Writing short stories may seem like an easy endeavor—after all, the name suggests that the task is a quicker venture than novel-writing. But because of their brevity, short stories are held to a high standard while still containing many of the components of their much longer literary companions. Take it from famous authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Jesmyn Ward, and James Joyce, who started their careers by crafting short stories before moving into full-length novels.
Are you wondering how to write a short story that’s compelling and makes the most of every word? We’ve created a guide featuring advice from top writers on how to do just that.
What Is a Short Story?
Short stories are typically fictional accounts that are known for being brief. In general, short stories feature:
- A small number of characters
- Concise writing
- A distinct genre or subject matter
Let’s answer a few more common questions about short stories—including the typical short story word count.
What Are the 5 Basic Elements of a Short Story?
Short stories have all the components that novels (or stories of any kind) have, including plot, character, setting, conflict, and theme.
How Long Is a Short Story?
A short story word count can range from 1,000 to 5,000 words. There are no exact rules on how long should a short story be, so it’s okay if your story is outside of those parameters. There’s a grey area between a short story length and the length of a novella.
In general, here are the different word counts of various types of stories:
- Micro Fiction: 5 to 350 words
- Short Story: 1,000 to 5,000 words
- Novella: 10,000 to 30,000 words
- Novel: 40,000+ words
7 Famous Short Stories
If you want to learn how to write a fiction short story, it’s helpful to start by reading the best short stories to get a sense of the style and format. That’s why we compiled a list of a few of the best and most famous short stories.
1. “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe
You might remember this classic revenge story from high school English class. Set in Italy, the main character Motresor tricks his friend Fortunato into tasting some wine in his cellar—then entombs him down there.
2. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving
Published in 1819, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is an American classic. The Headless Horseman has inspired many modern stories, including the TV show “Sleepy Hollow.” If you’re dreaming of how to write a horror short story, you might want to read this author.
3. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“The Lottery” is a short story that follows people living in a small town who go through a yearly rite in which one person is selected to be stoned to death. The story speaks to mob psychology, scapegoats, and following traditions blindly. Jackson’s short story was first published in an issue of The New Yorker in 1948 and sparked conversations across the country, hate mail, and canceled subscriptions.
4. “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
A young boy tries to rob the wrong woman in Harlem. Published in 1958 during the Harlem Renaissance, the story teaches a lesson about showing kindness and compassion.
5. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The main character, Jane, gets locked in quarantine by her doctor husband because she is experiencing depression and hysteria—a common diagnosis given to women during the 1890s when this story was written. Gilman was known for exploring the patriarchy and the role women played in America.
6. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
This true-crime short story was inspired by Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The haunting story follows 15-year-old Connie during the summer of 1966 as she begins a relationship with a man who eventually kills her.
7. “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
Alice Walker’s short story is frequently studied in writing classes. Published in 1973, the story is narrated by “Mama,” an African American woman who lives in the South with her daughters, Maggie and Dee, and follows the family as they explore their cultural identities.
Write Your Own Short Story!
Introduction to Fiction: How to Write the First Draft of a Short Story
How to Write a Short Story
Now that you have some inspiration at your fingertips, let’s walk through the basic steps to craft your own short story.
1. Start With an Idea
Every story begins with a blank page. Brainstorming is a surefire way to come up with ideas if you don’t have one already.
If you’re writing a short story based on a time in your life, think back to that time and take notes on your past experiences and feelings. Make a list of any vivid memories you have, list any other people in your life at that time, and ask yourself questions about your experience.
If you’re writing a completely fictional short story, start brainstorming about the types of characters, places, and plots you’d like to include. If you need inspiration, try people watching, using “what if” questions to generate original answers, keeping a journal, and playing word association games. They can all get your creative juices flowing.
2. Outline Your Short Story
Writing a short story can be intimidating, so it’s helpful to know how to write a short story outline. Your story may deviate from your outline as you write, but plotting your short story out ahead of time allows you to frame it within a structure and build a clear rhythm from beginning to end.
