How to Write an interesting Short Story
The short story is the ideal medium for many writers. It’s a revitalizing activity. It is as natural to many as breathing is to the lungs. While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, almost anyone can write a short story—and, more importantly, finish it. It’s one thing to write a novel, but it’s quite another to write a short story. Setting, plot, character, and message all play a role in a short story. A good short story, like a novel, will enthrall and entertain your reader. You can learn how to write a successful short story in no time by brainstorming, drafting, and polishing. The best part is that you can keep editing it until you’re happy with it.
- Come up with a plot or scenario. Think about what the story is going to be about and what is going to happen in the story. Consider what you are trying to address or illustrate. Decide what your approach or angle on the story is going to be.
For example, you can start with a simple plot like your main character has to deal with bad news or your main character gets an unwanted visit from a friend or family member.
You can also try a more complicated plot like your main character wakes up in a parallel dimension or your main character discovers someone else’s deep dark secret.
2. Concentrate on a complex main character. Most short stories will only feature one or two main characters. Consider a protagonist with a clear desire , but who is also full of contradictions. It’s not enough to have a good or bad character. Make your main character complex and well-rounded by giving them interesting attributes and feelings.
Finding Inspiration for Interesting Characters: There are characters all around you. Spend some time with people-watching in a public setting, such as a mall or a bustling pedestrian street. Make a list of interesting people you come across and consider how you could include them in your story. You can also take on the characteristics of people you know.
Developing a Backstory: Investigate your main character’s past to learn more about what makes them tick. What was it like to be a child for the lonely old man? What happened to the scar on his hand? Even if you don’t include these details in the story, having a thorough understanding of your character will help them ring true.
Characters Create a plot: Create a character who adds to the intrigue and complexity of your story.
3. Create a central conflict for the main character. Every good short story will have a central conflict, where the main character has to deal with an issue or problem. Present a conflict for your main character early in your short story. Make your main character’s life difficult or hard.
For example, maybe your main character has a desire or want that they have a hard time fulfilling. Or perhaps your main character is trapped in a bad or dangerous situation and must figure out how to stay alive.
4. Pick an interesting setting. Another key element of a short story is the setting, or where the events of the story are taking place. You may stick to one central setting for the short story and add details of the setting to scenes with your characters. Choose a setting that is interesting to you, and that you can make interesting for your reader.
Tips on Crafting a Setting:
Writing down the names of your settings, such as “small colony on Mars” or “the high school baseball field,” is a good way to start. Visualize each location as clearly as possible and jot down any details that come to mind. Place your characters there and imagine what they might do there.
Consider the following as you plan your story: Where does your story need to take place, based on your characters and the arc of your plot? Make your setting such an important part of your story that your readers won’t be able to imagine it any other way. For example, if your main character is a man who gets into a car accident, setting the story in a small town during the winter gives the crash a plausible reason (blackout).
5. Consider a particular theme. Many short stories revolve around a central theme and explore it through the eyes of a narrator or central character. You can think about a broad theme like “love,” “desire,” or “loss” from the perspective of your main character.
You can also concentrate on a specific theme, such as “sibling love,” “desire for friendship,” or “parental loss.”
6. Make an emotional climax a priority. Every good short story contains a shattering moment in which the main character experiences an emotional high. The climax usually occurs in the second half of the story or near the end. The main character may feel overwhelmed, trapped, desperate, or even out of control at the story’s climax.
For example, your main character, a lonely elderly man, may face an emotional climax in which he must confront his neighbor about his illegal activity. Alternatively, you could have an emotional climax in which the main character, a young adolescent girl, defends her brother against school bullies.
7. Consider an ending that includes a twist or surprise. Create an ending that will surprise, shock, or intrigue your reader. Avoid obvious endings, where the reader can predict the outcome before it occurs. Give your reader a false sense of security by making them believe they know how the story will end, then redirect their attention to another character or an image that surprises them.
Creating a Rewarding Ending:
Experiment with a few different endings. Outline a few different ending options. Consider each option and decide which feels more natural, surprising, or fulfilling. It’s okay if you don’t come up with the perfect ending right away—one it’s of the most difficult parts of the story to write!
How do you want your readers to feel when they finish? Your ending is the last impression you’ll leave on your reader. How will they feel if your characters succeed, fail, or land somewhere in the middle? For example, if your main character decides to stand up to her brother’s bullies but gets scared at the last second, the readers will leave feeling like she still has a lot of soul-searching to do.
Stay away from cliches. Make sure you avoid gimmick endings, where you rely on familiar plot twists to surprise your reader. If your ending feels familiar or even boring, challenge yourself to make it more difficult for your characters.
Create a story outline. Create a plot outline for your short. Story that includes five sections: exposition, an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution. As you write the story, use the outline as a guide to ensure it has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
You can also use the snowflake method, which includes a one-sentence summary, a one-paragraph summary, a synopsis of all the characters in the story, and a spreadsheet of scene breakdowns.
