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How to Write a Short Story Step-by-Step

Short stories can be difficult; especially for those folks who are used to writing novels. That’s why today I will be sharing this article on how to write a short story step-by-step so that I can help those novelists who might need a little guidance. It can be a big change from writing novels to short stories, so I’m here to help smooth the process.

We will be going over the differences between short stories and novels, and how that affects how we write each type of story, and then I will share my step-by-step guide to writing a short story.

So let’s dive right in!

The Differences Between Short Stories and Novels

Besides the obvious difference in length, short stories and novels are both very different from each other. Here are some reasons why:

  • Novels have more room for characters, plot twists, and more since they are longer, while short stories are a lot shorter, making less room for elements in a story. In short stories, you typically don’t have room for any subplots or extra story elements.
  • The goals of short stories and novels are different: Novels are to grab people and entertain them for a longer period of time, and short stories are there to give the reader a short burst of entertainment over a very short period of time.
  • Short Stories are meant to be read in one sitting, and novels are meant to be read in multiple sittings.
  • Novels cover a full character arc, and short stories will only portray a partial character arc.
  • Novels have more time to describe the details and to take the story in different directions, whereas short stories (typically) only focus on one or two scenes.

As you can see, there are plenty of differences between short stories and novels. Each one is a varied experience to read and write, and both have their own unique purpose for entertaining readers.

Let’s take a look at how we can write a short story versus a novel, taking into account these differences.

How to Write a Short Story Step-by-Step

Step 1: Theme

Most people wouldn’t think of a “theme” as the first step to writing a short story. And maybe it’s not for them, since writing short stories can be done in different ways. But this is how I do it, and it works well for me.

For short stories, my theme is the base for everything. It’s what the whole story is focused on. Without my theme, the short story would have no focus and it wouldn’t be very interesting.

So before writing your short story, come up with a theme – a message you want to give to your readers. Think of your goal in the end. What do you want to show readers? How do you want them to feel after reading your story? Do you want them to feel excited? inspired? sad? All three?!

Now, one theme isn’t quite enough to start writing the story (although it is the foundation for it). So let’s go into how to build off of your theme.

Step 2: End and Beginning

One difference in short stories is that it’s much easier to plan ahead of time than it is for a novel. Since short stories aren’t quite as long with as much plot structure, it’s easy to outline them.

How I outline my short stories is pretty simple: I just think of where the story should begin, and where it should end. I look back on my previous idea that got the whole thing started, then I try to base things on that. I’ll create a character or two for the story if I haven’t done that already. It would probably be a good practice to write all this stuff down, but I typically don’t since I like to keep things in my head.

However, your story does consist of a little more than just an end and beginning. It consists of a middle too. That’s where the next step comes in.

Step 3: Middle

Have you ever heard of the common cycle in books: “goal, conflict, disaster”? Well, this counts for short stories too. Except in short stories, you have the option of changing the “disaster” at the end to a happy ending.

Basically, a short story covers one “goal, conflict, disaster” scene. Sometimes two or maybe three, depending on the length of the story, but mostly just one. The story will start with the protagonist needing to accomplish their goal, then there will be conflict, and then there will either be a disaster or a happy ending – whichever one you prefer.

So that’s what the plot of a story should consist of in the middle. But what about the story? The emotional journey of the character?

Well, you probably won’t have time for a full character arc in a short story. However, your short story can still display what I call a “miniature arc”.

For example, at the beginning of the story, your protagonist has a doubt about themselves, a little lie that may be seeping through to their minds. Around the middle of the story, the character starts to realize that the lie is wrong. Then, by the end, the character will vanquish the lie and believe the truth. It’s just like a normal-sized character arc, except minimized a little bit. This lie should also be based on the theme that you determined back in step one.

There are a few things you have to be sure of when writing these “miniature” character arcs, though.

