to read your novella!

Jerry, write what gives you joy!

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Blog • Perfecting your Craft

Last updated on Jun 23, 2023

How to Write a Novel: 13-Steps From a Bestselling Writer [+Templates]

This post is written by author, editor, and ghostwriter Tom Bromley. He is the instructor of Reedsy's 101-day course, How to Write a Novel .

Writing a novel is an exhilarating and daunting process. How do you go about transforming a simple idea into a powerful narrative that grips readers from start to finish? Crafting a long-form narrative can be challenging, and it requires skillfully weaving together various story elements.

In this article, we will break down the major steps of novel writing into manageable pieces, organized into three categories — before, during, and after you write your manuscript.

How to write a novel in 13 steps:

1. Pick a story idea with novel potential

2. develop your main characters, 3. establish a central conflict and stakes, 4. write a logline or synopsis, 5. structure your plot, 6. pick a point of view, 7. choose a setting that benefits your story , 8. establish a writing routine, 9. shut out your inner editor, 10. revise and rewrite your first draft, 11. share it with your first readers, 12. professionally edit your manuscript, 13. publish your novel.

Every story starts with an idea.

You might be lucky, like JRR Tolkien, who was marking exam papers when a thought popped into his head: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ You might be like Jennifer Egan, who saw a wallet left in a public bathroom and imagined the repercussions of a character stealing it, which set the Pulitzer prize-winner A Visit From the Goon Squad in process. Or you might follow Khaled Hosseini, whose The Kite Runner was sparked by watching a news report on TV.

A writer looking for ideas in her imagination

Many novelists I know keep a notebook of ideas both large and small 一 sometimes the idea they pick up on they’ll have had much earlier, but whatever reason, now feels the time to write it. Certainly, the more ideas you have, the more options you’ll have to write. 

✍️ Need a little inspiration? Check our list of 30+ story ideas for fiction writing , our list of 300+ writing prompts , or even our plot generator .

Is your idea novel-worthy?

How do you know if what you’ve got is the inspiration for a novel, rather than a short story or a novella ? There’s no definitive answer here, but there are two things to look out for 

Firstly, a novel allows you the space to show how a character changes over time, whereas a short story is often more about a vignette or an individual moment. Secondly, if an idea is fit for a novel, it’ll nag away at you: a thread asking to be pulled to see where it goes. If you find yourself coming back to an idea, then that’s probably one to explore.

I expand on how to cultivate and nurture your ‘idea seeds’ in my free 10-day course on novel writing. 



How to Write a Novel

Author and ghostwriter Tom Bromley will guide you from page 1 to the finish line.

Another starting point (or essential element) for writing a novel will come in the form of the people who will populate your stories: the protagonists. 

My rule of thumb in writing is that a reader will read on for one of two reasons: either they care about the characters , or they want to know what happens next (or, in an ideal world, both). Now different people will tell you that character or plot are the most important element when writing. 

Images of a character developing over the course of a story.

In truth, it’s a bit more complicated than that: in a good novel, the main character or protagonist should shape the plot, and the plot should shape the protagonist. So you need both core elements in there, and those two core elements are entwined rather than being separate entities. 

Characters matter because when written well, readers become invested in what happens to them. You can develop the most brilliant, twisty narrative, but if the reader doesn’t care how the protagonist ends up, you’re in trouble as a writer. 

As we said above, one of the strengths of the novel is that it gives you the space to show how characters change over time. How do characters change? 

Firstly, they do so by being put in a position where they have to make decisions, difficult decisions, and difficult decisions with consequences . That’s how we find out who they really are. 

Secondly, they need to start from somewhere where they need to change: give them flaws, vulnerabilities, and foibles for them to overcome. This is what makes them human — and the reason why readers respond to and care about them.



Reedsy’s Character Profile Template

A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.

🗿 Need more guidance? Look into your character’s past using these character development exercises , or give your character the perfect name using this character name generator .

As said earlier, it’s important to have both a great character and an interesting plot, which you can develop by making your character face some adversities.

That drama in the novel is usually built around some sort of central conflict . This conflict creates a dramatic tension that compels the reader to read on. They want to see the outcome of that conflict resolved: the ultimate resolution of the conflict (hopefully) creates a satisfying ending to the narrative.

A captain facing conflict in the ocean and in his heart

A character changes, as we said above, when they are put in a position of making decisions with consequences. Those consequences are important. It isn’t enough for a character to have a goal or a dream or something they need to achieve (to slay the dragon): there also needs to be consequences if they don’t get what they’re after (the dragon burns their house down). Upping the stakes heightens the drama all round.

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Now you have enough ingredients to start writing your novel, but before you do that, it can be useful to tighten them all up into a synopsis. 



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So far you’ve got your story idea, your central characters and your sense of conflict and stakes. Now is the time to distill this down into a narrative. Different writers approach this planning stage in different ways, as we’ll come to in a moment, but for anyone starting a novel, having a clear sense of what is at the heart of your story is crucial. 

There are a lot of different terms used here 一 pitch, elevator pitch , logline, shoutline, or the hook of your synopsis 一 but whatever the terminology the idea remains the same. This is to summarize your story in as few words as possible: a couple of dozen words, say, or perhaps a single sentence. 

This exercise will force you to think about what your novel is fundamentally about. What is the conflict at the core of the story? What are the challenges facing your main protagonist? What do they have at stake? 

📚 Check out these 48 irresistible  book hook examples  and get inspired to craft your own.

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If you need some help, as you go through the steps in this guide, you can fill in this template:

My story is a [genre] novel. It’s told from [perspective] and is set in [place and time period] . It follows [protagonist] , who wants [goal] because [motivation] . But [conflict] doesn’t make that easy, putting [stake] at risk.

It's not an easy thing to do, to write this summarising sentence or two. In fact, they might be the most difficult sentences to get down in the whole writing process. But it is really useful in helping you to clarify what your book is about before you begin. When you’re stuck in the middle of the writing, it will be there for you to refer back to. And further down the line, when you’ve finished the novel, it will prove invaluable in pitching to agents , publishers, and readers. 

📼 Learn more about the process of writing a logline from professional editor Jeff Lyons. 

Another particularly important step to prepare for the writing part, is to outline your plot into different key story points. 

There’s no right answer here as to how much planning you should do before you write: it very much depends on the sort of writer you are. Some writers find planning out their novel before start gives them confidence and reassurance knowing where their book is going to go. But others find this level of detail restrictive: they’re driven more by the freedom of discovering where the writing might take them. 

A writer planning the structure of their novel

This is sometimes described as a debate between ‘planners’ and ‘pantsers’ (those who fly by the seat of their pants). In reality, most writers sit somewhere on a sliding scale between the two extremes. Find your sweet spot and go from there!

If you’re a planning type, there’s plenty of established story structures out there to build your story around. Popular theories include the Save the Cat model and Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey . Then there are books such as Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots , which suggests that all stories are one of, well, you can probably work that out.

Whatever the structure, most stories follow the underlying principle of having a beginning, middle and end (and one that usually results in a process of change). So even if you’re ‘pantsing’ rather than planning, it’s helpful to know your direction of travel, though you might not yet know how your story is going to get there. 


How to Plot a Novel in Three Acts

In 10 days, learn how to plot a novel that keeps readers hooked

Finally, remember what we said earlier about plot and character being entwined: your character’s journey shouldn’t be separate to what happens in the story. Indeed, sometimes it can be helpful to work out the character’s journey of change first, and shape the plot around that, rather than the other way round. 

Now, let’s consider which perspective you’re going to write your story from. 

However much plotting you decide to do before you start writing, there are two further elements to think about before you start putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). The first one is to think about which point of view you’re going to tell your story from. It is worth thinking about this before you start writing because deciding to change midway through your story is a horribly thankless task (I speak from bitter personal experience!)


