Are you ready to write your first short story? Make your finished piece more effective and appealing by following these writing tips for short stories.
A short story is a narrative work shorter than a novel and can typically be read in one sitting. While there’s no hard-and-fast rule about how long or short they need to be, these are not lengthy pieces. This can make writing them a little tricky. Short stories pack a powerful punch in just a few paragraphs.
A well-written short story can engage the reader from the first word and ensure they keep reading to the end. For many new writers, short stories are the best place to start learning how to write fiction without the pressure to create a lengthy work that could become a book.
These tips will serve you well if you’re dabbling in short story writing. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out our round-up of great short stories to read.
1. Start Close to the Story’s End
Short stories don’t have a lot of room for you to wax eloquent in your writing. For this reason, you need to start as close to the end of the story as possible. Your opening line should place the reader directly in the story, skipping over most pre-story information. Remember, you’re writing a short story, not a novel, so keep it to the point.
2. Use a Fast Pace
In a short story, you will have a pace that increases in speed as you get closer to the final conflict of the book. In a novel, you can do this slowly, but in a short story, you must do it quickly. The story must hit the ground quickly and keep the reader moving toward the climax and resolution without delay. Short sentences without overly-descriptive language will help you keep up this fast pace throughout the narrative. You might also be interested in our explainer how to use the snowflake method.
3. Write in Active Voice
The active voice is vital in most short stories. Unless you have a reason to hide the subject of a sentence, such as if that part hasn’t yet been revealed in work, you need to keep the writing active. The subject of each sentence will be the one doing the action of the sentence. For instance, the active voice would say:
- The girl wrote her paper quickly before the class.
In this example, the girl is the one doing the writing. In passive voice, you’d say:
- The paper was written by the girl before the class.
In this example, it’s still the girl doing the writing, but she’s not the subject of the sentence, making it passive. You might also be interested in our list of worldbuilding questions for storytellers.
4. Limit the Number of Characters
In a short story, you need three main characters: The protagonist and antagonist are at the heart of the conflict. You usually need one additional character to be either the relationship in the story or the person who throws a wrench in action. Sometimes you can have even fewer characters, particularly if the “antagonist” in the story is something abstract, such as nature or the trials of life. You won’t have room to develop more characters than this, so avoid the temptation to introduce too many to the story.
As you choose your characters, you’ll need to develop them in your mind. You’ll need to create a persona you can draw from when writing. In a short story, you can’t include all of the details in the persona, but having it in your mind will ensure your characters do not act out of their character as they weave their way through your story.
5. Generate a Conflict
A short story is short, but it still needs the main conflict. However, you only need one. Make sure there is some problem, revelation, or decision that your main character faces in your story. The conflict makes the reader continue reading until the story comes to a conclusion.
6. Utilize Sensory Words
Another thing that makes a short story appealing is using words that appeal to all five senses. Sensory words let the reader feel as if they are in the story. It helps them feel, taste, see and smell the setting in an almost tangible way. With sensory words, the reader creates a vivid mental picture of what is happening in the story. Here are some examples:
7. Add Dialogue to Keep the Story Moving
Dialogue takes a short story from being a narrative essay to becoming an engaging story. Good dialogue helps the characters have personality and depth, and it also breaks up the chunks of text to make the story easier for the reader to digest. As you create dialogue, you need it to sound genuine and correct. One way to do this is to read it out loud. Does it sound like the way someone would speak, or does it sound forced and fake? This will help you edit and revise the dialogue portions of your short story to work effectively with your writing.
8. Focus on that First Line
Don’t write your first line first, but do put a lot of effort into it when you are ready to write it. It is the only chance you have to grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read the book. However, you may find it easier to write after you have written the rest of the story and know the direction you’ll be taking.
In that first line, introduce some main character traits or the main conflict to your reader. Open your story to capture readers’ attention, and your entire work will be more effective. To hook the reader, the first line should be:
9. Know Your Point of View
Point of view is important in a short story. It needs to be consistent throughout the story. It also directs some of the action. If you write in the first person using “I” and “me” language, you are limited to the knowledge and observations of the narrator. If you write in the second person, using “you” language, you invite the reader to be part of the action. If you write in the third person using “he,” “she,” “they,” and “it” language, you can have an omniscient point of view if you wish.
10. Edit Mercilessly
Editing is where you can make sure your short story is effective. You must be ruthless in this step to eliminate all unnecessary information. If possible, see if you can combine two characters into one character or delete scenes that serve nothing more than to transition the reader from one part of the story to the next. If you notice repetition, get rid of it. Reduce the number of adverbs and adjectives you use. Every single word and sentence you add needs to have meaning and effectiveness.
Before you edit, give your story time to rest. This means setting aside time to work on other writing projects. Then return to it with fresh eyes. Don’t be afraid to ask someone else to take a look as well. The more eyes on your project, the more effective the result will be. You can also read the short story aloud to determine if areas need improvement. Edit at least twice to catch all of the redundancies and confusing elements you need to address to make your story effective
If you liked this article and want to put these ideas into practice, check out our round-up of storytelling exercises.