Getting to Grips With Short Stories - Part 1

Writing a short story might sound easy – after all, it’s only a few thousand words, right?

Actually, the process is just as complicated and as technical as writing a full length novel.  It still needs a lot of thought, planning and preparation. 

Short story writing doesn’t come naturally to some writers.  This might be because they’re not sure how to even tackle one, and because some have never written a short story, they naturally think they’re no good at it.  That means lots of opportunities like short story competitions and submissions for magazines pass them by, simply because they won’t attempt to write one.

Sometimes they’ve failed to get to grips with it for one reason or another, and subsequently they translate that as not being able to do it.  And of course, to a writer, not being able to do it automatically means failure.

But it’s mostly to do with fear.  Some writers just fear tackling the short story.

These are common psychological barriers. To overcome them, writers first need to stop fearing the short story and instead tackle it, because by understanding how to plan and structure the short story, writers break the fear.  It then becomes a pleasure to write them, rather than a chore.

So, how do you tell a story in, say, 1000 words?

The same as you do in a 90,000 word novel.  That’s because the principles for planning and writing a short story are the same as a novel, but they’re just merely condensed.  That means you take an idea and roughly chart a beginning, a middle section and an ending, and then add some prospective key scenes/ideas. 

With a novel you simply have more pages at your disposal to tell your tale; you have more tools and writing devices and you have more time to explore your themes, your characters, their situations and subplots, and you have more time to cover a lot more description and narrative.

With a short story, however, these types of writing devices are somewhat limited. But it’s what makes up the short story that counts - how it’s written, and the most important thing with short stories is getting the structure right. 

As with novels, balance is key to a good story structure, and that means using the right amount of description, narrative and dialogue.  It also means you should roughly sketch out the following as part of your planning and preparation:

·         Whose story is it? Who else is involved?
·         What is the story about?  What themes are there?
·         Why is it happening? What is the meaning behind the story?
·         Do I have ideas on key scenes?  What sort of action do I want?
·         What happens in the end?  What happens to my main character?
·         Is it a happy/satisfactory ending?

So, set aside the fears of the dreaded short story, and let’s take a step by step walkthrough.

Structure - The Beginning

The Set-up

The beginning should start right in the heart of the action or intrigue, or an important moment in your protagonist’s life, or a crisis point, just as a novel would do.  But you don’t have the luxury of the amount of words that a novel affords, so it’s important to set the scene from the outset so that the reader has a clear understanding of what the story is about. 

This is the basic premise of the set-up.  You need to set up the theme and tone of the story straight away.  This can actually be accomplished in a couple of lines or a paragraph, for example:

Fuel dripped from the ruptured petrol tank. The flames grew; he knew he had to escape from the wreck before it exploded.

From the outset the tone is clear, and the set up is established – a man trapped in a car wreck, desperate to escape before it explodes; leaving the reader to wonder whether he will make it in time.

Had there been any more tears, Annabelle would have cried.  But she didn’t.

This type of first line poses the reader questions: Why doesn’t she have any more tears?  What has happened to her and why?

Great First Liners

It’s also important to hook the reader from the first line, if possible.  A great opening line does this effectively.  It might pose a question, it might lure, it might intrigue, it might horrify or pique the reader.  It might make them laugh, or it might move them to tears. Whatever you choose, think about your opening line and what you want to convey.

Once hooked, then the rest of the narrative should ensnare your reader.  Great opening lines can be a few words, or even one word.

Here’s some first lines from some well known short stories:

‘It was late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.’ - Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

Hemingway also wrote the shortest story of his career, at only six words long: ‘For Sale: Baby shoes, never Worn.’  There are countless questions that need answers, just from these six words.

‘There aren’t many hitchhikers on the road to Hell.’ - Dead Run by Greg Bear.

Introduce your main character straight away and drop them right into the action (and other characters where necessary) so that the reader can immediately get to grips with who your characters are.  You want the reader to get to know your character from the outset.

Even though you are writing a short story, a good writer will ensure that the reader identifies and empathises with the character, just as they would with a novel.  If you achieve that, then the reader will want to know what happens next and therefore will keep reading until the end of the story.

Don’t spend 600 words describing something in great detail and then introduce the main character halfway through, (especially when you only have 1000 words or so to write the story), otherwise you risk ruining the story completely and thus putting the reader off.

Set the Scene

Something else the beginning should do is set the scene so that the reader feels part of it – where is the action taking place?  What can the character see?  What are they feeling? What is the conflict in their life?

This is where the use of colours, aromas and sounds can convey the atmosphere of the opening scenes.  And the weather also adds to the overall effect, so don’t neglect it.  It can add important layers to your description.

Once you’ve got your opening line, set the scene, introduced your character(s) and jumped right into the action with the hook, you’re ready to move into the middle section, which we’ll look at next week.

Next week:  Setting to grips with short stories - part 2


  1. Writing a short story certainly has its own set of challenges. I think one of the gotchas that can sneak in unnoticed is related to the opening hook.

    When creating the first few sentences, it's easy to fall into the pattern (trap?) of using action to pull the reader in. Action is a common way to get people interested but it requires sufficient planning to keep it from setting up an unfulfilled promise to the reader. If the remainder of the story doesn't increase the tension in the appropriate manner, the reader may very will feel cheated.

    Novel-length creations are also susceptible to this but with a short story, I think the reduced word count makes it tempting to try and pack a powerful punch at the start.

    Thanks for sharing a great article!

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Dale. You raise some interesting points, and yes it writers can fall into the habit of trying too hard to cram action into the opening lines.

  3. Really helpful article, thanks. Those opening paragraphs really resonate.

  4. Very interesting post. Lots of food for thought! Thank you. :)


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