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Writing the Short Story

Updated on July 8, 2016
Write Short Stories
Write Short Stories | Source

Creative Writing Prompts Work

Writing creatively in the short story form requires grabbing the reader by their short hairs as quickly as possible. The creative writer must begin the short story as close to the action as can be reasonably reached. The story must begin very close to the story’s conclusion. Short stories aim to conserve characters and scenes and usually hold focus on only one conflict. Short stories are always driven toward a sudden and unexpected revelation.

Getting ideas takes writing practice and you can get that practice by exercising your writing skills. Creative writing prompts can provide the short story writer with that much needed practice and before you begin instilling these new skills learned here, I suggest practicing with writing prompts. You can find them all over the Internet and should choose to exercise your writer muscles daily.

I. How To Start: Navigational Tips

There you are, willing and ready to write the next story to hit the market. You have it all inside your head but with no know-how to get it onto paper. Here are some short story tips that will help to get your wheels in gear.

  • What does your main character want out of all this?
  • At the beginning, what significant actions (that have moral implications) has your character taken to achieve his or her goals?
  • Are there any current unexpected results (related to the character’s previous actions) that might heighten the emotional energy of your story?
  • Is there anything within the setting, or things that can be said by your character, or in the tone or mood that can aid in the story’s telling?
  • Is there any moral implication within the choices made by your character to arrive at the climax of the story? What is the choice made to resolve the story’s final conflict?

Your story can be as simple as your real life story. Maybe your high school volleyball team just won a huge victory when they had been on a never before seen losing streak. Maybe you walked further the other day than you had ever walked before and maybe that walk left you feeling as if you might die. Whatever you write, the story must be significant enough to have a reason for being told. Make that reason shine through in every story element.

Writing a story is not a play by play. Writing a story is saying something more with your story tools than just what happened. Writing stories has a science but it comes together into an art.

Every writer needs strategies that work long-term. Here are some that have worked for other writers over the span of their careers.

  • Writer’s Journal. Your mind is an egg and the journal is the hen. Keeping a journal breeds introspection and introspection births ideas.
  • Write A Lot. Having ideas does no writer any good without having the experience to put it on paper clearly and artfully.
  • Listen. Everyone talks differently and everyone has a story to tell if you pay heed to lend an ear.
  • Observe Details and Write Them Down. Having ideas and a story does no laymen any good. I mean, the majority of the world’s population never sold a story. The reason is, they just have no experience making mundane things vivid enough to keep pages turning.
  • READ!

II. Make a Snappy Introduction

Remembering that you are writing the short story and that short stories begin near their end, write a snappy opening line. We live in a fast world and so all writing should be fast to the draw.

  • The Unusual.

‘John did not feel anything near what one might expect to feel while biting his teeth down for the first time on human flesh.’

* This is a very morbid example that might make a very good reason for a reader to read on. The unusual makes a great device to snag a reader’s need-to-know.

  • The Unexpected.

‘John had not expected when he woke up this morning that this would be his last day on Earth.’

* This can be a very misleading opening that is the epitome of the unexpected.

  • An Action.

‘As the fire takes his home, he cries because he could not, no matter how hard he had tried, he cries because he could not save them.’

* This action can be misleading and will be something to keep the reader reading on.

  • A Conflict.

She grabs his wrist as he pulls back to strike and the look her eyes screams NEVER AGAIN.’

  • Opening in the center of conflict is emotionally capturing and will encourage the reader to read on to see how the conflict resolves.

Keep that up for the entire length of the first paragraph while remembering that the initial paragraph should also introduce a short story’s central conflict through the character and their inner conflict while debating their next course of action. The introduction offers an intriguing contrast between the past and the present and offers a choice of directions toward the future. Story is always a matter of possible directions and your main character comes into a short story more developed in their momentum toward a final choice.

On Creative Writing - Stephen King

III. Your Characters Are Everything

In order to write story characters, the writer must be more familiar with the character’s past and attributes than the writing might actually present to the reader. Before beginning your story, here is a list of things that you should know the details about.