Understanding Point of View

Learn to master different POVs and choose the best for your story.

Although there might seem a large number of viewpoints you could tell your story from, in reality, most fiction is told from two points of view 一 first person (the ‘I’ form) and third person ‘close’ (he/she/they). ‘Close’ third person is when the story is witnessed from one character’s view at a time (as opposed to third person ‘omniscient’ where the story can drop into lots of people’s thoughts).

Both of these viewpoints have advantages and disadvantages. First person is usually better for intimacy and getting into character’s thoughts: the flip side is that its voice can feel a bit claustrophobic and restrictive in the storytelling. Third person close offers you more options and more space to tell your story: but can feel less intimate as a result. 

There’s no right and wrong here in terms of which is the ‘best’ viewpoint. It depends on the particular demands of the story that you are wanting to write. And it also depends on what you most feel comfortable writing in. It can be a useful exercise to write a short section in both viewpoints to see which feels the best fit for you before starting to write. 

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Besides choosing a point of view, consider the setting you’re going to place your story in.

The final element to consider before beginning your story is to think about where your story is going to be located . Settings play a surprisingly important part in bringing a story to life. When done well, they add in mood and atmosphere, and can act almost like an additional character in your novel.

A writer placing characters in settings

There are many questions to consider here. And again, it depends a bit on the demands of the story that you are writing. 

Is your setting going to a real place, a fictional one, or a real place with fictional elements? Is it going to be set in the present day, the past, or at an unspecified time? Are you going to set your story in somewhere you know, or need to research to capture properly? Finally, is your setting suited to the story you are telling, and serve to accentuate it, rather than just acting as a backdrop?

If you’re writing a novel in genres such as fantasy or science fiction , then you may well need to go into some additional world-building as well before you start writing. Here, you may have to consider everything from the rules and mores of society to the existence of magical powers, fantastic beasts, extraterrestrials, and futuristic technology. All of these can have a bearing on the story, so it is better to have a clear setup in your head before you start to write.


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Whether your story is set in central London or the outer rings of the solar system, some elements of the descriptive detail remain the same. Think about the use of all the different senses — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of where you’re writing about. Those sorts of small details can help to bring any setting to life, from the familiar to the imaginary. 

Alright, enough brainstorming and planning. It’s time to let the words flow on the page. 

Having done your prep — or as much prep and planning as you feel you need — it’s time to get down to business and write the thing. Getting a full draft of a novel is no easy task, but you can help yourself by setting out some goals before you start writing.

Firstly, think about how you write best. Are you a morning person or an evening person? Would you write better at home or out and about, in a café or a library, say? Do you need silence to write, or musical encouragement to get the juices flowing? Are you a regular writer, chipping away at the novel day by day, or more of a weekend splurger?


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I’d always be wary of anyone who tells you how you should be writing. Find a routine and a setup that works for you . That might not always be the obvious one: the crime writer Jo Nesbø spent a while creating the perfect writing room but discovered he couldn’t write there and ended up in the café around the corner.

You might not keep the same way of writing throughout the novel: routines can help, but they can also become monotonous. You may need to find a way to shake things up to keep going.

pjrHKS5J07s Video Thumb

Deadlines help here. If you’re writing a 75,000-word novel, then working at a pace of 5,000 words a week will take you 15 weeks (Monday to Friday, that’s 1000 words a day). Half the pace will take twice as long. Set yourself a realistic deadline to finish the book (and key points along the way). Without a deadline, the writing can end up drifting, but it needs to be realistic to avoid giving yourself a hard time. 

In my experience, writing speeds vary. I tend to start quite slowly on a book, and speed up towards the end. There are times when the tap is open, and the words are pouring out: make the most of those moments. There are times, too, when each extra sentence feels like torture: don’t beat yourself up here. Be kind to yourself: it’s a big, demanding project you’re undertaking.

Speaking of self-compassion, a word on that harsh editor inside your mind…

The other important piece of advice is to continue writing forward. It is very easy, and very tempting, to go back over what you’ve written and give it a quick edit. Once you start down that slippery slope, you end up rewriting and reworking the same scene and never get any further forwards in the text. I know of writers who spent months perfecting their first chapter before writing on, only to delete that beginning as the demands of the story changed.

Illustration of a writer ready to get some work done

The first draft of your novel isn’t about perfection; it’s about getting the words down. One writer I work with calls it the ‘vomit draft’ — getting everything out and onto the page. It’s only once you’ve got a full manuscript down that you can see your ideas in context and have the capacity to edit everything properly. So as much as your inner editor might be calling you, resist! They’ll have their moment in the sun later on. For now, it’s about getting a complete version down, that you can go on to work with and shape. 

By now, you’ve reached the end of your first draft (we might be glossing over the hard writing part just a little here: if you want more detail and help on how to get through to the end of your draft, our How to Write A Novel course is warmly recommended). 

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Reaching the end of your first draft is an important milestone in the journey of a book. Sadly for those who feel that this is the end of the story, it’s actually more of a stepping stone than the finish line.

In some ways, now the hard work begins. The difference between wannabe writers and those who get published can often be found in the amount of rewriting done. Professional writers will go back and back over what they’ve written, honing what they’ve created until the text is as tight and taut as it is possible to be.

How do you go about achieving this? The first thing to do upon finishing is to put the manuscript in a drawer. Leave it for a month or six weeks before you come back to it. That way, you’ll return the script with a fresh pair of eyes. Read it back through and be honest about what works and what doesn’t. As you read the script, think in particular about pace: are there sections in the novel that are too fast or too slow? Avoid the trap of the saggy middle . Then consider: is your character arc complete and coherent? Look at the big-picture stuff first before you tackle the smaller details. 

Edit your novel closely

On that note, here are a few things you might want to keep an eye out for:

Show, don’t tell. Sometimes, you just need to state something matter-of-factly in your novel, that’s fine. But, as much as you can, try to illustrate a point instead of just stating it . Keep in mind the words of Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass."

“Said” is your friend. When it comes to dialogue, there can be the temptation to spice things up a bit by using tags like “exclaimed,” “asserted,” or “remarked.” And while there might be a time and place for these, 90% of the time, “said” is the best tag to use. Anything else can feel distracting or forced. 

Stay away from purple prose. Purple prose is overly embellished language that doesn’t add much to the story. It convolutes the intended message and can be a real turn-off for readers.


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Resolve every error, from plot holes to misplaced punctuation.

Once you feel it’s good enough for other people to lay their eyes on it, it’s time to ask for feedback.

Writing a novel is a two-way process: there’s you, the writer, and there’s the intended audience, the reader. The only way that you can find out if what you’ve written is successful is to ask people to read and get feedback.

Think about when to ask for feedback and who to ask it from. There are moments in the writing when feedback is useful and others where it gets in the way. To save time, I often ask for feedback in those six weeks when the script is in the drawer (though I don’t look at those comments until I’ve read back myself first). The best people to ask for feedback are fellow writers and beta readers : they know what you’re going through and will also be most likely to offer you constructive feedback. 

Author working with an editor

Also, consider working with sensitivity readers if you are writing about a place or culture outside your own. Friends and family can also be useful but are a riskier proposition: they might be really helpful, but equally, they might just tell you it’s great or terrible, neither of which is overly useful.

Feedbacking works best when you can find at least a few people to read, and you can pool their comments. My rule is that if more than one person is saying the same thing, they are probably right. If only one person is saying something, then you have a judgment call to make as to whether to take those comments further (though usually, you’ll know in your gut whether they are right or not.)

