Penning down a short story is much easier than writing a lengthy novel. It doesn’t demand extensive character and plot development, and you can focus on a few fundamental scenes that crowd your mind. Suppose you’re obsessing over certain emotions and feelings and wish to channel them with a fleeting whirlwind of scenes, or you have a passion for writing but find a shorter time and length span ideal to see your ideas come to life; in that case, a short story format is a perfect medium for weaving your tale. But the first question that comes to mind is, how to write a short story guide?
While some writers get stuck on how to start a short story, others struggle with the short story format. If you have a habit of writing excessively while describing sceneries and setting the stage to introduce your characters, writing a short story can prove challenging. You see, a short story doesn’t offer much room to build upon plots and characters.
If you enjoy writing without confining your story within a specific word limit, a short story format may not be the right choice for you. But if you have a concise and brief story in mind, the short story outline will help you create something heartfelt and special. Budding fiction writers are often encouraged to experiment with their craft by starting with a short story before they make the lengthier commitment of a novel.
Ready for the challenge? Keep reading our in-depth guide to learn how to write a short story!
Getting Started: How to Start a Short Story
Creativity spurs with an idea, and to begin your short story; you need an engrossing idea that compels you to write. Most writers turn to the short story format when they’re playing different scenarios in their heads and would like to string them together without a lengthy storytelling commitment.
However, if that’s not you, head over to LivingWriter, a vibrant community for wordsmiths, to explore an abundance of inspiration and prompts for short story writing. You don’t need an overly complicated idea, especially if you’re just experimenting with short stories and would like to put your craft to the test. It’s wise to look within while seeking inspiration and mentally map all the issues, subject matters, and emotions you hold dear to your heart.
Some writers like to use the short story format to narrow their focus on particular emotions, feelings, and behaviors instead of narrating a tale from the beginning to the end. For instance, a short story can focus on moments exchanged between a married couple minutes before a brutal car crash. Another gripping scenario could be two former lovers catching up for dinner after decades of estrangement and the death of their respective spouses.
If you find yourself stuck around the complexities of how to start a short story, consider exploring some fun and engaging prompts. We strongly advise heading over to LivingWriter to explore different prompts and let the creative juices flow.
Now that we’ve covered our basics let’s explore some helpful tips that will ease you into crafting your first short story.
Tips to Get Creative with Short Story Writing
Before we dive into tips and tricks, let’s make one thing clear: there’s no pressure and hard rules around how to write a short story. You don’t need to weave a complex narrative that ticks all the boxes in the fiction checklist. The short story format offers ample room to enjoy creative freedom.
You can work with one character or bring in multiple characters. Likewise, the entire story can take place in one scene and setting, or you can bring around multiple settings. The best thing you can do is claim your creative freedom with confidence and keep it simple silly!
1. Begin with an outline
While short story writing doesn’t demand extensive and rich plot development, creating a detailed short story outline will prove immensely helpful. Your outline will serve as a guide, taking you from scene to scene as you pen down the tale. It’s a responsible and balanced approach to ensure you don’t forget your original ideas and thoughts while writing.
2. Keep it simple
That’s right. Some of the most highly acclaimed classics penned down by short story writers revolve around one character and setting. If you’re penning down your first story, adding too many characters can prove overwhelming. Sticking to one or two characters can help you focus on enriching the story with engaging conversations and actions.
A story with multiple characters can quickly get out of hand, forcing you to spiral off into various creative directions that had nothing to do with your original idea. Instead of complicating matters, keep it simple and focus on building a strong premise with limited characters and settings.
3. Write what you relate to
Here’s some valuable advice from one wordsmith to another: always write about experiences, feelings, events, and emotions that you deeply relate to in life. Writers are always encouraged to build their plots and premises by reflecting on real-life experiences. The best inspiration comes from moments you have lived, adventures you have undertaken, and journeys you have survived.
When we experience an emotion or participate in an activity, we are exposed to all its complexities and mundaneness. And this experience makes it possible to narrate a richly detailed and heartfelt experience. You will also find the best plots and ideas while reflecting on your own sorrows, blessings, challenges, and experiences.
Consider it a trip down memory as you write about that awfully awkward yet hilarious dinner you had with the parents of your high school girlfriend. Or perhaps, you’d like to experience a nourishing mental catharsis while narrating your fondest memory with a deceased loved one.
The point is to use your memories, experiences, and thoughts as a launchpad to unleash your creativity. Don’t hesitate to repurpose and reuse anecdotes you heard or made at random dinner parties and gatherings.
