How to Write a Great Short Story

You need to write a slice of life for a stranger and not waste their time. So, give them action, emotion, and something to remember, quickly. That means you’ll have to start near the end of a story. This short story needs to be less than 1,500 words. Use them wisely.

There’s no time for detailed back story. Give your readers what they need almost immediately, including some insight into your characters. If you aren’t revealing them, you better aim for action. Your story is short on words, not substance.

If you don’t think you can tell a story quickly, go read the lyrics to a great story-song like “The Boxer,” or “Three Wooden Crosses.”

How Many Characters?

At least one, more if you want, just as long as every character is well-revealed. Readers need someone to empathize with, and someone to root for, not just for background. What’s their point? What do they need? What will they sacrifice for their cause and your story?

Your characters need motivation of some monumental kind, or your story will fall flat. It doesn’t matter whether they are seeking love, acceptance, money, food, water, justice, or a host of other human drives, but they better go all-out to get it. And don’t make it easy.

There better be a supreme challenge for at least one person in your story. They don’t have to succeed, for heroes often fail, but they better give 100% because you don’t have much space to explain their failings.

Title and Structure

Your title needs to be strong. Unless you are writing an eighth-grade story about what you did during the summer, you need to believe in your words. And, your reader needs to be compelled to move past the title.

As for structure, you’ll need to plunge your protagonist into trouble quickly. Readers are more interested in being moved by their actions to extricate them from their dangers and shortcomings than how they got there in the first place.

Set the stage painting with a wide brush, then get down to the fine-line drawing. You’ve got to evoke some serious emotions to commit your reader, fast.

Then, tell your reader just enough about your woman in a life or death situation, your man in emotional trouble with his first true love, or your ruthless bank robber’s bungling partner to make them care about someone and keep reading.

And, tease them with more about the danger, challenge, or emotional turmoil that’s not just on the surface but hidden deep below.

If you can do that in a couple of pages, you’ll have a poignant story you can end with something satisfying and substantial. In a short story, the ending is more important than the beginning. It doesn’t need to wrap up every little detail, it just needs to end clearly, or you’ll cheat your reader.

To get that strong ending, you must have set the stage, presented a problem, invested the reader in at least one character they can cozy up to, worked the problem, built the climax, allowed an escape, and brought some emotion along the way. Readers don’t ask for much in a short, just a good story.

Do those things and your readers can be happy, sad, even confused, as long as they are entertained. And, your work will get read and maybe even published and paid for. That might not be your ultimate motivation, but the cash helps. Good luck!