Overall, the best feedback you can receive is that of a professional editor…

Once you’ve completed your rewrites and taken in comments from your chosen feedbackers, it’s time to take a deep breath and seek outside opinions. What happens next here depends on which route you want to take to market:

If you want to go down the traditional publishing route , you’ll probably need to get a literary agent, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

Editors helping shaping a professional novel

If you’re going down the self-publishing route , you’ll need to do what would be done in a traditional publishing house and take your book through the editing process. This normally happens in three stages. 

Developmental editing. The first of these is to work with a development editor , who will read and critique your work primarily from a structural point of view. 

Copy-editing. Secondly, the book must be copy-edited , where an editor works more closely, line-by-line, on the script. 

Proofreading. Finally, usually once the script has been typeset, then the material should be professionally proofread , to spot any final mistakes or orrors. Sorry, errors!

Finding such people can sound like a daunting task. But fear not! Here at Reedsy, we have a fantastic fleet of editors of all shapes, sizes, and experiences. So whatever your needs or requirements, we should be able to pair you with an editor to suit.



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Now that you’ve ironed out all the wrinkles of your manuscript, it’s time to release it into the wild.

For those thinking about going the traditional publishing route , now’s the time for you to get to work. Most trade publishers will only accept work from a literary agent, so you’ll need to find a suitable literary agent to represent your work. 

The querying process is not always straightforward: it involves research, waiting and often a lot of rejections until you find the right person (I was rejected by 24 agents before I found my first agent). Usually, an agent will ask to see a synopsis and the first three chapters (check their websites for submission details). If they like what they read, they’ll ask to see the whole thing. 

If you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to think about getting your finished manuscript to market. You’ll need to get it typeset (laid out in book form) and find a cover designer . Do you want to sell printed copies or just ebooks? You’ll need to work out how to work Amazon , where a lot of your sales will come from, and also how you’ll market your book .

For those picked up by a traditional publisher, all the editing steps discussed will take place in-house. That might sound like a smoother process, but the flip side can be less control over the process: a publisher may have the final say in the cover or the title, and lead times (when the book is published) are usually much longer. So it’s worth thinking about which route to market works best for you.

Finally, you’re a published author! Congratulations. Now all you have to do is think about writing the next one… 

Tom Bromley

As an editor and publisher, Tom has worked on several hundred titles, again including many prize-winners and international bestsellers. 

8 responses

Sasha Winslow says:

14/05/2019 – 02:56

I started writing in February 2019. It was random, but there was an urge to the story I wanted to write. At first, I was all over the place. I knew the genre I wanted to write was Fantasy ( YA or Adult). That has been my only solid starting point the genre. From February to now, I've changed my story so many times, but I am happy to say by giving my characters names I kept them. I write this all to say is thank you for this comprehensive step by step. Definitely see where my issues are and ways to fix it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Evelyn P. Norris says:

30/10/2019 – 14:18

My number one tip is to write in order. If you have a good idea for a future scene, write down the idea for the scene, but do NOT write it ahead of time. That's a major cause of writer's block that I discovered. Write sequentially. :) If you can't help yourself, make sure you at least write it in a different document, and just ignore that scene until you actually get to that part of the novel

Allen P. Wilkinson says:

28/01/2020 – 04:51

How can we take your advice seriously when you don’t even know the difference between stationary and stationery? Makes me wonder how competent your copy editors are.

↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:

29/01/2020 – 15:37

Thanks for spotting the typo!

↪️ Chris Waite replied:

14/02/2020 – 13:17

IF you're referring to their use of 'stationery' under the section '1. Nail down the story idea' (it's the only reference on this page) then the fact that YOU don't know the difference between stationery and stationary and then bother to tell the author of this brilliant blog how useless they must be when it's YOU that is the thicko tells me everything I need to know about you and your use of a middle initial. Bellend springs to mind.

Sapei shimrah says:

18/03/2020 – 13:59

Thanks i will start writing now

Jeremy says:

25/03/2020 – 22:41

I’ve run the gamut between plotter and pantser, but lately I’ve settled on in-depth plotting before my novels. It’s hard for me to do focus wise, but I’m finding I’m spending less time in writer’s block. What trips me up more is finding the right voice for my characters. I’m currently working on a sci-fi YA novel and using the Save the Cat beat sheet for structure for the first time. Thank you for the article!

Nick Girdwood says:

29/04/2020 – 10:32

Can you not write a story without some huge theme?

Comments are currently closed.

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How to Write Short Stories: 8 Steps for Success

POSTED ON Aug 17, 2023

Gloria Russell

Written by Gloria Russell

So, you’re trying to learn how to write short stories. 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 just not working for you. 

Whatever the case may be, learning how to write a short story takes some practice. That's because the process can be a bit different than learning how to write a novel !

Today I’m going to break down a streamlined process that’s guaranteed to turn you into a short story writing pro. But before we discuss how to write short stories in detail, let’s talk about what short stories are, and why they are important in the literary world.  Then, I'll give you a step-by-step guide to learn how to write short stories from the first page to the published copy.

This blog on how to write short stories covers:

What is a short story .

In order to learn how to write short stories effectively, you need to know what they are! A short story or novella is a piece of fiction generally ranging between 1,500 and 30,000 words. Anything much longer than that, and it's not a short story. It would be considered a novel vs novella .

The shorter word count of a short story lets you 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 as a writer?

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

Short stories are good practice for plot construction 

Even experienced writers will abandon a novel halfway in because it isn’t working out. Novels are LONG, and they can easily lead to burnout if you don't have a solid writing routine . You may be 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. 

Short stories mean smaller stakes 

Like I said before, learning how to write short stories lets 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! 

Short stories take you 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.

Learning how to write short stories is the perfect activity for getting back to the basics of writing.

This is the chance to make 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 learn how to write short stories and examine every word and paragraph with purpose, you’ll come out of it a better writer all around. 

Now that you understand what short stories are, and why it's helpful to learn how to write a short story, let's discuss the specific steps you should take to write short stories of your own.

How to write short stories in 8 steps

Here are the only steps you need to learn how to write short stories successfully:

1. Brainstorm ideas for your story

Before you practice how to write short stories, 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. 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, the next step of learning how to write short stories is choosing 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 any? What do they want, and how do they change? What are the character flaws, and how do they overcome them?

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 when learning how to write short stories.

A book 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. Create your first draft

Once you have your outline, you're ready to start the next step of learning how to write short stories – actually writing them!

Writing sprints can be a great way to keep focused for short periods of time, and 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! 

5. Edit and edit again!

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 editing and copy editing . 

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 and your dialogue tags. 

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

  • 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. 
  • 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!

Your editor can be a trusted friend or online writing partner. 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 your story 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. Craft the perfect 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 things to consider when finding the perfect title for your story: 

  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. Write some more short stories!

First of all, congratulations! If you’ve made it all the way here, that means you’ve successfully learned how to write short stories. But unless you are putting your short story up on a website, you probably won't be publishing it alone. You need other short stories to go with it!

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!  

Maybe you will decide to combine your short stories with a friend's work and publish them together. Maybe you will decide your first story isn't as strong as your new ones, and you'll scrap it altogether! Just keep practicing and playing with your short stories and you're sure to come up with some winners.

Related: Short Story Contests: Why They Matter and 4 Tips to Enter

Get your short stories out in the world

Mastering how to write short stories is great, but having readers eat those stories up is even better. At selfpublishing.com, we help authors publish their books from start to finish. Need a flashy book cover, help with the editing process, or other authors to combine your short stories with? Reach out for guidance today!

Let us know: How does your process work for writing short stories?

