5 Key Elements for Successful Short Stories

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As the editor of a genre fiction website, I’ve seen my share of short stories—the good and the bad.

No matter what kind of fiction you write, being able to craft a good short story can help you sharpen your skills. Ray Bradbury recommended writing one short story a week—it seemed to work out pretty well for him.

Successful Short Stories

Photo by identity chris is (creative commons). Adapted by The Write Practice.

I’ve noticed that regardless of genre, from romance to horror to sci-fi, the main reasons for why I have to turn stories down are often then same—there’s a few recurring elements writers across the board seem to struggle with that hold them back from a successful short story.

What Makes Short Stories Successful?

Here are five important elements many writers in my short story submissions overlook:

1. Get right into the heart of the conflict

In a short story (especially flash fiction) don’t waste time setting up your scene or sharing your hero’s musings. Pull your reader to the heart of the story’s conflict right away.

2. Share only what’s critical to the moment

This issue is most stereotypically associated with fantasy, but I’ve seen it across the board. There’s no need to give your reader buckets of backstory. Tell us what we need, right when we need it. Everything else should be cut.

3. Don’t get Artsy

You can stuff your flowery prose and philosophical dialogue and ambivalent phrasing where the sun don’t shine. Don’t give me Artsy—Artsy does not beget art. Just give me a good story.

When it comes to Artsiness, I have a personal rule: If I find myself deeply in love with my words, that’s a good sign I need to come back to that section and make some cuts later.

4. Build to the climax efficiently

In short stories—emphasis on short—your plot needs to build efficiently. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word should take the reader closer to the climax. If a piece doesn’t serve this purpose, cut it. Short stories just do not have space for meandering.

5. Have a clear conclusion

For some reason, a lot of writers seem to have a lot of love for the ambiguous story ending. See guideline #3—don’t get Artsy. It may feel lofty to get all Inception on your story’s conclusion, but specificity trumps a confused reader every time.

I see this most often among less experienced writers who don’t yet trust their stories to do the heavy lifting—but relax. A compelling story will do the heavy lifting for you.

Mastering the art of the short story can help you hone the critical skills for writing of any kind. Why? Because this condensed form forces you to get merciless with your storytelling, and forces weaknesses to expose themselves.

These five elements are ones I have seen writers struggle with over and over again among the submissions to my short story site. Look out for them in your work, and you are well on your way to compelling, cohesive craft.

Does your story have the keys elements of cohesion?

PRACTICE

Revisit a short story you have written (or write a new one!). Are the key elements of cohesive stories present? What did you do well in this story? Where are more revisions needed? Share your thoughts in the comments!

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

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26 Comments

  1. Len Heggarty

    So what do I write about? To everyone else that is the simple question. For me it is the hardest question. I have never been able to solve it. I don’t know what to write about. Nothing comes to mind.

    Reply
    • Helaine Grenova

      What is the first thing on your mind Len? Write about a family member or a pet. Maybe you went on vacation recently and remember some cool event. Use all of your life experiences. You don’t have to create a new world. Just use your own and find something worth reading.

      Reply
    • Dawn Atkin

      … keep going with that train of thought and see where it takes you. Write without stopping.

      Possible titles:
      The Man Who Had No story
      The Man Who Lost/Found His Tale
      The Lost Bard in Wonderland
      The Writer that Kept on Writing
      The Unsolved Tale of Nothing

      Have fun
      Dawn 🙂

      Reply
  2. AB

    Using the five words I suggested to Len Heggarty, I wrote the beginning of a story. I tried to write a whole short story, but there were too many angles and too little time. Also, although I have seen drones and have a friend who has one, I don’t really know how they operate. Anyway, here’s my story beginning:

    Parrot desert youth flowing James

    I was sitting at my desk when the earth began to shake.
    First a low rumble, and then a rattling sound as objects around me began to
    tremble. Scrambling to my feet, I raced toward the doorway, stumbling and
    rocking as the room vibrated. As I pushed open the door, there was an
    ear-splitting boom, and a huge fireball lit up the sky even though it was
    bright daylight.

    I started to turn back inside, but James was right behind
    me, pushing me out the door. “Earthquake!” he shouted. “Get outside!”

    “It’s not an earthquake,” I gasped. “Explosion!” Smoke
    filled the air, and debris began raining down on us. All around us, other
    people were flowing out of office buildings, screaming in panic and dashing
    blindly about.

    Inside or out? Where would I be safest? I chose the known
    over the unknown and ducked back into the building, with James right on my
    heels, just as a huge glowing hunk of metal smashed into the street in front of
    our office. More screams erupted and a young man stumbled toward us, bent
    almost double, his face streaming blood. James reached out and yanked him
    through the door, where he slid to the floor and crumpled in a heap.

