Short Stories

So this is a request I’ve been getting from a couple people: how do you write short stories?  The truthful answer, of course, is that I don’t actually know.

There are no real guidelines for writing short stories, but I think I can at least display what I know of them, and hopefully it will help some of the people wondering.  I can’t give any enormous insights, and I definitely can’t say anything that no one has ever said before me, but I hope you find this post useful.

First, the definition: a short story is a story that has anywhere from 1 to 7,000 words.  There are subsets of short stories, of course, such as flash fiction or micro fiction, but I’ll just encompass them all here as best I can.  My general target for short stories is 2,000 words.

As stories, short stories will include all of the fundamental parts of a story: plot, character, and setting.  However, all will have to be done in a shorter fashion.  For instance, you can’t describe every part of your amazing fantasy world in the space of a short story.  If you did, there wouldn’t be room for characters or plot.  You also can’t get very deep into character.  Neither can you get very complex with your plot.  Everything in writing is a sort of trade-off, but with short stories you’ve really got to know what you want to do.

The general guideline for this is to take one plot element (one plotline, such as revenge or coming of age), one main character (two at the most), and one interesting setting element.  In a novel, you might take five or six plot lines, five major characters, and explore ten or more setting elements.  In a short story, you just don’t have time.  Restrict yourself to something small.  (If you find that your story is going on too long, cut another element.  If you don’t want to or can’t cut another element, write it as a novel.)

Another tip for keeping short stories short, however, is to cut down on showing.  Yes, show don’t tell is a huge writer advice thing– but sometimes you just have to tell instead of showing.  You don’t have time in a 2k story to write a 200 word description of the light filtering through the treetops.  That’s 10% of your story you just wasted.  Skip the showing and tell– but do it artfully, so that it doesn’t take away from your style.  (In other words, don’t make it into bad writing.  Cut what you can.)

Start as close to the climax of the story as possible– backstory is able to be told (although don’t do too much of it).  Make sure every part of the story is exciting.

But that’s enough technical stuff.  The really fun part of writing a short story is experimenting.

I, for instance, write almost constantly in third person.  If I want to experiment with a new character voice that requires first person, I don’t want to just start a new novel– if I didn’t like the voice, I would be stuck with it for another fifty thousand words.  No, I do a short story.

For instance, I wrote An Unfortunate Existence because I wanted to write about a rechargeable battery.  No novel would support that kind of storytelling.  Another example is Too Late (my personal favorite).  It has no exposition, only dialogue.  It was difficult to write, keeping track of who’s talking as I flipped back and forth from researching time zones to writing the story, but I enjoyed doing it.  Also, it’s about two godlike beings– I didn’t want to do any worldbuilding and actually describe these beings, so I left out all the exposition.

None of this would work in longform storytelling.  A thick book of complete dialogue?  No one would sit through that.  (I once tried to read a story told through poetry, marked as a thriller for some reason, and couldn’t get through it.  Two or three stanzas, I could stand, but an entire book was too much.)  A short story is the perfect playground for new techniques.  Try out only dialogue, or only exposition.  Make a character likable in 15 seconds and then kill him, just for fun.  Write a horror story, or tell about a crime through the villain’s eyes.  It doesn’t matter what you do– just try it out for a couple thousand words, then wrap it up and decide whether you want to do a novel like that.

Short fiction is a playground.  There are no hard and fast rules.  Condensing a story into two thousand words is great practice for controlling the length of a longform story, but there are some stories that need to be told through seventy thousand words.  It’s your choice, but if you go for short fiction, remember to have fun.

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127 thoughts on “Short Stories

      1. That’s good, actually. There’s an interesting Robert Frost quote about that– “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Personally, I don’t tear up during my own death scenes– reading them nor writing them. Other peoples’, occasionally. Not the ones I write. I have to work on that.

      2. Someone I respect once said that the key to brilliant fiction is creating characters you care about – because then the reader will also care – and doing horrible things to them to keep the pages turning. It doesn’t have to be truly ghastly – as this person put it, “the head on her Halloween costume could get stuck, or, at the other end of the scale, her best friend could die.”

