How to Write a Short Story: 9 Easy Steps & Examples for Writers

how to write a short story

Key Takeaways: The Steps for Writing a Short Story

  1. Brainstorm Ideas: Start by exploring story ideas, genres, and themes that interest you.
  2. Develop Characters and the Setting: Create detailed characters and a vivid setting for your story.
  3. Plan Your Story’s Plot Structure: Outline your plot using a structured approach, such as the three-act structure.
  4. Write Your First Draft: Begin writing your story, focusing on getting your ideas down without worrying about perfection.
  5. Review & Revise Your Work: Critically assess and revise your draft, paying attention to plot, characters, and consistency.
  6. Get Feedback on Your Story: Seek feedback from trusted individuals.
  7. Write Your Second Draft: Refine your story based on feedback and re-reading it yourself.
  8. Prepare for Publication: Polish your story for grammar and style, and align it with submission guidelines.
  9. Publish: Choose a suitable platform for publication, such as literary journals or online platforms.

Have you ever enjoyed reading a short story online or in a magazine and thought, “Hey, I’ve got a story inside of me… I should try writing my own!”?

That was me, too! I’ve always loved reading great stories, and one day, it came to me that I had unique ideas of my own and that I should try getting them on paper.

However, writing a short story was not as easy as it seemed! I struggled to develop three-dimensional and relatable characters and didn’t yet know how to follow the beats of the three-act story structure. My first short stories weren’t great (although my mom did tell me she loved them – thanks, mom!).

In the end, I got stuck and stopped writing stories. I became an engineer and lost touch with my creative side. Luckily, one day, I took an acting class on a whim and suddenly got excited about telling my stories again!

Over the years since then, I’ve written many short stories, screenplays, and even novels. You can learn more about my published short story, One Time Hero, here. Creative writing has added so much to my life, and I love sharing my passion for it here on this blog!

Please join me as we take a look at what makes a great short story, learn more about how exactly you can write your own (even if you’ve never written a short story before!), and then see some of my favorite examples of popular and well-written short stories.

Let’s get started!

How Do You Write a Good Short Story?

infographic on the 9 steps needed to write a short story

Every story begins with an idea, and a good short story idea allows for a whole story, including an inciting incident, character arc, climax, and a satisfying ending, to be captured in a minimalistic way.

In the nine steps I’ve outlined here, you’ll learn about the core elements of storytelling and how to create interesting characters and an appropriate story setting. I’ll also go over how to use a story structure framework to control your short story’s plot points, formatting, and pacing.

1: Brainstorm Ideas

infographic on step one to write a short story: brainstorm ideas

The first step to writing any story is letting your story ideas flow freely! Start by asking yourself what kind of story you’re itching to tell. I tend to go for thrillers, horror stories, sci-fi, and fantasy, but maybe you just want to write about your modern-day, real-life experiences or even a historical romance!

You’ll want to imagine story characters that intrigue you or settings that transport you to another world. What challenges and conflicts might these characters face? Immerse yourself into this brainstorming phase – it can be really fun (you can try using Sudowrite as an AI creative writing brainstorming tool if you are so included), so have a blast with it!

Consider the Genre of your Story

Before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), take a beat to consider what kind of short story you want to write. Different genres come with different conventions and expectations, after all!

Of course, your short fiction story doesn’t have to stick strictly to one genre, mixing different ones can be exciting. Each genre has its own elements that make it what it is; for instance, in a love story, there are usually strong romantic themes and perhaps even elements of tragedy, which wouldn’t necessarily be there in an action thriller.

There are loads of different genres to choose from, so start thinking about it now!

  • Literary fiction and science fiction are popular with many writers, providing an escape experience for readers to explore other worlds and human experiences.
  • Mystery and crime feature suspenseful tales of twists, turns, and investigation.
  • Contemporary stories tap into characters’ everyday lives with hints of magic or extraordinary circumstances.
  • Romance provides sweet endings of love won or lost in carefully crafted scenarios.
  • Horror stories aim to scare readers with chilling tales of the macabre.
  • Finally, historical fiction offers a glimpse into the past, usually providing some historical accuracy while also embellishing the details!

Take some time to think about which genre best fits your idea and the style of writing you prefer.

brainstorm short story ideas

Consider the Theme of your Story

Another thing to consider when writing short stories is their theme.

A strong theme will give your story direction and purpose, making it stand out from other short stories with a similar plot. It can also be an effective tool for connecting with your audience and imparting greater meaning to your fiction writing.

