How to Write a Short Story: 8 Proven Steps (+ Bonus Tips)

by Sarah Cha


Ever thought about how to write a short story that leaves an indelible mark on your readers? 

The challenge isn’t just in condensing your tale but in making every word resonate. 

Drawing from successful examples and powerful techniques, this guide offers 8 proven steps tailored to your short story aspirations. 

While novels give you pages to meander, short stories demand precision. 

So, how do you craft a compelling tale in just a few pages?

Let’s unravel the secrets together.

The Essence of a Short Story

In the literary world, a short story is like a snapshot of a moment, a feeling, or an idea. Unlike a novel, which meanders through various plots and subplots, a short story hones in on a singular concept and drives it home efficiently.

The classic definition of a short story is a story that can be read in one sitting, usually a few dozen minutes to an hour. 

Most short stories fall between 2,000 and 20,000 words, and short story categories include:

  • Flash Fiction: Typically under 1,000 words. Focuses on a singular, impactful moment or idea.
  • Anecdote: Usually between 100 and 500 words. A brief recounting of a singular event or incident.
  • Vignette: Often between 300 and 1,000 words. Emphasizes mood, character, or setting over plot.
  • Micro Fiction: Under 100 words. Concentrates on tiny narratives.
  • Novelette: Between 7,500 and 20,000 words. Offers a more in-depth exploration than shorter forms.
  • Fable: Usually between 100 and 1,000 words. Often uses animals as characters to convey a moral lesson.
  • Parable: Can be as short as 100 words or as long as a few thousand. A simple narrative teaching a moral or spiritual lesson.
  • Fairy Tale: Varies, but often between 500 and 5,000 words. Features magical elements and imparts moral lessons.
  • Legend: Ranges from a few hundred to several thousand words. Focuses on traditional stories that have perceived historical truth.

Ultimately, whatever the topic or length of your short story, the key is to make sure that the narrative feels complete within its truncated form. 

What Makes an Effective Short Story?

little boys in bowler hats reading picture book

The beauty of a short story lies in its brevity, yet it’s this constraint that challenges writers to craft something impactful in limited space. 

Once you grasp the essential elements, you’ll find the confines of a short story to be its greatest asset.

So, what does it take to transform simple words into a compelling narrative?

  • Conciseness: The heart of a short story is its brevity. Avoid lengthy descriptions or unnecessary subplots. Instead, every word should serve a purpose. After writing your story, go back and see if removing a sentence changes the narrative. If it doesn’t, consider trimming it.
  • A Strong Opening: Hook your readers from the get-go. For instance, instead of starting with mundane weather details, dive right into the action or an intriguing dialogue.
  • A Focused Theme: A short story usually revolves around a single theme or idea. Determine what you want to convey and ensure everything in the story orbits around it. Remember, less is more when it comes to themes in shorter pieces.
  • Well-Defined Characters: You might not have the space for in-depth character development, but you can still make them memorable. Use succinct descriptions, distinctive dialogue, or relatable emotions. Think of how Edgar Allan Poe crafts distinct personalities in just a few lines.
  • Engaging Conflict: A compelling conflict drives the narrative forward. Whether it’s an internal or external struggle, the conflict should be evident and resolved by the end, offering readers a sense of closure.
  • An Evocative Setting: A detailed backdrop isn’t always necessary, but an evocative setting can amplify the mood. So choose a setting that complements your narrative.
  • A Striking Ending: Conclude with a punch. Whether it’s a twist, a realization, or just a quiet reflection, the ending should resonate with readers long after they’ve finished the story. Consider the haunting endings in Shirley Jackson’s works as inspiration.
  • Emotional Resonance: A great short story lingers in the heart and mind. If you make readers feel something — joy, sorrow, anger, or wonder, your story will be unforgettable.

Crafting an effective short story is an art. So keep these elements in mind, and you’ll be on your way to penning masterful tales that captivate and inspire.

Crafting Your Short Story

woman typing on laptop

All that said, let’s dive deep into the specific steps for writing your short story from scratch…

Step 1: Find Your Inspiration

Every story begins with a spark, and finding that elusive muse can come from a multitude of sources. 

Sometimes, the most gripping tales are rooted in personal experiences, those moments in our lives that evoked intense emotions. However, simply observing the world around can be a treasure trove of inspiration, with everyday events hiding potential storylines. 

And if ever you find yourself at a creative standstill, turning to literary prompts from writing websites or AI tools can offer that nudge, providing a basic idea to mold into something distinctively your own.

Step 2: Outline Before Diving In

Diving into the narrative without a clear direction can sometimes lead to meandering plots, which is why outlining is essential.

Outlining ensures that your story maintains a clear trajectory, helping you pinpoint events, twists, and climaxes to ensure a cohesive narrative. Although it’s beneficial to have a structure, remember that an outline isn’t rigid.

As your story unfolds, you may need to make changes — just ensure they benefit the narrative.

Plus, having an outline can save you significant revision time later, as it minimizes the likelihood of plot holes or inconsistencies.

Step 3: Build Your Characters

Characters drive your narrative. Like real individuals, they should be multidimensional, showcasing both strengths and vulnerabilities. 

However, when writing short stories, it’s essential to prioritize clarity over quantity. Too many characters can confuse the reader and dilute the plot. Focus on a few characters and deeply explore their personalities and histories.

In short stories, less is often more.

Step 4: Focus on Conflict and Pacing

Conflict isn’t just a narrative element; it keeps the reader hooked. 

