“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh

How to Write a Short Story from Start to Finish

I’m working on a new short story. However, it’s been a while, and I’m feeling out of practice, like I have to figure out how to write a short story all over again.

How to Write a Short Story from Start to Finish

To some extent, the process for writing a story is different each time. In the introduction to American Gods, Neil Gaiman quotes Gene Wolfe, who told him, “You never learn how to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you’re on.”

This is true for short stories as well.

And yet, there are certain patterns to writing a short story, patterns I think everyone follows in their own haphazard way. I’ll call them steps, but they’re more like general paths that may or may not apply to your story. Still, it’s these patterns that I want to present to you in hopes it will make your own short story writing easier.

At the same time, I’ve been presenting these rough steps to myself as I work on my own story. Good news: It’s coming along!

Requirements to Writing a Short Story

But before we begin, let’s quickly discuss three things you’ll need to write your short story. If you don’t have these, you should think twice before you begin:

  • Approximately ten to twenty hours of time. We all write at different paces, and depending on the length of your story (e.g. 200 word flash fiction vs. 5,000 word traditional short story) it might take five hours or fifty. But I’ve found that most short stories in the 3,000 to 5,000 word range take ten to twenty hours. Let me know how long yours take in the comments.
  • An idea. This guide assumes you already have an idea for a story, even if it’s just a basic sliver of an idea. If you’re still looking for an idea though, check out our top 100 story ideas.
  • Writing devices or utensils. Okay, it’s obvious you need something to write with to finish a short story, but I needed a third point! (By the way, I recommend Scrivener for writing short stories. Here’s my review.)

7 Steps to Write a Short Story

Ready to get writing? Here are seven steps on how to write a short story:

How to Write a Short Story Infographic

1. First, Write the Basic Story in One Sitting

It may seem silly to begin a list of steps on how to write a short story with a tip to “write the story,” but let me explain.

There are really two different kinds of stories. There is the art form, “short stories,” which comes complete with characters, plot, description, and style.

Then there’s the story, the funny, amusing, crazy story you’d tell a friend over a meal.

The story and the short story are not the same thing. The former is just a story, we tell them all the time. The latter is an art.

The first step to writing a short story is to write the former, the story, that version of the story that you would tell a friend.

And when you write it, be sure to write it in one sitting. Just tell the story. Don’t think about it too much, don’t go off to do more research, don’t take a break. Just get the story written down. Whenever I break this rule it takes me FOREVER to finish writing the story.

2. Next, Find Your Protagonist

After you’ve written the basic story, take a step back. You may feel extremely proud of your story or completely embarrassed. Ignore these feelings, as they bear no relation to how good or bad your story actually is or, more importantly, how good it will be.

The next step is to read through your story to find the protagonist.

Now, you may think you already know who your protagonist is, but depending on your story, this can actually be more tricky than you might think.

Your protagonist isn’t necessarily the narrator, nor is she necessarily the “good guy” in the story. Instead, the protagonist is the person who makes the decisions that drive the story forward.

Your protagonist centers the story, drives the plot, and his or her fate gives the story its meaning. As you move forward in the writing process, it’s important to choose the right protagonist.

Learn more about how to create a protagonist in a story

3. Then, Write the Perfect First Line

Great first lines have the power to entice your reader enough that it would be unthinkable to set your story down. If you want to hook your reader, it starts with writing the perfect first line.

We’ve written a full post about how to write the perfect first line, but here are five quick tips:

  • Like the opening of a film, invite us into the scene.
  • Surprise us.
  • Establish a voice.
  • Be clear.
  • See if you can tell the entirety of your story in a single sentence.

4. Break the Story Into a Scene List

Every story is composed of a set of scenes which take place in a specific place and time. A scene list keeps track of your scenes, helping you organize your story and add detail and life at each step.

Scene lists do two main things:

  • Provide structure to your story
  • Show you which parts need more work

You don’t have to follow your scene list exactly, but they definitely help you work through your story, especially if your writing over multiple sittings.

For more about how to create a scene list, check out our guide here.

5. Only Now Should You Research

If you’re like me, you want to start researching as soon as you get an idea so that you can pack as much detail into the story as possible. The problem is that if you research too soon, what you find will distort your story, causing it to potentially break under the weight of what you’ve learned.

Other writers never research, which can leave their story feeling fuzzy and underdeveloped.

