Short Story Structure: How to Write a Short Story in 5 Easy Steps

So, you want to write a short story. Neil Gaiman tells us the following, which I think is amazing:

“Short fiction is a fantastic place to
learn your craft as a writer.”

Short fiction is where you can explore, bend genres, test ideas, and see if you have enough material to last for five pages or for a hundred or more. It’s where you can do whatever you want and, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter, it was only 5k words, not 50k.

It is also where you can train one ability specifically. For example, you want to learn to write a very complex character. It can be his drama of waking up and getting out of bed to go to a job that he hates. It would be very hard to read a 500-page ranting but it can be very relatable to read 5 pages of a character suffering to face real life while deciding if he will quit his job or be a responsible adult.

Short Story Structure: What is a short story

People like to say that anything above 7,5k is a novelette, and a short story would be less than that. I believe that a short story can be of any length, be it one sentence long, a page, or even 10k words. You decide if you will call it a “short story”, “a novella”, or something like this.

What a short story doesn’t have is a lot of meat. By that, I mean that a short story focus on the key points of the story. There’s no space for “filler scenes”.

You have to have clearly in mind what you want to convey with a short story and go directly to the main point.

How to write a short story in 5 easy steps

1. A short story is basically the climax of a novel. You don’t want to write everything else you would put in your novel. You want to start in the end, or in the climax, where the most important thing is happening.
Decide the climax and you’re good to go.

2. Open the story in the middle of the action. The structure is: action (climax) – end. Start here and fill in the details as you go. Go straight to the most important scene.


3. As you write the climax, tell the readers details about the characters. The characters must have lived their whole lives until this point of the story. They have to have a full personality, full context, you have to reveal it in bits and pieces, the most important stuff, the key elements, so your reader will understand the context, they will see that these characters have existed all along, but they will also be in the most important scene. Right after this scene, it’s the end of the story.
4. Focus on one problem only. A full novel has a lot going on: a lot of conflict, problems, and a gigantic plot. For a short story, you will want one conflict only, and you will open your story in the middle of this conflict, solving it next.
5. Your reader can’t feel lost. They have to know it all, even though it’s a small scene. So, in each description, ask yourself: what is this phrase causing in the reader? Why is this phrase here? Is it giving them emotion? Is it showing the character’s personality and background? If it’s not, cut it. Every word in a short story must have a purpose of advancing the story (okay, this is also the case in a novel but here is even more serious).

For example, in the example given above of the character struggling to get out of bed:
1. The opening scene would be when his alarm goes off. He doesn’t want to go.

It wouldn’t start when he was going to bed in the previous night or something like this. It would be in the heart of the conflict: he doesn’t want to go to work.
2. The reader has to understand WHY this character doesn’t want to go to work. While he sits in bed, write about his reasons. Make the conflict grow. What is going on and what will the character do next?
3. I would probably think about a plot twist now. Something unexpected. But you decide. He can even dream that he went to work and killed everybody there but woke up to see everything normal, or he can get up and go, he can call his boss and tell him to go to hell… You decide, the thing is: the climax is gone, and now you have to solve the ONE problem the character has.
There you go. You have a short story.

Short Story Structure: Short Story Writing Exercise

Neil Gaiman even told us that he imagines he is paying for each word. If you hire an editor, you are actually paying for each word. Imagine that each of them costs you 0,50 cents. Now, sum it up to see how much you would pay. Try to decrease your costs by cutting every word off.

Try to make your story 1/3 shorter than what it is right now.

Do you have more than one conflict? Analyze it. You want only one conflict, starting in the climax of the story, and the next thing being the solution.

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