Writing

How to Write a Great Short Story: Writing Tips and Exercises for Story Ideas

Written by MasterClass

Feb 15, 2019 • 7 min read

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Short stories can be just as powerful and moving as longer works of fiction; indeed, some argue that this form can be even more impactful because short stories deliver their central message in a single, resonant hit. If a novel is like lighting up a room using all the house lights, then a short story is like using a flashlight to illuminate a hidden corner.

Short stories are also an excellent place to take risks, to create things that interest you but which may not work in a whole novel. As prolific novelist, short story writer, and comic book author Neil Gaiman says: “Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They’re journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”

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What Is a Short Story?

Short stories are self-contained works of prose fiction whose function is to impart a moral, capture a moment, or evoke a certain mood. Short stories are often more focused, as all the elements within—plot, character, pacing, story structure, and so on—must work together towards this common goal.

How Many Words Are in a Short Story?

A typical short story has a word count of anywhere between 1,000 words to 5,000 words, although, as always, there are exceptions to the rule. Flash fiction is a form of creative writing that can have as few as five words, while there is a gray area between short stories and novellas (which are typically 30,000 words or more).

What Are the Different Types of Short Stories?

  • Anecdote: A brief account of something interesting and often humorous whose purpose is to support a point. They function much like parables: short narratives with a core moral lesson.
  • Drabble: A short story of about 100 words whose main purpose is to test the author’s skill, both in prose and in successfully getting a meaningful point across in so few words.
  • Feghoot: A funny short story that ends in a pun.
  • Fable: A short story featuring anthropomorphic creatures, usually animals, whose narrative reveals some kind of a moral point at the end. (Note: while a parable serves the same function, it does not use animals to make its point, while a fable almost always does. Aesop’s Fables are a great example.)
  • Flash fiction or micro fiction: Flash fiction or micro fiction refers to stories shorter than 1,000 words. One of the most famous examples of the form is the following short short story, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
  • Sketch: A piece of writing that doesn’t typically contain a plot. Instead, the point of a sketch is to illuminate a particular character, setting, or location.
  • Vignette: A short scene which can be part of a larger body of work. The point of a vignette is to capture a single moment or detail about an element in the story, such as a character, idea, or object

What Elements Does a Good Short Story Have?

There are some common elements across all fiction writing, but short stories specifically feature:

  • A clearly defined mood or feeling. This can be a genre (humor, romance, horror); an idea (adultery, childbirth, life lessons); or an emotion (loss, grief, joy). Or it can be a combination—as long as it is cohesive and the point is clear.
  • Clear, descriptive language that sets up the concept of the story quickly and without being superfluous.
  • A small cast of characters, including a main character and supporting character(s) who must serve a vital role in the story. Learn about writing characters with our guide on character development.
  • A strong point of view. Know from the beginning what it is you want to say with your short story. Ask yourself: what do you want people to feel or think as they read your story? Make sure this point of view is clearly reflected throughout the story. Read more about point of view in our complete guide.
  • Experimental elements. Short stories don’t necessarily have to stick to traditional storytelling techniques, which means that you can feel free to play around with certain conventions. For example, while the general advice is that every scene in a story should have a “turn”—shifting the emotional charge to its opposite—this doesn’t have to be the case in a short story. Don’t feel shy about breaking a few rules and see what works best for you.

A Short History of the Short Story

Short stories evolved from oral storytelling techniques which produced epics like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Anecdotes emerged early, during the Roman Empire. The tradition continued with the development of the novella during the seventeenth century in Europe, and later, the first fairy tale compendiums. The Brothers Grimm published their first volume of fairy tales in 1812.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the dominance of literary print magazines and journals saw a spike in short fiction. Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Arthur Conan Doyle all wrote short stories during this time; Doyle introduced the world to his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, in an 1891 series of short stories published in The Strand Magazine.

Edgar Allan Poe, known for his short stories focused on the macabre, became a pioneer of genre short fiction. Later, W. Somerset Maugham, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, William Faulkner, O. Henry, and James Joyce experimented and perfected the form—many of these authors got their first big break with short story writing before becoming celebrated novelists and authors.

Today, contemporary authors like Alice Munro and Neil Gaiman have revived the short story format and given it new life.

Nine Examples of Great Modern Short Story Collections

For inspiration, check out the following collections of risk-taking, genre-bending stories that are set in alternate worlds, interwoven with magic, reality, and science.

  • Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (2002)
  • Kiini Ibura Salaam, Ancient, Ancient: Short Fiction (2012)
  • Saladin Ahmed, Engraved on the Eye (2012)
  • Charles Yu, Sorry Please Thank You (2012)
  • Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories(2011)
  • Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013)
  • Terry Pratchett, A Blink of the Screen: Collected Shorter Fiction (2015)
  • Samantha Hunt, The Dark Dark (2017)
  • Caitlin R. Kiernan, Dear Sweet Filthy World (2017)

How to Write a Short Story in Five Steps

  1. Pick the mood you want to evoke. This is the feeling or emotion you want to give to your readers, and what all the elements in your short story will work together to achieve. What kind of story do you want to tell—and why?

  2. Start with a strong opening. Because of the restrictions of the short story format, you won’t have a lot of room for exposition. To get around this, consider starting your story in medias res—a writerly practice that means opening in the middle of the action and filling in details later. This takes you straight to your important scene.

  3. Build your story, remembering that you only have a certain number of words. Don’t waste time and space. Everything in the short story needs to be vital. Read and re-read every sentence and ask yourself: does it really need to be there? Does it serve the higher purpose of illuminating your story’s mood? As Edgar Allan Poe once said: “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.”

  4. Land the ending. Everything has been building up to this key moment. When writing the ending of your short story, focus on the mood you’re trying to create and ask yourself: what would be the most satisfying way for the ending to capture this mood? Remember, a short story is still a story, which means the plot has to make sense, and nothing should be too obvious. Does the ending follow naturally from where the story began? Does it make sense?

  5. Edit, edit, edit. Spend some time away from your story, and go back later with a pair of fresh eyes. Once again, keep in mind the key mood you’re trying to express. Read your short story back at least three times, paying attention to how plot, characters, dialogue, scenes and settings all work together toward one common goal. Note any inconsistencies and fix them—or get rid of them. Strike anything which feels superfluous or slows down the pace.

A Good Exercise to Generate Short Story Ideas

Answer any of the questions below as briefly as possible, writing down your first response. Then set a timer for 60 seconds. Use one of your answers to write the opening of a short story—one paragraph or more. Then, reset the timer for 30 minutes and finish the story. You don’t have much time, so just keep writing. Don’t worry about craft or structure. Write until the timer stops. And remember this advice: you can start a short story at any point in the narrative.

  • What was the most embarrassing thing you’ve experienced in the past few years?
  • When was the last time you cried, and what caused it?
  • What shocked you so much you were speechless?
  • What was the very best or worst moment of your childhood?
  • Have you fantasized about revenge recently? Against whom?
  • Pretend you’re on your deathbed, looking back at your life—who did you love the most? Be brutally honest.

For more exercises, check out our other creative writing prompts.