Different types of conflicts, be it a gritty man vs. man showdown, a daunting man vs. nature struggle, or the internal tumult of man vs. self, lay the foundation for your story’s core essence. 

But a story isn’t just about conflict — it’s also about rhythm. Pace yourself; keep the reader on their toes with unexpected twists, but allow them moments of calm reflection. 

A well-paced narrative is like a well-choreographed dance, striking a balance between high-octane sequences and moments of poignant calm.

Step 5: Create Dialogue and Sensory Engagement

In the realm of storytelling, the worlds you weave should be as palpable as the one we inhabit. 

Engage your readers through intriguing dialogue and well-chosen sensory details

With dialogue, each uttered sentence should either inch the plot forward, peel back layers of mystery, or offer a deeper glimpse into a character’s soul. 

And engaging the reader’s senses by describing the whisper of wind through trees, the taste of ocean air, or the comforting feel of a worn shirt, will enrich your narrative and anchor the reader into your world, making them not just observers but participants.

Step 6: Concluding with a Bang

When you end a story, resolving the core conflict is essential, but it’s the way it’s done that defines how memorable your story will be. 

Will it be a resolution of hope, despair, or bittersweet compromise? The key to a satisfying story conclusion is to leave your reader with something — a lingering emotion, a provocative thought, or a haunting image. 

Atter all, think of the tales that left an indelible mark on you; it wasn’t just the plot but the emotion they stirred or the introspection they triggered that was unforgettable.

Revision & Polishing

woman chewing pencil in front of laptop

The true artistry in writing often comes not from the initial drafting, but the meticulous refinement that follows. Let’s delve into the nuances of refining your short story masterpiece.

Step 7: Why Cutting Down is Crucial

In the world of short stories, every word carries weight. So, just as a sculptor chisels away excess stone to reveal the masterpiece within, a writer must be prepared to proofread their work. 

Sometimes, the most beautifully penned sections are the ones that need cutting for the greater good of the story. 

Remember that streamlined storytelling not only enhances clarity but also ensures that the tale’s momentum remains relentless, holding the reader in its grip from the first word to the last.

Step 8: Feedback and Iteration

A writer’s journey seldom ends with the first draft; in many ways, it’s just the beginning.

When you’re finished with your short story, it’s time to get feedback and work on editing the draft. 

Offering your creation to fresh eyes can be illuminating. Whether it’s a close-knit writers’ group or a candid friend, external perspectives can spotlight hidden gems or areas of obscurity in your narrative. 

Of course, it’s only human to hold our creations close to our hearts, but embracing critiques can be the difference between a good story and a truly memorable one.

So don’t be afraid to seek input from wise and trusted advisors in order to improve your story!

Remember, the journey from a story’s inception to its final polished version is a transformative one, filled with discovery, growth, and the continual pursuit of excellence.

You’ve Finished Your Short Story, Now What? 10 Bonus Tips to Consider

man surrounded by question marks

Congratulations on completing your short story! But, as any seasoned writer will tell you, writing the story is only the first step.

What comes next is equally, if not more, crucial to your journey as a storyteller…

  • Share Your Story Online: Dive into the digital age by submitting your work to online literary magazines or sharing on platforms like Wattpad and Medium. You never know who your story may resonate with!
  • Anthologize Your Stories: Consider grouping multiple stories together by theme. Over time, you could create your own anthology for traditional or self-publishing success.
  • Monetize Your Craft: Platforms like Patreon or Kickstarter allow writers to gain support directly from their readers. By offering exclusive stories or behind-the-scenes glimpses into your writing process, you can foster a community of patrons who believe in your work.
  • Joining a Writing Group: Surrounding yourself with fellow writers can offer a wellspring of opportunities. These groups often host readings, collaborate on publications, and can be a source of lifelong friendships.
  • Networking at Literary Events: Attend book fairs, writer workshops, and literary festivals. They offer a stage for your work and introduce you to influencers in the literary world.
  • Teaching or Workshops: Consider taking or hosting classes or workshops for aspiring writers. They can be a highly rewarding part of your career.
  • Exploring Multimedia Possibilities: Consider adapting your tale into a podcast, an animated short, or stage play. Different mediums offer diverse audiences you can introduce your stories to.
  • Keep Writing! Like any craft, the key to refining your skill is practice. Let the momentum from your completed story propel you into your next. Every finished story enhances your storytelling powers.

Remember, each writer’s journey is unique. Celebrate the milestones, learn from the setbacks, and most importantly, believe in the power of your voice and the stories you have to tell.

How to Write a Short Story That Shines

baby reading picture book on the floor

Knowing how to write a short story is a blend of technique, art, and heart. 

While practice and persistence are your trusty companions on this journey, never forget the timeless allure of a masterfully penned tale. 

Every word you write contributes to your unique narrative legacy.

So, armed with these insights, embrace your storyteller spirit and craft a tale that can resonate for generations to come!

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Sarah Cha

Sarah Cha is an avid writer, reader, and lifelong learner who loves making magic behind-the-scenes at Smart Blogger. When she's not wrangling words onto a screen or page, you can find her strumming a guitar, tickling a canvas, or playing fetch with her favorite four-footed friend!


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Written by Sarah Cha

Sarah Cha is an avid writer, reader, and lifelong learner who loves making magic behind-the-scenes at Smart Blogger. When she's not wrangling words onto a screen or page, you can find her strumming a guitar, tickling a canvas, or playing fetch with her favorite four-footed friend!

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