The first thing to do is summarize your short story. You can write down specific scenes (also known as plot points) that you want to include and determine when you want them to happen. Every short story should feature a conflict of some kind, so figure out what conflicts your story will feature and how they will be resolved.
If you need to do some research to build your storyline (like researching locations or historical events), a great time to do that is when you write your short story outline.
A few key components to include in your outline:
- A solid beginning that hooks readers
- A point of conflict (or more) that keeps your protagonist on their toes
- A good ending that ties up loose ends
3. Write the Short Story
Of course, now you need to do the most creative part of the process: write! Rely on your creativity and your outline, work through any writer’s block, and just put words on the page.
“Remember that it’s important in a first draft, kick your inner critic out of the room, and just keep moving forward,” says Skillshare instructor and fiction writer Seth Fried.
4. Reread, Structure, and Edit Your Short Story
As you revise, reread each sentence individually. Since short stories are, well, short, you need to make sure that each and every sentence serves a purpose.
Note any inconsistencies with your plot, characters, or tone. Review the structure of the story. Would it make sense to a reader?
“When you revise, you already have a structure, you already have the characters. It’s like you already have a scaffold of a house and now it’s really time to work on the details of that house,” says Skillshare instructor and writer Yijun Li.
Don’t be afraid to “kill your darlings.” Even if the words are pretty, they don’t belong in your story if they don’t serve a purpose. A few other edits to make:
- Remove unnecessary adverbs and adjectives
- Delete repetitive words
- Remember to show, not tell
- Keep your cast of characters small and well-defined
- Whittle down the number of plot lines
5. Nail the Ending
Since you’re creating a short story, there’s less room for errors. If you introduce a plot point that goes unresolved or a character whose arc is never wrapped up, your story won’t feel complete.
You have to craft a good ending that wraps up any unresolved aspects and leaves your reader satisfied. With that said, you can write a story that doesn’t serve the reader the answer to every question. In fact, many short story writers have left their endings up to interpretation.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Does your ending circle back to your beginning?
- Does the flow make sense?
- Does your ending match the overall theme of your story?
6. Ask Someone Else to Edit Your Short Story
It’s always helpful to get a second pair of eyes (or more!) on your short story. Start by asking a trusted literary friend for overall feedback, or for more constructive edits like looking for plot holes, grammatical errors, or sentence structure.
If you want to publish your story, you’ll need to get it professionally edited. You can work with a freelance editor or literary editor who has the skills to take a critical look at your story and perform line edits or even workshop the story with you.
7. Publish Your Short Story
After all that hard work, you’re probably eager to publish your short story (and hopefully get paid for it!). After you’ve outlined, written, and edited your story, it’s time to publish.
Try submitting your short story to writing contests and literary magazines. If you’re a student, send your short story to writing scholarships to earn some extra cash. You can find some of these opportunities in writer publications like Writer’s Digest and the Writer Magazine—both of which list literary publications and host their own contests.
If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you may be able to publish your short story in an anthology or even work with a literary agent.
Short Story Ideas and Writing Prompts
Now that you know how to write a fantasy short story, or any other kind of short story, it’s time to put those skills to work.
We’ve come up with some short story ideas and prompts that will spark inspiration for your next writing project:
- When a tornado hits your character’s hometown, it uncovers a secret that’s been hidden for hundreds of years.
- After a fight with their significant other, your main character goes on a trip and runs into a person from their past.
- Your character moves to a new town that has some interesting characters—including someone who might be a murderer.
- Quarantine is over, but your character leaves their house for the first time in a year only to discover that everyone from the town is missing.
- Your character decides to ban together with a team of thieves to return stolen goods to their rightful places.
- Your character goes on a retreat to a cabin in the mountains but doesn’t get to return home. Why?
As with any type of writing, the important thing is to just get started. So, pick a prompt (or come up with your own), and start putting ink on the page.
Get Started on Your Story!
Writing Character-Driven Short Stories