By waiting until your story is well on its way, you can keep it from getting derailed by the research process, and by this point you’ll also be able to ask very specific questions about your story rather than following tangents wherever they take you.

So go fill in that scene list with some hard, cold facts!

6. Write/Edit/Write/Edit/Write/Edit

It’s time to get some serious writing done.

Now that you know who your protagonist is, have the perfect first line, have created your scene list, and have done your research, it’s time to finally get this story written.

We all write differently. Some write fast in multiple drafts, others write slow and edit as they go. I’m not going to tell you how you should be writing. Whatever works for you, just get it done.

For a thorough process on editing your story, check out my guest post on Positive Writer.

7. Publish!

I firmly believe publishing is the most important step to becoming a writer. That’s why I’ll tell you that once your story is finally written, it’s not finished until it’s published.

Now, you don’t necessarily need to get published by Glimmer Train or Narrative. Instead, what if you got feedback from a writing friend or even by our Becoming Writer community?

If you want your short story to be as good as it can be, get feedback—first from a small group of friends or other writers, and then from a larger community of readers.

The worst thing you can do for your story is to hide it away out of fear or even feigned indifference.

Now, go get your story out into the world.

The Only Short Story They’ll Ever Read

As you write your short story, I want you to ask yourself a question:

Annie Dillard said:

One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

Don’t hold back. Don’t save ideas. Don’t write something you feel you should write.

Instead, write something that is wholly you, a story so bound to your soul that it would be impossible to mistake it for the work of another writer.

In other words, don’t write the best story. Write your best story.

And above all, have fun. 🙂

Do you like to write short stories? What is your favorite part? Let me know in the comments!

PRACTICE

For today’s practice, let’s just take on step #1, write the basic story, the gist of the idea, the story as you’d tell it to a friend. Don’t think about it too much, and don’t worry about going into detail. You have six other steps to do that. Just write.

Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Bob Ranck

    ! ! ! JACKPOT ! ! !

    I mean it! Finally, after months and months of reading literally hundreds of blog posts and comments, I find that you have addressed the writing of short stories in a manner that is direct, practical, and clear.

    It is not my intention to write TGAN. It never was.

    I hope, rather, to entertain with short stories drawn from the experiences of my living. This post has illuminated a clear path through the (often valuable, genuinely valid, but – for me, anyway – not-directly-relevant) facts, experiences and anecdotes of other writers and would-be practitioners of the art that all seem focused on novel-length work.

    I would encourage you to entertain the possibility of more posts on the art form and production of short stories.

    Bob Ranck

    • Wow, Bob. That’s so good to hear.

      Speaking of short story articles, have you read my book Let’s Write a Short Story? You might enjoy it! Check out letswriteashortstory.com.

  • Susan Barker

    The picture on how to write a short story is pretty much how I wrote my first one and have started my second. I had my first one critiqued, then revised it to the critters suggestions (they made perfect sense) and my story has improved considerably. I thought I was being lame on how I came to write them, but I see now, I accidentally stumbled on the formula for writing. Thanks Joe. I’m writing easier now.

    • Love that, Susan. Like Neil said, there is no formula. You have to write the story the way it wants to be written. But I find that I need structure to keep myself motivated and moving, so this process usually helps me stay focused. Glad you’re finding the writing process easier!

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  • This is such a great post, Joe! I used to be primarily a short story writer but have been working on a novel for so long I feel as though I can’t remember how short stories work – but this brought it all back, and in a much better more clear cut manner than my old ways! I used to meander through a short story like a blind woman in the dark until I bumped into the ending – but I had a lot more time on my hands to do such meandering than I do now, so I’ll definitely give this technique a try!

    • I’ve done the same, Dana. However haltingly and messy my process has been, though, it usually follows this rough pattern I listed above. Has that been true for you as well?

      • I was always a “pantser” for stories, and would start with a concept or opening scene, and then feel my way through. It could take weeks to get a first draft. Then I’d edit. The first step of yours blew me away, the idea of writing a “story” without any pressure to make it great, to just get to the gist of it, is pretty brilliant. I often put so much pressure on myself to get it right on the page that it slows me down. I’m already at work (in my head) on part 1 of a story I’ve been meaning to rewrite, and I feel very confident about it thanks to your advice 🙂

        • There is nothing wrong with pantsing it! I would be labeled a “pantser” but as I tell every one, it only looks that way. Outlines form around character so quickly in my head, it seems to be unplanned, but that is not true. I always have an outline, I just don’t spend a lot of time on it. The important thing is to write to end before doing any re-writing!

