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Writing a Short Story: A Beginner's Guide

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Pressed for time? Listen to the post instead!

how to write a short story

Short story markets offer great potential for new writers, even if they can be hard to crack. But what if you're struggling to even write any stories in the first place? How do you cram a whole narrative into just a few thousand words without giving anything up?

If you've never written a short story, then today's the day to start - right after reading this post, in fact. You can do that because there's a lot less rigmarole with short-form works than with novels. I won't waste your time with worksheets or mind maps or exercises to understand your characters. Rather, I will offer three very simple steps and then send you back out into the world.

Ready? Of course you are.

Step 1: Inspiration

...Or, "Steal Like a Pro."

You've probably heard some variation on the expression, "Bad poets borrow, good poets steal."

writing a short story

The truth here is that when you steal something, you make it your own.

Short stories are heavily concept-driven - you don't need to sweat so much over character or setting when your idea is sound. So steal an idea from real life. Have a personal anecdote? There's the root your story. Anecdote isn't very interesting? Lie. That's the great part about fiction - your audience knows that you're a liar and they want to hear your lies. Don't have any anecdotes? Use someone else's story, or even a famous one - as long as you can steal it proper and add your own style and flourishes.

What about genre stories? Same thing applies. Read an interesting science book or article recently? Steal the premise and turn it into science fiction. I do that all the time. More into history? Add in magic and it becomes fantasy. Use local crimes as the basis for crime fiction, myths and hauntings for horror - as long as you can make it your own, with your own style, it can work.

As a last resort, there are abundant fiction prompts out there - or right here. I have lists of prompts for science fiction, fantasy and speculative flash fiction if you're truly stuck.

Step 2: Execution

...Or, "Just Write It."

Now that you have your idea, you're half done. So...just write it.

That's the great thing about short fiction - you have fewer details to sweat over. No worrying about chapter length, no timelines to juggle, and foreshadowing - if you feel you even need it - is easily added and removed. You don't even need to worry about word count, at least not yet - there are markets for stories of just about every length.

You just open a word processor, start writing where the narrative would logically start, then continue until you run out of story. If you have a change of heart or come up with some new idea, you can easily work it in, but right now, your only objective is to reach...


Though this isn't quite the end, not yet.

Step 3: Perfection

This is where we start thinking about publication.

Editing a short story is, as you'd expect, a much shorter process than editing a novel. You can check it for basic errors in a few minutes, after which the refinement process begins. How's your prose? Editors love elegant writing and distinctive styles, so do what you can to stand out. Do you have a particular market in mind? Check their length requirements and see if there's anything they specifically want or do not want to see.

Once you think you're ready to submit, you can format your document and lock down your market - but I have a whole post for that.

That's All There is to Writing a Short Story?

That's all there is too it.

Don't make it too hard, and don't be afraid to make a mistake. All-in, a novel can take months or years to write and consume hundreds of person-hours. That's why people stress over planning and details - they don't want to waste all that time and effort. By contrast, if you start writing a short story and decide you've made a mistake, then you're only out part of an afternoon.

If you're still not sure, why not start off with some flash fiction? Even a total beginner can write one of these tiny stories in under an hour - and they sell.

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