    1. Killing characters is so hard. Even disabling them. I was considering disabling one of my main characters. Couldn’t even entertain the thought. And yeah, I find it impossible to cry while writing even the sad scenes. I actually LIKE writing angst. Don’t ask.

      1. Oh, I see we have another HP 5 on our hands…

        I prefer killing to disabling, all the time. I mean, life is great, but disabling a character makes for stupid scenes where they walk around on broken legs to save someone from a terrible fate. That is both nasty and annoyingly Deus Ex Machina-like.

      2. It gets a little hard to believe when a character breaks a leg, climbs a cliff, and then fights a duel with a master swordsman to win the final battle. (That actually happened– The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen.) That was just sickening.

      3. Well, that’s just silly.

        Still, makes me want to write about a disabled character. I wonder how I’d do that in fantasy.
        *Laughs like a mad scientist and runs into laboratory*.

      4. Robyn, as someone who has broken a bone once or twice–it’s not. I mean, it’s excruciating. Still, I HAVE heard of mountain climbers who’ve broken their ankles and still had the grit to bandage themselves up the best they could and climb up/down the mountain. So I guess it all depends on willpower?

        I don’t know how you’d have a sword fight if you can’t stand, though. That’s rather implausible.

      5. No, it really isn’t possible. I’ve broken both my legs at one point or another, and moving is agonizing. I’m sure the pain could be overcome, but that’s a lot of pain to overcome.

        If I remember correctly, the character just waved the sword around, then fell down, and his opponent surrendered because he was all of a sudden a friend. I still don’t like that ending.

      6. Of course. It’s very unsatisfying when the bad guy decides to suddenly become good without any warning whatsoever. This book you’re talking about sounds like a badly made children’s movie or something. (For some reason, I just got reminded of Spy Kids.)

        …I need to get off the internet and finish my history assignment.

      7. You probably thought of Spy Kids because that happens in every single movie. I like the Spy Kids movies (I have no idea why since they are very silly and not so well made).

      8. No, it was foreshadowed… sort of. Not very well, but the disgusting climbing of a cliff with a broken leg served to take away from the awkwardness of the friendship reveal.

      9. I’ve never broken a bone, but I’ve rolled my ankle more than once. I honestly probably would not have tried to climb any mountains even with just a rolled ankle. It was painful enough just to get to the living room couch…

      10. I hate it when villains become good–foreshadowing or not. I didn’t sit through a big book just so that the bad guy says, “That’s all, folks! I’m giving up my evil ways.”

        The ONLY sort of book I’d tolerate something like that is in…books like The Help. (Though, Hilly never became good, she was awful all throughout). Books that focus more on human nature and character rather than fantasy and plot.

        As for this book you’re talking about, I feel like burning it.

  1. Yay! Thank you!

    I actually started a short story this morning after listening to Writing Excuses about the Hollywood Formula. I’m hoping to finish it tonight or tomorrow but hopefully the former.

      1. Thanks! (I’ll be in the chat room in the next five or ten minutes, by the way.)
        So, I have a quick question. Is it possible for the antagonist and dynamic character to be the same person? Basically, I’m trying out the Hollywood Formula with this short story.

        Good luck with your short stories!

      2. I wouldn’t say it’s possible, no… but as they proved with their discussion of the Dark Knight, it’s possible to have a villain as the dynamic character, and the antagonist as a good guy.

      3. Only if that is your intention. Which, considering your claim of success, I assume it is.

  2. Thanks for this post. I am rather a novice at short-story writing, but this year I have a school-subject which just involves researching and writing an 8000 word short-story. Of course, by your definition, this falls outside the short-story range — and indeed, it’s a slightly awkward length: it’s hard to know whether to approach more as a short-story or as a novel. (obviously, since as I told you I’m a novice at short-story writing, deciding to approach it as a short-story rather than a novel doesn’t progress me very far).

    A couple of things I’ve noticed from the short-stories I’ve read in recent weeks (I’d never read much of the genre previously) is that they are very tightly focussed and they tend to have a surprising and/or powerful climax.

