Not every writer has the passion and time to write a novel. Or maybe you do write novels but want to try something different. Writing short stories might be for you. Short stories are in demand by magazines, newspapers, blogs, and anthologies. Many of these publications pay authors for short stories. In fact, you can earn more money per word writing short stories than you can publishing a novel.
So how do you go about writing a short story that will be accepted by a publication or website? Here are my top ten tips for writing a great short story.
1. Understand that a short story is not the same as a novel.
I’ve written different types of pieces, from technical documents to novels and even short stories. They aren’t the same, but they do share some common characteristics. They need to be coherent, grammatically correct, and have proper spelling. And no matter the length, they need to tell a story. When writing a novel, the author decides the length of the book. But writers are likely going to be given a word limit for short story submission. So, they need to be able to tell a complete story within the word limit provided. Still, a short story works on a smaller scale to a novel, but it will, in some sense, almost always have these elements: inciting incident, rising action (progressive complications), climax, and falling action.
2. Write a catchy opening
The opening line or paragraph is critical to ensure that a reader keeps reading the story. A novelist often has the first chapter to hook the reader, but a short story writer has far less time. Go ahead and make the plot obvious. Some writers lay out their story on the first page of their story.
A fast pace is also essential for short stories. Normally, the pace increases as the hero approaches the final conflict. Since a short story starts close to the final conflict, it needs to hit the ground running and catapult the reader headlong into the action from page one.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Keith Cavernaugh got murdered last night.”
Fred almost dropped his rake. “I hadn’t heard,” he said.
3. Start as close the end as possible
Newspaper articles include the entirety of the story as close to the opening of the article as possible. Why? Because giving a reader the details is one way to let them know whether they want to read on.
Short story writers do this as well. Pay them up front by starting near the end. Then they don’t have to wonder whether the payoff is coming and whether it’s adequate. Get the reader right into the unfolding story. Bypass the “before” and “also related” and “this vaguely interesting thing is also true of my character’s life” snapshots.
4. Keep the number of characters small
A short story only needs three characters – a protagonist, antagonist, and what is referred to as a wrench or relationship character. This isn’t a hard rule but one to keep aware of. A short story can have as few as one character. In the Tom Hanks film Cast Away, the main character is alone for most of the movie. A great example of how you can build a story with just a single character, excluding the volleyball.
It’s difficult to properly develop a larger number of characters in a short story and hard for a reader to keep track of them. The reader needs someone to root for, someone to hate and some stories can require a character who can advance the character arc for either the protagonist or antagonist.
Voice is as important as the characters. The voice sets the emotional tone of the story and often reveals the personality of the point of view character. It’s true for all fiction, but especially in a short story where you have only a moment to capture the reader’s interest.
5. Give the reader someone to root for
Again, every story needs a protagonist. The trick is to make the reader care about that character. There are a few techniques to strengthen the connection between your protagonist and the reader. Give your main character a passion, hopefully something shared by the reader. Give the character a weakness, one that is only shared with the reader.
A glimpse into the character’s psyche really draws in a reader. Give the character determination that brings them out of their comfort zone. Finally, make your character feel real to the reader.
Every short story needs to have a single point of conflict. As a rule, no more than one is required for a short story.
The character has a dilemma, a revelation, or faces a decision of some kind. Around that conflict should be a good dose of tension. Conflict and tension keep readers engage or invested in your story.
Kurt Vonnegut suggests that writers should be sadists. Make bad things happen to your main characters to show readers what they are made of. A short story can never have too much tension.
7. Suggest a backstory but don’t elaborate
You don’t have the space to provide a character’s backstory. So, if in doubt at all, leave it out. Every sentence must count. If even one word seems extraneous, it has to go.
Even though you may not describe much of the backstory on paper, you need to have it worked out in your head. The author needs to understand a character’s motivation to write a compelling story.
Instead, draw in your readers with tension, appealing to their senses and tight dialogue. When a writer gets to the editing stary, they will need to make some tough decisions regarding the backstory.
8. Appeal to the five senses
Use words to transport readers into your story by appealing to their senses and imagination. Experienced writers understand this concept – show, don’t tell. The dense fog engulfs your character and she can no longer make out the path through the woods. The smell of bacon cooking in the kitchen pulls him from his sleep. The fan blades thwack the air and keep her from drifting to sleep.
9. Dialogue should bring your story to life
Don’t spend too much time setting scenes because a short story needs to come to a relatively quick conclusion. Good dialogue can make the characters and a story come to life.
When putting characters in a scene, give them something to do – like washing dishes. But then focus on dialogue to advance the story and set up conflict.
There’s no better way to build drama than through tight dialogue. I always try to read my dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t feel real or seems out of character, that’s a problem.
“Come quick! Jack is trapped in the mineshaft.”
“I can’t help rescue Jack. I’m claustrophobic.”
“That mineshaft floods in wet weather. If this storm breaks, Jack will drown.”
10. Edit until it hurts
No matter how good a writer thinks their story is, it can be made shorter, tighter and more compelling. To be a good writer, one needs to be a ruthless editor. Think about combining characters. Delete transitory scenes and get right to the meat of the story. Show, don’t tell. Get rid of repetitive words, and unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. Make every sentence count.
Essentially, when writing a short story, a writer should limit their plot lines, the number characters, the amount of backstory provided, and conflict to just one event. As with all things, practice makes perfect. With these short story writing tips in mind, write a 500 to a 1,000-word story every month. Once you get the hang of it, try to churn one out every two weeks, and then every week, and then every day. Soon, you’ll be able to create short stories with ease, and you’ll be training yourself to write consistently. Just don’t forget to edit!