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.
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 all creative writing, short stories included.
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 this is less of a step-by-step process, and more like a general path 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 short stories. 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. 100-word micro fiction or 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 short story ideas. Don’t like any of those? Try writing something from real life!
- 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 become a short story writer? Here are seven steps on how to write a great short story:
1. First, Write the Basic Story in One Sitting
Start writing. 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.
"The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story." Stephen Koch
— Joe Bunting (@joebunting) July 17, 2015
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 or main character (though they often are), 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 sentence.
We’ve written a full post about how to write the perfect first line, but here are five quick writing tips for great first lines:
- Like the opening of a film, grab your reader’s attention by inviting them into the scene. Don’t start with backstory.
- Surprise us.
- Establish a voice and point of view (first person or third person, typically).
- 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 that 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:
- Provides story structure
- 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 you’re 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!
Now it’s time to get some serious writing done.
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 to a first draft.
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. But here are some questions to consider when editing short fiction:
- Is your point of view consistent?
- Do you have all the elements of story structure?
- Is your story an appropriate length? (Stories with a word count over 10,000 words are getting into novella territory. Try to keep your story around the typical 5,000 words.)
- Do you have a satisfying ending?
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 prestigious literary magazines to share your work. Instead, what if you got feedback from a writing friend or our Write Practice Pro 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!
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.