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How to write short stories

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Short Story and Stories, Novellas
By I.N.

A short story is a piece of fiction normally 1000 to 8000 words. There is no hard and fast rule. Some are even shorter and some are longer than this range. In general, if a story is 20,000 to 40,000 words, it would constitute a novella. If it gets down to Twitter lengths, see a psychiatrist.

This advice can be applied to longer fiction too. Most writers start with short stories and so gain confidence to try a full length novel. Also it is easier to get published with short fiction, even though the market has reduced in print. Kurt Vonnegut and many others of that generation started out writing stories to earn a living, as there were many competing magazines after good stories.

Short story versus anecdote

An anecdote is an amusing account of an event or of characters in a setting. It need not be creative or have artistic flair. It can be a straightforward narrative with a beginning, middle and end, even if it is fiction. It would read like a newspaper or magazine.

A short story is an artistic craft, with a theme, creative use of language, casting of a mood, development of characters. Most of all, it needs to have style.

There are six elements to a short story:


Short stories need to have a theme to weave the narrative together. A theme is a dramatic focus or overall idea.

Some common themes are for example, power struggle, love, ageing. Themes do not give rise to stories, instead, stories bring about inherent themes. They begin with characters and their conflicts.

From characterisation, themes and plots will naturally emerge, because of the use of simile, hyperbole, symbolism, metaphor, irony and figures of speech.


Short stories need to have a beginning, middle and end. The plot is the sequence of events taking the story from beginning to end. A short story is too short to have subplots, so it must only have one main plot.

Beginning: the character or characters are presented with a situation that causes conflict.

Middle: the character or characters struggle to resolve this conflict.

Climax: a turning point in how the characters cope in dealing with the situation.

End: the conflict is resolved.

The end of a story is just as important if not more important than the beginning. At the end, there must be a transformation.

In a crime story, it could be a twist.

In a literary story, it could be a change in the character or characters.

In commercial fiction, the story could have a formulaic ending.

In any story, the ending must provide a sort of surprise to the reader.

In a successful story, this surprise must be so great for the reader that he or she is terribly sad that the story has ended, and wishes it could go on.


The maximum number of main characters need to be limited to three in an average story. This is so as to intensify the interaction between the characters and depict their conflict within a short space of time. The main character is the protagonist. The others are the antagonists. In order for a story to seem real, the characters must seem real. The best way to write believable characters is to believe them yourself.

Avoid stereotypes and keep characters consistent, complex and fallible.


This is the time and place of the story. The setting creates mood and atmosphere which is essential in any story.


Conflict means problem. There is no plot without conflict. There are two types of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflict is what a character goes through in his/her heart and mind. The external conflict is imposed on him or her by another character, a place or an event.

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