What’s Important in Writing Short Stories

by | Writing | 6 comments

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What’s Important to Consider in Writing a Short Story?


Writer’s Voice

  • Establish a strong, yet controlled, voice from the first line.


  • Limit the length of days or weeks the story covers.
  • Research to find (or create) a distinct setting that supports the story’s tone and plot. Your setting research should color your story rather than drive the story.
  • Show the setting through characters’ actions. No word-gobbling descriptions.


image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

  • Present an innovative and unexpected plot. Thoroughly imagine the whole story from beginning to end.
  • Know more about your story than your readers need to know so you can write a well-developed plot. The plot must have a beginning, middle, and end, but tell only enough of what you know to take the reader on a riveting short journey.
  • Focus on one conflict but make room for a small subplot to give the story some complexity and authenticity.
  • Don’t make the ending twist be your goal. The story must be about more than a gotcha.
  • Don’t set your story too far back in the protagonist’s life. Start after his life struggles heat up and as close to the climax as possible—when he takes a significant action toward his goal. Then advance to the conflict that creates the first obstacle to his goal. Conflicts leading to choices that lead to more conflict heighten emotional tension.
  • Infuse suspense so the reader constantly wants to know what happens next. Suspense is more than scary stuff happening.


  • Introduce few characters and write from one character’s point of view. Your protagonist should be the one who makes choices and advances the story.
  • image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

    Let the reader know immediately what the protagonist wants. Make her desire fresh.
  • Develop your characters through actions, thoughts, and dialogue. Every line of dialogue must develop a character or advance the plot. No idle talk.


  • Create dynamic, authentic interaction between characters through their complex personalities. Your goal is to create memorable characters.

 Good Planning and Execution

  • Brainstorm an original title that compels readers to delve into the story.
  • Rein in the exposition and the backstory.
  • Make beginning and ending lines the strongest in your story. Usher the reader into the story with a surprise that indicates what the whole story’s about, and like a spell, beckons him to read on. Don’t drag the ending out. When the reader reaches the ending line, he must care about the protagonist’s choice and can’t stop thinking about the story—wanting more. Perhaps he sees something about the world differently.
  • Don’t detail characters’ movements or getting them from one place to another; use quick transition words (later).
  • Edit the story to be shorter, tighter, more compelling. Pay attention to language—to word choices and clarity. Eliminate redundancy and repetition.
  • Kill your darlings. Every sentence should develop a character, advance the plot, or be eliminated.
  • Remember, conciseness doesn’t mean resorting to telling rather than showing feelings.

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  1. Jane Foard Thompson

    As an English major in college, I read a lot of short stories and always enjoyed them. I’ve only written a few since then. Your blog makes me want to delve into then again. It’s very concise and you hit every nail on the head. Thank you!

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Jane, you should delve into them again. Back in 1999 and 2000 I published two books of contemporary Christian short stories. The strange thing is that I disliked reading short stories at that time.

  2. Tanya Hanson

    Hi Zoe, great points! I loved the Short Story unit when I taught Honors Freshman English–Poe’s rules of unity, brevity, and singleness of effect. I find myself loving to write them now. I really have to cut the dead weight and be lean and spare and not waste one single word. Since writers tend to love words, short stories really help me rein in verbosity, even in longer works. Thanks for a fine post today!

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Tanya, I agree that writing short stories and even blogs really helps to learn how to write concise paragraphs or know we need to go back later and cut the darlings,repetitions and wordiness. It helps us make decisions on what’s the best of two adjectives used. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. KarlaAkins

    I love writing short stories! I’m printing this post and putting it in my writing tools binder. Thanks for the tips!

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Karla, have any of the short stories you’ve written ended up as novels? I wrote a short story and then realized it would make a good short novel. I contracted that book.

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