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Craft Your Own Short Story: The Complete Guide

Last Updated: January 25, 2024 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Lucy V. Hay . Lucy V. Hay is a Professional Writer based in London, England. With over 20 years of industry experience, Lucy is an author, script editor, and award-winning blogger who helps other writers through writing workshops, courses, and her blog Bang2Write. Lucy is the producer of two British thrillers, and Bang2Write has appeared in the Top 100 round-ups for Writer’s Digest & The Write Life and is a UK Blog Awards Finalist and Feedspot’s #1 Screenwriting blog in the UK. She received a B.A. in Scriptwriting for Film & Television from Bournemouth University. There are 10 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 4,687,233 times.

For many writers, the short story is the perfect medium. It is a refreshing activity. For many, it is as natural as breathing is to lungs. While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, just about anybody can craft—and, most importantly, finish —a short story. Writing a novel can be a tiresome task, but writing a short story, it's not the same. A short story includes setting, plot, character and message. Like a novel, a good short story will thrill and entertain your reader. With some brainstorming, drafting, and polishing, you can learn how to write a successful short story in no time. And the greatest benefit is that you can edit it frequently until you are satisfied.

Sample Short Stories

writing short stories before novel

Brainstorming Ideas

Step 1 Come up with a plot or scenario.

  • For example, you can start with a simple plot like your main character has to deal with bad news or your main character gets an unwanted visit from a friend or family member.
  • You can also try a more complicated plot like your main character wakes up in a parallel dimension or your main character discovers someone else's deep dark secret.

Step 2 Focus on a complicated main character.

Making Characters that Pop: Finding Inspiration: Characters are all around you. Spend some time people-watching in a public place, like a mall or busy pedestrian street. Make notes about interesting people you see and think about how you could incorporate them into your story. You can also borrow traits from people you know. Crafting a Backstory: Delve into your main character’s past experiences to figure out what makes them tick. What was the lonely old man like as a child? Where did he get that scar on his hand? Even if you don’t include these details in the story, knowing your character deeply will help them ring true. Characters Make the Plot: Create a character who makes your plot more interesting and complicated. For example, if your character is a teenage girl who really cares about her family, you might expect her to protect her brother from school bullies. If she hates her brother, though, and is friends with his bullies, she’s conflicted in a way that makes your plot even more interesting.

Step 3 Create a central conflict for the main character.

  • For example, maybe your main character has a desire or want that they have a hard time fulfilling. Or perhaps your main character is trapped in a bad or dangerous situation and must figure out how to stay alive.

Step 4 Pick an interesting setting.

Tips on Crafting a Setting: Brainstorming descriptions: Write the down names of your settings, such as “small colony on Mars” or “the high school baseball field.” Visualize each place as vividly as you can and jot down whatever details come into your head. Set your characters down there and picture what they might do in this place. Thinking about your plot: Based on your characters and the arc of your plot, where does your story need to take place? Make your setting a crucial part of your story, so that your readers couldn’t imagine it anywhere else. For example, if your main character is a man who gets into a car crash, setting the story in a small town in the winter creates a plausible reason for the crash (black ice), plus an added complication (now he’s stranded in the cold with a broken car). Don’t overload the story. Using too many settings might confuse your reader or make it hard for them to get into the story. Using 1-2 settings is usually perfect for a short story.

Step 5 Think about a particular theme.

  • You can also focus on a more specific theme like “love between siblings,” “desire for friendship” or “loss of a parent.”

Step 6 Plan an emotional climax.

  • For example, you may have an emotional climax where your main character, a lonely elderly man, has to confront his neighbor about his illegal activity. Or you may have an emotional climax where the main character, a young teenage girl, stands up for her brother against school bullies.

Step 7 Think of an ending with a twist or surprise.

Creating a Satisfying Ending: Try out a few different endings. Outline a few different endings you could use. Visualize each option and see which ones feel more natural, surprising, or fulfilling. It’s okay if you don’t find the right ending right away—it’s one of the hardest parts of the story to write! How do you want your readers to feel when they finish? Your ending is the last impression you’ll leave on your reader. How will they feel if your characters succeed, fail, or land somewhere in the middle? For example, if your main character decides to stand up to her brother’s bullies but gets scared at the last second, the readers will leave feeling like she still has a lot of soul-searching to do. Stay away from cliches. Make sure you avoid gimmick endings, where you rely on familiar plot twists to surprise your reader. If your ending feels familiar or even boring, challenge yourself to make it more difficult for your characters.

Step 8 Read examples of short stories.

  • “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov [7] X Research source
  • “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” by Alice Munro
  • “For Esme-With Love and Squalor" by J.D. Salinger [8] X Research source
  • “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury [9] X Research source
  • “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman
  • "Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx [10] X Research source
  • “Wants” by Grace Paley
  • “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • “This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz
  • “Seven” by Edwidge Danticat

Creating a First Draft

Step 1 Make a plot outline.

  • You can also try the snowflake method, where you have a one-sentence summary, a one-paragraph summary, a synopsis of all the characters in the story, and a spreadsheet of scenes.

Step 2 Create an engaging opening.

  • For example, an opening line like: “I was lonely that day” does not tell your reader much about the narrator and is not unusual or engaging.
  • Instead, try an opening line like: “The day after my wife left me, I rapped on the neighbor’s door to ask if she had any sugar for a cake I wasn’t going to bake.” This line gives the reader a past conflict, the wife leaving, and tension in the present between the narrator and the neighbor.

Step 3 Stick to one point of view.

  • Some stories are written in second person, where the narrator uses “you.” This is usually only done if the second person is essential to the narrative, such as in Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life” or Junot Diaz’s short story, “This is How You Lose Her.”
  • Most short stories are written in the past tense, though you can use the present tense if you’d like to give the story more immediacy.

Step 4 Use dialogue to reveal character and further the plot.

Quick Dialogue Tips: Develop a voice for each character. Your characters are all unique, so all of their dialogue will sound a little different. Experiment to see what voice sounds right for each character. For example, one character might greet a friend by saying, “Hey girl, what’s up?”, while another might say, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages.” Use different dialogue tags—but not too many. Sprinkle descriptive dialogue tags, like “stammered” or “shouted,” throughout your story, but don’t make them overwhelming. You can continue to use “said,” in some situations, choosing a more descriptive tag when the scene really needs it.

Step 5 Include sensory details about the setting.

  • For example, you may describe your old high school as “a giant industrial-looking building that smells of gym socks, hair spray, lost dreams, and chalk.” Or you may describe the sky by your house as “a blank sheet covered in thick, gray haze from wildfires that crackled in the nearby forest in the early morning.”

Step 6 End with a realization or revelation.

  • You can also end on an interesting image or dialogue that reveals a character change or shift.
  • For example, you may end your story when your main character decides to turn in their neighbor, even if that means losing them as a friend. Or you may end your story with the image of your main character helping her bloodied brother walk home, just in time for dinner.

Polishing the Draft

Step 1 Read the short story out loud.

  • Notice if your story follows your plot outline and that there is a clear conflict for your main character.
  • Reading the story aloud can also help you catch any spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors.

Step 2 Revise the short story for clarity and flow.

Parts to Delete: Unnecessary description: Include just enough description to show the readers the most important characteristics of a place, a character, or an object while contributing to the story’s overall tone. If you have to clip out a particularly beautiful description, write it down and save it—you may be able to use in another story! Scenes that don’t move the plot forward: If you think a scene might not be necessary to the plot, try crossing it out and reading through the scenes before and after it. If the story still flows well and makes sense, you can probably delete the scene. Characters that don’t serve a purpose: You might have created a character to make a story seem realistic or to give your main character someone to talk to, but if that character isn’t important to the plot, they can probably be cut or merged into another character. Look carefully at a character’s extra friends, for example, or siblings who don’t have much dialogue.

