Tips to Help Write a Great Short Story

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Tips for writing a great short story are based on the primary elements of fiction, no matter the length, character, plot, or theme. But when writing a story of no more than 10,000 words, keep in mind that employing these elements will often require an adjusted approach.

The challenge for the short story writer lies in developing the major elements of fiction—character, plot, theme, point of view, etc.—in less than 25 typeset pages, as the industry cutoff for the form is considered 7,500 to 10,000 words. To meet this challenge, short-story writers generally follow, consciously or unconsciously, standardized "guidelines" for success.

Use Few Characters and Stick to One Point of View

You simply will not have room for more than one or two round characters. Find economical ways to characterize your protagonist, and describe minor characters briefly. These smaller characters are called "ancillary" characters, and only exist to accelerate the plot. For a short story, lengthy descriptions are not needed.

Having only one or two protagonists naturally limits your opportunities to switch perspectives. Even if you're tempted to try it, you will have trouble fully realizing, in a balanced way, more than one point of view.​

Limit the Story to a Single Time Frame

Though some short-story writers do jump around in time, your story has the biggest chance of success if you limit the time frame tightly. There are few reasons a short story needs a flashback or flash-forward. Covering years of a character's life in the short-story form is unrealistic, but the form is well suited for highlighting important instances that help shape the character's perspective. By limiting the time period, you allow more focus on the events that are included in the narrative, and time passes naturally to the reader.

Edit Ruthlessly

As with poetry, the short story requires discipline and editing. Every line should either build character or advance the action. If it doesn't do one of these two things, it has to go. William Faulkner was right to advise writers to "kill their darlings." This advice is especially important for short-story writers, as economy is key. For a good example of word selection, read "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by a master of the form, Ernest Hemingway. Not one word exists that doesn't serve the story; if any text is taken out, the story would collapse entirely.

Follow Conventional Story Structure

The standard rules of narrative that applied in our high school literature classes apply to writers as well. Though you may not have room to hit every element of traditional plot structure, know that a story is roughly composed of exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement.

However much you experiment with form, something has to happen in the story—or, at the very least, the reader has to feel as though something has happened. Short stories often cover events that on the surface seem like banal everyday occurrences but conceal deeper emotional meaning. Literary devices like conflict and resolution achieve this effect. Storytelling may seem magical, but the building blocks are actually concrete, and it is simply your flavor that makes your story individual. As with any type of writing, the beginning and the end are the most important parts.

Make sure your first and last lines are the strongest in the story—first to grab, and then to anchor.

Know When to Break the Rules

As with all rules, some are meant to be broken. Alexander Steele points out in his introduction to the Gotham Writers' Workshop's "Fiction Gallery" that the short story lends itself to experimentation precisely because it is short: structural experiments that couldn't be sustained for 300 pages can work beautifully for 15. Also, the lines between genres—such as those between short stories and the poems—has become blurred, and the combination of genres leads to new, readable styles within the world of fiction.

Keep in mind, however, that telling your story is still the most important thing. If breaking a rule allows you to tell your story more effectively, by all means, break it. Otherwise, think twice, or at least be honest with yourself if the innovation fails. Don't break a rule just to break it. Everything in a short story should have a purpose, including its structure.

Following these rules should help you complete your stories successfully. If you find that your story overflows these boundaries no matter what you do, consider expanding it into a novel. The short form is not suited for every story, and you might find that once you start writing, you have more to say than you originally thought—and need the pages to say it. Much more common, however, is a longer work that can be distilled into a single idea.