  • Joe,

    I’ve never been a big fan of writing short stories. They’ve always seemed like “a good start on a novel-length story”.

    But your outline for writing a short story has me rethinking that philosophy. I may just give it a try.

    Thanks for a new idea on a Saturday morning!

    • DO IT! And let me know how it goes, Carrie. 🙂

    • Heidi Staseson

      Agreed! ….on a Saturday afternoon! Fabulous tips to try. Thanks, Joe.

    • Short stories are an important marketing tool for all writers. And so is flash fiction. Lee Goldberg, creator/head writer for Monk and several other TV mystery series, writes short stories and novels using the Monk character. I hate the TV show Monk, but loved the short story Mr. Monk and The Seventeen Steps in the Dec 2010 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I plan to read some of novels. Lee Goldberg is an excellent writer. The stories and novels support the TV series and the TV series supports the short stories and novel.

      If you plan to traditionally publish, published short stories can get you a better agent and open door that may otherwise stay shut.

      If you plan to self-publish, free short stories using your characters can be a good way to turn non-fans in customers for your wears. Think on them as test for readers–but don’t think it while you are writing the story.

      I play to use this strategy to publish my Old West book series.

  • Wow, this is a very creepy story, Tom! You should work on it!

  • Patrick WH Lee

    Reading this post made me reflect on my own writing routine. I tend to do steps 1-5 in one sitting, pumping out ~2,500-3,500 words in an hour, which is usually all I have for a short story. It’s the editing that definitely takes up the most time. I give it a day before going back and seeing how I can optimize the plot and the finer details.

    The number one motivating factor for me to finish writing is my initial interest and excitement of the original idea for the story itself. A wasted story is such a shame, after all.

    • Impressive Patrick. I could do Steps 1-3 in one sitting, but breaking it into scenes, and especially the research, take me a lot of time.

      • Scrivener is a great tool for breaking it into workable chances. My second most favorite thing about it!

        • Agreed Cynthia! Have you seen my review of it? http://thewritepractice.com/scrivener

          • I had the exact same experience! I need to learn about the word count goals. My favorite feature is the ability to move scenes around and then read it as one long document without actually moving anything.

            I am new at it, but look forward to learning more! Great review!

  • How to write short story? For me he only way is to order it on custom essay writing services reviews pa. To write something you need to be creative person, and it’s not about me 🙁

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  • Love this post! Your first point, write the entire story, is great piece of advice. I say this all this time, “Write the story from beginning to end before doing any re-writing!”

    Research being the #5 is great! I don’t find many other writer’s agreeing with on this. They will insist on doing the research upfront. I will see them a year later and ask how the project is going and the answer will be, “I’m still doing research.” I call it The Blackhole of Research and many writers get sucked it. I fell into it once myself when working on a play based on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I got caught up it wanting to know if Shakespeare wrote the sonnets or not. I never wrote the play. The research thoroughly obscured what I believe would have been an interesting musical. For my series of novel set in the old west, I’m using a time line of events with scant details. I found I need this for the storytelling. But that is it.

    I agree with you 100% about Scrivener. It has a bit of learning curve, but is worth it. I started to using it on my last story and now am using it to edit my novel. You can rearrange your scenes any way you want and then read is if it was a continuous document, but without changing the original order of scenes. Valuable in the editing process. It made me happy!

    The Only Story They’ll Ever Read. This is excellent advice. It is where many talented writer’s fail.

    How I Write Short Stories
    It takes me about 30 hours to do a draft of a story and then three times that to edit. If I have a real deadline (Not the self imposed kind) I can write it in 8 hours or less and edit it in 12.

    I have learned that all I have to do is start writing and a story will emerge. Every time I do a writing prompt, I end up with a story. Every time I write for practice or to take a break from another project, I end up with a story. They are not always good.

    Something unusual about me. I hate writing first drafts and love, love, love re-writing them.

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  • Collis Harris

    Once again, Joe, you cut through all the garbage that’s usually out there about writing to make the process simple. I especially like the idea of doing research after fleshing out the story. I was doing research before starting and I drove myself into a sticky mess. Thank you for pointing out the obvious – even though it wasn’t obvious to me.