Short stories can be a great vehicle to explore complex ideas and feelings. Consider what themes you’d like to include in your short story plot – there is no limit to what topics might be explored in this format, but the most common themes encountered include love, loss, courage, justice, and wisdom. Other commonly explored topics include identity struggles, risk-taking behavior, morality choices, and coming of age. The possibilities are endless!

Remember, the characters in your story are the vessels for these themes. They’re the ones who will make readers laugh, cry, or even question their own beliefs. So, as you write, think about the message you want to share and how your characters can bring it to life.

2: Develop Your Characters and Setting

infographic on describing your characters and setting for a short story

Now, let’s get into the fun stuff: creating characters and the world they live in!

Ask Questions to Develop Your Characters

Characters are like the friends you chat about over coffee. They’ve got quirks, dreams, and sometimes, a bit of baggage. Dive into their world. What’s their favorite song? Do they hate the taste of broccoli? Have they ever had their heart broken? The more you know them, the more real they’ll feel to your readers.

To really get to know your main characters, especially your hero and villain, play a little game of 20 questions. What’s their most embarrassing memory? Who do they call when they’re sad? Every answer adds a dash of color to their personality, making them pop off the page. Here are some questions to ask yourself about your main character’s life:

  1. Background: Where did they grow up, and how has it shaped them?
  2. Motivations: What drives them? What do they want more than anything else?
  3. Fears: What keeps them up at night? What are they most afraid of?
  4. Relationships: Who do they hold dear? Have they ever been betrayed?
  5. Quirks: Do they have any habits or mannerisms that make them unique?
  6. Secrets: What’s something they’ve never told anyone?
  7. Regrets: Is there a moment in their past they wish they could change?
  8. Dreams: If they could achieve one thing, what would it be?
  9. Challenges: What obstacles stand in their way, and how do they plan to overcome them?
  10. Personality: How would others describe them in three words?

Each answer should bring you closer to forming a vivid picture of each main character and that character’s life and story arc.

Describe the Setting in Detail

Now, let’s talk about the world your characters inhabit. The setting isn’t just a backdrop – it’s an active participant in your story. It sets the mood, influences the plot, and can even act as a character in its own right.

Be generous with your descriptions. You don’t need to write pages about a sunset, but a line about the golden hue of the sky or the distant chirping of crickets can transport your reader right into the scene.

These little details make the world come alive, pulling readers in and making them feel like they’re right there with your characters.

3: Plan Out Your Story’s Plot Structure

infographic on outlining your short story's plot

After you have chosen a topic and set it up with a good beginning, the third step in writing short stories is to plan out the plot structure. This means identifying the essential points of conflict or struggle in your compelling story and setting up connections between each event or character.

First, create a timeline that outlines when each event will occur and each character will enter the story. Then think through what steps must be taken to bridge the different events and characters into one cohesive tale. Finally, don’t forget to include any key objects or symbols that tie into the theme of your story.

With these components in place, you’ll have a solid foundation to build your own unique short fiction.

Start With the Classic Three-Act Structure

Act 1:

Writing a three-act story structure can seem overwhelming, but it’s pretty simple as long as you remember to focus on the basics. Beginning with Act 1, remember that this should introduce your main character(s), setting, and conflict.

It’s also vital to build suspense and introduce questions that need to be answered to move the plot forward.

Utilize the time allotted wisely – capture the reader’s attention by providing an interesting hook and using clear descriptions of characters and setting.

Finally, make sure to present motivation for the protagonist so that their journey feels natural and authentic.

infographic showing 3 act story structure
Act 2:

Writing Act 2 of your short story is all about deepening the plot and keeping the momentum going.

In this act, you will want to build up to a climax, so start by adding exciting new developments. You can use dramatic events or unexpected plot twists to further the story.

Focus on the main characters and make sure to introduce any characters or ideas that will be important in Act 3.

Make this act full of tension and conflict to create suspense and anticipation for the upcoming finale. This is when you should hone your descriptions, paying particular attention to physical details, body language, and expressions.

Remember that you must propel the narrative toward its conclusion in Act 3.

Act 3:

Writing the third act of your story can be tricky, as much will depend on its success. But if you approach it firmly and methodically, you’ll find it relatively straightforward!

The third act should start just before the climax of your story; all questions posed should start to be answered, tensions begin to unwind, and the stage is set for resolution.

Be sure to keep your story momentum throughout – Act 3 should move quickly and pique readers’ curiosity about how it will end. However, don’t forget to include plenty of character development here; don’t rush them out the door with a happy or tragic ending before we’ve had time to say goodbye!

End your story where and when appropriate, but leave a lingering emotional impact on readers. That way, they’ll never forget the characters or moments in your story!

