First step to write short story is to understand five basic elements of it. Ten Tips, by our Chief Editor, for How to Write Short Stories are vivid explanation of these elements with easily understandable examples.
Before we jump to “How to Write Short Stories”, let us first have common understanding of what is short story and look closely what does compose a short story.
What is Short Story?
A short story is work of “fiction or imagination” that is usually written in “easily understandable grammatical structure” with “natural flow of speech”. Short story is meant to be read at single sitting and therefore it should be as direct and brief as possible. Because of directness and brevity, a typical short story has very little action and hardly any character development. However it must provide a snapshot of life – typically a decisive moment that may lead result lethal to the character in one or other form.
Confused? Not finding is easy? Relax… It is all about having a simple plot with preferably very few (one, two or maximum three) characters that directly and briefly touches the momentous part of life (by whatever manner but with “significant” effect). The ultimate finesse is making reader to say “Oh My God”, “Oh no”, “Poor xyz”, “Wow”, “Superb”, “YES… This I would have ALSO done”, “NO… This I would have NEVER done”…
Typically short story has five key elements – Character (fewer is better), Setting (brief but poetic and vivid), Plot (as simple and interesting as possible), Conflict (intense but one), and Theme (relating to majority of readers). These elements would become clearer subsequently in 10 Tips (2 per element) for How to Write Short Stories.
Let us check out these key elements in bit details along with examples and 10 tips – How to Write Short Stories – by our Chief Editor.
Characters in Short Stories
A character is someone or something that takes part in actions depicted in the short story. It could be a living person, a dead person, a ghost, an imaginary character, a robot, a dog, a toy… unlimited list. A character that is most related (mostly directly) to all actions depicted in the story is called protagonist or lead role. Other characters that closely participate in main action of the story for bit longer and/or more intense are main characters. Typically main characters are used to create conflict and resolve it. Few characters that may stay very short in story called supporting or side characters. These characters are primarily used for developing main characters, creating animated setting or heightening conflict (We shall discuss about conflict and setting in little while).
Let’s analysed two popular short stories one with many and other with fewer characters:
Example 1: Read this black humor CrasSSSSSHHHHH… and figure out characters.
Protagonist: Sales Director Asia Pacific
Other Main Characters: Wife, Boss
Supporting or Side Characters: Sales heads, Logistic head from B-school, child, driver, CEO…
Example 2: Check out this sweet love story Love Note after Twelve Years.
There are only two characters: first Wife – the protagonist, and second Husband the narrator – other main character. (Why not other way, that is, Husband as protagonist and wife as other main character?)
Tip #1: Fewer Characters – More than TWO is Crowd
The golden rule for selecting characters in short story is “Fewer are better”. A short story would more effectively convey its meaning if it has very few characters – one protagonist, one other main character and no supporting or side characters would be ideal.
Which story in the above examples did you found easier to understand? Is your answer “Both”? Let’s demystify it in next tips for How to Write Short Stories. But once again remember the golden rule “Fewer characters are better”.
Tip #2: Develop Characters for Theme – Do not fall in Love
Animating character with perfect adjectives and examples are a must for connecting readers with the character; however, typically while writing short stories, do not fall in love with your character and overdo the characterization. (But in case you fall in love… Congratulations!!! Now it is time for you to write novel or drama). You need to muster all but only required characteristics and decorate them poetically – use appropriate adjectives, interesting dialogues, colourful descriptions, or even short-lived (in story) side characters. But again, remember, you are writing short story and therefore you need to be choosy in painting your characters – must use needed paints (to match your theme), and must do it fast (as short as possible).
Example 3: Let’s examine how writer developed “wife” character in our example short story Love Note after Twelve Years. Try…
What is theme? Selfless love finally gets recognition. Does story talk how beautiful she is? Does writer depict her to be good mom? How good does she cook? Is she in job or house maker? No information at all. Answers to these questions have nothing to do with our theme. But does she love her hubby? Is her love selfless? Yes. Whole story is about portraying these characteristics of her.
Example 4: But, on lighter note, what if theme of story itself is characteristics? Read this hilarious short story Howrah Rajdhani.
Setting in Short Stories
Time frame and place constitute setting of short stories. The setting is often decorated with descriptions of scenes such as super market, bedroom, crowded metro train, or drizzling evening… again unlimited list. These descriptions are very important to make reader immerse in the plot.
Example 5: Let’s re-examine all the three examples again to find out setting in these short stories. Note the duration or time frame of settings.
