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.
Short Stories 101: What Are They and Where Do You Start?
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.
10 Tips on How to Write a Short Story
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.
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.
Examples of Popular Short Stories for Inspiration
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.
Conclusion on How to Write a Short Story
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!