4: Write Your First Draft

infographic on writing the first draft of your short story

Step four of starting to write a short story is to write the initial draft of the complete story – and this is when the real fun begins!

Make sure you take your time with this step, and don’t be too harsh on yourself. Writing is unpredictable. Mistakes or changes are sometimes necessary, so go with it! Enjoy the journey of creating your short story.

Start With an Interesting Opening Scene or Hook

Now that you’ve chosen the setting and characters of your story and you’ve had a chance to think about the story structure and some of the story beats, it’s time to start writing the story itself.

When crafting an engaging opening scene, think about what you want to hook your readers. Think of something mysterious, unexpected, or exciting – anything to help draw readers in and tease them into reading the entire story!

An exciting opening or inciting incident can make or break a reader’s engagement with a story; it’s an excellent opportunity to set the mood and give your readers something they didn’t expect.

Use the elements of your setting and characters wisely to create a hook that will draw people into wanting to know more. A good hook will generate excitement around what’s about to happen next in your short story, so be sure to get creative with this step.

Don’t Worry about Perfection!

When you’re thinking about how to write a short story, it’s important to remember that this fourth step is all about getting your thoughts down on paper.

Trying to make each sentence perfect from the start can make the whole process too cumbersome and potentially ruin the creative flow of your story before it even gets off the ground.

Instead, focus on getting your ideas out; describe what arrives in your mind, and don’t worry about word choices or whether or not things are making sense yet. You can always come back with a fresh eye and revise for clarity later.

The aim here is to capture every thought that comes to mind so you have a foundation that you can with later.

If you are experiencing writer’s block or are stuck on a plot point or a specific character, you can try out an AI story generator program – while these programs can’t write your story for you, they can help you develop ideas and concepts for your story.

5: Review & Revise Your Work

infographic on the step of revising your short story

Once you have completed your rough draft for your short story, it’s time to read it over, assessing the structure and details of your writing.

You should begin by looking for any inaccuracies or typos. After all, these need to be fixed before anyone else will want to pay attention to the piece.

Next, begin critically reading what you’ve written and objectively analyzing the plot, characters, and setting. Make sure everything is consistent – no plot holes or unlikely character behavior!

You can also use this moment to consider how the sequences of events work together and check that each sentence flows smoothly into the next one. Be willing to scrap a scene (or two!) if they don’t fit the overall narrative.

This is an excellent moment for a quick edit – trimming unnecessary language for an effective and powerful message. Ensure you consider the length of the short story you want to write.

Once you have made any corrections or tweaks, take a break, come back with fresh eyes, and start with step 5 again – review and revise!

Edit for Style and Grammar

Great job so far! Once you’ve written the story, it’s time to edit it for style and grammar. You want to show off in front of your readers, so make sure every sentence shines!

There are a lot of great grammar-checking tools available online for free or by subscription. This tool won’t just check for spelling and grammar but can keep your writing clear and concise! Plus, it has an inbuilt plagiarism checker, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally taking content from other authors.

With these tools, you can take your first draft and make it even better by perfecting its spelling, grammar, tone, and flow.

Read Your Draft Out Loud

The next step when you write short stories is to read your first draft out loud. It sounds simple, but it can make all the difference.

Just by reading your story aloud, you would be surprised how much easier it becomes to pick up on errors or inconsistencies you may have missed while silently reading your text. Reading aloud gives a critical perspective to your work that you might not get right away if you solely rely on mental reflection.

Redrafts are part of the creative process, but why not try and make them as few as possible? Reading out loud is smarter than you think.

6: Get Feedback on Your Story

infographic on getting feedback from others

Once you’ve finished writing your short story, getting feedback is essential to refine your short story further. No matter how confident you feel with your short story idea, someone else may find mistakes or offer suggestions that could help improve the plot or characterization.

Getting feedback doesn’t have to be a long process – all it takes is finding two or three people you trust who can provide honest and objective input, such as family, friends, co-workers, classmates, or social media contacts. There are many writing community Facebook groups where you can find people willing to review your work if you review theirs!

Expert readers don’t necessarily have to be professional editors; anyone who enjoys reading and analyzing wordsmithing can help and guide you through this process.

However, if you want to take it to the next level, hire a professional critique or writing coach – this will help identify areas that could use fine-tuning and offer an expert opinion.

Take their advice, but write what feels true to your story – at the end of the day, a successful story involves understanding your readers and sharing something impactful.

Use an AI Writing Program to Give You Feedback

Without the proper feedback, you won’t accurately know how compelling your short story is.