4. Inspiration is all around you – find it!
The magic lies in the ordinary, and you need a keenly observant eye to find it and bring it to life with your words. Look around you and seek inspiration from everything you see, from the clouds melting into the sky to the busy street view from your balcony. If you’re more interested in regaling human experiences and thoughts, seek inspiration from the people around you.
It’s wise to take permission when you’re using someone else’s memories, experiences and emotions, shared in secret, for a story. The confidentiality clause is a matter of ethics, and it can create legal troubles if handled irresponsibly. Luckily, there are many ways you can work around this without hurting anyone’s sentiments.
You can pen down engrossing tales of your childhood memories from your grandmother’s house, sharing hilarious anecdotes from the fights between your aunts and uncles. Or you could compile a fodder of riveting short stories from a friend’s terrible experiences with online dating.
Think of these experiences, events, and ideas as the centerpiece of an impeccable dinner table, and use your imagination to add in all the elements to create the perfect spread. While you’re hunting for inspiration and ideas, keep an eye on current affairs and news reports. Or you can head over to LivingWriter and browse prompts from various fiction genres and niches.
5. Never start a short story from the beginning
If you feel the need to tell a story from the beginning, the short story format may be the wrong choice. You should look into writing a novella or novel if you want to dive deep into scenes, settings, plots, and character development.
A short story outline never begins from the beginning but rather as close to the end as possible. It could even revolve around a scene from the middle of a story or any odd direction as long as it is well-grounded and richly detailed. You don’t need a dramatic beginning or a morally assertive ending. All you really need is a poignant depiction of ideas, feelings, and imagination.
Instead of setting the stage with an extensive build-up, use the introductory pages as bait to rope in your readers in a whirlwind tale. You don’t need to create a narrative to explain the events occurring before the story or focus on any vague details to build upon your character’s life struggles.
Just dive headfirst into an obvious plot that stirs the reader’s imagination and doesn’t require a lengthy backstory to make it understandable.
6. Create an action-packed short story outline
There’s no point in dragging scenes in a short story unless your story revolves around one scene. Generally, it’s wise to create a fast-paced outline that leads the reader into an action-packed whirlwind of emotions and behaviors.
You need to pump up the story with actions, experiences, mysteries, and conflicts from the very first page. Keeping things moving is the name of the game, so avoid dragging elements from one page to another. A short story format typically builds the story towards a final conflict, and with each page, the pace heightens to end the tale on a powerful note.
Here’s an example:
“I was sorry to hear about your mother’s death. I wanted to reach out but couldn’t figure out the best way.”
Susan wiped back her tears, smearing kohl under her eyes. “I’m glad you didn’t,” she said.
7. Don’t work with too many characters
We’ve touched upon this earlier, but we really feel the need to emphasize it. You see, character development is a domain most novice wordsmiths struggle with while penning down a short story. If you’re working with multiple characters, say more than three, you will find plot development immensely challenging.
With a short story, you don’t want the reader to keep track of multiple characters. You won’t be writing a backstory, but you need to give your characters a foundation to stand upon and regale their experiences. And it’s easier to develop one or two characters as compared to more.
We advise budding fiction writers to work with no more than three characters for their first short story. Three characters allow you to create a protagonist, romantic lead, and antagonist. Or you can mold these characters in any way you prefer, depending on the story you’re telling.
If you want to work with one character, you will have to narrow your focus on memories and thought patterns. Or you can take inspiration from stellar works, such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
8. Enrich the Plot with Conflict
Conflict is a vital element for a riveting short story that will have readers rooting for the protagonist. You need to add one point of conflict, and don’t overdo it as a short story can only deal with one complexity.
This point of conflict could be anything – a life-changing decision, a moment of revelation, an unearthing of crucial evidence, or a mind-altering dilemma. You need to pack the conflict in intricate layers of suspense to build up the tension as you unravel the mystery page after page.
Here’s a delightful piece of advice from a celebrated writer, Kurt Vonnegut, to help you pile your tale with conflict and tension:
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
We couldn’t have said it more aptly!
Let’s do a quick recap of all the tips we’ve shared on how to write a short story. It would help to keep things simple, work with no more than three characters, and pack the plot with tension and conflict. You don’t want to overdo the backstory and elaborate minor details to make the story more comprehensible.
The short story format demands the writer and reader to use their imagination to enjoy this exciting literary format. As the writer, you must leave some of the plots to the reader’s imagination instead of fixating over elaborating everything. For instance, your character may be driving a black mustang given to her by her father, but the reader doesn’t have to know how the father came to own it back in high school.
Remember to keep things simple and go heavy on the tension. Happy writing!