    “We’ve got to get out of here!” James’s face was stark white
    and his eyes were wide and bulging with terror. The rising wail of sirens and
    the crackle of fire fed my panic. I could feel my heart racing and the back of
    my throat tasted sour.

    “What about him?” I gestured to the youth. “We can’t just
    leave him here!”

    “Grab his arm,” James bent and hoisted the teen to his feet,
    where he tottered unsteadily. I slipped to his other side, and slid his arm
    across my shoulders. He was moaning softly and the blood running down his face
    was slick and smelled like copper. But we managed to drag him toward the back
    door, where James’s truck was parked.

    It was a scene from hell – random fires and smoke and
    wounded people wandering in a daze. James hoisted the teen into the front seat
    and I climbed in the other side so we had him sandwiched between us, but his
    head lolled on his chest and he leaned heavily on my arm.

    James shoved the truck in gear and tore out of the parking
    lot the back way. We were only a short distance from the edge of town and he
    knew all the back streets. He kicked it into four-wheel drive and left the
    roads altogether as other traffic fleeing town congested the roads. When we
    finally reached the sandy desert just beyond the town limits, he slowed and we
    looked back at the smoking ruins of our hometown.

    Slamming the truck into park, James jumped out and unlocked
    the toolbox in the bed. “I’ve just got to see something real quick,” he said,
    and to my surprise he pulled a miniature helicopter from the box. “It’s a Parrot
    mini-drone,” he explained.

    Reply
  3. 52WeeksOfFitness

    Terrific post! Thanks for these great tips. I love writing short stories and these ideas will help my future work.

    Reply
  4. Helaine Grenova

    My most recent short story, “the Maze” has gone through many days of rigorous editing but I think it has most of the elements of cohesion. I think it may be a little too artsy and has a vague ending. Below is the ending paragraph. What do you think of the ending?

    Basically this man enter the maze on a dare and goes through and find the meaning of his life is worthless unless he starts living for himself and the world instead of being the selfish a greedy person that he was.

    The man had finally learned enough from the maze that he
    could leave it and live out his life in a way that would benefit himself and
    others. He knew that other people would think that he had gone crazy in the
    maze, like so many had before him, when he exits and starts changing his
    life. But he no longer cared how others
    perceived him. He knew now that his life
    could be whatever he wanted it to be. No
    one, not even his friends, could tell him what to do, because none of them
    deserved to have a say in his life. Only
    he has the power to make his own choices and to live his life. There would be rumors about this sudden
    change … but there will always be rumors surrounding the maze and those who
    enter it.

    Reply
    • AB

      The only thing I would add is the emphasis on show, not tell. Think of “A Christmas Carol.” We see how Scrooge has changed by his actions – the differences in the way he acts and reacts to the same triggers from earlier in the story. A summation is good, but you might put your character back into a scene where his earlier selfishness was evident, but now show him making an unselfish choice. Just my opinion…

      Reply
  5. Anna Lauren

    Most weeks I participate in 3-4 flash fiction blogs. It’s fun, and it makes you hone your editing. This is one I wrote last year…

    The bus was late. Not today, please not today. She wasn’t usually jumpy, but there was something about this fog. It was different – it didn’t feel right. She looked nervously about her as the fog swirled closer; growing thicker as it crept out of the trees like a living thing. Its white tendrils reaching out like fingers to caress her face.

    CRAACK! Someone…something was lurking in the trees.

    Come on! Come on! She silently urged the bus to arrive. Maybe I should start walking. Maybe I…

    CRAA–ACK! Louder this time.

    The familiar shape of the Number 24 bus rolled around the corner, slowed and pulled up in front of her. She threw herself on board and took the seat behind the driver.

    Strange, there was no one else on the bus. Where’s the conductor?

    CRAACK!

    Oh dear God, help me!

    A hand gripped her shoulder, “Where’s ya ticket?”

    Reply
    • Bruno Coriolano

      Do you have the list of these blogs?

      Reply
      • Anna Lauren

        Hi Bruno, yes, I can give you a list. Email me at keleitha at yahoo dot com dot au
        The prompts are photos, a sentence, a photo plus 5 words and range from 150-750 words.

        Reply
        • Young_Cougar

          I’d like the list as well….is it alright if I e-mail you as well?

          Reply
          • Anna Lauren

            Absolutely 😀

        • Bruno Coriolano

          Okay, then.

          Reply
  6. Franssss

    Love these tips! Especially since I myself struggle sometimes when it comes to being artsy and building towards the climax. I have to ask, though, if short story writers sometimes follow the 3 act structure? You know, like should you still setup your story in such a way that your readers at least know your character’s inner conflict, as well as their strengths. That way, once you attack your character’s flaws and force them to change, it becomes much more resonant towards the readers?