Fortunately, AI novel writing programs are designed to provide helpful and insightful feedback on your work. They can advise you about structure, flow, and diction to ensure that your own writing is of the highest quality.

7: Write Your Second Draft

infographic on writing a second draft of your short story

Step 7 is the exciting part: writing your second draft!

Now that you’ve had a chance to evaluate your work, continue the editing process and improve your short story again.

Start by reading through your first draft and making sure it reflects everything you want it to. If not, make the necessary changes – tighten up any sloppy sentences, spruce up dialogue, and cut out parts of the story that don’t serve a purpose.

Make thoughtful changes with this draft – use this opportunity to refine what you already have and make the story as dynamic and engaging as possible.

With a bit of finesse, your second draft will come together quickly. Good luck!

Consider Your Character Motivations

When you’re doing your short story editing, it’s essential to consider your characters’ motivations.

Why do they feel how they feel, say what they say, and do what they do?

Even minor details like these can completely change the arc and flow of a story. A great way to explore character motives is to ask yourself questions:

  • What type of personality does this character have?
  • What experiences led them to this point in life?

Regarding fictional characters, you may need to take some creative license to answer these questions depending on how real or fantastical your story is.

Ensure Your Theme is Consistent

As you write your second draft, your short story must stay true to its themes.

Take a moment to reflect on your story’s key themes and motifs, and ensure they are still being explored as you continue developing it. Try focusing on one more minor aspect, such as how certain characters exemplify specific themes or how the setting reflects them.

When exploring these pieces, ask yourself if each aligns with your narrative’s overarching purpose and idea. Doing so will help ensure that you remain consistent with the story’s theme throughout the entire drafting process.

Make The Resolution Satisfying For Readers

You’ve now done all the hard work developing the plot, characters, and setting – it’s time to think about the resolution.

When writing your second draft, ensure the ending satisfies readers. If you’re stuck and don’t know how best to reach a satisfying conclusion that still feels natural to the story, consider a few different ways to reach an effective resolution and float those ideas with fellow writers to get their feedback.

While there are no right or wrong answers here, you should aim for your ending to be in harmony with the characters’ arcs and any themes you’ve woven into your story.

8: Prepare For Publication

infographic on getting your short story ready to be published

Now that you have finished your short story, it’s almost time to hit send and get it out into the world.

Step 8 of writing short stories is all about preparing for publication. Begin by fixing any final grammar/style mistakes, such as typos, punctuation, etc.

You’ll also want to check for any plot holes and rework areas that may confuse readers later on.

Finally, ensure your story stays in line with the submission guidelines of the magazine or website you’re submitting to. To increase your chances during the submission process, submit to outlets specializing in your genre and style of writing. Don’t forget the small things like double-checking the word count and writing a professional cover letter!

Once everything looks shipshape, it’s time to hit send and let the world experience your fantastic tale.

Submit to Literary Journals or Competitions

Step 8 is an exciting step: when you submit your short story to literary magazines or writing competitions.

You’ve put in a lot of work to bring this story to life, and now it’s time to show off your hard work!

Not only will submitting give you an opportunity for some feedback so you can keep improving, but if your story is accepted for publication, it can boost your credibility as a writer. Plus, who knows? You may even earn a fabulous prize or recognition, so there are plenty of upsides!

Don’t be afraid – go ahead and take the plunge and submit your short story for feedback and recognition.

Take Criticism Constructively

When submitting your work for publication and feedback, it can be hard to take criticism constructively – particularly when the short story is close to your heart.

However, it’s important to remember that everyone has a different perspective on writing and that receiving comments from magazines or competitions is a good way of creating a better product.

Rather than getting hung up on any negative feedback you may receive, consider how any changes suggested could enhance or refine your story.

You don’t necessarily have to follow every comment – instead, seek the advice you feel most confident in following and ensure you’re comfortable with each suggested change before making them!

9: Publish!

infographic on step nine of writing a short story: get it published

Congratulations – you’ve made it to the final step of writing your short story!

If you’re ready to take the plunge, publishing your story can be a great way to get exposure to your work.

Several types of publications exist, such as online mediums, print media, and self-publishing. You can often find ideas for where to submit in writer’s Facebook groups and forums.

You also must ensure your work is formatted correctly and ready for its audience. It might be a good idea to attend workshops or find helpful resources.

What Is a Short Story?

infographic about what is a short story

A short story is a brief piece of fiction that captures a moment, an emotion, or a journey in a condensed form.