    I think I may go through and read a few of your short-stories. I remember reading “Too Late”, when you first posted it, and that was indeed brilliant.

    1. The format is actually the same– whether short story or novella or novel. I’d say treat this as a small novel and you’d be fine, but keep in mind the things I talked about here.

      Short stories are very focused and not very broad, you’re right. The best ones have powerful climaxes, although some fall short.

      Thank you.

  3. Very informative! I tend to lean toward novella and novel writing myself because I’ve found that if I try to take the short story route, I end up with an iceberg story (there’s a small piece that the reader sees, but there’s a whole lot more that went into it under the surface.) do you have any way to combat this? I just feel like the readers are missing something.

    1. Yes, I do know how to combat that, actually! Turn the story into something longer.

      Honestly, if you’ve got worldbuilder’s disease and all you want to do is extend the story until you touch every facet of the story, you’d better draw it out longer. If it’s all interesting, it’ll work. If it isn’t, you need to condense it again.

      However, that probably the answer you were looking for. I would suggest picking smaller concepts, making sure the story doesn’t stray into the more complex regions– it’s going to be hard, but it’ll work better if you can restrict yourself. Keeping down the character count really helps with this. Keep things simple.

      Hope this helps!

    1. Hey, wow. Maybe I actually do like short stories. I’m about half of the way through one for school and–gasp–it’s actually rather fun.

      My assignment was to take a proverb and turn it into a story. It was a bit hard at the start, but now…I know where I’m going and it’s being fun getting there. And it’s in third person, no less! And we have the antagonist’s POV! All this atypical stuff!

      1. Ah, yes. I finished it yesterday. I’m pleased with it, pretty much. It’s right about 2,000 words.

        Now I get to write another one. At least one a week for the next three weeks. Yay! (I think)

  4. I love short-story writing. I usually do it to play with my characters outside of a novel setting. 😉 Or to tell a short, plotless story that is just pure fun, no pain at all. Or to plumb the depths of one man’s decision to stand up to a tyrannical government. (Yeah… that one might become a novella. I’ll keep you posted.) Anyway, it was something I never knew would work for me until I tried it, and now it’s one of my favorite methods. 🙂

  5. Apparently, short stories became very popular during the industrial revolution, because nobody ‘had the time’ to read a full novel.

    To be completely honest with you, I think writing short stories is far more difficult than writing a novel. Sure, a short story requires a smaller commitment, but in terms of technique, it’s not as easy as producing a full book.

    My favourite short story writer is O. Henry. Though admittedly, I’m not very well versed with short stories in general, I think O. Henry understands the genre better than most. I love his story titled ‘The Duplicity of Hargraves’ most of all.

    Also, I may be wrong but I think your definition of a short story is incorrect. I think the maximum word limit is 20,000 words, while the minimum is 1000. The 7500 word limit is the definition given by the nonprofit Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

    I loved the post, though. We’re all so focused on writing novels that we often forget about the short story, which I think is an art in itself.

    1. I agree with you on the opinion that short stories are harder than novels. But that may simply be because I’ve not had much practice with them, and because I tend to get long-winded…except when I’m not. (It’s complicated.)

      1. Yeah, my experience with short stories is deplorable at best and I don’t plan to amend that any time soon. xD

    2. Interesting views. However, I do believe there ought to be a distinction between novellas and short stories, although technically they’re one and the same. Novellas are definitely in the 8k-20k range. But you’re right, all of these things are flexible and there’s really no rule for what you call a story of a certain wordcount.

      1. Can’t argue with you there. The word count creates a distinction and that is sometimes important. You can’t call Orwell’s Animal Farm a short story. It very clearly isn’t. It even has chapters!

        Oh, and because I feel like bragging: I FINISHED MY NOVEL! 177K AND I FINISHED IT ON TIME! DIDN’T MISS MY DEADLINE!

        That is all. *Straighens tie and coughs self-consciously*. Pardon the outburst.

  6. Thank you! ^_^ Though now I feel a bit lost. Spent so much time and effort over it for months on end and now it’s over. Feels weird. I’m going to leave the editing for March, after my exams end. What am I going to do for the next two months?!

