The Complete Guide to Writing Short Stories
Publishing your work doesn’t have to be a difficult, complex process.
Publishing a book can feel like a monumental task, especially when you do it on your own. There’s a whole world of design choices, marketing strategies, and printing options that you need to navigate before your book finds its audience. Count on Palmetto Publishing to guide you along the way.
Anyone can write short stories. You don’t have to be a world-class talent or have bestselling hardcover books on the shelves. You don’t even need writing experience.
Like any other type of writing, short stories are a craft. This guide will help you learn that craft and create the kind of short stories people love to read.
What is a Short Story?
A short story is a self-contained piece of fiction told in 1,500 to 7,500 words. Any shorter, and you’re writing flash fiction. Any longer, and you’re in novella territory.
A short story might share characters or a world with another story or novel, but readers should be able to understand it on its own.
Short stories can be any genre of fiction. Some of the most popular short story genres include:
- Literary fiction
- Science fiction
- Children’s fiction
- Young adult
Feel free to use this list as inspiration, but don’t worry if you don’t have a genre in mind. Focus on the story.
How to Write a Short Story, Step By Step
Non-writers often think of short story writing as a mysterious process. You feel the muse, and suddenly, a short story exists.
That’s rarely how it works. By following this simple process, you can get your short story on the page.
Step 1: Develop Your Idea
An idea is your jumping-off point, but you need to develop it before it becomes a short story.
Any story has a beginning, middle, and end. “A man gets a concussion and wakes up in the year 1652” isn’t a story — it’s an idea. From there, you have to add conflict and narrative.
“A man wakes up in 1652 and has to figure out how to get home” is a good next step, but it still needs more. Without a narrative, your story will get stuck.
To create one, ask yourself two questions:
- What’s at stake? Maybe the man wants to get home so badly because his wife is having a baby, or he has a date with the man of his dreams.
- What’s getting in the way? Your main character needs to overcome obstacles to get what they want. These obstacles can be internal (he’s too stubborn), or external (he’s trapped in a dungeon) — or both.
Your conflict can be extremely small-scale in a short story. It’s a great format to explore writing a vignette — a snapshot of a character’s life focused on one fleeting moment.
Don’t go too large-scale. Too many characters, scene changes, and layers, and you have a novel.
Aim for no more than five or six short scenes. You can write a great short story in a single scene if it’s well-developed.
Step 2: Develop Your Main Characters
All great short stories have a well-developed protagonist — the person who moves the story forward as they pursue their goal. Remember the time traveler from Step 1?
If you want people to engage with him, you have to develop him as a person. You’ll write a better story about a character you know intimately versus one who only exists as a name on paper.
Think about what makes a person who they are, such as:
- Backstory. Where are they from and how did they get to where they are today?
- Personality. If this character was a real person, how would you describe them to a friend?
- Values. What matters to this character?
- Social circle. Who’s important in their life?
- Circumstances. What’s their age, hometown, job background, etc.?
The more you know, the richer your story will be. Plus, it’s a fun process.
Step 3: Outline the Story
Not all writers create formal outlines, but it’s a smart way for new writers to stay focused.
With an outline, you don’t have to worry about getting halfway through your narrative and not knowing what comes next. You’ll have that down on paper already so you can focus on development.
The format doesn’t matter. This is just for you. Just begin writing how the story will go, from the opening to the action’s climax and through to the end.
Step 4: Write the First Draft
This will be your messiest, least polished version of the story. That’s okay. At this point, your goal is to get the story down on paper, not to make it perfect.
Don’t second-guess yourself or try to make any edits. Just write the story — there’ll be time for editing later.
And don’t go back to read what you wrote. If that’s hard, cover your computer screen or hand-write your story.
Step 5: Edit Your Story
After you’ve finished your draft, set it aside for a while — at least a few days. Then pull it back out and read it out loud to yourself. Don’t stop to edit. When you finish, write down your initial reactions.
Remember, you’re not supposed to be fully happy with it yet. This stage is about analyzing what doesn’t work and making it better.
Then read through it again, this time taking notes in the margins as you go. Mark when something works and when it’s confusing or takes you out of the narrative.
Put the story aside again for a few days, then read it through a third time. This time you’ll go paragraph-by-paragraph, taking notes on how each one advances the story.
If something doesn’t build the character, tell the reader about the world, or move the plot forward, mark it for cutting.
On the next read-through, focus specifically on character development. Notice whether their objective is clear and their thoughts and behavior are consistent.
For example, if your character desperately wants to escape 1652 and go home to his new baby, it doesn’t make sense for him to ask a village woman to marry him.
Finally, it’s time to edit the prose. Read each sentence aloud and listen to its flow. If something doesn’t work, mark it.
