4 Tips for Writing a Short Story

I recently wrote a guest article at Writers in the Storm on 6 Reasons to Write a Short Story. So that was a bit of why, but how do you craft an effective short?

While there is much advice about writing novels that translates to writing short fiction, other aspects don’t seem to apply. For instance, the story structure for novels — with various theories, diagrams, acrostics, and outlines — doesn’t fit a lot of successful short stories.

By researching, taking an RWA course on short stories, reading other stories to see what worked (and what didn’t), and using trial-and-error, I came up with my own tips for writing a short story.

1. Limit your characters. You don’t have enough time and space to develop many characters. Just as you wouldn’t introduce twelve people in chapter one of a novel, don’t overload the short story reader with too many names and faces.

Make sure every character must be there.

  • Does each character contribute to this particular storyline?
  • If you have two secondary characters each serving a purpose, can you mesh their purposes and create a composite character?
  • Does your main character need so many friends or family members?
  • Can you refer to a character by their profession or appearance, such as “the police officer” or the “red-headed cheerleader”?

If you need to mention several people, maybe you can link them more generally. For instance, you could refer to a group of friends by their leader’s name, like “Rudy and his gang.” Or group them in a memorable way.

In my upcoming short, A Little Fairy Dust, the main character, a fairy godmother-in-training, has three sisters, all with names beginning with F. Having their names all start with the same letter allows the reader to immediately recognize a sister without needing to know exactly who’s who. Although be careful not to be gimmicky; have a story reason for your choices as well.

2. Forget those subplots. Choose a main plotline, and maybe one subplot. You can’t weave several plots together the way you can in a novel. Know who and what your story is about, and stick to that.

If you’ve ever written a query, synopsis, back cover copy, or an “elevator pitch,” you already understand this principle. When describing a novel, you stick to the main story with the protagonist, the antagonist, the primary conflict, and its resolution. Approaching a short requires the same perspective: Whittle away at the whole convoluted story to find the core element within.

Indie author Kait Nolan does this well in her Meet Cute romances, a series of shorts celebrating the first meeting of a romantic couple. As she explains, “You’ve got a very narrow window that requires quick and ruthless worldbuilding and leaves no room for you to get distracted by other stories beyond your main plot—and that includes backstory. Don’t overcomplicate by trying to tell more than one story.”

3. Squish the timeline. One of my stories happens in the course of a few hours, and another occurs over the course of four months. But in both, the timeline is truncated—by choosing a single event or by sharing only slivers of the whole story.

Shrinking the timeline to a single day or hours can give your short story a sense of urgency—that now-or-never feel.

My Sister's Demon book coverOr you can cover a longer period of time, but expect to leave stuff out and do a little telling to catch readers up. This can work well with internal or external dialogue as the main character reflects on something that happened during a time gap. For instance, there’s a month gap each between most chapters in My Sister’s Demon, so at one point the main character summarizes:

In the last month, she’s bought all kinds of not-Nickie stuff—everything from a black-and-blood-red clothing line to bags of marijuana to creepy wooden idols she found in some weird magic shop.

With one sentence, the reader gets the overall picture: things got worse. Slid seamlessly into real action time, you can keep the reader up-to-date, cover a greater time span, and maintain your focus.

4. Remember the arc. While studying up on short stories, I read many examples from writers that weren’t stories at all. They were scenes or interesting premises, but conflict and a growth arc were missing. A beautifully described scene or character is not a short story. The same character arc applies to short fiction: Your hero must face an obstacle and change as a result.

Make your main character face his fears, encounter difficulties, wrestle with a villain, fight for true love. There should still be an inciting incident, crossing of a threshold, building of stakes, a climax, resolution.

You won’t have as many plot points as you would in a well-structured novel, but you might be surprised how well you can cover a character arc even in a short story. Think of how many times in your own life you’ve learned something important from a single, attitude-altering event.

Just like in a novel, make each word count in your short story. But feel free to use a little trial and error yourself. Shorts can be a great way to step out of your comfort zone, tell an impactful story, and hone your writing skills.

ROW80 Wrap-Up

Yep, this is the final report for Round 2 of A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.

1. Read 12 books. I read 13 books and one short story. In case you’re curious, here’s the list:

  • Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point-of-View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson (nonfiction craft)
  • Unearthly by Cynthia Hand (YA paranormal)
  • Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (nonfiction craft)
  • The Collector by Victoria Scott (YA paranormal)
  • The Quantum League: Spell Robbers by Matthew J. Kirby (middle grade paranormal)
  • Self-Publishing Attack by James Scott Bell (nonfiction craft)
  • Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress by Tina Ferraro (YA contemporary)
  • After the Scandal by Elizabeth Essex (historical romance)
  • Stupid Cupid by Tina Ferraro (YA contemporary short)
  • Defiant by Jessica Trapp (historical romance)
  • How to Ruin a Summer Vacation by Simone Elkeles (YA contemporary)
  • No More Christian Nice Girl: When Just Being Nice–Instead of Good–Hurts You, Your Family, and Your Friends by Paul Coughlin and Jennifer D. PhD Degler (nonfiction)
  • Sketchy Behavior by Erynn Mangum (YA suspense)
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (YA contemporary)

2. Finish editing SHARING HUNTER, a young adult contemporary novel. Once again, I did not complete this. But I’m so amped about where I am now that I almost don’t care. (Almost.) I’ll push this goal to next round, but I expect to get it done soon.

3. Edit one short story to publication quality. Last week, I still hadn’t hear back from everyone about my next cued story, A Little Fairy Dust. But I’d rather hold that one until I’m absolutely certain it’s ready for publication. It’s almost there. But I also did the last polish and formatting for another short in the series.

4. Publish and promote two short storiesMy Sister’s Demon was published on May 15, and I flipped my planned sequence and released The Vampire Exclusive on Friday, June 27.

The Vampire Exclusive cover
Click for link to Amazon

5. Stay on top of ROW80 sponsor duties. In total, I visited 64 ROW80 updates, and I think I hit everyone who participated in this round at one time or other. I truly find it inspirational to see how other writers are progressing by setting manageable goals and taking important steps in their writing journey.

Are you a fan of short stories? What tips do you have from reading or writing shorts? And how was your week or your round?

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9 thoughts on “4 Tips for Writing a Short Story

    1. Great tips for short-story writing. I love reading short stories as well as writing them. I’ve written a lot of them, but I can’t really think of any tips. If I have to take secondary characters out, they usually end up getting their own story (or stories, in the case of certain characters I can’t let go of).

  1. My favorite book on short story writing is “Building Fiction” by Jesse Lee Kercheval. Pure awesomeness for any writer, but a must for those who wish to master “shorts.”

    Love the tips! And congrats on getting your second story out to the world. Soooooo proud of you!!

  2. Hi. Thank you for the tips. I was wondering do you have any recommendations on where to get editing done. I was thinking fiverr dot com. I just finished writing a short story (21 chapters, 111 pages) and while a bunch of friends told me they’d edit it, no one has come through. I’m editing it myself and finding a ton of issues, but I think a fresh person looking at it would make for better fixes…Do you have any ideas or suggestions?

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