7 Fundamentals of Short Story Writing

(Leanna Falconer has published short stories and novels under L.F. Falconer. Her short stories have appeared in several genre magazines, and she has published two collections, Beyond the Veil: 13 Tales on the Dark Side and Through a Broken Window: Ten Dark Tales of the Strange and Deranged  in addition to her novels. Visit her author page on Amazon here.)

By Leanna Falconer

I’m going to keep pretending to know what I’m doing until I actually do. When it comes to writing, that’s my guiding philosophy, so when I was asked if I might share some insights into writing the short story, I was left a bit flummoxed and hardly knew where to begin. Sure, I’ve sold a few stories, but do I really know what I’m doing?

 Are there any real secrets to mastering the short story form aside from having a love for them in the first place? For the majority of us, they were what we cut our teeth on: Bedtime stories, fables, myths, folklore, legends, campfire and fairy tales. And there are as many different types of short stories out there as there are novels. The long and the short form of writing share a lot in common. Neither one is superior to the other. They both have their strengths and their weaknesses. Whether you favor one form over the other, mastering the art of the short story can only enhance the mastery of writing the novel.

The short story can often be more powerful than the novel—it is the “impact” of the single bullet rather than the entire, extended battle. A novel is a roller coaster. A short story is a zipline. The novel is swimming the English Channel. The short story is a quick dip in the pool. But don’t confuse the word short with simple, for it can be argued that the shorter the story, the more difficult it can be to write. But hopefully, I can pass along a few tips I’ve learned over the years to make it a little easier.

A short story is written with a controlled state of mind. There is no room for indulgence, no excess. There is only room for story at a steady pace, saying only what’s necessary. As Chekhov stated: “The art of writing is the art of abbreviation.” The short story is a prime example of this.

  1. Short Story Defined

Short stories can be divided into two broad categories: Literary and Genre. The Literary short story most often focuses on meaning over entertainment. It’s meant to offer an insight or understanding of the human condition which often entails a great deal of work on the part of the reader to decipher, analyze, and discuss. Genre short stories, on the other hand, are geared more toward entertainment. They can also tackle complex issues, but offer immediate entertainment value and an escape from reality. My focus in this article will be on Genre fiction. It’s what I prefer to read and it’s what I write.

Secondly, short stories are further divided by word count. Micro fiction is generally 500 words or fewer. Flash fiction ranges from 500-1500 words. The average short story is 1500-7000 words, with the sweet spot ranging from 2500-5000 words. Long short stories range between 7000-20,000 words. Once you’ve reached the 20,000 word range you’ve moved into the novelette category.

Consider this article—at 2500 words, it is the length of an average short story, or novel chapter. What could you create with 2500 words?

  1. Mood and Substance

Short stories require a well-developed Main Character and one or two plot events. Keep it simple. Keep it clean. No clutter. No extraneous details. No subplots. No need to flesh out your side characters. Keep named characters to a minimum.

Plot is necessary, but a short story isn’t about masterful plotting. It’s more about “feeling.” What emotion are you trying to deliver? What impression do you want to leave behind in the reader? How will you articulate that feeling? Will the story be sad? What kind of sadness? Grief, despair, disillusionment? Or will it be happy? Perhaps frightening? Nihilistic? Angry? Key emotions stem from real life situations, so you often don’t have to search very far for the key emotion to hinge your story upon. When your reader closes the book, what feeling will be lingering in their soul?

Edgar Allan Poe said, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.” Choose a key emotion and build on it.

  1. Point of View

First Person POV is favored in many short stories because it’s the quickest, easiest way to give necessary insight into the Main Character. The second easiest is Third Person Limited POV. This POV is similar to First Person in that only a single character is “relating” the story. Third Person Omniscient can be a comfortable choice if narrative distance doesn’t harm the overall story. And a short story can be the ideal venue for the Second Person POV. The beauty of the short story is how easy it is to experiment with different writing styles. It’s also easy to go back and alter if another POV works better than the one you’ve already written.

