How to Write a Short Story in Ten Steps
How to write a short story? Is there a definitive answer? Is it better to plan out a story before writing, or is it best to write your tale by the seat of your pants, making it up as you go?
The Planning vs. Pantsing debate has divided story tellers since the days of cave paintings. Ok, so maybe that could be an exaggeration, but get any group of writers together and at one point the issue is bound to come up. Let’s end the debate here.
The answer is….
Neither is ‘better’, and it’s completely up to the individual writer and the individual story.
Sorry, if you were looking for something more definitive.
With my own writing I have found that sometimes the best answer to how to write a short story will be planning. Other times, pantsing is the way to go. It just depends on the idea I’m working with.
There is however one general rule when I’m deciding how to write a short story – I do generally have a better time with writing a short story if I plan it out as I go. I also find the pre-planned stories have better narrative development, better writing and just overall stronger stories. So, if you still really do want that definitive answer to how to write a short story, my official answer is Planning.
This is my tried and true method for how to write a short story in ten steps.
1. Find a Foundation Idea or Concept
One thing i deeply believe about how to write a short story is that the key story concept is paramount. The core concept is the driving force behind a good short story and often this is what will spring into my head first. The inspiration for that concept can come from any number of places and the idea itself can start in different places. Sometimes it’s a theme. Sometimes it’s a situation. Sometimes it is a snippet scene without any other context. Rarely is it a plot, but that’s not to say never.
Sometimes I’ll do some brainstorming and mind mapping around this single idea to make it into something larger and more nuanced.
2. Find Your Characters
Stories are nothing without people, so in order for that foundation idea to come to life it needs some characters to live it. A job or profession, possibly related to the core idea above, is a good place to start looking for a character when figuring our how to write a short story. Age groups, as well as locations can also be helpful starting points for finding your characters.
Three is a good number of characters for a short story, though I usually stick with two, with one central protagonist. With two, I can develop one character and use the other to complicate matters. Remember, short stories are pieces of larger worlds – there’s nothing stopping other characters existing or being mentioned in this world, but a short story won’t have room to develop them.
3. Find Your Plot
I generally only write short stories with driving plots and I generally only read and like short stories with driving plots. Plots are things that happen, so when using a plot to formulate how to write a short story, work out what is going to happen to your characters, relate it to your concept idea and there you have your plot.
Most of my plots (and most plots in general) have Three Acts: Beginning, Middle, End.
Before I start writing, I like to have an idea of where that plot is going to start. Often the best place to start is just as things start to get interesting for your characters, dropping your reader straight into the action. I let these possibilities swirl about in my thoughts before I start writing, sometimes helped along with more brainstorming and note taking.
4. Start Writing Act 1 – Who and What
When I have a general idea of what this story is – and often I will have a lot of scribbled notes by this stage, but sometimes it’s all in my head – I start writing at the beginning.
This first act sets up what is happening and who it is happening to. I tend to write this carefully as this stage is also where the tone of the story is developed.
5. Outline Act 3 – The End
How to write a short story? Write the end close to the beginning. Even in a longer short story, once the first act has been developed, the story needs to start moving towards a final point and knowing where the story is going to end makes it a lot easier to know what is happening in the middle.
Ask yourself – How do I want this story to end? Are the going to be any twists? This is where I think about the end, and plot it out in outline form. Notes are usually fine for outlining this stage but go with prose if you like.
6. Outline Act 2 – The Middle
Once I know where I’m headed, the next step in how to write a short story is to plan the route to get there. This is where you can map out any twists, go back and relate anything from the first act to the last, complicate matters for your characters. Act 2 is where the heart of a story lies and it’s where the reader is, hopefully completely immersed in the story world, needing to know what happens next.
Typically, after I have outlined the middle I’ll need to go back to the outline of the story ending and make sure everything is working together.
7. Let it Rest
Once the three act outline (in notes and or prose form) is done, the plot and situations are clear and I’ve a good idea of who the character is, I like to leave the entire story alone for at least a day. This might not sound important, but this resting stage is a crucial part of the how to write a short story process. Give yourself a break and let your mind stew on what you have just created and you might be surprised with what else you can come up with!
8. Read Through The Outline
After resting, I come back to the outline and read through it to get my head back into story mode. Sometimes I’ll make changes to the trajectory, cut things out, add things in. Sometimes I’ll make some more notes about what to develop about a character at a particular point. And then straight away onto the next step…
9. Flesh Out The Outline
Once the story is neatly laid out in the outline, go back to the beginning and start to polish anything you’ve written and expand on the rest of the outline. Here’s where I add nuances, atmospheres, work in descriptive elements, dialogue and everything else that makes creative writing creative. Of course, if I’ve only outlined at this stage, this is also where that outline gets turned into prose.
At this stage you don’t need to worry about deciding what will happen next in the story, so you’re free to concentrate on bringing the world to life. It’s only rarely that a plot point will change during this part of the process.
10. Keep Polishing
In a short story, every word needs to benefit the story as a whole and keep it moving forward to the end of the third act. The fleshing out process of step 9 can go on for a long, long time until I feel every word is right and the story is as best as it can be.
How to tell when a story is finished? Is there anything there that doesn’t move your tale forward? Is there anything about the character that isn’t necessary to their world at that specific time the story is taking place? Do you have any unnecessary concepts, thoughts, descriptions, words – anything at all in your new piece of writing that isn’t crucial to telling this tale? When everything is necessary and nothing else is required, then you’re done. Relax. Be Happy.
This is just one answer to the how to write a short story question. It’s the method that works best for me, something that I have developed through years and many, many thousands of words and yet it is still a developing process every time that new idea from step one pops into my head.
You may have other ideas on how to write a short story, so don’t forget to share you thoughts!
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