Unlike a novel that sprawls across pages and deeply explores characters, settings, and conflicts, a short story is like a snapshot. It offers a glimpse, a taste, of a world or a feeling. A short story often leaves the reader with lingering thoughts and emotions.

While these stories may be short in length, their impact on the reader can be profound.

Note: The above video explains the points in this article, and was created by Neil using the AI video editor and generator, Pictory!

Why Write a Short Story

Taking the time to write short stories can be a great way to flex your creative muscles and create something unique and impactful!

Short stories force you to tell an intriguing tale using fewer words. Every word counts in a short story, so it challenges you to be concise. This helps you improve your creativity, structure, and editing skills for creative writing.

infographic on why you should write a short story

When you write short stories, you’ll get more experience with creating relatable characters who come to life on the page. You’ll also get the satisfaction that comes with actually finishing something!

Writing short stories can be therapeutic – a way to process emotions or experiences. For the reader, your story can be a brief escape, a moment of connection, or a spark of inspiration. Plus, people love a quick read these days!

Short stories are a different challenge than longer works, as they have such a short and succinct beginning, middle, and end. So, even though it might require a lot of time and attention, imagine how accomplished you’ll feel once you hold your finished story in your hands!

Powerful Short Story Examples

1: The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe is a classic horror short story of murder and madness. This story about a murderer’s fight for sanity keeps the reader in suspense until the end.

Adapted countless times across every medium, it is as captivating today as the day it was written.

2: The Lottery

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is a gripping thriller that tells the story of a small American farming town where once per year, a citizen is chosen at random to be stoned to death to ensure a bountiful crop.

Retold on radio, TV, and film, it is a short story that endures as much as it makes the audience think.

3: Three-Ten to Yuma by Elmore Leonard

Three-Ten to Yuma by Elmore Leonard is a great example of a period or historical fiction short story. This story is about a deputy marshal who escorts a captured train robber to face trial for his crimes. Unfortunately, they are ambushed as they wait for the train to take them to the trial.

Much loved, it is one of the few Westerns adapted to the big screen twice (as 3:10 to Yuma in 1957 and 2007).

Final Thoughts

Writing a short story can be an incredibly rewarding experience – from finding your plot to writing vibrant dialogue, it’s a journey full of surprises.

Whether it’s for a creative writing class or pleasure, challenge yourself by putting pen to paper and following the steps outlined above. You never know what gems may lie in the depths of your imagination!

You will become an even greater storyteller as you cultivate your writing skills and perfect the art of crafting stories. Allow your imagination to explore new ideas and create something beautiful out of nothing. Most importantly, never forget why you’re doing this: To tell a good story and emotionally connect with your readers!

How to Write a Short Story

Common Questions (FAQs)

How do you start writing a short story?

When starting a short story, first have a clear idea of your plot and characters. Kickstart your creativity by experimenting with various writing styles, drawing inspiration from prompts in magazines or books, or contemplating unique questions about your characters or setting. Then, map out your story’s progression, outlining the key events. Begin your first draft, focusing on exploring the depth of the story’s conflict and emotions.

What are the 7 steps to writing a short story?

The seven steps to writing a short story include: 1) Developing unique and relatable characters and settings, 2) Plotting the storyline with scenes that build anticipation, 3) Determining the protagonist’s goal and focusing on character development, 4) Researching facts and context relevant to the story, 5) Writing the first draft, focusing on impact over grammar and structure, 6) Adding details and refining the language while maintaining a consistent tone, and 7) Revising the story until it feels complete and polished.

What are the 5 basic elements of a short story?

The five basic elements of a short story are: 1) Conflict that initiates the story and builds tension towards a resolution, 2) Characters, including protagonists and antagonists, who drive the story arc and interact with each other, 3) A vivid setting that is easily imaginable by the readers, 4) Progression of the plot as characters work to resolve their conflict, and 5) A central theme or idea that all story elements relate back to, providing depth and meaning to the narrative.

Is writing a short story easy?

No! Taking the time to write a short story is not easy, as it requires skill, creativity, and time. While the length of a short story may be less than a novel, creating a complete narrative within a limited word count can still be challenging. The best thing to do is just sit down and write! Then, refine your work after the first draft is done.

How many hours should it take to write a short story?

The number of hours it takes to write a short story varies depending on various factors, such as the writer’s skill level, the story’s length and complexity, and the amount of research needed. However, on average, completing a short story can take a few hours to several days.

Love writing fiction? Check out these other fantastic articles:

7+ Best Book Writing Software Programs for Authors

The 75+ Best Gifts for Writers (For Every Budget)

What is Pacing in a Story? Tips for Story Pacing for Writers

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