How To Write a Short Story: Step-by-Step

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Writing a novel and a short story are two different things – period. You can be great at writing a novel but still find crafting a short story difficult. Be it flash fiction or a good-length short story, it isn’t easier to write a short story.

However, if you’re a newbie to the publishing world, they’ll tell you it’s best to start with short stories. Not because you can’t yet write full-length novels, it’s just that no publisher would risk investing in your book right away. To them, you’re a nobody. And with short stories, you show them that you write. Moreover, a short story is a great practice for writing.

And who knows – if you can make movements with your short story, you might even want to stick with them. In fact, if your stories add great value, you can consider getting your own book or short story collection!

With that, let’s get to why we’re here – how to write a short story.

How To Write a Short Story

A short story, unlike a novella or a novel, aims to deliver a message. A novel or novella goes on where it may or may not have a firm end conclusion, but a short story makes an impression on the reader. It brings a topic to discuss to the table where its message can be further introspected.

Here’s are the differences between a novella and a short story.

So start with the message.

1. Find the Message of Your Story

It doesn’t matter if your story is a 1000 words or 5000 words. If you can make a change in your reader’s mind (probably for their entire lives), then you’ve hit the bull’s eye. So what do we really need in a story to deliver? Simple – a message, a strong message.

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However, your message doesn’t have to be engraved. On the contrary to short stories with moral lines, this sugar-coated message creates a room for discussion, not to mention, an insightful one. You can finish off with a vague ending while leaving enough crumbs for the reader to grasp that message.

These crumbs are what make up most of the story. Take your characters as far as you wish from the main plot, as long as you know how to bring it back to the point. Make it unexpected if you like, readers love those twists once it makes sense to them.

If not a firm message, then be sure the plot leaves a smile on the reader’s face. It can be a simple cliche, for example – ‘The drunkard threw his bottle away as he walked his only daughter to school for the first time. Helping her had changed him.

2. Catch the Reader’s Eye

You have an amazing message that you want to let the world know.  Great! But a message only functions when it delivers properly to the other end. What’s the point of a story if the reader never makes it through? That brings about getting the reader’s attention.

Begin with a line that will keep your reader curious. One way to do it is by highlighting a chunk of your climax at the start.

For example, if your story is of a sinking ship, it can begin with ‘With one last breath, he glimpsed at the remains of the bow as it drowned, dragged by rest of the ship.’

If you can catch a reader at the beginning of your story, you’ve done half the part already. Next comes consistency.

Be it a 2 minutes read or 20 minutes read, a short story should essentially be read in one sitting. Keep your key characters engaged and the readers on their feet till the finish – something they wouldn’t put down. We’ll discuss further on this soon.

You may also like: How Long Should a Short Story Be?

3. Add a Plot Twist to Your Story

This is an option. If you’re writing non-fiction, adding a plot twist might not be possible. But let’s get real, these aren’t articles, short stories are fiction. Especially if you’re writing a thriller and mystery where you keep your reader engaged the whole time, plot twists play a major role.

Read more: How To Write a Great Plot Twist

Give it a shot and turn your story around a little – something your reader doesn’t expect. It wouldn’t be fun if you kept on with a predictable storyline now, would it? And everyone loves when things get interesting. Get your lead character in a deep mess suddenly. Maybe make an important character disappear.

There are a thousand ways to do it. Here are some plot twist ideas you can use.

4. Outline your First Draft

Again, this isn’t compulsory. If you’re into organizing everything (the plotter) before you pen down, then go for outlining your short story. Read all about developing a story outline here

I, on the other hand, am not keen on planning first, I like to see where the words will take the story to. That’s fine as well.

So if you’re pantser, get down to writing. You have your message ready as well as your introduction. There isn’t much to think of here. Put all of it out on the paper (or your computer). Remember, this is just your first draft. We haven’t talked about the ending (or the proper end at least) or the editing part.

This is just your first draft, so make it quick – the editing process is longer than this.

5. Make a Great Ending

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I consider the ending of a short story as the most important part of writing. Whether you have a strong message to convey people or not, if you can hit the readers with what’ve you got with a breathtaking end, then it still can be a great short story.

Even if you have a mediocre storyline, craft the last few sentences with a notch higher. These lines can make the story outstanding.

If you’re outlining first, keep the ending in mind as you structure the plot – this is before you get down to writing. Don’t worry if you’re still unsure of your ending, there’s always room to improvise later on. Sometimes, making a vague end can also be an option to consider.

If you’re stuck with it, here are some ways to end a story that might help.

6. Get Down to Editing

The moment we’ve been waiting for – editing. Well, most of us also dread it.

You might consider hiring an editor. But let’s face it, editors can be expensive. And if you’re starting out a neophyte in the writing world where spending on editing is not on your budget, it’s best you edit for yourself.

There is a lot when it comes to this process, but if there’s one thing to remember – never edit while writing your story. Apart from slowing your pace, editing can distract you from the plot. So it’s best to keep this work after you finish your first draft. Check out this other post of mine on how to edit a short story to read the rest about it.

Consider this a bonus tip: For the simple spelling errors and grammatical mistakes, you can use online proofreaders like Grammarly. You need not buy the premium version for this, the free version is sufficient for this.

7. Rewrite Your Story

I’ve written this on editing a short story but I shall include it here anyway.

If you’ve followed all the steps, then you should have all the elements intact, including parts you want to change and the ending. So rewrite it. If you feel the rewritten manuscript could use more editing, then consider it as your second draft. You can repeat the editing process again.

This is completely normal, some writers go for editing their stories 4 to 5 times (possibly more) before getting it published.

If you’re looking forward to learning the craft of short story writing, why not consider a course on Udemy?  Here’s a great one I found: Short Story Writing For Beginners

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This should do when it comes to writing a short story. Speaking of stories in general, these are works of art. It doesn’t have to be a certain way. All this hustle of writing with specific formats exists when you consider publishing.

I like to consider it an art form that knows no limits. For instance, short stories and novels typically sell better than novellas, given its in between foggy lengths. Which is why it may even sound new to many people – novella. But then we have heard of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, haven’t we? If not the book, at least the movie. Well, that’s a novella, a very successful one indeed.

If you’re beginning with a short story for the first time, remember that writing is a very very long journey. By any chance should your first story succeed, it’ll be nothing short of a miracle.

Publishing a short story as we know it, requires investment, marketing, and so on. That’s where all these rules play their roles. But don’t be afraid to take some curves. Be creative. You’ve nothing to lose. See where it takes your story :)

Note: This post contains affiliate link(s) at no additional cost of the products to you.

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Manas Patil

Hi there! I'm a 22-year-old dude all the way from India, I love traveling and building itineraries! Sign up and get your FREE COPY of my travel checklist to get the best of your next vacation!

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