Step 3 Come up with an interesting title.

  • For example, the title “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” by Alice Munro is a good one because it is a quote from a character in the story and it addresses the reader directly, where the “I” has something to share with readers.
  • The title “Snow, Apple, Glass” by Neil Gaiman is also a good one because it presents three objects that are interesting on their own, but even more interesting when placed together in one story.

Step 4 Let others read and critique the short story.

  • You can also join a writing group and submit your short story for a workshop. Or you may start your own writing group with friends so you can all workshop each other’s stories.
  • Once you get feedback from others, you should then revise the short story again so it is at its best draft.

Community Q&A

Community Answer

You Might Also Like


  • ↑ https://www.writersdigest.com/there-are-no-rules/how-to-brainstorm-give-your-brain-free-rein
  • ↑ https://blog.reedsy.com/character-development/
  • ↑ http://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-write-a-short-story/
  • ↑ https://www.masterclass.com/articles/understanding-story-setting
  • ↑ https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-develop-a-theme-for-your-story
  • ↑ https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/102799.50_Best_Short_Stories_of_All_Time
  • ↑ https://www.grammarly.com/blog/need-a-pick-me-up-5-best-short-stories-of-all-time/
  • ↑ http://www.listchallenges.com/the-50-best-short-stories-of-all-time
  • ↑ https://writers.com/freytags-pyramid/
  • ↑ https://writingcooperative.com/how-to-write-a-short-story-17c615853bf2

About This Article

Lucy V. Hay

If you want to write a short story, first decide on the central conflict for your story, then create a main character who deals with that problem, and decide whether they will interact with anyone else. Next, decide when and where your story will take place. Next, make a plot outline, with a climax and a resolution, and use that outline to create your first draft, telling the whole story without worrying about making it perfect. Read the short story out loud to yourself to help with proofreading and revision. To learn more about how to add details to your story and come up with an interesting title, keep reading the article! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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4 Things You Should Be Doing Before Writing a Short Story

How To Write A Short Story - Writer's Life.org www.writerslife.org/

Writing great short stories is a skill that takes practice and work. While you may think that it should be easier to write a short story than, say, a novel, it actually requires a great deal of thought and careful planning.

Think about it, you have got to get an entire, fully formed story, with a beginning, middle, and end into such a small number of words - you need to allow for your readers to engage with your characters, leave room for dramatic tension, and build up, create an exciting climax, and bring all the action together so when your reader is done, they feel satisfied and happy with how it ended.

Make no mistake - writing short stories isn’t as easy as it may seem!

So if you do want to give short story writing a go, follow these great short story writing tips to help you along your way.

Read Short Stories

All writers should read - it’s their research and their inspiration. We can learn so much from our contemporaries, and reading work from authors we admire will help us to see how it is done! Short stories often follow the same rhythm and pattern. The more you read, the more of that rhythm will be revealed, and soon you’ll get the hang of using it in your own short stories. Understanding the short story form is so important, so before you even attempt to write one, make sure you have read a few!

Summarise the plot

Before you begin writing your story you should have a good idea of exactly how you are going to write it. You need to know what the story is about, what action is going to take place, and how it is going to end. This is not necessarily the same with novel writing. Many novel writers like to ‘see where the story takes them.’ However short stories need to be sucicinct, and here, more than ever, every words needs to count. You need to know exactly where your story is going and how you are going to get there before you even put pen to paper.

Writing a logline can also be helpful. This is one line in which you sum up your story in its entirety. Spend some time getting this right. If you can do this well then you can use it to refer to, to keep you focused on the point of your story as you write it.

Writing your short story

Short stories need to start brilliantly - a catchy opening that delves immediately into the action will grab your readers attention from the outset. The art of a short story is being able to use clever language that perfectly captures a character, mood, or scene in just a few words. The good news is however, that while you may not have many words to play with, you do have time.

Get your first draft down without worrying too much about the content or word count. In fact going vastly over your word count is actually fine for your first draft. Once you’ve got the story written, you can start to look at it in more detail and work out how to cut it down.

Rewriting your short story

Rewriting and editing your short story is often the more fun part. Here is where you really have to think about how you can play with language, about how you can take out sentences and sometimes even whole paragraphs which aren’t necessary to the story. This exercise will make you a better writer, it will make you think about how to use language more sparingly, more cleverly and when you have cut your short story down, you should hopefully have a brilliantly written piece of work which keeps your readers hanging on your every word.

What you do next with your short story is up to you. If you are planning to submit it to be published then make sure it is error free, and that you have read it aloud, to yourself and any willing partners, friends or relatives who’ll listen to make sure that the story really flows.

Whatever you do, don’t overthink it - just get it out there and see what happens!

Bethany Cadman -author of 'Doctor Vanilla's Sunflowers'

Bethany Cadman -author of 'Doctor Vanilla's Sunflowers'

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writing short stories before novel

10 Helpful Questions to Ask Before You Write a Short Story

by Jeanne Takenaka,  @JeanneTakenaka

writing short stories before novel

Have you ever attempted to write a short story?

Many of you have. Awesome for you!

I recently told a group of writing friends I found it easier to write a novel than a short story. The whole concept of creating a short story loomed like fog in my mind. How does one develop the plot? What to include? How long should the story be? And on my questions went.

After talking through my fear of this task with writing friends, I now have a clearer understanding of how to write short stories. 

Here’s the process for writing short stories that I learned:

Determine who the characters are

First, my friends asked questions to begin developing elements for my short story.

Questions asked:

  • Who’s the current full-length book about?
  • What’s the genre?
  • What secondary characters do you especially like/Who from this book can you write a short story about?
  • What story can we share about said character?

In my most recent novel, my heroine inherited a bookshop from her grandmother. In this series, the grandmother leaves a gift for each of her granddaughters. As we talked, the grandmother became my heroine. We decided on some possible elements to incorporate that hinted about these gifts.

Coming up with a topic

My novel is a contemporary romance set in a fictional small Colorado town. I wanted to write the grandmother’s story, but, wow, that could be an entire novel. How would I narrow the focus?

  • What’s your favorite part of a love story (or of another genre’s story arc)?
  • What kind of tension can you add?

Deciding on a specific event for the story

I love proposal scenes. We brainstormed events that could lead to a proposal going right . . . or wrong.

writing short stories before novel

Talking through the grandmother’s past helped us to develop her backstory. This created some delicious tension for the proposal scene.

To write a compelling short story, we must know our characters. This allows us to use opposing motivations. One character wants one thing; the other wants the opposite. 

  • When does the story take place?
  • What do we know about that time?
  • What successes or failures can happen for the character?
  • What can go wrong? 

The heroine in my story would have fallen in love in the early 1970s. We discussed some events of that time. I also researched what might be feasible for her story. 

Details to consider to write a short story

  • A short story will be as short or long as we make it. Anything up to twenty-thirty pages can be considered a short story.
  • Think through the scenes that will lead up to the desired event (the proposal!). My story contains four scenes that build story world, show tension, has a climax, and the proposal.
  • Consider each scene as an abbreviated version of what happens in each act of the Three Act story structure—Scene one = Act One. Scene two = Act Two. Scene three = Act Three. 

Finally, you’ll want to include:

Include these things:

  • Focus on one POV.
  • Dialogue—don’t let the main character spend most of the story in his or her head.
  • Bring in other characters. My story has the heroine, her hero, a best friend, and the heroine’s daughter.
  • Five senses and five W’s in each scene 
  • Include a bit of stakes in each scene (emotional, physical, or spiritual).
  • Make sure the character has a story goal. 
  • If necessary, do just enough research to make the story authentic, but don’t get lost. 

Asking good questions prepares us to write a short story that draws readers in. 