No matter what POV you choose, let the reader get to know the character(s) through their actions, thoughts, dialogue, and moral creed. This is best done through the use of “showing” not “telling.”  

  1. Details

Character is the most important element in any story. You want a Main Character the reader can identify with or cheer for, or, in certain cases, one to rally against. Many short stories have fairly generic settings, especially in fantasy or sci-fi short stories, so the word budget is not wasted on detailed world-building. In today’s world, most people can conceptualize a spaceship’s bridge, or a medieval castle, or a creepy cabin in the woods without an abundance of detailed descriptions. We’ve already been there.

However, sometimes the setting serves as a story character, and in that case, it is given a lot of leeway. A great example of setting as character is Algernon Blackwood’s, The Willows, an excellent study piece for anyone wishing to use setting as a character. To Build a Fire, by Jack London is another. Setting is important in most stories and must be given as much attention as it needs, but generally speaking, try not to turn your Main Character into an observer of the scenery. Everything must be vital to the story.

Don’t get me wrong: Details are crucial elements in the short story. The right details give the story its power. The key is knowing which details to include and which to toss. Keep your details and descriptions concise and relevant. Keep asking yourself: Is it vital for the reader to know this? Is it vital to the story? If it is important, tell it. If not, leave it out. Word count adherence can be what makes or breaks a marketable story, so learn to use words to your best advantage.

Sometimes the things left unsaid are more important than something specifically spelled out. Trust your readers to use their own imaginations. They do have them. Guide gently where you want those imaginations to go, then let them fill in the blanks.

One way to practice using word economy is to write Drabbles. A Drabble is a 100-word micro fiction story. It can either be close to 100 words, or exactly 100 words (not counting the title). I prefer the exact form when “drabbling” as it forces me to use my best words. Drabbles help teach you to write between the lines, and to trust your reader’s perceptibility. And they can be addictingly fun!

  1. Structure

There is some latitude here, but for beginners, it is recommended to use either the three-act structure: Introduction/Main Issue/Resolution, or the Five Point Structure: Exposition/Conflict/Rising Action/Climax/Denouement.

Step One. Begin with a hook—an intrigue, a mood, something “different” that leaves a question in the reader’s mind. In a short story it can be preferable to start where the action starts, so make certain that hook is not just an interesting lead in. With practice, you can easily get away with beginning a short story during the rising action with a little exposition thrown in where necessary. Remember: In a short story, every word counts.

So where does a story start? Answer: When something happens out of the ordinary. The following are several examples of some interesting short story openings:

“I pulled open the top of my one-piece bathing suit and poured a good amount of my ex-husband’s ashes down the front.” (Swisher Sweets, by Laura Newman) (Short Story)

“Slinking under the door and pressing against the windowpane, the steamy Mississippi night would not be refused.” (Faintly Sweet, by Alexandra Louise) (Flash Fiction)

“I never meant to get a clown, but she came with the flat and clearly had no intention of leaving, so what was I supposed to do?” (When it’s Time to Start Re-examining Your Life Choices, by Michelle Ann King) (Flash Fiction)

The first example offers intrigue and gives a sense of setting (near or in water). The reader wants to know more. The second example sets a darkly, sensual mood with a suggestion of the setting. The reader wants to know more. The third is just plain fun, setting both mood and an inkling that a humorous story might follow. The reader wants to know more.

Whatever the story, it can only benefit from a strong, opening hook which either sets the tone, introduces the character, or captures the reader’s interest. If it can accomplish all three, it’s a winner.

Step Two. Tell the story. Is there a message, a reason for telling this story? If it is merely for entertainment, that’s okay. But an enjoyable story, plus a message, makes that story stand out. It leaves an impact. Try to consider, “What will the reader take away from this?” Keep in mind you are on a restricted word budget, so use those words judiciously. You don’t want to squander your resources.