    Reply
  7. Diana Stevan

    Emily, this is a great reminder. The only question I have is with the ambiguous ending. Alice Munro, Nobel prize-winning author, writes ambiguous endings. I love her work.

    Reply
  8. Luther

    Please give some advise on the length of the story. I know that there is no specific word count, but some guideline, some information to consider on the length would be helpful to me.

    Reply
    • bovii

      Just long enough to tell the story you want to tell. That’s probably cliche but I’m not a writer.

      Reply
      • Luther

        You are now! The chances of being published are slim, but it is worthwhile goal to pursue in my opinion. The more dialog and writings that people produce gives us all a better chance of some type of connection.
        I am thinking that a short story should be around 5k words, but I realize that the type of story and the final publication goal can change the ultimate length of the story.

        Reply
  9. Brandon Taylor

    I have to disagree about the artsy part. Nothing turns me off a story faster than a lack of taste or aesthetic. Artsy doesn’t mean flowery prose–artsy means that the writer has a voice. All this “cut to the chase” business is great, but it’s too skinny to sustain me as a reader. I want mood. I want tone. I want artistry. Art is more than events stacked sequentially end on end with a little bit of plot-relevant dialogue to tie all together.

    Reply
    • Chloe Bell

      Well said Brandon. “Too skinny” is perfect. I’m trying to find a balance. I don’t want readers looking under the page for more, nor do I want them left groaning under the weight of excess. However, I wouldn’t mind if they were left content and happy they had worn their stretchy pants.

      Reply
  10. Young_Cougar

    Faith’s hands shook as max led me to the farthest corner of the lunch court.

    “Damn, he actually showed up,” Max muttered as we reached our group of friends.

    Faith glared at the boy walking up to her. God, I hated him.

    “Hello Faith.”

    “Eddie,” I whispered. Her insides churned. Shit, she loved him.

    “I’m sorry,” he said steadily, looking behind at the other guys. “I know I shouldn’t have led you on. Sorry, I just think of you as a friend.”

    Max let out a laugh, “Hey, Ed. Are you really going to let her slap you dude?”

    “Sure,” Eddie accepted readily, his face radiating confidence. “I deserve it, besides how much could it hurt!”

    “Hey!” He groaned, his face burned as he raised one hand to touch the recently abused cheek. Shit, it was swelling up.

    He looked around to find the rest of the group gasping too.

    “Haha…I’m ok.”

    “Fuck you!” Faith growled as her hand made contact with the other cheek with a hard Thuck! She saw a tear run down the swelling cheeks before she turned around to leave for the next class.

    “Wow! You actually slapped him!” Max exulted as she caught up to me.

    I shrugged, and wondered if he’d tonight….or ever again.

    – I love this article. I needed this wake up call. P.S I’d been working on this story and it was going toward 3000 words when all I wanted was to get this scene out. So, thanks you!

    Reply
  11. egdot t

    Try reading Pushkin or Chekhov. Learn from the best. Emulate them. There is no formula. What does “artsy” mean anyway?

    Reply
  12. Dori Acuff

    My journey today is going to an amazing day for I will never give up. The places that I might see the mountains I might go over. The little towns I will go through and people I may see. You never know where my journey might end because today just has begun. For I want to see everything to the tallest tree to the smallest creek that I come upon. The flowers to stop and smell the beautiful of each petal that is painted with the brightens color in them.

    As I look out my window as I am driving down the road seeing all the farm land wondering what might they be growing here. The next corner I turn it has come to me this field is for corn. Which most of the place I have been to has corn fields of acre on top of acre of land and also don’t forget the hay fields that run through the country side. Which helps feed all the livestock that you may see out the country side. The next time is not just cows or horse gracing it is also deer or elk or even the smallest of them all an antelope.

    As I am going down the interstate to come upon a bridge with the river run just right under it. With its raging force of water you could tell it is over flowing snow melt from the mountain above that once was cover with that white cold wet snow. The cold brisk of wind that hits on your face as you step out of the truck to stretch your legs for you have been in it for hours and hours. Looking down at the raging river below knowing it is freezing cold water.

    The next stop is in a small town miles down the road. As you get out of the truck and walk up to the store you see this woman and child. And you wondering as you walk in why they are there on the sidewalk with their bags of clothes. Thinking the whole time are they homeless, have their car broke down on them. Also wondering are they by themselves no one around them just the two of them.

    Reply
  13. Spawn_of_Santa

    Here’s a very short sci-fi humor one I wrote a while back… I’m thinking I may expand on it a bit, but it’s o.k. by itself I think.

    ________

    “See, I told you.”