I’ve now written one short story. And I’ve decided it’s much easier than writing a novel. 

Tell me, how do you come up with short stories?

What do we need to know to write a short story? @JeanneTakenaka on @MyBookTherapy #writingtip #writing #pubtip Click To Tweet 10 Helpful Questions to Ask Before You Write a Short Story by @JeanneTakenaka on @MyBookTherapy #writingtip #writing #pubtip Click To Tweet  

writing short stories before novel

Award-winning, aspiring novelist and blogger Jeanne Takenaka writes contemporary fiction that highlights how faith and grace hold hands in relationships with people and with God. She, her husband, and two boy-men call Colorado home. She loves being a God-seeker, hanging out with friends, and savoring oat milk lattés. When she’s not writing, you can find her, camera in hand, searching for #alittlebitofpretty. She’s a member of ACFW and Novel Academy.

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Jeanne, your post is so timely. I just finished a novel which has a minor character who touched my heart. I want to write a short story about her and use the story as a lead magnet. Thanks for offering me some excellent tips. 🙂

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Essay Writing Lessons Short Story Version

The Best Short Story Collections That Keep You Reading

Which of these captivating collections will you be picking up next?

female young behind book with face covered for a red book while smiling

Short story collections offer the perfect medium for fiction writers to craft compelling, affecting narratives that simply may not warrant a full-length novel to explore the ideas. The short story collection’s compact form delivers concise, impactful ideas and can free authors to explore a multitude of themes, characters, story arcs and styles within a single collection. Collections of short fiction have allowed writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Flannery O’Connor and James Baldwin to experiment with different tones, voices and plot devices while providing readers with gripping but approachable standalone stories.

These 8 short story collections are extremely readable, cover a variety of genres and authors and may give you a newfound appreciation of writers you already love.

Homesick For Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

a ring with a person's face on it

From one of the most compelling, propulsive voices in contemporary fiction, Moshfegh’s 2017 short story collection is an eclectic compendium of some of her best fiction work—much of which was previously published in places like The Paris Review , The New Yorker and Vice . Exceedingly atmospheric and permeated with Moshfegh’s hallmark sordid wit, Homesick For Another World interrogates the ubiquitous afflictions of the human condition and our capacity for cruelty through the collection’s generally amoral, misanthropic protagonists. A highly anticipated follow-up to Moshfegh’s breakout debut novel Eileen , Homesick was later named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017 and drew innumerable comparisons to the work of renowned authors like Mary Gaitskill and Flannery O’Connor.

Earth Angel by Madeline Cash

a lizard on a woman's head

An electric debut from author Madeline Cash, Earth Angel is a collection of short stories that rockets through the reader’s imagination like a fever dream. Teeming with chimeric vignettes synthesizing the mundanely sinister realities of a capitalist culture with cataclysmic doomsday tropes, Earth Angel manages to be both endlessly funny and deeply poignant without feeling didactic. Cash both parodies and embraces the myopic stylings dominating popular fiction in a way that never feels malicious, but rather like the playful ribbing of a writer that refuses to take herself too seriously. Irreverent, compelling and laugh-out-loud funny, Earth Angel marks the emergence of one of contemporary fiction’s most exciting new figures.

Bliss Montage by Ling Ma


A surrealist collection from Severance author Ling Ma, Bliss Montage marks Ma’s first published short story collection after her phenomenal debut novel (which has no relation to the recent Apple TV+ series, by the way). Uncanny, otherworldly and above all evocative— Bliss Montage contains eight wildly different stories each touching on universal themes of the human experience against phantasmagoric, though eerily familiar backdrops. Ranging from a tale of two friends bonded by their shared use of a drug that turns you invisible to the story of a tourist caught up in a fatalistic healing ritual, Ma’s unforgettable collection manages to be both ingeniously unique and undoubtedly universal at once. Somehow both outlandish and quotidian, Bliss Montage keeps readers wrapped up in Ma’s captivating prose from start to end.

Daddy by Emma Cline

a person lying on a train

A thrilling examination of unspoken power structures (predominantly male power in a patriarchal society), Daddy by Emma Cline offers glimpses into the unexamined lives of each story's protagonist, often playfully alluding to, but never explicitly pointing to, a certain moral paradigm. Fraught familial dynamics, imbalanced romantic relationships and moral nuance permeate Cline’s collection, and each story offers a taste of her infectious prose and incisive style. The ten stories on offer often end achingly realistically, rejecting a tidy, personally gratifying ending—making each story appear as a certain tableau harkening to an idea rather than a traditional beginning, middle and end. Suspenseful, richly descriptive and engrossing—Cline’s collection begs to be devoured.

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King

a poster with a black dragon

First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami


First published in July 2020, First Person Singular is a collection of eight short stories each told from, you guessed it, the first-person singular perspective. Written by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, First Person Singular explores themes of nostalgia and lost love through stories from the perspective of mostly unnamed, middle-aged male protagonists believed to be based largely on the author himself, though some are more fantastical than others. Ranging from slice-of-life stories wherein the narrator reminisces on a past relationship, to the tale of a monkey doomed to fall in love with human women, the stories employ a myriad of hallmark Murakami techniques like magical realism, music, nostalgia and aging.

The Houseguest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila

a green and pink bag

The first collection by beloved Mexican author Amparo Dávila to be translated into English, The Houseguest is a collection of 12 short stories touching on themes of obsession, paranoia and fear primarily featuring female protagonists and narrators. Often compared to horror writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson, Dávila’s writing often deals with abstract feelings of dread and paranoia, imbuing them with magical realism to craft jarring, transfixing narratives that seem both eerily familiar and preternatural. Each tale menaced by an unseen, pernicious force, Dávila’s writing revels in its ambiguity with no straightforward answers. The Houseguest is an anxiety-inducing page-turner which will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

text, letter

Though technically a short story cycle (a collection of self-contained short stories arranged to convey a concept or theme greater than the sum of its atomized parts), Olive Kitteridge consists of 13 stories each taking place in the fictional town of Crosby, Maine. The stories predominantly center on Olive Kitteridge, a brusque but caring retired school teacher and longtime resident of Crosby. Other stories show Olive only as a secondary character or in a cameo capacity and are from the point of view of other townsfolk. Winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the collection was later adapted into a critically acclaimed miniseries starring Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan and Bill Murray. Profound, heartbreaking and human, Olive Kitteridge is an unforgettable first-read that will still impact you even if you watched the miniseries before.

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@media(max-width: 64rem){.css-o9j0dn:before{margin-bottom:0.5rem;margin-right:0.625rem;color:#ffffff;width:1.25rem;bottom:-0.2rem;height:1.25rem;content:'_';display:inline-block;position:relative;line-height:1;background-repeat:no-repeat;}.loaded .css-o9j0dn:before{background-image:url(/_assets/design-tokens/goodhousekeeping/static/images/Clover.5c7a1a0.svg);}}@media(min-width: 48rem){.loaded .css-o9j0dn:before{background-image:url(/_assets/design-tokens/goodhousekeeping/static/images/Clover.5c7a1a0.svg);}} All the Best Books to Read Next

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Author Interviews

Police raided george pelecanos' home. 15 years later, he's ready to write about it.

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writing short stories before novel

Writer George Pelecanos reads The Washington Post every morning in his home. Keren Carrión/NPR hide caption

Writer George Pelecanos reads The Washington Post every morning in his home.

It was August 2009 when the police raided writer George Pelecanos' home in Silver Spring, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., with a no-knock warrant.

He was performing his daily ritual of sitting on the couch reading The Washington Post when he saw cars enter the driveway. "I saw these guys wearing black and holding automatic rifles and battering rams," he said in an interview at his home. The police broke down the door overlooking the driveway, and the basement door, too. Pelecanos said they put him on the floor and zip tied his hands.