Make an enticing opening. To pique your reader’s interest, your opening should include action, conflict, or an unusual image. In the first paragraph, introduce your reader to the main character and setting. Prepare your reader for the story’s main themes and ideas.
For example, an opening line like “I was lonely that day” reveals little about the narrator and is neither unusual nor engaging.
Try something like, “The day after my wife left me, I rapped on the neighbor’s door to ask if she had any sugar for a cake I wasn’t going to bake.” This line conveys to the reader a past conflict, the wife’s departure, as well as present-day tension between the narrator and his wife.
Stick to one point of view. A short story is usually told in the first-person point of view and stays with one point of view only. This helps to give the short story a clear focus and perspective. You can also try writing the short story in third person point of view, though this may create distance between you and your reader.
Some stories are written in second person, where the narrator uses “you.” This is usually only done if the second person is essential to the narrative, such as in Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life” or Junot Diaz’s short story, “This is How You Lose Her.”
Most short stories are written in the past tense, though you can use the present tense if you’d like to give the story more immediacy.
Use dialogue to reveal character and further the plot. The dialogue in your short story should always be doing more than one thing at a time. Make sure the dialogue tells your reader something about the character who is speaking and adds to the overall plot of the story. Include dialogue tags that reveal character and give scenes more tension or conflict.
Develop a voice for each character. Your characters are all unique, so all of their dialogue will sound a little different. Experiment to see what voice sounds right for each character. For example, one character might greet a friend by saying, “Hey girl, what’s up?”, while another might say, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages.”
Use different dialogue tags—but not too many. Sprinkle descriptive dialogue tags, like “stammered” or “shouted,” throughout your story, but don’t make them overwhelming. You can continue to use “said,” in some situations, choosing a more descriptive tag when the scene really needs it.
Include sensory details about the setting. Think about how the setting feels, sounds, tastes, smells, and looks to your main character. Describe your setting using the senses so it comes alive for your reader.
For example, you may describe your old high school as “a giant industrial-looking building that smells of gym socks, hair spray, lost dreams, and chalk.” Or you may describe the sky by your house as “a blank sheet covered in thick, gray haze from wildfires that crackled in the nearby forest in the early morning.”
End with a realization or revelation. The realization or revelation does not have to be major or obvious. It can be subtle, where your characters are beginning to change or see things differently. You can end with a revelation that feels open or a revelation that feels resolved and clear.
You can also end on an interesting image or dialogue that reveals a character change or shift.
For example, you may end your story when your main character decides to turn in their neighbor, even if that means losing them as a friend. Or you may end your story with the image of your main character helping her bloodied brother walk home, just in time for dinner.
Polishing the Draft
Read the short story out loud. Listen to how each sentence sounds, particularly the dialogue. Notice if the story flows well from paragraph to paragraph. Check for any awkward sentences or phrases and underline them so you can revise them later.
Notice if your story follows your plot outline and that there is a clear conflict for your main character.
Reading the story aloud can also help you catch any spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors.
Revise the short story for clarity and flow. With short stories, the general rule is that shorter is usually better. Most short stories are between 1,000 to 7,000 words or one to ten pages long. Be open to cutting scenes or removing sentences to shorten and tighten your story. Make sure you only include details or moments that are absolutely essential to the story you are trying to tell.
Parts to Delete:
Unnecessary description: Include just enough description to show the readers the most important characteristics of a place, a character, or an object while contributing to the story’s overall tone. If you have to clip out a particularly beautiful description, write it down and save it—you may be able to use in another story!
Scenes that don’t move the plot forward: If you think a scene might not be necessary to the plot, try crossing it out and reading through the scenes before and after it. If the story still flows well and makes sense, you can probably delete the scene.
Characters that don’t serve a purpose: You might have created a character to make a story seem realistic or to give your main character someone to talk to, but if that character isn’t important to the plot, they can probably be cut or merged into another character. Look carefully at a character’s extra friends, for example, or siblings who don’t have much dialogue.
Come up with an interesting title. Most editors, and readers, will check the title of the story first to determine if they want to continue reading. Pick a title that will intrigue or interest your reader and encourage them to read the actual story. Use a theme, image, or character name from the story as the title.
For example, the title “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” by Alice Munro is a good one because it is a quote from a character in the story and it addresses the reader directly, where the “I” has something to share with readers.
The title “Snow, Apple, Glass” by Neil Gaiman is also a good one because it presents three objects that are interesting on their own, but even more interesting when placed together in one story.
Let others read and critique the short story. Show the short story to friends, family members, and peers at school. Ask them if they find the story emotionally moving and engaging. Be open to constructive criticism from others, as it will only strengthen your story.
You can also join a writing group and submit your short story for a workshop. Or you may start your own writing group with friends so you can all workshop each other’s stories.
Once you get feedback from others, you should then revise the short story again so it is at its best draft.