Step Three. End the story. Don’t just end the story, but end it with oomph. No cliffhangers, please. The story can end abruptly, it can be happy, it can be tragic, but it must be an ending that satisfies. If it simply dwindles, you’ll leave behind an unhappy reader.

Unsure how to end it? Reread it up to the penultimate scene, then sit back and ask yourself, “how would the reader like this to end?” This might give you a fresh perspective and present some realistic alternatives with impacts which can help aid you in formulating a powerful ending. The story’s final “punch”, that key emotion that you’ve been building within the reader, is what you want to deliver—to make the reader sit back, take a breath, and maybe even re-read the story just to feel it all over again.

Once you’ve written your ending, ask, does it make sense based on the story told? Is it strong, and deliver an emotional impact? The ending of the story needs as much care and attention as the initial hook.

  1. Edit, Refine, and Rewrite

Start by simply writing the story. Have your idea, your plot. Outline if that’s your style. Once the story is written you’ll have an idea of where it stands. Are you writing for yourself, or for a certain market? The answer to this will help guide you on word count and subject.

I tend to write in skeletal form. I start with the basics, write thinly, and add layers throughout my rewriting process. Some people write fat, then trim and shave words off. Write however works best for you; there is no single “right” way to write. Simply keep in mind during the rewriting and editing process: consistency in POV, setting, weak vs. strong verbs, showing vs. telling, strong imagery, spelling, grammar, dialogue. Watch your flow and cadence. It’s a good idea to read it aloud, or if possible, have someone else read it aloud to you. This is an excellent way to catch minor flaws in the overall readability of the piece. Be aware of the strength of the emotional impact, and focus on plot holes or character inconsistencies. If the story seems to drag in places, punch it up by cutting back on unnecessary details, actions, or dialogue. If it moves too swiftly, slow it down by adding actions, dialogue, etc. But always keep your word count in mind.

What about the title? Is it something unique? Intriguing, but not explanatory? What makes sense after the story? A good title is as important as a good story.

  1.  Practice

There is really no right or wrong way to write a story. There are countless structure styles, ideas, and plots to work with. Reading and writing short stories is the best way to learn the craft. Keep in mind that every sentence builds your story. Every sentence, every word has its own function to strengthen and enhance the story overall. Each one must do its duty to mood, pace, flavor. Each sentence is aimed toward furthering the story. Practice cadence with long and short sentences.

The story itself is also aimed. Keep it lean and uncluttered. A short story is like an exclusive club. Anything that does not serve the story does not belong.

Don’t strive too hard for “meaning” or the “intention.” Let it grow organically with the story in order to blossom in the reader’s mind when the story is complete. Few readers want to be preached to. Intention is drawn out from between the lines. The perceptive reader draws it out.

Plot is kept simple. Unless necessary to the plot, keep physical descriptions of characters and setting to a minimum.

End the story when the story ends. No meandering. No dawdling.

What do you do with the story once it’s written? There are some options: Literary and Genre publications, either online or in print; anthologies; contests; online story sites such as Wattpad; self-publishing, either as a single story or as a collection; or if you’re exceptional, traditional publishing.

Even if you do not intend to write short stories for publication, learning how to write them can benefit in a number of ways. It helps the writer learn the skill of “showing.” It can help build the writer’s usage of strong, precise words in order to paint vivid scenes. It’s a fun way to experiment with style and finally, it can help the writer learn to strengthen chapters within novels. And if you happen to sell a few here and there, it builds your credentials.  

A short story possesses its own challenges. In essence, it is one idea, one character, tightly written, with an economy of words. How do you make a reader care about the character in such a short time? How do you achieve the emotional impact? This is where your imagination can shine. And practice can make perfect. With dozens of short stories written and over a dozen short stories sold, I’m still practicing. Every. Single. Time.

A bit of wisdom from Ray Bradbury: “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”