Writing an Effective Short Story

By:  Paul Blake


A short story can be a wondrous thing. The paucity of words allows the writer to focus on the story, rather than on the nuts and bolts of world-building, character development, and backstory vital in longer work. A short story is usually centred around, or focused towards a single event, concept, or message, whereas a novel has subplots, minor character arcs, etc.

For a writer, a short story allows for experimentation in voice, perspective, genre. This experimentation can be very freeing and productive in letting the creative brain play.

An effective short story is one that transfers the idea, message, or concept from the page to the reader. Compelling short stories stay with the reader long after they have put the story down.

Now how to write one:

  • The Idea.

An idea for a short story can come from a writing prompt or theme, a song title, a picture, a line from a movie. It’s the idea that plays on your mind twisting around letting it tell you its story. Of course, not all ideas come to the writer, sometimes the writer has to discover the idea the hard way. An excellent method if you are stuck for an idea and have a prompt or theme given to you by a writing group, or an anthology/magazine you hope to submit to, is freewriting.

With freewriting, you start with a blank page (or Word document) and write the prompt or theme at the top as a heading. You then let your mind wander thinking about the heading and write down what comes through, no editing, just stream of consciousness writing. This only needs to take at most ten minutes or so.  This is an excellent article on Freewriting – https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2010/04/unleash-your-creativity-now-how-to-freewrite/. Once you have completed your freewrite look through what you have written and pull out any interesting ideas that have formed.

  • Plan Your Story

Once you have an idea, it is useful to do a little planning. Some writers don’t plan and just write where the thoughts take them. If that is you, excellent, however some minor aspects of planning will help.

If you are looking to submit to a magazine or anthology, there will usually be a word count scale – Normally from 1000 to around 10,000 words. Most publications are very strict on these and stories to the lower end of the scale have a higher chance of being accepted (the lower the word-count the more stories they can include). Have a word count in mind when you’re writing, it saves a lot of time and heartbreak on the backend when you’re editing.

Think of the setting, genre, perspective for your story. Is it going to be set in space, or in the past, or on a fantasy world? Is your story going to be a fantasy, a thriller, or horror? If you currently write in one genre, maybe think about trying a different one. It can be quite liberating. Are you going to write in the third person, first-person? Present tense or past? A lot of times, these choices will come naturally to you. You have your voice, why change it? Well, writing in different styles allows your writing to grow. You discover new ways of writing, new hurdles to conquer, different pacing, and tones change stories. If you decide to write a thriller, but your usual style is literary fiction, it will require you to adapt your style.

With short stories, I find it best to have an ending in mind, be it a shocking twist or an ‘a-ha’ moment for the reader. Having an ending focuses the story when you’re writing and keeps you from using up valuable words on sub-plots that will go nowhere.

With the ending sorted, it is good to plan out a few key scenes, characters, or events that made up the rest of the story. For a short story, these only need to be a few sentences in length, if that much. If you want to include a wise-cracking robot jot down a few lines of description or dialogue. Even if you don’t use them in the story, it is useful to have them to guide your thoughts as you are writing.

The most important thing about having the outline in place is that it is not set in stone. You can deviate from it if the story takes you that way. Be flexible. How you get to your ending can, and probably will change.

  • Write a Strong Opening

As you are limited with words, it is crucial to quickly get the reader into the story. A strong opening does this. Use conflict or the unusual, or action to hook in the reader. It’s a short story, so get stuck in straight away. This article from Charlie Jane Anders on Gizmodo discusses different type of openings and when to use them – https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-7-types-of-short-story-opening-and-how-to-decide-w-5814687.

Also, Nathan Bransford has written an excellent article on the use of conflict in writing I’ve found useful in the past – https://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/03/on-conflict.

  • Write an Even Stronger Ending

The ending of a short story is what the reader will take away from the story. The middle is build-up to the ending. The ending can be left open for the reader to ponder upon, or you can close it having delivered your message or the purpose of the story. A great number of short stories end having returned to the beginning in a circular structure. For more information about a circular ending, this is a good article – https://www.bookshep.com/short-stories/techniques-of-circular-endings.html

  • After the Story Has Finished.

Once you have finished the story, you come to the editing stage. I suggest you leave the story for a week or so. This allows you to view the story with fresh eyes. Go through the story, making sure that the expectations for the reader are met and the ending is satisfactory. Cut out unnecessary information that pads out the story, if it doesn’t need to be in there don’t include it. Work on each sentence for pacing, tone, word use.

Title the story. You may have a title in mind when you start writing, or you may have to come up with one at the end. Make sure whichever title you choose fits with the story. Don’t call it The Black Cat if there are no cats and the missing ones are not black. For my story stories, I like to find song titles from bands or singers I like that fit with the story. For example, a recent story I wrote was about a man transported from New York to the Amazon rainforest and back again. I borrowed Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” song title. A great title intrigues the reader and gets them wanting to read the story.

I hope this article helps with your short story writing. As with all writing tips and techniques use the ones that help you the most. There is no hard and fast way to proceed. You’re the writer, and they are your words, enjoy them.

About the Author:

Paul Blake is the author of the short story collection A Few Hours After This, and the spy thriller novel A Young Man’s Game. His short story “Racing Vengeance” was published in the March/April edition of Kyanite Press.

Paul started writing in 2016, when he took a creative writing module to complete his Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree after failing far too many programming modules. He discovered a passion and has been writing since.

Paul is 44 and lives in London, England with his wife and three boys.

Connect with the Author:

Website: http://paulblakeauthor.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/paulblakeauthor

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/paulblakeauthor/

A Few Hours After This: http://getbook.at/AFewHoursAfterThis

A Young Man’s Game: http://getbook.at/AYoungMansGame