    “I know, I know…”

    Resturep saw the mocking look his friend was giving him.

    “I KNOW…” Restureps’s frustration showed, “You’re an artist H’Terose, an artist.”

    “Naw,” H’Terose said, slapping his friend on the back, “I just have 10,000 cycles more experience than you.”

    “Can you believe what those damned furry things evolved into?”

    “Incredible isn’t it? You thought you were exterminating reptilian pests and you created something much worse.”

    “I know can you imagine if the colonists had landed amongst all that? They were stabbing each other with pointy sticks…who does that?”

    “And throwing rocks at each other with those big machines.” H’Terose sighed, his entire body deflated a little as he floated in zero g. “I guess we should throw caution to the wind and let them know, eh?” he turned to Resturep and said, “A 20% larger asteroid, that’s all you need. You have to wait another 20 to 30,000 solar cycles for final results, but you don’t have to come back and start over and wait another 4 to 9 million cycles!”

    “Yep. Thank you for your help ‘H’.” Resturep said, shaking his large hooded head. He and H’Terose, cheerful looks on both their mantels, turned and walked out of the observation bridge, “But like they say, third time’s the charm!”

    Resturep high tentacled his friend and mentor as they went to message the homeworld of their success.

    Reply
  14. Libby Owl

    I’ve been working on a few short stories recently, this being one of them. I would really appreciate some advice/critics.

    ~Bills~

    The highway stretched out before me. I allowed the car to speed past traffic. It felt good to be alone with my thoughts. There was plenty of time to think about my situation. By situation, I mean the lack of food in the pantry, and limited amount of money in my wallet. The money that I do have somehow manages to disappear by the morning, once my hangover’s passed. And then there was the rent. It’d be a miracle if I managed to cook up enough money for that by the end of the month! Not to mention the bills lying on the kitchen table.

    I picked up my phone as a notification popped up. It was James.
    “Can you drop off my lunch plz?”
    Great, yet another problem to deal with. I texted back,
    “Oops, sorry. Just buy food from the canteen”
    That was the third time this week that I had forgotten to make his lunch. Well, when there’s not enough food in the house, it’s rather hard to do so. Besides, he had some coins spare.

    Maybe I should get a job. Not a hard job, just one that would earn me enough money to get through the week, and still give me time to get out in the evening.

    No, I needed to stop that habit. James had scolded me plenty of times about it. It was a never-ending cycle of misery; not enough money, drown sorrows with drink, hangover in the morning, and so the circle continues. Why must life be so dependent on money!

    I slammed the breaks down in the car. Nearly missed a red light. I closed my eyes for just a second, clearing my head of anxiety, before driving off again. The burden upon my shoulders seemed too heavy for me alone to carry. But who else could? There was no loving husband in my household, my parents were living overseas, and I couldn’t possibly give such a burden to my son. I had to bear it myself. I had gotten through situations like this before, and I will get through it again. I hope.
    I glanced down at the Lotto ticket resting on the passenger seat. There was a small chance that I’d win the prize, and some chance is better than none. One day. One day I’ll win it. Then I would buy a nice, big house for James and I to live in, and go back to college for that arts degree so I can get a suitable job with plenty of income. Then I would pay off all our bills and fill up the pantry with delicious food. This fantasising was just pointless though. There was no way I would ever get enough money for all of that.

    Wee-oo! I was jolted awake from my thoughts by a police siren just behind me. I pulled the car over to the side of the road and rolled down the window, panicking. A man in uniform came up, “Driver’s license please.” I grabbed my wallet and got out the only thing in it. He peered at me closely, comparing the image, then nodded gruffly, and handed it back. I bit down on my lip. I never got in trouble! The taste of blood hung in my mouth.

    The policeman was scribbling something down. When he was finished, I was given a sheet of paper stating my offense as ‘speeding.’ I skimmed down the page, and rested on a large sum of money. My eyes nearly popped out of my head from the shock. I had to cover my mouth with my hand to stop myself screaming. Just what I needed. Another bill.

    Reply
  15. Courtnie

    Tick Tock, TIck TOck, TICK TOCK!!!!! The clock just keeps ticking louder and louder and louder as I sit in class taking my final exam. My mind goes blank as I try and answer the questions. “Oh know what am I gonna do? I can’t remember any of these answers. ” I start to sweat through my shirt, my pants are starting to look like I peed on myself. I hear this familiar voice and I freeze in place. “Alright everyone time is up pencil down, please place your exams on my desk and your free to go”. Noooooo! What am I going to do? I didn’t finish because I was day dreaming about not finishing the test. I was broken put of my trance by the sound of the end of school announcements.. Wow what a day, I hope this doesn’t really happen to me when I go take my final exams. Geesh what a dream.

    Reply

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