CrasSSSSSHHHHH…: One very busy day in office (at end, during climax setting changes to 3 months and then to 12 months in future)
Love Note after Twelve Years: A trip of couple of days, check-in in hotel and then at airport while returning
Howrah Rajdhani: Three-four hours from leaving house in auto-rickshaw to catching a train on railway platform
Tip #3: Single and Short Time Frame – One at a Time Please
Unit of time frame may vary from hours to days to weeks to years. The golden rule in selecting time frame for short stories is “keep it shorter” and “have it single”. Short story that has setting of few hours may typically be clearer and more effective than with setting of few months or years.
But what if your plot needs longer time frame? And what if single time frame is not sufficient?
Be very careful. It may turn fatal attempt for short story writing. Re-look your plot because both the requirements need dynamic setting that is NOT recommended for short stories. But if you are still convinced for longer time frame then remember two points: firstly, advance events in your story faster, and secondly, place important events almost at equal distance. If you need multiple time frames for your plot, for example many scenes of fifteen minutes of online chatting, structure it in chronological or reverse chronological order. Avoid crisscross transitions among time frames (even expert writer would avoid it). Further you must use signposts (for example subheadings with dates) or any other creative method to provide clear idea of the time frames and of the transitions among them to readers.
Example 6: Read this very touchy love story One in a million – REWIND that uses multiple timeframes of same units in reverse chronological order.
Example 7: Read this psychological thriller Do Not Kill My Love that uses multiple time frames of different units with crisscross transitions.
Tip #4: Vivid Surroundings – Appeal to Five Senses of Readers
As a writer of short stories you must vividly describe surroundings. Here vivid description should not be misunderstood by predictable events and actions. You may choose to save few descriptions for climax but whatever you decide to disclose must be absolutely clear and very importantly be appealing to five senses of your readers. Be poetic, use suitable adjectives, script dialogues, or even deploy side characters… do whatever you need to ensure that the reader lives your story while reading.
Example 8: Read this heart touching philosophical short story Cycle of Life. Did you find yourself in “hospital setup” while reading it? Now read below two paragraphs:  has no description of setting where as  taken from the story has description of surroundings.
 A nurse guided us to a room where my best friend, my grandpa, was lying on a bed. My father was sitting sadly beside grandpa’s bed.
 A nurse guided us to a room. After a long week gap I saw my grandpa — my best friend. Grandpa was sleeping peacefully on hospital bed. There were many small TV and radio alike boxes with tiny lights. Few boxes were making “beep-beep” sound in rhythm. I knew that the sound was fading heart beats of my best friend — my grandpa. Then I saw my father, with red and swollen eyes, sitting closure to grandpa’s bed.
It is clear that while reading , one may feel more of “hospital setup” than while reading .
Plot of Short Stories
Plot is flesh and muscles of short stories. It comprises events and characters’ actions. More creatively you describe and logically connect the events and actions, stronger the plot would be; and stronger the plot you create, better interest would it generate among readers. A plot has start, body and end that are linked sequentially by events and character actions.
Tip #5: Catchy First Line – Love at First Sight
You must so choose a start that your reader gets hooked to the story. Now you may have question – how to do this? Well, answer is not so straight forward. You must know your readers well: what they like, what they speak, what surprises them, what arouses their interest… but finally it is your creativity. Nonetheless you must create confusion or question in readers’ mind by first line of your story. Your reader must try to get answer from best of her ability and experience but she should finally end up digging into subsequent lines of your stories to quench her temporarily aroused inquisitiveness.
Example 9: Let’s try evaluating first line of few short stories you read in previous example:
 Do Not Kill My Love: “Kill him now. NOW or NEVER!!! … the only reparation of your ruined life” with these continuously resonating words in her mind, innocent looking Maria picked up chopper from the kitchen platform and started creeping towards bedroom where Alex, the wild horse, was sleeping naked after having a violently exhaustive sex with her, just few minutes back.
 One in a million – REWIND: From FEB 24 2010 17:46 – the REST OF MY LIFE: There I was, lost forever, trapped and without a choice, holding my head in one hand and the ring on the other.
 Cycle of Life: That day, old man was leaving us, forever!!!
Do not worry if you feel you still miss the punch in your first line. It comes with practice. Keep reading short stories… at least first line. (If you can leave a story after reading its first line only, then I would not recommend such first line for your story).
Tip #6: Choose Suitable Point of View – Who Narrates it Better
You need a tailor who will sew events and actions together in a meaningful and fashionable way in your story. Typically it should be one of the characters you choose – The Narrator of your story. Remember the narrator puts point of view from her or his or its perspective. Whose perspective would be better? It is not always perspective of protagonist that would make the plot better.
Example 10: Remember the question in Example 2 why not is husband protagonist in Love Note after Twelve Years? Husband is narrator of this story. The selfless love of wife would be presented more strongly if the person she loves presents it.
