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5 Keys to Writing a Great Short Story

Updated on June 28, 2016

1. Pick a Relatable Character or Plot

You first need to decide what you want to drive your story. Will it be plot driven or character driven? Whichever you choose needs to be relatable.

I find that characters are easier to make relatable than plots. After all, we haven’t all had the same experiences, but most of us have experienced the same emotions. Whether you choose character or plot, you should start your story with that.

The element that drives your story must engage the reader, so starting with your character or plot can be really helpful in getting their attention from the start.

Before you begin writing, take some time to outline your character or plot. Be specific and leave nothing to the imagination. What’s your character’s middle name and favorite color? Would they rather have coffee or tea? In what time period is your plot set in? If it’s about a car crash, how many dents did the car have before and after the accident? What did the sky look like when it happened?

It’s not important to include everything from your outlines in your story [in fact, as you’ll see below, you shouldn’t include everything]. You just need a full picture of what you are writing about and you may put something in your outline that you’d like to explore in your story.

2. Be Mindful of Your Scope

Short stories are supposed to be short. There is a subgenre under short stories called flash fiction or microfiction. These stories are usually under 500 words and can be as short as a 100 words or so. However, short stories are typically under 7,000 words.

This means you need to choose your scope wisely. You don’t have time to follow a character through 800 days of their lives. Keep your scope appropriate to the size of your piece. Try focusing on one event in a character’s life. You can still show progression of a character with a small scope. Make use of flashbacks or character’s recounting a story from their past to catch readers up to the moment you want to focus on.

3. Be Choosy with Your Words

Since you don’t have 20,000 words to tell your story, you need to be choosy with your words. This is where editing comes into play. Sometimes you need to write out your story and then go back and think about the necessity of each word.

Does this word contribute to telling the main idea of your story? Is it descriptive? Is it too much description on a minor point? You get to direct the attention of the reader by focusing on certain things and giving very little information about others.

Look at how wording affects your focus in these two sentences.

Johnny looked down at his red poorly tied shoes before he lifted his head to talk to Lisa.

Johnny looked down as he approached Lisa to discuss the tensions in their relationship.

Neither of these sentences are bad and both can very helpful in a story. If Johnny’s red shoes are repeated throughout the story as a reference to his low self-esteem then that can be a great choice. If the relationship tension is what you want to focus on while only hinting at Johnny low esteem through his decision to not look Lisa in the eye, then the second sentence would help to show that.

You can also use word changes to elevate the language of your story. See the difference in the sentences below.

He makes me so mad.

He infuriates me.

Notice the change tone and also how you went from 5 words to 3.

4. Don’t Try to Tell the Whole Story

Hanging endings can do more for your story than you think. It will leave readers wanting more. It will exercise their imaginations as they try to finish it for themselves. A story that has a definite ending can sometimes be forgetful, but with an ambiguous ending people will be thinking about your stories for days, even months. Remember all the articles about what really happened at the end of inception? Whether people enjoyed it or not, it created a conversation and was thought-provoking.

Again, you’re writing a short story. There will be things you’ll have to leave out. This doesn’t have to make your story feel empty instead it can allow the readers to cater the characters and plot to themselves. You may know that your character’s favorite color is blue, but readers may take their love for gold jewelry and say that character’s favorite color must be gold.

So be intentional about what you include and what you leave out to allow the readers to engage with the plot and characters.

5. Read It Out Loud

Reading your story out loud can help you to catch typos and grammatical errors you have missed. It will also help you to assess whether or not your dialogue is realistic and natural.

Reading aloud can also help with the overall flow of the story. You want your story to have a natural flow and progression. So pay attention to the phrases you stumble over and revise them until they roll off of the tongue.

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