Tuesday, February 23, 2021

5 Tips on Writing a Short Story

By Rachelle Shaw

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: Short stories give us opportunities to explore new ideas without committing to months and month of work. Rachelle Shaw shares answers a few short story questions, and shares five tips on how to write them.

Whether you’re new to writing or already have several books under your belt, short stories are a fabulous go-to, especially for the time-crunched writer. They allow you to get your words in while providing additional insight into your writing style, the minds of your characters, and underlying themes. They can be tricky to get right—requiring practice and polishing—but with patience and the right tools, shorts can become a cornerstone to upping your writing game.

What Is a Short Story?

Much like longer works of fiction, short stories hold a clear structure and focus on character development within a specific universe. They contain emotions and conflicts that build before reaching a resolution. However, the biggest difference is length: Shorts are generally confined to 1k to 6k words (though those numbers aren’t set in stone) and aim to capture a single impactful event, a snapshot in time, whereas novels explore the ups and downs of an entire journey. Creating a compelling narrative while staying within the constraints of the word limit is undoubtedly the most challenging part of writing short stories, even for seasoned writers.

(Here’s more on How Saleable Are Short Stories? The Benefits of Writing Shorter)

Where Do I Start?

If you have limited experience writing short works of fiction, consider exploring the backstory of a secondary character. Especially if you’re familiar with their goals, what motivates them, and where their story arc leads, you’ll have a head start on the emotions driving their decisions, which is the key to unlocking any great narrative. Just be careful to limit your details. Focus on one aspect of their past that helped define/shape that character’s life. If a single event stands out, that right there is the spark for a short story!

Here are five tips on writing short stories:

1. Start small. 

The plot doesn’t need to be anything elaborate. In fact, it can be something as simple as a gift the main character received, a time where they felt alone, a moment in which they grew as a person—anything that changes them or has a lasting impact because of the situation.

2. Limit the cast. 

Although it is possible to successfully write a short story that has several main characters, it’s difficult. Again, this goes back to not making the plot too complicated. Whereas you’d typically have tens of thousands of words (if not a hundred thousand or more) to wrap things up in a novel, you have the tiniest fraction of that to resolve the conflicts of a short.

3. Jump right into the action and keep it that way. 

Grabbing readers’ attention is crucial no matter the length of fiction, but in short stories, it’s doubly so. If readers only have 15 to 20 minutes to invest in a story, they don’t want to have their time wasted with a slow start or unnecessary details that bog the piece down. In other words, you have 15 minutes to make them care, 15 minutes to build tension, and 15 minutes to resolve everything. That’s a tall order, but that’s what makes short works of fiction so powerful.

4. Nail down the emotion. 

One thing that dominates short stories over longer works of fiction, by far, is the emotion conveyed in them. Because of their limitations in complexity, emotion is often the driving factor of short stories. That means powerful experiences and in-depth character development are magnified.

5. Write a strong ending. 

Every good story eventually ends, no matter how short or how long. Because shorts usually focus on one main event, a natural place to cut them off is right before the transition to the next location or circumstance, similar to a scene break. However, if your story focuses more on internal conflict than external, try looking for the moment of change in the main character. With either, keep in mind that, while it’s not crucial to have every source of conflict in a short story resolved, your ending should at least give a clear direction for what’s to come.

Why Are They Beneficial?

One great reason to write short stories is they can serve as teasers for newsletters and novels. If you want to give readers a taste of your work without committing them to a 200-page read, consider adapting a scene that didn’t quite make the cut when it came to editing your novel and turning it into a compelling short. Unused scenes are great opportunities for expanding on ideas in your universe without having to come up with an entirely new plot or characters. Plus, it gives your readers more material in a fraction of the time.

Another reason to consider writing shorts is getting your foot in the door as an author. Let’s face it, breaking into traditional publishing can be tough. Even if you have a stellar book, finding the right home for it at the right time is a lengthy process. There’s a fair amount of luck involved. 

So what can you do in the meantime? 

Well, if you have a dozen short stories up your sleeve, you can shop those around to magazines and anthologies, self-publish them, or turn them into a collection. It’s a stellar way to get your name out there and build your reader base at the same time. If you’re lucky, you could even catch the eye of a publisher in the process.

(Here’s more on 4 Reasons to Write Short Stories)

Short stories might seem intimidating at first, but they’re absolutely worth the work. In fact, the skills you acquire while practicing them not only make them easier to write over time but they also translate to longer words of fiction as well, making the benefits of shorts endless. So, if you haven’t yet considered penning one, give it a shot! You—and your readers—will be glad you did.

Rachelle Shaw is avid reader with an incurable need to research everything she comes across, Rachelle is an author of paranormal, horror, and writing craft books as well as the occasional women’s fiction piece. Since scribbling down her first story at the age of eight, her love for language and books has blossomed into a full-time career. She currently works as an independent editor who is passionate about writing in layers and helping authors find their voice. When she’s not busy chasing her kids and two rather persnickety cats, you can catch her blogging, tweeting, or plotting her next series. Her current publications include the young adult paranormal series The Porcelain Souls and the women’s fiction shorts Sisters and Michael’s Cry.


  1. What steps would you take to go from “a gift the main character received” or “a time where they felt alone” that you cited in your number 1 bullet to a story with conflict that wasn’t a sentimental and foolish non-story that no one cared about?

    1. That's a good question! First, I would say that sometimes a sentimental approach, especially in genres such as women's fiction and romance, can be powerful and work well. Those stories often rely on a lot of internal conflict, so the focus is tied to their emotions and change of character. But if you're looking for something more external in nature, I would say think about a secret that could be revealed from receiving a gift or one that forces the main character to choose a different direction to achieve their goals. What comes to mind for me would be blackmail or a gift of great monetary value. Both could be life-changing. If the stakes for that character are raised in one or more areas of their life, it leads to further conflict and tension.

  2. Great article, Rachelle. Keeps me encouraged to keep writing short stories. Thanks.