One more consideration while selecting suitable point of view is that the narrator can either support theme of story, oppose it, or present it neutrally. Any of these three styles is okay but I would recommend to choose a narrator that in general either directly would oppose the theme or act more to do so. If you prove or present the theme against the narrator’s actions or belief or dialogue, the plot would have very interesting and heightened climax suddenly surprising your reader by letting the narrator itself embracing the big change or accepting the defeat, in a way.
Depending upon what role narrator is playing in story, the plot would be written in first (I or We), second (You) or third (he, she, they…) person perspective.
Conflicts in Short Stories
Hmmm… Do you like conflict? YES or NO? If no, start liking it because conflict gives life to short stories. It is struggle between two sides of the theme of the story. Conflict can be between characters, thoughts, emotions, beliefs or anything that exists in this world in contrast. You typically find protagonist at one side of the conflict and on the other side it could be other important characters, society, or even supernatural powers. Sometime protagonist would be conflicting with itself such as contradictory thoughts or, even worse, alter ego as you read in Do Not Kill My Love.
Tip #7: One Conflict Only – One Enemy is Enough
Have you ever tried resolving a conflict either professionally or personally? If yes, you know it takes time and unfortunately you do not have time in short stories. Choose only one conflict around the central idea of the theme. What does bother your readers? Do you see something that is still not resolved? Can you create confusion by revealing something surprising? I am sure you would get many ideas around any theme by answering these questions but choose one that you can personally relate (something you were touched recently or intensely). Why? More you relate to conflict, better you can animate the settings and develop characters.
Tip #8: Intense but Real Conflict
As we discussed, conflict gives life to short story, you must heightened the tension in your plot. Overcoming easy obstructions would not make your lead characters memorable. But, do not overdo it. Very rarely a superman would be liked in a short story. Even if you present a superhero on one side of conflict, you must show few “weakness” to make your story real.
So how to do it? Take a stand in beginning, make the stand dicey by posing sequence of actions against this stand, and just when both sides are “equally” fighting for superiority bring a “surprising” element that clearly makes your stand a winner or loser. That’s it.
Example 11: Let’s re-look into these short stories we read in previous examples
 CrasSSSSSHHHHH…: Tough sales target, double digit growth not possible, lousy team, but at last same team without our hero celebrates the needed growth
 Love Note after Twelve Years: Selfless love, wife always takes care of husband’s wish but all of sudden it seems she forgets a very important file, but she kept it there… how selfish husband is to blame her? Wait… he changed himself by started believing that gift does matter to express love
Theme of Short Stories
Central idea or main belief presented by a short story is called theme. It is skeleton or frame of your short story that is decorated by plot, setting, conflict and characters. You may find myriad themes around you such as triumph of true love, honesty is best policy, God is great, tomorrow never comes, determination finally brings success, true love does not exist…
Tip #9: Theme in Focus – Nothing More, Nothing Less
Every word in short story must be written for the theme therefore it is very important that theme is clear to you when you write story. Other elements of short stories – characters, settings, plot and conflicts – must tightly but comprehensively be tied to the theme. Be very careful not to be tempted to digress even slightly from the theme while writing short stories. You must heartedly decorate the setting and develop the characters but within narrow subject line as specified by the theme. Sometime, it may so happen that you may not be very sure of the theme while starting your story. No worry, in such case you determine the theme after completing the story and then critically chisel away extra flab that is not really needed for the theme of your short story.
Tip #10: Break Rules if Needed – Unleash Your Creativity
This is most important tip for becoming a successful short story writer – write for yourself. Unleash your creativity without impounding it by any rule. If you feel to break any rule, do it. However reading these “Ten Tips for How to Write Short Stories” periodically, would help to hone short story writing skill instinctively. You should also use these “Ten Tips for How to Write Short Stories” as checklist to review your short story before submit it for any competition or publishing.
Summary How to Write Short Stories
Five Key Elements of a Short Story
10 Tips: How to Write Short Stories
- Tip #1: Fewer Characters
- Tip #2: Develop Characters for Theme
- Tip #3: Single and Short Time Frame
- Tip #4: Vivid Surroundings
- Tip #5: Catchy First Line
- Tip #6: Choose Suitable Point of View
- Tip #7: One Conflict Only
- Tip #8: Intense but Real Conflict
- Tip #9: Theme in Focus
- Tip #10: Break Rules if Needed
Hope you enjoyed this article. We love to read your feedback and comments. Furthermore, if you like us to review your short stories, our editors would be glad to do so for free. Wish you all the best for your short story writing and publishing.
References for How to Write Short Stories
- Short Stories: 10 Tips for Creative Writers — Jerz’s Literacy Weblog
- How to Write a Short Story: 14 steps – wikiHow
- How to Write Short Stories from Inside Your Character’s Head
- Short Story Overview — How to Write a Short Story