How to Write A Short Story in Ten Steps
How do you write a short story? Just like that proverbial skinned cat (eww!) there is more than one way of writing a short story. Incidentally, the saying “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” originated in a short story, “The Money Diggers” by Seba Smith (1840).
Short story writing is a process and this is just one process. How I write a short story might be rather different to the way Seba Smith wrote his short stories. Different writers will have different writing processes and you could find that your writing process changes from story to story. This is the writing process I use most of the time.
In this method, mining ideas for the best possible stories and getting it all out onto the page is the overall goal. It can be a messy way to write a first draft, but it works. Most of the time.
How to Write a Short Story
1. The Idea Spark
It’s that first idea where you encounter something – a concept, a situation, a character, whatever – and think “Cool! I can write a short story about that.” Idea sparks can happen by chance or you can go looking for them. Writing prompts are a great, ready-made source of story ideas. Take a look at this post on 7 Quick Ways to Find Ideas for Stories.
2. Develop The Idea
The first idea might spring into your mind as a complete story. That’s great! Write it down and consider yourself blessed. For the rest of us, the first idea is likely going to need some development.
In this step we’re looking for the best story to come from that initial inspiration. The best story usually isn’t in the first idea. That’s where the most obvious connections are made, the most expected outcomes are developed. The best stories are neither obvious nor expected.
Brainstorm some possibilities, going deeper into the idea and mining its full potential. I typically find the more time I spend brainstorming and the more possibilities I come up with, the better the ideas become. Sometimes, the genre you’re working in will direct some of these possibilities.
3. Add Characters
A story needs characters (people, animals, sentient colours, whatever). Characters drive a narrative forward and give the reader something to connect with, to care about and to want to follow through to the end.
Who are these characters? What do they do? What do they want? Why do they want it? How are they planning on getting it? You might also think about what they look like, but that’s up to you and whether or not physical descriptions are relevant to the story you’re writing. How many characters you need depends on your idea and the length of the story.
4. Write The Opening Scene
The opening scene establishes tone and voice. As the story develops, you might encounter a better place to start the story and this first bit of writing might not stay as the opener. Short stories typically work best when we jump right into the action or very close to it.
5. Brainstorm Possible Endings
Thinking about the ending after I’ve put down a rough beginning helps me to direct the middle. What kind of ending do you want to write? A twist? A complete resolution with everything wrapped up nicely? A cliff hanger? A dangling idea? The important thing is to make it satisfying. Just like we went looking for layers in the original story idea, looking for possibilities of endings three or four layers beneath the obvious answer will make for a far more original tale.
6. Outline The Middle
Once I know where the story is heading, I’ll plot out the middle as a map on how to get there. When I outline, I’ll usually have a few bullet points directing narrative progression, and I’ll also write bits of dialogue, character reactions, description and samples of actual prose as the words come to me.
7. Write The Ending
Why write the ending before the middle is finished? The ending of a short story is the ultimate payoff. A novel with a dud ending can still be a good reading experience. A short story with a poor ending is far less satisfying. Getting the ending right helps you go back to the beginning and that rough outline thing you’re calling the middle and ensure it all points in the right direction. Which brings us to….
8. Write The Middle
You’ve got your start and end and a framework for the middle. Now it’s time to flesh out that framework making sure everything moves smoothly toward that ending.
9. Re-Draft The Complete Thing For Cohesion
Writing all over the place like this, it’s easy to get lost. Leave your manuscript alone for a day or so and try not to think about it. Go back with a fresh mind and re-draft the entire thing beginning to end. Every word, first to last, should direct toward that great ending. This is where we also decide if the opening scene is starting in the right place.
10. Begin Editing Phase
Draft one complete! A lot of writers swear by the 10 per cent editing process – cutting 10 per cent of words from your first draft. First drafts are typically overwritten so 10 per cent is a good number to make sure that every word in your story is serving some purpose and driving the narrative onward to a satisfying completion. Cut less, cut more, but cut something.
Once the fat has been trimmed, then you can check for grammatical errors, typos and the other minutia.
Passing your story to a beta reader or workshopping with a writing group is a good way of finding errors, plot flaws and to check that your story works overall
This guide to writing a short story can be applied to different types of writing from longer pieces to flash fiction and micro-stories.
Other Methods of Writing Short Stories
This is my method… or at least one method I use frequently.
For another idea on how to write short stories, especially from a career building perspective, take a look at How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career by James Scott Bell. I’ve always admired James Scott Bell’s no nonsense writing advice, and this excellent book is no exception.
How do you write a short story? Tell us about your writing process in the comments below.
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