Writing a great short story is hard. I’ve a great appreciation for a well-crafted short story. It is truly a realm where every single word counts. No filler. No fat. Just a lean, mean, ass-kicking machine.
So, how do you write a great story?
1. Read as Many Great Short Stories as You Can Find
Read hundreds of them—then read a hundred more (you can probably stop around several thousand).
As with most things in life, you learn best by watching and observing how others do it. Watch, evaluate, analyze the experts. Note what you like and dislike. How they tackled the theme and plot. How they developed their characters. Then try to emulate their work. Soon you’ll learn enough about how to write a short story that you can start developing your own style.
2. Emotionally Draw the Reader in
The most effective short stories evoke deep emotions in the reader.
What do you want your reader to feel during and after the story?
Consider the themes of:
- Heroic Sacrifice
- Killer robots
3. Narrow Your Scope
There’s a drastic difference between a 500+ page, 150,000-word novel and a 10-page, 2000-word short story. One can be a sprawling epic and cover decades with an extensive cast of characters. The other must tell a story as captivating—with about 2% of the number of words.
The best short stories usually encompass only a short slice of the main character’s life—often only one scene or incident that must show your theme and character at their best (or worst).
4. Start Strong
You got to come running out of the bullpen on this one. Imagine yourself naked and painted red in the middle of the Running of the Bulls. Get right to the heart of the story as fast as you can or the reader’s boredom will trample you.
5. Tight Story Structure
As you might imagine, this is as crucial in a short story as it is in a novel. Consider the basic three-act structure within a single scene or two.
Don’t waste time setting up the story. Get on with it. Tell your reader just enough to make them care about your main character, then get to the external conflict, the inciting incident, the ups and downs—whatever it is that drives your story and why the reader should care.
6. Minimal Backstory, Don’t Elaborate
No time here for flashbacks or the character’s entire backstory. Show through the narrative just what the reader needs for this story.
Don’t spend a paragraph describing the weather or the character’s apartment/house. Show them interact with the scenery and add sensory details. Keep it tight and minimal.
7. When in Doubt, Leave it Out
Every sentence must count. If even one word seems extraneous, it has to go. Chop chop!
8. Ensure a Satisfying Ending
This is a must. Bring down the curtain with a satisfying thud and then hold for applause. It can’t seem forced or contrived or feel as if the story has ended too soon.
9. Cut Like A Butcher During Rush Hour
When you’ve finished your story, the real work has just begun. It’s chop chop time! Pour over the manuscript looking for ways to engage your reader’s senses and emotions.
All writing is rewriting. And remember, tightening nearly always adds power. Omit everything unnecessary. And if in doubt, cut it out!
- Combine characters where possible. Keep the character count as low as possible.
- Avoid long blocks of description. The reader’s imagination is your best tool.
- Eliminate transitionary scenes or low-tension scenes. The reader doesn’t care how they got there or how long they chose to pick their clothes. Get to the meat of the story as fast as possible.
- Bare minimum exposition. You need to tighten your showing vs telling.
Don’t be afraid to include these tips in your longer works as well. Chopping and lobbing off limbs of your novel might hurt, but it will make it that bit better in the end.
What other tips do you have? Did I miss anything? If so, let me know in the comments section below!