A short story primer

I know some of you are not familiar with the short story form, or haven’t written as many shorts as you would like.  So here is a quick primer for those of you who struggle to write short.

The first thing to remember is:

A short story is just a climax scene without the buildup.

And a very useful piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut:

Start as near to the end as possible.

With those two bits of advice in mind, think of the short story as a moment of change, from one state to another.  It can be either a physical change, or a mental change.  But what you are illustrating is a cusp, an edge, within a greater, untold story.

Because your wordcount is limited, everything you write must do one of two things:

  1. Define the character;
  2. Advance the plot.

If it doesn’t do either, leave it out.  Yes, even description and dialogue needs to be dumped if it doesn’t serve the purpose of the story!  And you can forget about backstory, exposition, explanations, subplots…even your character list should be limited.  Keep it tight and focussed.

Recipe for a short story

If you are new to the short story form, he’s a simple recipe:

  • A single POV
  • One main character
  • One to three locations
  • Limited scenes (<1k words = 1 scene; 1k – 3k words = 2-4 scenes; 3k-6k words = 3-7 scenes etc)
  • Direct plot
  • Strong conflict

Within those constraints though, you can do a lot.

And of course, once you get the hang of the short, you can drop the simple recipe and try different ideas and formats.

One of the great benefits of the short story is how much you can experiment, and how much you can get away with.  You’re not putting in a great time commitment, so why not go for broke?  Try that odd idea you’ve had.  Experiment with POV, emotion, character.  Got an idea that won’t support a full novel?  Want to explore a character before you write your novel?  The short story is your answer.

If it fails, you’ve only spent a couple of days on it, not months and months.  Learn from it and move on.

Things to remember

  • Every time you feel the need to explain something, don’t.  If it’s not obvious from the character’s actions or thoughts, it doesn’t need to be there.
  • Every time you want to describe the landscape in detail, don’t.  If it’s not integral to the story, leave it out.
  • Every time you want to tell the reader how the character became the person they are, don’t.  The character’s actions and words will tell the reader who she/he is.

In reality, these are good rules for any writing.  And if wordiness is a problem for you, short stories can help with the cure.  You don’t have room for extraneous words in a short.


A quick demo.  Say I want to write a short story about Gunter, a boy who can talk to birds.

Do I start the story when Gunter hears his first bird?  No.

Do I tell the reader about his miserable home life, busy mother and white-supremacist grandfather?  No.

Do I show the scene where a fellow student is killed by the birds, making Gunter an object of fear and hatred? No.

Do I show Gunter going to school, dealing with isolation and seeing his former best friend’s fear every day?  No.

Some of these things may be in the story, but they will mostly be implied, or only briefly mentioned.  The story itself will rely on this information, but will not display it.

So where do I start the story?  I start just before the moment of change.  When Gunter closes the door of his locker and sees a new boy walking down the hall.  Who is this boy?  What effect will his coming have on Gunter?  Is he an ally, or an enemy?  Will Gunter find redemption, or lose his tenuous hold on humanity?

Those are the basics.  I would estimate three scenes:

  1. Set up: Gunter sees the boy in the hallway.  Confusion, fear, hope, rising tension.
  2. Climax: Gunter and the boy meet in the playground.  Showdown – what happens?
  3. Denouement: Effects of the showdown.  Gunter has changed, for better or worse.

That doesn’t tell you what happened.  That’s up to you to decide, by writing the story.  Of course, if you’re a pantser, you would start with Gunter and the birds and just see where they took you.  Everyone has their own way of getting to the story.

My final piece of advice, though, is not to get bogged down in mechanics.  Just write.  The best way to figure out the short story is to write lots of them.  Find your own way.  There is no right or wrong format.

17 thoughts on “A short story primer

  1. Pingback: What to do with short stories | Not Enough Words

  2. This is a great post! Shorts are right up my alley, and I can use all the help I can get in making them “sing.” I think I’ll be referring back to this post a few times while revising my WIP.

    BTW, I’m also doing IggiU! :-)

  3. Pingback: Just enough words « Nancy Drew Too

  4. An excellent post. I love writing short stories but wondered what sort of short story outlets are there over your side of the world? In the UK the short story has a limited market. There’s either women’s magazine stories with a strict formula or literary ones that are published in the small press mags and pay very little or nothing more than a free copy. I know that publication isn’t everything but…

    • There aren’t many places to sell short stories anywhere in the world, these days. The best thing you can do with a short story is give it away and use it to attract attention to your larger, more profitable projects. How better to attract people to a novel you’ve written than release five or six great short stories set in the same universe, for free, all across the net?

  5. Great post! I totally agree that the best way to figure short stories out is to write lots of them – eventually, things just click into place! I am really looking forward to seeing how a novel of mine looks after spending so much time with short stories.

  6. Excellent advice and, I may be going out on a limb here, I think all these rules apply to excellent literature. The scenery should be described, but when it serves a purpose. While sometimes exposition is nice almost always I find novels having way too much of it by way of what I needed as a reader. I think I will try out writing a short story, however, thanks for the inspiration!

  7. This is really great. I did a series about short stories on my blog awhile ago and then had a contest. I think doing all of that taught me more than anyone else, but who knows. Thanks for sharing this! It’s a great approach to the form!

  8. I’ve always had problems with short stories, especially when the word count is low, 3500-5000. As a pantser my stories tend to grow as I tell them. If I have a defined beginning and end I can keep to those bounds. Blogging has helped in that regard, I think.

    Marc Vun Kannon

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