You have probably heard the concept of the short story before. Whether you encountered it in your public school English class or elsewhere, there is no denying that the short story is one of the most common story mediums around. It is also one of the easiest short story mediums to pick up and understand as experienced writers often recommend them to get a handle on writing characters, settings, and themes. However, it is also one of the hardest writing mediums to master as the challenges include a limited word count and the need to keep things small and simplified so the story can be read in a day.
Some of the best fiction is found in the short story medium and short stories can be challenging, but also one of the most rewarding pieces of fiction one can write. Short story writer, fantasy novelist, and comic book writer Neil Gaiman said it best:
“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They’re journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”
How long is a short story? According to Kindlepreneur, a short story runs between 1,000-10,000 words but is usually between 1,500-7,500. The page length for the average short story is between 3-30 pages. Below are examples of short stories:
- “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
- “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
- “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe
- “The Pendulum” by Ray Bradbury
- “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl
- “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
A short story has these following characteristics:
- Has a theme but is shorter than the novel
- Focuses on a contained incident or a series of linked incidents
- Evokes a “sudden effect” or mood, especially towards the end
- Modern short story as we know it developed in the early 19th century
One suggestion on how to write a short story is to start at the end as close as possible. Why? To help catch the reader’s attention. Starting in the middle or the end is also known as in medias res, or “into the middle of things.” You won’t know how or why things happened but if the intro sequence is exciting or interesting enough, it will have the reader asking “Whoa, how they did get to the edge of the waterfall?” The rest of the story can serve as building up to that point, with the end serving as some type of resolution.
A fast pace is also recommended when writing short stories, especially as they are meant to be finished in one sitting. If your short story’s pacing is slow and if it just tells the reader what is happening instead of showing them what is happening, then it won’t engage the reader and your short story won’t be read. Also, keep the cast of your characters small to help keep the pacing fast and the story focused. Keep exposition short and instead go into detail on the five senses of the story: what do the scenery and characters look like? What do they hear? What do they smell? What do they feel? Focus on the sensations in the short story to keep things focused and to help readers guess what is going on to keep them following on what happens next. Flat-out telling the reader what happens kills short stories.
But all short stories are different and some don’t even need characters at all. Instead, visual and other sensory details can give readers clues on what happened based on those details alone. A good example of this would be Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” published in 1950. This short story is about an abandoned house with artificial intelligence (AI) set in the year 2026…which in our timeline would be three years away and we are already witnessing AI being present. Details on how the house is abandoned with neglected details such as rotting food and broken infrastructure are presented. The only dialogue is from the AI that assumes its inhabitants are still in the house. There are no character interactions but details on how the house was abandoned help keep the reader curious right until the ending.
Below is a short student video by Mark Sperzana that is one of many short adaptations of the short story. There is no exposition of what happened. The only storytelling elements would be the sound and visuals.
In short, the more details you use, the more interesting your short story-or even a short film or comic-will be.
Most importantly, conflict is needed. Conflict helps keep the short story exciting and work with its fast pace. It can use the traditional protagonist vs. antagonist setup but conflict can be created in other different ways, like a character spending the story struggling with the loss of a loved one or another character struggling to survive turbulent weather.
There isn’t an exact science to writing a short story and there are many different and effective ways to write one. The key is to make it with a quick pace, use of many sensory details, and introducing some type of conflict to keep readers hooked until the very end.