How to write a good short story – in simple terms for beginners

What does it take to make a brilliant short story? A lot depends on your taste in writing, and/or the taste in reading of your audience if it is already established. And there are many types of short story – almost as many different types as there are genres in full-length books.

How to write a good short story, in simple but effective terns

However as you would expect, a short story is rather different from a full length book, and different from an essay, too.

Writing a short story is like taking a snapshot

Whether you’re writing about something that actually has happened to you – or, you’re making up a fictional story – you have little time for anything but the key points.

It’s hard to know just how much description to include (where the story takes place, what the characters do and look like, the time of year, etc.) And you have no time for any “back story” to introduce readers to the action.

Write a skeleton plan

Many short stories (and full-length books for that matter) fizzle out of steam about half to three-quarters of the way through, because the author hasn’t thought out the whole story in a skeleton format beforehand.

We’ve all heard authors say that they create the characters and let them decide where the story goes, but that’s a rather dangerous way to handle things – especially if you’re a beginner.

With the short story being so tight on time to develop anything, it makes a lot of sense to map out a skeleton plan of what happens. That way you know a) where to go with your writing and b) that your readers will be guided from beginning to end in an entertaining and interesting way.

Start at the end and work backwards

One of the best things about good short stories is that they often end in a surprise twist … which, being practical for a moment, is easier to devise before you start writing! So, once you’ve decided what to write about, it helps a lot to decide what the ending should be even before you think about the beginning.

Here’s a sample of a skeleton plan, which I started working on with the ending: one of the two main characters leaves the other one to die, helpless

  • Tour bus is involved in an accident, overturns
  • Two elderly passengers, strangers, find themselves on the grass having been thrown out of the bus
  • Stranger #1 is badly injured
  • Stranger #2 is OK, goes to help Stranger #1 who is bleeding profusely
  • Stranger #2 takes off coat and stuffs it into the wound, so slowing bleeding down just enough to save Stranger #1’s life
  • While waiting for the emergency services they talk
  • Find it weird how many coincidences there are in their respective lives
  • Even went to the same school
  • Stranger #1 finally remembers who Stranger #2 is, confesses that s/he was the school bully who tortured Stranger #2 to the point that s/he attempted suicide, asks for forgiveness
  • Stranger #2 smiles at Stranger #1, says not to worry, ambulance is on its way, grabs coat out of his/her wound, profuse bleeding ensues, Stranger #2 waits to hear #1’s final gasp, then walks off into distance.

I know that’s a bit gory but my own short stories are mostly in the paranormal or horror genre!

Skeleton plan makes it easy to improve and tighten up your story

From this you can see how to work your story back from its ending into a related – but apparently incongruous – beginning, leading to that nice twist at the end.

And what’s interesting is that when I wrote out this plan, it began with the two strangers going along in the bus, having the conversation, with the bus crashing a bit later. Then I thought it would be more dramatic and sharper to start with the bus crash and let them have the conversation out on the grass.

Skeleton plans are so useful to help you see where you can make improvements before you’ve gone to the trouble of writing it all up – like here, where I followed my own advice which is to jump straight into your action: spring a surprise on your readers so they find themselves in the middle of a lively conversation … a wild run across the fields … a fast car chase. (Or in this case, a tour bus crashing and rolling over.)

What about true stories?

Probably the best way to tell a true story about yourself or someone/something you know well, is to imagine you’re telling it to a good friend around your kitchen table, over a cup of coffee.

Try to use the skeleton structure I’ve outlined above as far as is reasonable and…

  • Start with some activity and/or surprise, not with an actual descriptive introduction
  • Avoid writing your own opinions and views about what was happening – show those as much as possible through dialogue and actions
  • If you are the story-teller in the story, be careful not to make it too much about you
  • End on as much of a surprising / funny / dramatic / intriguing conclusion to the story as possible

And whichever type of short story you’re writing…

  • Tell the story through actions and dialogue, with as little descriptive narrative as possible
  • Make good use of dialogue to tell parts of the story, but do not use it to fill in any back story as that will come over as stilted and unnatural
  • Use direct and creative action words and sentences, and introduce intrigue where you can – e.g. not “I was told that the woman down the street would scream most days,” but “You could hear her daily screams terrifying the whole village.”
  • Edit, edit, edit. Not to try to cripple your story, but simply to cut out any words that don’t pay their way. Tip: adjectives and especially adverbs, clutter things up. Rather than trying to prop up a noun or a verb with an adjective/adverb crutch, use a good Thesaurus and find nouns and verbs that say it all. For example … not “the day was very hot and sweaty,” but “the day was sweltering.”

This is only a brief look at how to write a good short story.

If you want more detailed suggestions and guidelines, Google “how to write a short story” and you’ll find a lot of help out there.

No, seriously. It’s amazing, and so, so gratifying, to see how many thousands of authors and other literary experts are out there willing to share their experiences and expertise.

OK … however, here’s a proviso.

If you are a beginner at writing, short stories or otherwise, don’t get too bamboozled by what often amounts to well-meant but rather stuffy literary clutter in some articles and books about short story writing.

It’s far better to learn the basics which I have outlined above, and get writing – despite not having sweated blood and tears trying to learn all the literary intricacies. Those can come later.

Write first: learn later?

Needless to say, there is plenty of time in the future for anyone like you to set about learning more about your craft, and considering how much useful information is out there on writing skills across all genres and types, your learning curve is vast and awaits you.

However, much as we should all respect literary excellence the reality is, it’s by getting your fingers on the keyboard that you’ll get yourself started in any form of creative writing; the more you write, the better you’ll do it.

Don’t get bogged down by theory: take note of the basic rules, but leave yourself free to be YOU.

Good luck and happy writing!

What experience do you have to share about short story writing?

Please share!