Step 6: Get a Second (and Maybe Third) Opinion
You might be the best editor in literature, but you can’t ever be completely objective about your own work.
Once you’ve done a few rounds of edits, give your story to a writer or editor friend — someone you trust to be constructively critical — and ask for their thoughts.
Ask them to tell you what works and doesn’t work for them, and why. You don’t have to take every suggestion, but be open to their feedback. If they say something is confusing or clunky, someone else could easily have the same opinion.
Many writers repeat this step multiple times before they publish. Some never release their stories to people they don’t know. It’s up to you as the writer.
Step 7: Rewrite and Repeat
When you have all your notes on your first draft, it’s time to work on your second. The easiest method is usually to write it all out a second time.
Copy the sections that don’t need edits and write from scratch when you do. Then, go through the editing steps for the second draft.
Repeat as necessary.
Tips for Writing Great Short Stories
A great short story engages the reader from beginning to end. It’s a brief experience that stays with you and makes you think, “What else does this author have to say?”
Start in the Thick of the Action
When you only have 4,000 words, you don’t have time to indulge in “how we got here.”
Think of your story as a mountain. The climax is the peak, and your rising action is the uphill slope.
A novel can afford to start a few miles away from the mountain, walking the reader through the normal life that leads up to it. With a short story, you need to already be moving uphill.
Look at your outline and the incidents that move toward the climax. Start with the first exciting incident and throw the reader into it.
Raise the Stakes
The short story format is digestible in one sitting. Your readers should need to keep going either to find out what happens next or because they’re so invested in the character that they can’t put the book down. Up the interest level by making everything more critical.
Keep It Moving
Every story has its rising and falling action, but short stories don’t have a lot of breathing room.
The more you write, the more familiar with pacing you’ll get and the easier it will be.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is the golden rule of fiction writing. You may have heard it before, but it’s the kind of advice you can’t hear too many times.
Your goal is to immerse the reader in your story. That means avoiding the temptation to explain or describe what’s going on. Instead, paint a picture for them. Write so that your words create a movie in their minds, then lead them through that movie.
She could tell he was drunk the moment he walked through the door,
The smell of stale whiskey wafted through the door as he stumbled through.
Use strong verbs and vivid imagery anywhere you can. Look for ways to replace adjectives with word pictures. Instead of:
Sam was tired,
Sam yawned, his eyelids drooping under the fluorescent office lights.
The more you practice this skill, the easier it becomes.
Getting Your Short Story Published
Anyone can share a short story with the world. As with novels, there are two ways to go about it — pursue traditional publication or take matters into your own hands.
Submit to Journals and Anthologies
This is the conventional way of publishing your short story. There are hundreds of literary journals and short story anthologies that accept submissions. Some want stories along a particular theme. Some accept certain genres and others are completely open.
If you’re new to short story publishing, the best way to find a publication is usually through a directory. Some of the most well-known include:
- Poets and Writers
- Writer’s Market
You can also contact some of your favorite journals and literary magazines directly.
If you don’t know any, start familiarizing yourself. Reading journals in your chosen genre helps you learn what kind of material sells.
When you find a journal that’s a good fit, check the submission guidelines. Most publications have specific accepted formats, and some only accept pieces during certain periods of the year.
Don’t get discouraged if a publication doesn’t accept you. Most reputable journals reject far more pieces than they accept. Even accomplished writers get a story rejected 20 times or more before publication.
If your goal is to share your short stories, self-publishing with a company like Palmetto is the way to go.
Publish to a Platform
The internet has made it easy to publish your short stories online with no application process needed. Most online platforms have active user bases who comment on stories and offer feedback. It’s a great way to refine your latest story, whether or not you’re aiming for traditional publication.
Some of the most active platforms include:
- Medium (better known for the business genre but has a thriving short story category)
You can also start a blog to publish your short stories. But unless you have an established reader base, you’ll have to promote it.
Self-Publish a Short Story Collection
If you’ve written multiple short stories, consider publishing them as a print collection. Include your own stories exclusively or collaborate with writer friends to create a collection.
Publishing a collection lets you release your short stories and enjoy the experience of book publishing. If you work with a top self-publishing company like Palmetto Publishing, that can include:
- Professional book editing
- Book cover design
- Book layout and formatting
- Paperback or hardcover book printing
- Book marketing services
Palmetto’s editors and designers know the industry and can help you present your short story collection in its best light.
Getting Started as a Short Story Writer
Before you work with a book editor or think about book design, you need stories to share with the world. Get a notebook or create a file on your computer and start developing your ideas.
If you’re short on ideas, Google “short story prompts” and play with the ones that inspire you.
Publishing is great, but writing is the fun part. Enjoy it! And when you’re ready to share your stories, reach out to Palmetto. We’ll help you release something that reflects your hard work.