Things you might or might not share about your character:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Job
  • Ethnicity
  • Appearance
  • Residence
  • Pets
  • Religion
  • Hobbies
  • Relationship Status
  • Children or Not?
  • Personality and Temperament
  • Favorite Color
  • Friends
  • Favorite Meals
  • Drugs or Alcohol?
  • Fears?
  • Bad Points
  • One Thing Hated
  • Secrets?
  • Vivid Memories
  • Illnesses?
  • Ticks?

  • Sleep Patterns

Knowing all of this is useful to the writer but will not be required knowledge for the reader. The most important things about your story characters fall within four general areas.

Four Need-To-Know Areas:

Thoughts. Getting right inside your character’s mind shows how they think. Inside the mind gives the reader a chance to know fears, memories and hopes and dreams.

Appearance. The reader gets a mental picture of the character you are writing about. A three-day growth of hair on the character’s face says something different than a clean-shaven face.

Speech. How does your character speak? A stutter reflects something deeper than someone who speaks crisp and at a raised volume.

Action. Don’t just list a whole lot of adjectives, show exactly who this character is by giving your action meaning to define the kind of person the character is.

Short Story Point of View
Short Story Point of View | Source

IV. Decide on a Point of View

Narration of your story is told from a certain perspective. As a writer, you must decide who will tell your story and just how much information that perspective as. Your narrator can be attached to the action occurring within the story subjectively or be outside the action reporting it all objectively.

  • First Person. The storyteller is an “I”. The narrator is directly involved in the action of the story as the protagonist or a secondary character telling the entire story about the main character. This is the simplest point of view for new writers.
  • Second Person. This point of view is told to the reader as a “you” story and makes the reader a participant in the events unfolding.
  • Third Person. This point of view is the “he”, “she” or “it” method of story telling. This narrator can be limited in knowledge or omniscient in their knowledge.
    • Limited. Relies on one character’s knowledge. Without the character’ presence, the reader cannot know anything.
    • Omniscient. Room to explore the story from a god-like knowledge about every detail including the minds of characters and their secret motivations. Characters are transparent to the reader.

V. Dialogue Should Mean A Lot

Dialogue is what characters say to one another (or can be internal thoughts spoken within the mind) within your story.

Each change in speaker, the writer must grant a new paragraph in order to keep reader confusion levels as low as possible.

Dialogue Labels:

Dialogue labels are probably one of the most misused literary devices in story writing. The phrase “show don’t tell” explains everything that a new writer needs to comprehend about dialogue devices and story writing in general.

“Run!” John said fearfully.

This example is just plain funny to seasoned writers. The overuse of adjectives in dialogue labels is very common to new writers who grew up reading such things commonly from their grammar school literature books. Use of such adjectives in adult literature is simply telling rather than showing.

How can a storywriter show John’s fear rather than simply state he said fearfully?

Inference to certain emotional states can be conveyed to the reader by inferring common way someone might say something in fear.

“Run!” John screamed.

Usually ‘ly’ words have non-ly words that can replace them and overuse of these adjectives is always a bad thing.

Context tells most of what you need the reader to know. Beware of overusing adjective in dialogue and in all writing. Once the fear has been set up, everything that comes after within the scene, the reader already knows is done with fear or because of fear.

Dialogue labels should be used sparingly. Read over your dialogue and change it accordingly. A reader does not need to know every time a character speaks how the words came out. Once the tone is set, the reader will automatically intuit from the dialogue itself how the dialogue is being spoken.

Writing Good Dialogue

VI. Let the Reader Know Where They Are

Setting is made up of four general areas where the plot is taking up residence.

Time. When is this happening? Time is past, future, and present and also morning, noon or night. It is also more precise but rarely would a storywriter need to tell the reader it is 4:27 a.m. on a Tuesday.

Location. Are you inside or outside or are you in a house or an apartment. Are you in outer space or on planet Krypton? Location matters.