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  • eric miller

    I was alone, sitting next to a window on a commercial flight paid for by another who I was convinced cared little for my well being while offering an all expense paid year in a foreign land, no strings attached accept the one holding the sword of Damocles.

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  • Senator

    One thing I would add, and it’s the best practice I’ve picked up over the years, is to start with the ending. So for number #3, I would suggest come up with both the open and close and fill in the rest.

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  • Jill Upshaw

    Thank you so much for this post. It finally got me started on a short story I have been wanting to write for more than a year. Writing down the basic story helped me see the story first.

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  • Kakeu Flora

    Thank You… the guide is helpful. Our Lecturer gave an assignment she obliged that we must write a short story in our Journal but i think with your guide i’m going to make it great in the procedure of writing my short story…Thank Alot.

  • Rachel Myers

    Thank you for this guide! My son is in eighth grade and assigned to write a short story in his honors English class. He’s very analytical and excelling in science and math. He does well in English but this short story has him flummoxed. He keeps saying he doesn’t know how to write a story, which is perplexing because throughout elementary school he wrote long, imaginative stories well above his grade level.

    He desperately wants to write this short story but It’s as if his analytical mind has blocked access to his imagination and creativity. What served him well as a child has been squashed by puberty and the inevitable march to maturity. Oh, the sadness.

    I just have a feeling though your guide will provide the structure he’s seeking and reopen the pathway to his creativity. It’s still there. We see it all the time. Your guide is organized around the process with time frames to boot! What more could an analytical mind want.

  • Sara

    Thank you so much for this post. Sometimes the story gets lost while spending time researching. I always believed the story benefited from a little brewing time before taking on a life outside of my mind. I see now that I’ve been missing out on the valuable steps that can take place once the story is down and the transformation that can take place to form a short story. Your advice is elegant in it’s simplicity.

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  • Szymon K. Paczkowski

    Great post, but I have one question though to the numer 5.

    What am I supposed to research? Research for what? I just don’t understand this.

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  • Jacqueline Kwan

    Thanks for breaking this process down into simple steps! I naturally tend to sit down and spill out the whole story but often don’t know where to go from there. Your post gives me guidelines on how to approach the editing process that I know my work needs.

    The best part is your distinction between “the story” and “the short story”. Knowing that makes it so much easier to write that first draft – without agonizing over a sloppy beginning or the overly vague details that require more research.

    What a great way to get into your writing with the confidence that you’ll know how to make it better later!

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  • Mwai Gichimu

    Wow! You make it sound soo easy. Got a load of stories at different stages and feel I should try your steps.

    Thanks,
    Mwai Gichimu
    http://www.creativeheritage.org

  • pat m

    I didn’t realize until fairly recently that short stories were . . . well, so short. I typically write fanfiction that would be consider more of a novella at least 40,000 words. I actually don’t like reading short stories less than 7 chapters and/or 10,000 words. I don’t know I just like more meat on my books than the typical 7 chapter deal.

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  • The Cyan-sinity

    A Day in the Life of the Samurai.

    It was an ordinary day — in the life of the samurai, that is. Samurai and heir to the Hagi residential, Kento Kadesheke, was engaged in a duel with his well recognized, self esteemed master.

    “Dodge,” commanded his brain as he curled into a ball and escaped a fatal blow by what marked his people, the sword. Then he leapt up and swished his sword here and there, in defence. Next, he went all-out in a sword batting contest with his master. This gave his time to regain his breath. Now, as many know, the more experienced mostly comes on top, so was the case here. Tired and impatient, Kento tried to disarm his master and opponent. His master expected it and dodged it, not so long before launching a barrage of sword hits, disarming Kento.

    Per the rules, disarms end battles, so Kento bowed and fetched his sword. He asked “What did I do wrong, milord,” His master smiled and gently said ” Nothing but thou were a bit impatient,” he added “I can see quick and great improvement,” Now all of this was said in Japanese, but I daren’t mention in imagined sesquipedalophobia

  • Jolyon Sykes

    The importance of step six cannot be overstated. I think a second pair of eyes is essential for editing. For example, this non-sentence is from Joe’s promo for his book: http://letswriteashortstory.com/why-short-stories/ “Even more importantly, to practice deliberately have to put your writing skills to the test.” See what I mean?