      1. Ah, no problem. It’s difficult to carry on the long ones.

        I agree. I’m between projects right now, and my daily writing consists of writing down the first page of a random fantasy– I just make up a magic system and character on the spot and practice introducing them smoothly. I’ll have to start another novel soon, though, or at least a novella.

      2. I won’t risk starting a new book just yet. This one is the first part of a trilogy and dare I get distracted and lose interest in writing its sequels. Nope. If at all, I’ll be focusing on coming up with concepts/ideas/plots for Book 2.

        What do you mean you ‘have’ to start another novel soon? Out of curiosity, do you see it as a compulsion or something? Wouldn’t you just wait until inspiration strikes?

      3. The novella he writes for this blog, Phil Phorce. The next installment is supposed to start in February.

      4. I do have a deadline for the novella, but the novel… no, it isn’t a compulsion, but I want to write daily, and the best way to do that is to have a WIP.

      5. Oh, Phil Phorce! I thought you were talking about something else.

        And I see, Liam. That’s pretty cool.

  7. I love writing short stories, particularly the experimenting part of it. I once wrote a story told in second-person. It was horrible, but it was worth a try.

    Was “Too Late” about the end of the world in 2012? Because I liked that one. It was cleverer than a really clever person.

  8. Hey, Liam, may I ask a favour?
    Could you please put up a post on writing a synopsis of your novel? (Especially if your novel is so large and complicated that you find yourself forgetting to add details and/or wailing in despair because you suddenly doubt your story/novel/whole entire life?)

    No, seriously though, I’d really, really appreciate a post on this. This synopsis is proving to be a Herculean task that I have no idea how to accomplish.

    (Way into the future:
    Interviewer: So, DK, tell us. What was the greatest difficulty you had while writing your novel?

    DK: The novel was easy. Its 3 page synopsis, however…)

    Of course, please don’t feel obliged. I’m halfway through this stupid synopsis anyway.
    Nevertheless, thank you for considering this. 🙂

    1. I have never written a three page synopsis, but I’m sure there are people who have– I can’t give you advice. I’d suggest you look elsewhere. Sorry. (But I can tell you that you don’t have to put in everything– only what is necessary, and there’s less of that than you think.)

  9. I posted a comment. A nice, wholesome comment. And then my wifi gave out on me just as I hit send, so here I am again.

    It’s okay if you can’t help. Thanks anyway 🙂
    I’m halfway through so I’ll just soldier on and finish this stupid synopsis. There are online sources, and they’re helpful, but only to an extent. You see, my book’s plot spans over three generations and I’ve created it so that every little detail leads up to a massive twist. There’s just so much data. Compressing it is painful–both mentally and emotionally. (I feel like I’m destroying a freshly baked cake by dumb-ing it down to suit a publisher’s needs. C’est la vie.) But yes, I suppose I can do with a little less explanation. That’s what the novel’s for, right? Anyway, it would make my life easier, certainly.

    Oh, and Sherlock Season 3, episode 2.
    I must now go lament over how my ship has sunk.
    I swear the writers get a kick out of it.

    1. Season 3?! You’ve seen it?! No spoilers, please, DK. Us poor Americans have to wait until the 19th for the first episode of Season 3.

      1. *laughs*
        Koi baat nahi. It’s okay. 😛
        And yes, I just commented in Hindi. I’m bored. Sitting in an endless seminar attended by scholars and the topics of the seminar are too scholarly and I don’t understand anything.
        I’m glad for internet and the smartphone.

      2. Cowrie shells. Possibly the only presentation I actually understood (it didn’t have PhD level language) was this presentation about how cowrie shells were used as money and even ballast. West Bengal, India, used to import cowrie shells from the Maldives like some sort of investment or something. The shells were heavy enough to be used as ballast or “mal”, which is apparently how the Maldives could have been named.

        Also, I ran into the author of a history book I was supposed to review for an assignment. Struck gold, I swear. So I guess the seminar wasn’t a complete loss xD
        And I now have a certificate for attending a PhD level seminar. Yay.

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