The one great thing about learning how to write short stories is that you can use your imagination because short stories are works of prose fiction, centered around one event. After mastering the five basic elements, you will have created a solid short story.
First, you may be wondering: How long is a short story?
As noted by Pope, “Short stories should remain below 7,000 words in order to be considered a ‘short story.’ They can be as short as only one sentence, as this is known as flash fiction.”
The chart below gives a more detailed example of the differences in word count of different literary writings.
Note that Pope stated earlier that a short story should be under 7,000 words, but we see in her table that the word count of a short story is between 100-15,000 words. The word count boundary, therefore, seems to have exceptions.
Authors must focus on five major elements in learning how to write short stories. Addressing these from the start will help you avoid staring at a scary blank piece of paper. These five components are:
Character: This tells who is involved in the story, including animals.
We need to get a clear feel for a complicated main character: “Most short stories will focus on one to two main characters at the most. Think about a main character who has a clear desire, or want, but who is also full of contradictions. Do not simply have a good character or a bad character. Give your main character interesting attributes and feelings so they feel complicated and well-rounded” (Hay).
Setting: Where does the story take place, in a house, castle, tavern, or highway? In what period does the story take place, the present day, the turn of the century, or ancient times? The setting should have a compelling atmosphere.
Plot: What’s the story about and its sequence of events that relate to the conflict?
Conflict: What struggles and tension do your characters face?
Theme: What’s the overall message the reader should take away? Is it betrayal, a moral lesson, etc.?
Image: Canva and Dream by Wombo
Start with a story idea. Get clear in your mind what your story will be about. It’s fiction, yes, but you could base it on a true event or not. What genre will your story be? Are you a fan of science fiction, romance, or fantasy?
Let’s take a look at “Mellie’s Mountain,” a short sci-fi story I wrote that appears in the anthology The Stories of She.
This is a coming-of-age story about a naive and strange 11-year-old girl who lives with her grandparents on a mountain. Let’s see how the 5 elements of a story relate to “Mellie’s Mountain.”
Character: Mellie is teased by her peers at her school because she is different from them. They laugh at her and call her “Smelly Mellie.” Mellie must prove that she’s no pushover and find ways to make herself fit in with her classmates.
Setting: The story takes place on top of a mountain, in the classroom of the mountain school, and Mellie’s treehouse at her home.
Plot: The story is about a strange 11-year-old girl who is bullied at school. She can stick up for herself but harbors no grudges. She invites the bullies for a sleepover to show she has no hard feelings and to seek their friendship. However, unbeknownst to Mellie, the girls face a supernatural karmic retaliation.
Conflict: Tension happens when the girls corner Mellie in the school bathroom, and one of them pushes her into a toilet stall. However, Mellie whirls around and the bully is the one who ends up sitting in the toilet. It seems as though tensions have eased when two of the girls accept Mellie’s invitation to sleep over as a show of making peace. However, conflict occurs when the girls are asleep and supernatural occurrences happen to them.
Theme: Bullying. The desire to fit in.
Limit your settings. In a novel, there can be several settings, but a short story must condense its elements. One or two settings are good for a short story.
Limit your characters. There may be other characters in your story, but have them more in the background, meaning they don’t have to have names, detailed speaking parts, or detailed descriptions if they aren’t integral to your story.
When I passed by the toddler, she licked her tongue at me.
The dog ate his sandwich hastily when he saw me approach.
The policeman pointed his gun at the escaped convict’s head.
Of course, if your short story is longer, you can have additional characters. But for one of short or medium length, you might want one main character with one or two supporting characters.
Keep tension in your story that will lead to the climax. You don’t want your story to become boring.
Reread your story to make sure you don’t have grammatical mistakes and that you have five clear elements to your story.
Also, your character needs a backstory. She didn’t just appear. What’s her history? Why is this story important to her? Is what she’s trying to solve now related to what happened to her in the past? Her backstory can raise questions that your reader wants answers to and will stick with your story to find them. But since you’re writing a short story, make your backstory short, too.
In “Mellie’s Mountain,” part of Mellie’s backstory is that she has deformed ears that she tries to hide beneath a bandanna. This makes her a target for being bullied, although neither her classmates nor the reader initially know why she’s hiding her ears. Yet the bullies are determined to find out. And hopefully, the reader is equally curious.
Find more information here on how to write short stories:
Study these tips on how to write short stories, and start writing your own. It takes practice, patience, and study. But what it gives in return is a short story that will do you justice.
All images, except for the book cover or unless otherwise indicated, are by Dream by Wombo.