Context. Is the glass half full or is it half empty? Setting context is a device use to set mood and descriptively written in order to build a frame that the reader will live within over the course of the story’s life. A 1800’s Victorian Mansion can be described in many different ways, but a horror story would require that certain things about it be pointed out. Context is the frame for the story you are writing.

Atmosphere. Atmosphere is the mood derived from the context by the reader. The writer sets the frame and the atmosphere is the feeling left by the choices that the writer made in description. Again, a love story’s atmosphere is quite different than the atmosphere of a horror story.

VII. Plot is Key

Plot is how the short story writer sets up the situation at hand. Plot is every twist and every turn that navigates the reader toward a climax. Plot is what is happening, the action, the storyline itself. Plot always lands upon a resolution or final answer to every question posed within the story.

Have a thorough understand of the story elements (the writer’s tools) that character actions develop and the result of those actions will give you the tools to plot out your next short story.

  • The Hook. The gripping hook that grabs the reader an pulls them in to keep them turning pages.
  • Conflict. The thing that the character is up against. A conflict can be internal or external.
  • Complication. The thing that is keeping the character from achieving their goal.
  • Transition. The writing that changes from scene to scene or place to place or time to time.
  • Flashback. Things that came before that are important to the character’s here and now.
  • Climax. The rising action reaches the highest point here.
  • Falling Action. The time after the climax when the character ha faced the worse of the conflict and things are returning to normal (or not).
  • Resolution. The main problem is resolved.

Plot is just a matter of brainstorming ideas from the story’s central theme. You know what you are trying to say an so write it down and look over the possible reactions your characters might have to the problems at hand.

Writing Short Story Conflict
Writing Short Story Conflict | Source

VIII. What’s the Problem?

Conflict I the tension that gives your story a beginning. This tension comes from the opposition that a protagonist is forced to face whether that conflict is from internal or external forces. By retaining some equality in opposition within the conflicts, your tension is balance enough to keep a reader moving forward within your story.

There are several types of conflict as this list suggests:

  • Mystery. A conflict with only enough of an explanation to leave the reader teased. The writer never gives everything away.
  • Empowerment. Goo and evil both have a lot of options to come out on top.
  • Progression. A continual heightening of the obstacles a character faces. Things just keep getting harder and harder.
  • Causality. The characters are held more accountable for their actions than real people ever are. Characters pay for their mistakes and reap huge rewards for their noble deeds.
  • Surprise. A very complex situation that prevents the reader from being able to guess the outcome.
  • Empathy. Makes the reader identify with the characters and situations that the reader can relate to from their own lives.
  • Insight. A revelation about the nature of human beings.
  • Universality. A meaningful struggle that all readers feel the same about even if the struggle’s setting is unique to the story.
  • High Stakes. The outcome matters more than anything because the characters the reader has come to love may lose something very important.

Conflict is everything to a story. Conflict is what drives Bella toward a Werewolf or a Vampire. Without conflict there is no reason for your characters to be written about.

IX. Write Uphill

The climax is the turning point of the short story. It is the fastest pace and most exciting part of writing. It is the dramatic high point.

Successful writers say that the crisis is always presented as a scene and that it is the moment that the reader has been reading for all along. The climax is the reason why the reader has worked their mental leg muscles up hill with your character. Achieving the climax made all the twist and turns worth it and so your climax must be worthwhile and not flat and disappointing.

X. Make It All Work Out

The resolution to all conflict must leave the reader feeling satisfied. The resolution is the solution to your character’s problems. In the short story, a complete solution to every problem is very difficult to achieve for a writer and it is only necessary to show to the reader that the characters that have come to care about are changing in some way due to the story’s conflict and this resolution.

Writing the Short Story Conclusion

There you have it. The short story has been said to be much tougher to accomplish for a writer than longer forms of fiction. The short story requires just as much detail but is squashed down into few words. The writer must make use of every weapon in the writer’s arsenal to accomplish a complete story that is also satisfying and enjoyable to the reader. Doing this is few words require great attention to every detail.