  • Be careful your lie isn’t too “big”. In a novel, you can have as big of a lie as you want. But in a short story, since you have limited space, it’s good to make sure the lie is smaller so that the development of the character doesn’t feel too fast or out of place.
  • Give your character some sort of reason to believe the lie. This reason shouldn’t be too big, especially since your lie isn’t that big either. The reason could consist of anything, from something that happened in your character’s backstory (don’t make this too complicated), or it could even be a small event that happens at the beginning of the story. And the reason behind the character’s lie isn’t always described thoroughly, which can be good too. Just make sure you at least know that reason, whether you reveal it to readers or not.
  • Make sure you reveal the truth clearly. At the end of the short story, the truth of the matter should be revealed, and the character should believe it. Make sure you display this clearly and give a clear message to readers, but also make sure not to “tell” the truth and get preachy.

So those are some of the things to consider about the middle part of your story. Just make sure you have that “goal, conflict, disaster” and that miniature arc, and you’re good to go.

Step 4: Write

Yep, you have finally gotten to the step where you can write the story! Yay!

Now, you may have noticed that I didn’t go over outlining yet. Well, that’s because… I don’t outline my short stories. However, if you prefer to outline your short story before you start writing it, feel free to add that step just before this one.

Otherwise, you can start writing the story! Remember to incorporate all the elements we went over in the last three steps, and make sure to make your theme evident as you go. Here are a few good reminders for you while you’re drafting your short story:

  • Don’t be a perfectionist. Just write whatever’s in your head, it’s okay if it doesn’t turn out perfect, with every single element in it, at first. You can always fix it later.
  • Don’t go off on rabbit trails. This can be easy to do. Make sure not to go off on rabbit trails while writing the story; keep everything focused on the main character, the theme, and the conflict.
  • Remember that you can change your plan. On the flip side of what I said above, do remember that your plan for your short story can change, even when you’re in the middle of writing it. It’s okay to change things, as long as it’s not veering from the main theme.

So now, just write! It’s okay if it’s not perfect, just get that first draft written down.

Step 5: Editing

Now that you’ve finished the first draft of your short story, you can start editing!

Editing a short story is pretty much the same process as editing a novel, except that it will obviously take less time to edit.

Basically, there are three different edits you will have to go through:

  • Content Edit. This is where you look at the plot, characters, themes, and everything else in your story and make sure everything works well. Check for plot holes and things that don’t make sense, and see if you left any important story elements out or not.
  • Line Edit. This is where you will look at the story, line-by-line, and see what sentences you can change. You’ll check for poor sentence structure, sentences/paragraphs that don’t make sense, and the overall flow of the story.
  • Proofread. This is the last edit where you’ll be just reading your story through one more time, making sure there are no typos or grammar mistakes and just checking to see that everything is ready.

Once you’ve gone through those three different edits, you can move on to the next step: publishing.

Step 6: Publish your Story

This step is obviously optional. If you just want to keep this story for yourself and not publish it, then that works perfectly fine. However, if you want to submit it to some different places, then that can be great too!

First of all, you can always submit to contests. Contests can be a great way to get your story noticed.

There are also magazines out there you can submit to. Or, if you want to submit a short story here to Pen & Ink, I do post short stories sometimes! So if you’ve written a short story you’d like to publish, please feel free to contact me through my contact form and I promise to read it.

In Conclusion…

Writing short stories can be hard, but with the right techniques and lots of practice short stories can come as easy to you as any other kind of writing.

So go ahead, and write those stories!

And in the meantime: what was your favorite part about this post? Do you like writing short stories? What methods do you use to write a short story? Let me know in the comments!

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4 responses to “How to Write a Short Story Step-by-Step”

  1. Emma Avatar

    Love this post! It helped me realize one thing I often struggle with, which is the character arc—I want to cram a whole novel’s worth of development into less than 1000 words, and that doesn’t work. I shall take it slower from now on XD

    1. Annabelle Avatar

      Yeah, that part used to be difficult for me too. Getting the pacing right for character arcs is hard. I’m glad this post was helpful to you!

  2. Saraina Whitney Avatar

    This was so well written, Annabelle!!! Amazing tips!!!

    1. Annabelle Avatar