Simple Tips For Writing A Great Short Story

A well-written short story can pack a punch. In a short amount of time, a writer can create a relatable character, a unique setting, and an intriguing plot. Writers can practice all types of genres from dystopias to romance and more. But as anyone who’s attempted to write a short story without success can attest, crafting a great short story isn’t easy. There’s a reason that short stories are often taught as an after-thought, not a core part of a writer’s curriculum. And yet, a well-written short story can make a powerful impact on a reader. So how do you write a great short story?

Write a hook

Your audience will forgive a lot of flaws in a short story, as long as the story is interesting from the first line. Remember, one way they’ll be judging your story is based on how long you can sustain their interest. That is, aside from the riveting plot and glorious prose, you have to make them believe that your story is necessary, relevant to their lives, and entertaining. If your plot doesn’t have a hook from the very beginning, an episode that entices your reader, a set-up for the rest of the story, then your story is all but doomed to failure. Following the character’s thoughts, a place description, a hook maxim, or a conversation is an excellent way to start a story, no matter what plot might follow. If nothing screams ‘here’s why you should read on!’ then you are in trouble. And if you do begin with an enticing hook as described above, but your introduction isn’t 100% clean and tidy, then your reader will notice. And from there, they won’t be forgiving exactly where your short story falters.

Make sure that your hook doesn’t slow the pace significantly and involves the title. Readers will go through the introduction and first line in the matter of a second or two. Get them interested right away and you’re on good footing for the first paragraph. Your second sentence should introduce the main character as studies show readers continue to judge a character based on the second sentence. Make sure to build on your hook throughout the story to keep readers interested.

Shape arcs within a story

Just like a short story can’t pack as much weight as a novel can, its arc can’t either. And that just means that in order to make the narrative tension last as long as possible, and convey deep character and plot development, a short story writer must be especially purposeful in constructing the arc. To begin, look at your story and make a list of the things that will make it satisfying for a reader to reach the end. Are you setting up a mystery that the reader won’t figure out until the end? Are you showing a downward spiral that is true to its character without being overdone?

These items will be your skeleton of the short story, and understanding how to craft their placement and execution will be the biggest factor in your success. Make sure that you open the story with a lingering question that will keep the reader interested and thinking about the story after they set it down. Include periodic roadblocks throughout that give the tension occasional breaks. And finish the story in a way that builds to a crescendo during the last few pages — and a resolution suitable to the narrative and its characters.

Get the suspense going

Suspense plays a critical role in making a short story memorable — not enough, and you’ll bore your reader. Too much, and you’ll give them an emotional overload they might not be able to take. The balance matters, and should be exquisitely measured. Start your story with a hook to grab your reader’s attention and draw them right into the action. Choose a setting that helps you ratchet up the suspense. The more specific your details, the better. Choose your viewpoint character wisely. Is he reliable? Then you can more profoundly connect the reader to him. But if the character helping the reader might be lying to them… that’ll make them even more eager to turn the page!

Use pacing to increase the tension and keep the reader hooked until the end. Which plot elements can you slow down? Will it be better to answer one question, and delay another until later? Will it help to break a generally boring location into smaller, more interesting parts and carefully pace around them?

Punch up your climax

Rising tension is certainly key to a great short story’s appeal. By the end of the story, the reader should be at the edge of her seat, forced to reflect on how and why she got there. Do this by wrapping up to tight at the end — don’t hold back. When you look back at the story, make sure you didn’t introduce any feelings of complacency in your readers by dwelling too long on the toils of everyday life in your main character’s storyline. Try shooting for an ending that changes as much as possible, where the crux of your conflict is thrust into unlikely but believable action.

You should also do your best to avoid having to build tension over a long period of time as the story progresses. If your story has a long lead-in, make sure you pace yourself well, exploring themes, plot points, and character flaws as they’re encountered. If you find yourself hit with a bout of writer’s block, revisit your favorite short stories and see how they handled it. If you don’t have a go-to, you can explore a number of popular short story apps or visit user generated short story sites like Commaful or Wattpad. Try to figure out what they did right, and emulate it in your story to push yourself forward when it clicks.

Reduce the excess

There’s a reason that short stories are often taught as an after-thought, not a core part of a writer’s curriculum. Compared to the complex plotting and large-scale character development that often occurs in novels, writing a short story requires a much more streamlined approach. You have neither the time nor space to create layered exposition or immerse the reader in elaborate setting or language. That means that when writing a short story, you need to get right to the point. It may sound obvious to weed out unnecessary words and descriptions, but even a frequently-read writer has a tendency to fall into the trap of overwriting. Avoid this mistake by taking great care to edit out any words that don’t add to the plot — understand the difference between exposition — the kind used to explain your world — and detail, which fills in points of characterization. Once you’ve crafted clean sentences, polish them even further by looking for clumsy or redundant phrasing, which happens surprisingly often. As you get closer to the outline of your narrative, boost the drama by managing your tension and release carefully. Just because your short story is more stripped-down than a novel doesn’t mean it has to less action. Make your reader anticipate the next event with raised eyebrows, and deliver just when they’d given up hope.

 As you revise for conciseness, don’t forget to keep an eye out for words that create extra work for your reader. Overall, try to hold your writing to the standard of simple and direct, in which the action is easy to follow and read — when you work at a high level of abstraction, you risk losing your reader. Be even more cutting with your dialog tags — if you can get by with a simple ‘said’ or ‘asked,’ then steer clear of noise words like ‘muttered,’ ‘chuckled,’ or other embellishments. You will always have to think about readers’ needs first. Just focus on making it as obvious as possible, and work with simple tools.

Try various short story lengths

Play around with various story lengths for great practice and fun! Stories from as short as 100 words can be great fun to write and can serve as great exercises for your writing skills. Very short stories have gotten popular online and a reddit very short story even landed a Netflix deal! Longer short stories can also be self-published or submitted to competitions. Experiment and have fun!

Remember, a good short story will have a lot of content that an average novel can’t contain. It should excite the reader’s senses, so that they can become intimately familiar with a character’s hopes and dreams. It should be well-paced, so that the exciting parts are full of held breath, and the dull or boring parts can be skated over quickly without losing the reader. Most of all, a good short story should make the reader think in ways that they never thought to think before. And if you can do all those things, congratulations! Readers will be talking about your short story for a long time to come.

For more ideas and tips on how to improve your writing skills, consider reading one of these wonderful books on creative writing.

Hayley Zelda
Latest posts by Hayley Zelda (see all)