Story writing is fun and rewarding and anyone taking up the hobby takes up a huge challenge. Maybe it is not for you but everyone has a few great stories to tell and it never hurts to try.

Good luck and I hope to be reading you very soon!


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    • epamustopa profile image

      Epa Mustopa 

      22 months ago from Indonesia

      Complete explanation. Thank you, I will try to practice it.

    • Deborah Minter profile image

      Deborah Minter 

      2 years ago from U.S, California

      Great article! Perfect things to remember, when writing a short story.

    • Evamatu k profile image

      Evamatu k 

      3 years ago

      Great infor

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I enjoyed this article very much. Socializing is also important so one learns how people phrase things.

      How often do we come across a short story wherein we think, "This character would not speak like this."

      This is especially true with dialogue among youngsters.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      JR, well, I was reading a hub by Bill Holland on my mobile divice/phone and went to comment and guess what. Somehow I ended up commenting on your article on short stories. I don't know how that happened, but it did give me the opportunity to read your article and I'm glad I did. It is refreshing and helpful to hear how others go about writing short stories and I appreciate all the good input you have here.

    • JRScarbrough profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from United States

      Thank you all so much. I have been away from HP a long while and neglected things due to some success as an author.

      Kalin, with that well-written comment, you earned yourself a follow. I am currently working on material for The Writer's Store and will certainly be adding more creative writing articles here.

      Please, everyone, continue to follow and I will be sure to expound on creative writing in many different areas.

      Thanks again to all. I will be sure to read your hubs and comment.

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana Adler 

      4 years ago from California

      I love the short story form, and I do agree that it's more challenging than longer forms of fiction. Novel writers can create pages upon pages of redundant material to fill out the space between scene A and scene B, but in a short story every word has a specific function; verbosity is death.

      Really enjoyed your guide!

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image

      Joyette Helen Fabien 

      4 years ago from Dominica

      Interesting! I write short stories and I am always interested in new ideas :)

    • EsJam profile image


      4 years ago from Southern California

      Hello, I thoroughly enjoyed your Hub! Great presentation, great advice! Glad I came upon you here in the Hub world! Essie.

    • profile image

      Olde Cashmere 

      4 years ago

      I'm a short story writer and I'm always looking for fresh approaches or brush ups on fundamentals. This was a highly useful read with plenty of great tips for aspiring authors or those in need of fine tuning.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image

      Joyette Helen Fabien 

      5 years ago from Dominica

      Great job! Despite the challenges the short story is my genre of choice. I have written a few hubs about writing the story myself, but it is always refreshing to hear from someone else.

    • ZeldaMes profile image

      Zelda Mes 

      5 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you. I am part of a writers' group and I am going to post a link to this hub on our facebook page.

    • matthewJlillie profile image


      5 years ago from toronto

      thnx great info and very helpful

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      There is so much information in this hub that I must return often and refer back to the things that you penned down. Thanks for the info.

    • JRScarbrough profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks. Drop by any time. I plan to add more on creative writing soon. Nice to meet you.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 

      6 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      I was about to close down when I saw your hub. I need to save it for later reading. There are lots of tips in your hub. Well done.

    • Eric Calderwood profile image

      Eric Calderwood 

      6 years ago from USA

      A long list of reminders. I'll have to refer back to this again. Short stories may be more difficult than longer fiction, but are satisfying to write.

    • JRScarbrough profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks for commenting Bill an welcome to Hubpages. There really is no magic formula or writing creatively. Every writer has their own methods. These are just pointing out some commonality between authors. Have fun and I hope to be reading you soon.

    • JRScarbrough profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks ajwrites57! Stay tuned, much more to come!

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ Long 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thorough description, summary and examples! Great Hub JRScarbrough ! Shared!

    • JRScarbrough profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United States

      You're very welcome. Have fun. Writing can be one of the most rewarding ventures anyone can take up.

    • profile image

      Ranil George 

      6 years ago

      Thanks... Just what I needed for the head start.


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