The police were looking for his then 18-year-old son, Nick. The younger Pelecanos was a part of the robbery of a weed dealer, with a gun involved. So, the cops executed the no-knock warrant looking for evidence of guns or drugs.

After not finding anything, George Pelecanos said the officers started needling him about his liquor cabinet, his watch, his home. "One of the SWAT guys was looking at my books, and he goes 'maybe you'll write about this someday.' And he laughed," Pelecanos said. "And right then I knew that I would write about it. He challenged me."

No knock warrants have been banned in multiple states

Pelecanos is known for his gritty, realistic crime stories. For television, he co-created The Deuce , about the burgeoning porn industry in 1970s New York City, and We Own This City , the mini-series detailing a real-life corrupt police ring in Baltimore. As an author, he's known for his deep catalog of stories set in the streets of Washington, D.C.

His new short story collection is titled Owning Up . And it features characters grappling with events from the past that, with time, fester into something else entirely. There's a story about two guys who knew each other in jail, crossing paths years later. Another has a woman digging into her own family history and learning about the 1919 Washington, D.C. race riots.

writing short stories before novel

Many of Pelecanos' crime fiction book are set in Washington, D.C. Keren Carrión/NPR hide caption

Many of Pelecanos' crime fiction book are set in Washington, D.C.

But Pelecanos said he wanted to write about the August 2009 incident because he wanted to further show the effects of no-knock raids. The Montgomery County police department confirmed they executed the warrant but they didn't immediately provide any additional details. Pelecanos did share a copy of the warrant, which states: "You may serve this warrant as an exception to the knock and announce requirement."

The practice of issuing no-knock warrants has been under increased scrutiny since the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville in 2020, and Amir Locke in Minneapolis in 2022. They're banned in Oregon, Virginia, Florida and Tennessee.

"They don't accomplish anything except mayhem and violence," Pelecanos said.

The story "The No-Knock" starts with a journalist named Joe Caruso drinking his coffee and reading the morning paper when the vehicles pull up. The same beats follow — the guns, the zip ties, the pinning down on the floor. Pelecanos writes like he remembers every sensation from that night, because, he said, he does.

It deviates further into fiction from there. Caruso wants to write about it, but he can't. He's too close. He starts drinking heavily, instead. Pelecanos, on the other hand, knew he could write about it, easily. But he waited for over a decade on purpose. He wanted his son's permission, first.

"I wanted my son to grow up," he said. "And so that I could say to you today – he's fine."

Owning Up to the past

"He allowed time for me to grow as a man, and develop myself as a responsible person," said Nick Pelecanos in an interview. He now works in the film industry as a director and assistant director. He got his start working on jobs his dad helped him get. So he's attuned to his father's storytelling style — how he favors details and facts over sepia-toned nostalgia.

"When he writes something, you know that it's technically correct," he said. "And has come to his objective, as non-biased as possible opinion."

writing short stories before novel

In Owning Up , Pelecanos writes about a non-knock incident inspired by real events. Keren Carrión/NPR hide caption

In Owning Up , Pelecanos writes about a non-knock incident inspired by real events.

As personal as "The No-Knock" is, Pelecanos calls the title story in the collection his most autobiographical. It's about a kid in the 70s named Nikos who works a job where he gets in with a bad crowd, and eventually gets talked into breaking into a guy's house.

"It's just the way my life was in that era and on this side of Montgomery County," Pelecanos said. "It was about muscle cars, playing pickup basketball, drinking beer, getting high."

Listening to Pelecanos talk about this story, it sounds familiar. You get the sense that history does repeat itself. That the same lessons get taught again and again. But that's O.K., because some lessons bear repeating.

"I got in trouble occasionally," he said. "But I always came home to the warmth of my family, you know? That's all you need."

Meghan Collins Sullivan edited this story for radio and the web.


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Picture Books

A Long-Forgotten TV Script by Rachel Carson Is Now a Picture Book

In “Something About the Sky,” the National Book Award-winning marine biologist brings her signature sense of wonder to the science of clouds.

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A cut-paper and sumi ink illustration shows a young boy watching a small plane as it soars through the sky trailing cirrus clouds that look like jet stream. The silhouetted boy, the plane and the clouds are cut from black and white paper. The bright sky is rendered with blue ink that fades dark to light from top to bottom.

By Maria Popova

Maria Popova, the creator of TheMarginalian.org and the author of the forthcoming “The Universe in Verse: 15 Windows on Wonder Through Science and Poetry,” has written about Rachel Carson in her book “Figuring.”

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SOMETHING ABOUT THE SKY , by Rachel Carson. Illustrated by Nikki McClure.

A cloud is a spell against indifference, an emblem of the water cycle that makes this planet a living world capable of trees and tenderness, a great cosmic gasp at the improbability that such a world exists, that across the cold expanse of space-time, strewn with billions upon billions of other star systems, there is nothing like it as far as we yet know.

Clouds are almost as old as this world, born when primordial volcanoes first exhaled the chemistry of the molten planet into the sky, but their science is younger than the steam engine. At the dawn of the 19th century, the chemist and amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, still in his 20s, noticed that clouds form in particular shapes under particular conditions. Applying the principles of the newly popular Linnaean taxonomy of the living world to clouds, he named the three main classes cumulus , stratus and cirrus , then braided them into sub-taxonomies.

When a German translation reached Goethe, the polymathic poet with a passion for morphology was so inspired that he sent fan mail to the young man who “distinguished cloud from cloud,” then composed a suite of verses about the main classes. It was Goethe’s poetry, translating the lexicon of an obscure science into the language of wonder, that popularized the cloud names we use today.

A century and a half later, six years before Rachel Carson awakened the modern ecological conscience with her book “Silent Spring” and four years after “The Sea Around Us” earned her the National Book Award (whose judges described it as “a work of scientific accuracy presented with poetic imagination”), the television program “Omnibus” approached her to write “something about the sky,” in response to a request from a young viewer.

This became the title of the segment that aired on March 11, 1956 — a soulful serenade to the science of clouds, emanating from Carson’s credo that “the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race.”

Although celebrated for her books about the sea, Carson had begun her literary career with an eye to the sky.

She was only 11 when her story “A Battle in the Clouds” — inspired by her brother’s time in the Army Air Service during World War I — was published in the popular young people’s magazine St. Nicholas, where the early writings of Edna St. Vincent Millay, F. Scott Fitzgerald and E.E. Cummings also appeared. She eventually enrolled at Pennsylvania Women’s College, intent on majoring in English.

And then, the way all great transformations slip in through the back door of the mansion of our plans, her life took a turn that shaped her future and the history of literature.

To meet the school’s science requirement, Carson took an introductory biology course. She found herself enchanted by the subject and changed her major.

But she never lost her love of literature. “I have always wanted to write,” Carson told her lab partner late one night. “Biology has given me something to write about.”

She was also writing poetry, submitting it to various magazines and receiving rejection slip after rejection slip. Somewhere along the way — training at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, writing reports her boss deemed far too lyrical for a government publication and encouraged her to submit to The Atlantic Monthly — Carson realized that poetry lives in innumerable guises beyond verse.

In 1952, she would rise from the table she shared with the poet Marianne Moore to receive her National Book Award with these words: “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

If there was poetry in her writing, Carson believed, it was not because she “deliberately put it there” but because no one could write truthfully about nature “and leave out the poetry.”

It was a radical idea — that truth and beauty are not in rivalry but in reciprocity, that to write about science with feeling is not to diminish its authority but to deepen it. Carson was modeling a new possibility for generations of writers to come, blurring the line between where science ends and poetry begins.

