How to Write a Short Story

Knowing how to write a short story is a skill that takes time and practice. Writing any story can be difficult, but creating an effective and evocative narrative within only a few thousand words can be an even greater challenge.

But once you’ve nailed the skill, knowing how to write short stories can be very rewarding and you can have a lot of fun spending time crafting them. This guide will cover the range of elements to take on board so you can write successful short stories.

What is a short story?

A short story is a piece of prose fiction that can easily be read within one sitting. Unlike longer works, such as novels, they provide the reader with one complete story which doesn’t require the same commitment as something that could take weeks or months to finish.

A fountain pen writing on lined paper

What are the key elements of a short story?

Because of the shorter format, short stories have to be very tightly structured with a core concept that binds everything together.

Typically, the setting will be focused on just one location and during a very limited timeframe. There will also be only one plotline, instead of multiple. 

The cast of characters will also be very limited, with only one or two main characters at the centre of the story. Even so, there won’t be enough room to develop detailed backstories for your protagonists, and the story will instead be directed by how they deal with a specific situation.

How long should a short story be?

The simple answer is, to put it bluntly, short. But as a longer answer, length does matter. An average short story can be between 1,000 to 7,500 words. If a short story is too short, then it may instead be categorised as flash fiction. But if it’s too long, then it may become more of a novella.

It’s not bad to write flash fiction or novellas, but if you want to write a short story you need to stick to the brief and understand how it fits in between those two formats.

If you plan to submit your short story to a magazine, website, or creative writing competition, then the maximum (and sometimes minimum) word count will be given. This provides a strict target to work towards.

However, if you don’t have a set word count, then you should simply write what feels right for the story you want to tell. It needs to be long enough to explore your subject matter fully, while brief enough that it never feels tangential.

You can read more about how long a short story can be and the best length for your own piece of short fiction in this blog.

Understand what genre you’re writing in

Knowing how to write a short story is just as much about being familiar with your chosen genre as it is about knowing the fundamentals of storytelling. Genres are fundamental to how stories are told and how readers will engage with your own short story.

How to decide a genre to write in

Unless you’re aiming to submit your short story and have to work with a given genre, you have completely free rein over what to go with.

Ultimately, you should start by choosing a genre that both feels comfortable to you and that interests you. If you read a lot of fantasy and like imagining your own magical worlds, then try to write a short fantasy story. Likewise applies to horror, romance, sci-fi, and all other genres.

Of course, you don’t have to mould your short story to fit within the mould of genre fiction. You could try merging two genres together. Or, you might be more interested in literary fiction. In this case, you can use your own experiences as inspiration for a more ground story set within our known world.

Where to find out more about your genre

If you already know which genre you want to use as a basic of your story, you can read our guides on the following genres:

Read lots of short stories

If you know what genre you want to write in, there’s still one key step before having the confidence to actually put pen to paper. First, you need to read as many short stories as you can.

Fortunately, you can find many short stories online, available to read whenever you have a free moment. Read the classics first, then pick out more contemporary options, so that you can build a picture of how short stories have been written in different ways over hundreds of years.

And don’t just read these short stories – analyse them. Take your time over their sentences and make notes as you go. Pick out how these published writers and experts at the craft have successfully structured their stories, what narrative devices they use, and what themes tie it all together.

Short story examples

If you want to a starting point for your reading, here are a few top examples of short stories:

  • ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson
  • ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ by Jorge Luis Borges
  • ‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O. Henry
  • ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor
  • ‘To Build a Fire’ by Jack London
  • ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield


Novels, and even most novellas, will have chapters to provide structure to their stories. Heart of Darkness and Metamorphosis are novellas and both are separated into three parts. With short stories, however, most won’t have these strict divisions. But that doesn’t mean they should be unstructured.

Beginning, middle, and end

Short stories, like with any other piece of prose fiction, can follow a traditional narrative arc. The beginning should establish the setting and the character, and then move onto an inciting incident to trigger the rising action.

The bulk of the story can therefore be about a character trying to achieve something that they desire or need. This will come to a head at a climax before ending with the resolution (or denouement).

In medias res

Not all stories need to fit within that structure, however, and a common technique for many short story writers is to start their story in medias res. This means in the beginning of the action, so rather than having a slower, expository introduction, the reader is thrown into the excitement of a dramatic scene.

Whichever type of dramatic structure you choose, it should serve the story you want to tell by making sense for how the reader should understand your key protagonist and your central theme.

Identify the theme of your story

Every short story needs a theme or core idea at its centre that binds together every aspect of it, from how the plot develops to how the characters behave.

This should be one of the first things you decide on when you’re planning the story, because it’s so important in how everything else plays out.

For readers, too, they’ll much more appreciate a short story that has depth and meaning beyond the surface-level plot. This will help the story to strike a chord with readers and have them thinking about it long after reaching the end.

Keep your story focused

Having that core theme always in your mind will ensure that your short story remains focused. Because of the short format, you can’t let it unravel into unwieldy tangents. Every sentence matters.

Here are a few tips to keep your story succinct:

  • Make sure every scene drives the story forward. If it doesn’t, then remove it. Your story needs a constant forward trajectory, so every scene needs to contribute to this.
  • Avoid unneeded exposition. Details are important, but overly long descriptive paragraphs only serve to bog down your story. Instead, details should be scattered through the narrative, giving the reader enough as a basis for their imagination to fill in the rest.
  • Cut out useless characters. There’s no room for an ensemble in a short story. You should remove any characters who don’t contribute to your core theme or the movement of your story. In some cases, you could even combine two characters into one.

Don’t focus on history and backstory

In a short story, there’s no room to dwell on a character’s backstory or the history of location. This is where keeping the story focused is important. Cut down on the unnecessary passages of exposition and instead let smaller details do the work.

This is where short stories can be more similar to poetry than novels. Every sentence and choice of word can hold so much meaning, so you should take advantage of how much you can achieve in a few words.

If a location was a site of the battle, mention the bullet holes that riddle the walls. If a character is scared of flying, point out how they took a ferry ride to their destination when a flight would have been quicker.

Know how to write a satisfying ending

While beginnings are important in how they give the reader their first impression of what story they’re about to commit their time to reading, endings are arguably even more important to get right. Every other part of the story feeds into the one final concluding passage.

Your main character’s arc is the key aspect to take into consideration with your ending. Their actions need to lead to a climax where they either get what they want, or they don’t. But, either way, it needs to be satisfying in terms of the logic behind the plot progression and how the protagonist has developed since the beginning.

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Write a good twist ending, or don’t write one at all

Many short stories have twist endings. These are easy ways to get a reaction from the reader and create a lasting effect, but if done poorly they can ruin an otherwise good story.

A twist ending needs to make sense within the world you have established and the characters they have created. You’ll need to lay out some clues to the twist, or even establish foreshadowing early on. Otherwise, a twist that comes completely out of the blue can be more frustrating than compelling.

However, you don’t need to write a twist at all. You might want to try your hand at a surprise ending, but if it doesn’t work within your story then it’s better not to even attempt it. Your story can wrap everything up without a twist, and sometimes it’s better to have a more straightforward ending.

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