Writing a Short Story – 5 Key Steps

Writing a short story is quite different than writing a novel. There is the time factor and word usage to take into consideration. It takes discipline to keep your short story brimming with exciting life experiences in as few words as possible. Here are five key steps in writing your short story.

The theme is your supporting structure in your short story. The theme is what you glue your  plot, your characters, and your setting to. It is the foundation that holds your story together. The conflict and how it gets resolved wraps itself around the theme of your story.

The plot is the introduction and the series of events that happens throughout your short story. It is action and suspense. It is the romance and emotion. The plot involves some type of conflict that needs to be resolved.  Your plot has a beginning, middle, and an ending. A good story needs a hook in the beginning to draw your reader in and keep him turning the page. Then of course, always remember to save the best for last–the surprise twist ending to leave your reader satisfied.

It is important not to crowd your short story with too many characters.   Use two, perhaps three characters, at the most. Most of your story will surround an important event that proves crucial in the life of your protagonist. Every word counts. Too much characterization and description can debase the affect of your story.

Stick to the theme of your story. Make sure you don’t overpopulate with unnecessary detail. Follow the narrow path of your theme. If you must digress, make it short, otherwise you will lose track of your purpose and get bogged down with a smorgasbord of trivialities that you don’t want.

Keep your short story alive and vibrant by using the five senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The five senses add depth to your short story. You will see your images more clearly. A character or a setting once flat now speaks to the reader and becomes real.  Here are some examples from one of my writing lessons of a few years ago:

  • As the old man pressed the canteen to his blistered lips, he savored the last drops of the precious liquid, and felt the wonderful wetness trickle down his parched throat. (Taste)
  • She wondered if her eyes were not deceiving her as she caught a glimpse of a shiny, round object glimmering on the sidewalk. (Sight)
  • The stench of human waste and cheap wine filtered through wet air as she pushed her cart past poor old souls taking refuge in the shelter of cardboard boxes. (Smell)
  • Long buried pain began to surface as she recalled how she watched her beloved, Teddy, suffer till the end. (Feel)
  • The train swayed gently and the click, clack of the rails rendered a soothing timbre, lulling Tyler into a deep, peaceful sleep. (Sound)

Notice how each one of the above conditions drew you in and made you want to know more about the character or the setting. That’s the key to using the five senses.
The five steps should help you get started. Once you’ve written your short story, go back through and delete unnecessary words or paragraphs that do not contribute to the theme or plot. Short stories have  rhythm-make every word count. Most of all have fun while you write your short story.

Writing a Great Short Story

Short stories can be an excellent way to break into the competitive field of fiction publishing. Novel publishers are more willing to look at work written by an author whose work has already appeared in print. Magazines and periodicals love the short form, so selling the work can often be simpler than pushing an entire novel manuscript. Readers are more willing to pay money for work from an author they are already familiar with. Most importantly, though, short stories provide a fertile ground for bigger ideas to spring from.

The difficulty lies in mastering this challenging form of writing.

Some shorter stories manage to leave a lingering impression on readers long after the final word was written. Others leave readers with the feeling that they have missed the point entirely.

So how do you strike a balance between writing an effective, memorable short story and creating a short, aimless length of prose?

To make your short stories more effective, try to keep in mind these following points:


Establish a clear theme before you begin writing. What is the story about? That doesn’t mean what is the plot line, the sequence of events or the character’s actions, it means what is the underlying message or statement behind the words. Get this right and your story will have more resonance in the minds of your readers.


An effective short story covers a very short time span. Picture it as a snapshot of a particular moment in the life of the story. Of course, the character has a history and will often have consequences to face after the story’s conclusion, too. But for the sake of this short story, only the explanation of the event is relevant. This explanation should be the illustration of the underlying theme to your story.


Begin your story with a conflict scene. Throw your protagonist in the deep end. Open with the action. Hook your reader into the story by beginning in the middle of something big. Forget the scenery, or the bad guy who got your hero into this mess in the first place, or the reason your protagonist is dangling by his feet from a sheer cliff. There will be time to sprinkle those details throughout the story later. For now, concentrate on forcing your readers to wonder how he got into that situation. A reader who wonders this is a reader who will continue reading to find out!


Don’t overload your story with too many characters. Each new character you introduce will bring a new dimension to the story, but it can also add unnecessary length. Too many diverse dimensions (or directions) will dilute the theme. Have only enough characters to effectively illustrate the theme.


Space is extremely limited with short stories. Many publications adhere to strict word-counts and will not accept longer pieces. You need to make every word count. Edit your draft carefully and remove any obsolete words or phrases. Find a more compact way to say want you mean. Dig through a thesaurus to find words that more accurately convey what you want to say. Finding one perfect, strong noun can be more compelling than a whole descriptive paragraph.


The best stories are the ones that focus upon a narrow subject line. History, external details, surroundings, other characters – all extraneous details should fade into oblivion while you focus on your story’s central theme. It can tempting to digress, and often more tempting to expand the fledgling idea into a full novel-length work. The tighter you squeeze the focus of the story, the more the reader will be pulled into the event you have drawn.


Surprise your readers. Add a little twist at the end of your story that leaves them wondering about your protagonist long after the story ends. Avoid the overtly predictable ending and make publishers remember your style.


Don’t leave your readers hanging in the dark at the end of your story. Be sure that your conclusion is satisfying, but not too predictable. Readers need to be left with a feeling of resonance, a feeling that they long to know what happened to the characters after you wrote that last word.

If you can successfully incorporate these tips into a compact, focused story, you just might find that you have created a memorable short story that lingers in the minds of readers and editors alike, long after they’ve finished reading!

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