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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Write a Short Story in 7 Easy Steps


Whether you're just trying your hand at writing or you've been writing since you learned how to hold a pencil, short stories are an excellent medium. CliffsNotes defines a short story as a fictional work of prose that is shorter in length than a novel. Edgar Allan Poe, in his essay 'The Philosophy of Composition,' said that a short story should be read in one sitting, anywhere from a half hour to two hours. In contemporary fiction, a short story can range from 1,000 to 20,000 words. Because of the shorter length, a short story usually focuses on one plot, one main character (with a few additional minor characters), and one central theme, whereas a novel can tackle multiple plots and themes, with a variety of prominent characters. Short stories also lend themselves more to experimentation — that is, using uncommon prose styles or literary devices to tell the story. Such uncommon styles or devices might get tedious, and downright annoying, in a novel, but they may work well in a short story.

Stories shorter than 1000 words are generally classified as flash fiction or short short stories. Stories that are longer than 20,000 words but don't reach full novel length are referred to as novellas.

As a freelance editor, I have edited and revised countless short stories that range from unbearable to delightful. I am going to share some tips with you so you can make yours one of the short stories that stand out as engaging, compelling, and possibly even delightful.

Short stories lend themselves more to experimentation, including using uncommon prose styles or literary devices to tell the story
Short stories lend themselves more to experimentation—that is, using uncommon prose styles or literary devices to tell the story. Photo by Ana Tavares on Unsplash.

Step 1. Identify the focus of your short story

When writing a short story, you do not need plot outlines or extensive character profiles like you might when writing a full-length novel. However, you do need to have a clear understanding of your story's meaning. If your short story is character-focused, you need to understand at least one aspect of your character and how you will express that aspect to evoke emotion in your reader. If your story focuses on an event, consider the most effective way to translate that event into an experience that resonates with readers. As you start working on your story, keep in mind an important tidbit from Literary Devices: A short story presents one aspect of the life of a character. It could be an incident, an event, a description of a feeling, or even a simple act. A short story can also impact a reader and even inspire them.

Step 2. Start writing

This step may sound obvious, but sometimes the hardest part of writing is actually sitting down and writing. Like most writers, you probably go through phases of working on stories in your head, where you play with word choices and try to work out storylines in your mind without actually writing any words on paper. Perhaps you actually make it into your computer chair, but before you start typing, you decide that you should find the perfect font for your story, and two hours later you can list the best fonts available in Microsoft Word, but you don't have any actual words written on your document.

Writer Anne Lamott has said that debilitating perfectionism prevents many of us from writing, so she advises writers to give themselves permission to write a terrible rough draft. In her bestselling book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Life and Writing, Lamott explains, Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I've learned to do when I sit down to work on a [terrible] first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.

Embrace Lamott's advice and just start writing. Get your story down on paper or into your computer. Do not worry about making every sentence perfect at this stage; you will address errors during the editing stage.

Step 3. Write a compelling beginning

Now that you have written the main parts of your story, go back and examine the opening lines. Have you written a compelling hook that makes readers desperate to find out more? If not, spend some time trying to find the most enticing way to introduce readers to your story. The beginning of your story needs to intrigue readers so they don't want to stop reading. Think back to stories that grabbed your attention from the first line, and consider what literary devices those writers used.

If you want to look at examples or literary strategies, Thoughtful Learning offers five great strategies (Begin with action or dialogue, Ask a question, Describe the setting, Begin with background information, and Have the main character introduce himself or herself) for writing an enticing opening line. Play around and experiment with a few different openings to see which one feels most natural to you.

Step 4. Create a powerful ending

For most writers, it is challenging to write a perfect ending. Life rarely (if ever) has perfect endings, and maybe that's why readers feel so passionate about reading stories with satisfying endings. Conversely, readers feel swindled if they invest time in reading a short story only to discover an ending that just fizzles out.

In a short but invaluable video in which author Kurt Vonnegut provides eight tips on how to write a great short story, Vonnegut advised writers to start as close to the end as possible. Connecting the ending of your short story back to the beginning is an almost surefire way to craft an ending that resonates with readers.

If you're still stuck and unsure how to end your story, The Writers Edit discusses six specific types of endings (Resolved Ending, Unresolved Ending, Implied Ending, Twist In The Tail, Tie-Back, and Crystal Ball) that will help you find a way to end your story.

Step 5. Read your story out loud

You may think that you can skip this step, but this is a practice that can benefit all writers. As a freelance editor, I find errors every day that writers could have caught if they had taken the time to read their work out loud. You may feel foolish, but you can do it in the privacy of your office, bedroom, or even the bathroom, so no one has to know that you're reading aloud to yourself. Reading your story aloud gives you a different perspective so you can notice mistakes and discern if dialogue is forced or unnatural.

In a writing tips feature for Go Into the Story, Writer Diana Athill recommended, Read it aloud to yourself because that the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentence are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear). Even if you think you can create the rhythms silently in your mind, try reading it out loud and see what happens.

Prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear
Prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear. Photo by Sylvie Tittel on Unsplash.

Step 6. Edit and revise

Editing and revising are essential steps to quality writing. You probably caught some mistakes or eliminated awkward transitions when you read your story aloud in the previous step, but now you need to read through it and look for places to revise, shift scenes, or delete them altogether.

In a 1984 lecture at Bennington College, novelist and short story writer Bernard Malamud mused, I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times—once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say. Somewhere I put it this way: first drafts are for learning what one's fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing. Not all writers find Malamud's exquisite pleasure within revision, but it is an essential part of becoming a better writer.

In a November 1973 article for Writer's Digest, Stephen King wrote, When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done. Whether you are a Stephen King fan or not, his prolific success in writing is undeniable, and it must be at least in part because he's willing to kill his darlings and edit until only the meatiest parts remain.

Step 7. Ask for feedback

This step can be humbling because many writers do not want to ask friends or family members to proofread their work. Perhaps it is a matter of pride because you think you're a better writer than your sister, so you don't need her help or opinions, or maybe you are afraid your friends or family members won't like what you've written. Push these worries aside and find some people you trust that you know will give you honest feedback. Letting other people read and comment on your work helps you polish it into the best possible form.

After you've solicited feedback from friends or family members, consider hiring an editor to polish your story and identify any inconsistencies or problem areas within the story.

Now that you have the resources and a seven-step plan, make a date with yourself and get busy writing!

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