Write Better Short Stories – Part 3

What do you need to include in your short story to ensure that it’s well-written and is a great read? Apart from a strong storyline, solid characters, established POV, a central theme, a setting and an idea of beginning, middle and end, the rest of the ‘meat’ of your story should concentrate on motivation, conflict, emotion, pace and that fine balance of narrative dialogue and description.

Even in short stories, your main character needs motivation, so make sure your reader is aware of the reason your main character is doing what he’s doing, and acts and reacts to events and other characters. What problem must he overcome, what is his ultimate goal?

Motivation drives your character. If there’s nothing within the story that motivates him, there is no story.

You may not think that emotion and conflict are that important to a short story, given that there are fewer words in which to tell the story, but that’s not the case.  Even short stories need a certain amount of conflict to fuel what happens – in whatever form that conflict may take. It could be between two characters, it might be something within their environment, or the conflict might occur within the main character (internal conflict).

Whatever form it takes, conflict acts like a catalyst; it brings everything into focus, just as it does in real life. And where there’s conflict there’s emotion. That’s because of heightened senses and feelings - the disagreements, arguments, fights, the tense situations and unfolding events. All these factors intensify all sorts of emotions, like being scared, fearful, angry, shocked, sad, happy and so on. 

Conflict and emotion create drama and tension.

As well as some tension, make sure you include atmosphere. That may seem difficult because of the pared down nature of short stories, but atmosphere elevates the story for the reader.  Unlike a novel, where atmospheric build up and tone is created over a longer period, the short story can still show atmosphere with a few lines of well-worded description, whether the action takes place on a cold, dark night, the middle of the ocean, or within a bustling train station. Each conjures an atmosphere unique to the story.

Writers also use atmosphere to manipulate the reader, especially in tense or scary scenes. Again, a few well worded descriptions help create tension, apprehension or foreboding etc.

An important aspect to master for short stories is the ability to pace the story. This is more difficult for short stories because of how condensed they are, but just as important. The action and drama should rise and fall at just the right moments, so you need to know where to pick up the pace, intensify, then slow it a little, before speeding up once again. This creates a narrative pulse, which builds towards the climax of the story.

In other words, vary the scenes – balance the action with the non-action scenes. Don’t have the story race along without a break. This will put the reader off. If the story plods and nothing much happens, it will bore your reader. Instead, find the right balance to pace the story.

Better short stories work because writers know how to make each word count. With a limited number of words to tell a story, they must be judicious about the amount of narrative, dialogue and description to create each scene, while still making the story engaging for the reader.

The best short stories work because they show and don’t tell. The right description creates the right atmosphere, mood and tone, the right narrative sets the scene and sprinkles relevant information and dialogue reveals character and pushes the story forward.

Each word and sentence is used effectively.

Lastly, ensure your short story is cohesive. It must flow naturally and make sense and leave the reader satisfied. Read and re-read your story until there are no mistakes, it’s consistent and it flows smoothly.

And remember, the more you write, the more you learn and the better you become.


AllWrite will be taking a break over the festive period and will return in January. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.


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