That was the ethos she took to her “Omnibus” assignment about “the writing of the wind on the sky,” detailing the science of each of the main cloud classes and celebrating them as “the cosmic symbols of a process without which life itself could not exist on earth.”

After coming upon fragments of Carson’s long-lost television script via Orion magazine, the artist Nikki McClure — who grew up immersed in nature, worked for a while at the Department of Ecology and finds daily delight in watching birds under the cedar canopy by her home — was moved to track down the complete original and bring it to life in lyrical illustrations.

Known for her singular cut-paper art, with its stark contrasts and sharp contours, she embraced the creative challenge of finding a whole new technique in order to channel the softness of the sky.

Using paper from a “long-ago” trip to Japan and sumi ink she freely applied with brushes, she let the gentle work of gravity and fluid dynamics pool and fade the mostly blue and black hues into textured layers — a process of “possibility and chance.”

Then, as she recounts in an illustrator’s note at the back of the book, she “cut images with the paper, not just from it”: “The paper and I had a conversation about what might happen.”

What emerges is a kind of tender visual poem, as boldly defiant of category as Carson’s writing.

Although Carson never wrote explicitly for children, she wrote in the language of children: wonder.

Less than a year after “Something About the Sky” aired on “Omnibus,” Carson took over the care of her orphaned grandnephew, Roger, whom she would soon legally adopt. (He’s the small boy romping across McClure’s illustrations.) In what began as an article for Woman’s Home Companion and was later expanded into her posthumously published book “The Sense of Wonder,” she wrote:

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

SOMETHING ABOUT THE SKY | By Rachel Carson | Illustrated by Nikki McClure | Candlewick Studio | 56 pp. | $19.99 | Ages 5 to 8

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Even in countries where homophobia is pervasive and same-sex relationships are illegal, queer African writers are pushing boundaries , finding an audience and winning awards.

In Lucy Sante’s new memoir, “I Heard Her Call My Name,” the author reflects on her life and embarking on a gender transition  in her late 60s.

For people of all ages in Pasadena, Calif., Vroman’s Bookstore, founded in 1894, has been a mainstay in a world of rapid change. Now, its longtime owner says he’s ready to turn over the reins .

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The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

2023, Comedy/Adventure, 39m

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Critics Consensus

With The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar , Wes Anderson returns to the world of Roald Dahl -- and proves his distinctive style is a comfortable fit for one of the author's sweetest stories. Read critic reviews

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The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar proves Wes Anderson still has what it takes to adapt Roald Dahl, although the concept might be unsatisfying for some. Read audience reviews

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The wonderful story of henry sugar videos, the wonderful story of henry sugar   photos.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar: A rich man learns about a guru who can see without using his eyes. He sets out to master the skill in order to cheat at gambling. Extremely faithfully adapted from Roald Dahl’s long short story.

Rating: PG (Smoking)

Genre: Comedy, Adventure, Short

Original Language: English

Director: Wes Anderson

Producer: Jeremy Dawson , Steven Rales

Writer: Wes Anderson

Release Date (Theaters): Sep 20, 2023  limited

Release Date (Streaming): Sep 27, 2023

Runtime: 39m

Distributor: Netflix

Production Co: American Empirical Pictures, Netflix, Netflix Studios

Cast & Crew

Benedict Cumberbatch

Henry Sugar, Max Engelman

Ralph Fiennes

Roald Dahl, Policeman

Ben Kingsley

Imdad Khan, Croupier

Dr. Chatterjee, John Winston

Richard Ayoade

Dr. Marshall, Yogi

Rupert Friend

Jarvis Cocker

Wes Anderson


Jeremy Dawson

Steven Rales

Robert Yeoman


Barney Pilling

Film Editing

Andrew Weisblum

Alexandre Desplat

Original Music

Adam Stockhausen

Production Design

Richard Hardy

Art Director

Claire Peerless

Anna Pinnock

Set Decoration

Kasia Walicka Maimone

Costume Design

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  1. How to Write a Short Story

    Before diving into the how-tos of writing short fiction, it's important to understand exactly what constitutes a short story. At its most basic, a short story is a brief work of prose fiction that is shorter in length than a novel. But there are some key distinguishing characteristics of short stories versus longer works of fiction: Length ...

  2. How to Write a Short Story: The Short Story Checklist

    The short story is a fiction writer's laboratory: here is where you can experiment with characters, plots, and ideas without the heavy lifting of writing a novel. Learning how to write a short story is essential to mastering the art of storytelling. With far fewer words to worry about, storytellers can make many more mistakes—and strokes of ...

  3. How to Write a Short Story from Start to Finish

    1. Training Short stories help you hone your writing skills. Short stories are often only one scene and about one character. That's a level of focus you can't have in a novel. Writing short stories forces you to focus on writing clearly and concisely while still making a scene entertaining.

  4. Write an Army of Short Stories Before Your First Novel

    1 Photo by Neel on Unsplash Short stories are underrated. They tell stories almost as well as novels if not better than some of them, but they take about a quarter of the time to read....

  5. How to Write a Short Story in 9 Simple Steps

    1. Know what a short story is versus a novel The simple answer to this question, of course, is that the short story is shorter than the novel, usually coming in at between, say, 1,000-15,000 words. Any shorter and you're into flash fiction territory. Any longer and you're approaching novella length .

  6. Short Story Writing For Beginners

    May 31, 2020 The technical parts of writing short stories, developing a solid routine and publishing your work Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash "A short story is a different thing altogether — a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger." — Stephen King

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  8. How to Write a Short Story: Step-by-Step Guide

    "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin How long should a short story be? Like we said in the previous section, short stories typically contain between 1,000 and 10,000 words. Stories longer than 10,000 (but shorter than 40,000) words are generally considered novellas.

  9. How to Write a Short Story: Your Ultimate Step-by Step Guide

    Step 1 - How do you find a short story idea? You can pull ideas from short stories from everywhere. Former short story editor and now-published short story author (with 2 collections), Hannah Lee Kidder says, "The best short story ideas will always come from you yourself.

  10. How to Write a Short Story: 10 Good Tips for Writers

    Tip 1: Experiment With Form A short story can take any form you want it to. You could write a short story that takes the form of a cooking recipe, with each step telling the reader what to do next. You could write a short story that takes the form of a series of text messages between two friends, with conflict starting to simmer between them.

  11. How to Write a Short Story: Tips, Definitions, and Examples

    Step 1. Get to know your character. Although a short story does not trace a character's journey in depth the way a novel does, it's still important to get to know your character. Characters drive stories, whether they are full-length novels or short stories. So take the time to develop them.

  12. Perfect your short stories before writing a novel : r/writing

    Perfect your short stories before writing a novel This depends on a case-on-case basis, but at least for me, writing short stories and perfecting them (as well the craft of writing short stories) was essential before writing a novel.

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    Flash Fiction: 500-1,000 words Micro Fiction: 5 to 350 words Is there really a market for a short story of 5,000 words (roughly 20 double-spaced manuscript pages)? Some publications and contests accept entries that long, but it's easier and more common to sell a short story in the 1,500- to 3,000-word range.

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    Next, I added two secondary story arcs and the length grew to 46,000 words, enough for a short novel and about perfect for the YA (young adult) genre. So my 800-word piece of flash fiction grew into a 46,000-word novel. But the story isn't over. Last year, for NaNoWriMo, I wrote a 49,000-word sequel.

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  18. How To Write Short Stories: 8 Steps for Success

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    1. Make a plot outline. Organize your short story into a plot outline with five parts: exposition, an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution. Use the outline as a reference guide as you write the story to ensure it has a clear beginning, middle, and end.

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  22. Should I start with short stories before writing a novel?

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