9 Steps for Writing a Captivating Short Story

9 Steps for Writing a Captivating Short Story

Short stories are a common adventure for writers at all stages of their careers. 

They are a great way to start out your career. 

Before tackling novels and longer stories, it’s a great idea to start with a short story. This way, you’ll get a feel for the challenges and process of creating fiction in general. 

Just imagine how much larger a writing obstacle will look in a full-length book. 

When you begin with short stories, you can get all of the clichés out and find the best strategies for your writing style. 

Using short stories, you can master elements of fiction and propel your writing career. 

Make no mistake, writing a short story is not an easy task, it just gives you a chance to take a bite before the main course. 

Here how to write short stories.

Short Story Definition 

Short stories are works of fiction. However, they can come in several lengths. Here is the break down of different short stories:

  • Traditional: 1,500-5,000 words. 
  • Flash fiction: 500-1,000 words. 
  • Micro fiction: 5 to 350 words. 

While SOME publications or contests are looking for short stories up to 5,000 words, the most common route is one between 1,500 to 3,000 words. 

Micro-fiction stories may seem absurd, but they do exist. Generally, they are created more in jest, but Ernest Hemingway has written one in 6 words. 

Short stories are certainly more concise than novels, but this does not make them any less of a work of art. 

Developing an Idea

Coming up with an idea that’s suitable for a short story is a challenge of its own.

Whether you’re struggling to come up with an idea or you have so many that you don’t know where to start, it’s all about telling a story well. 

In fact, you rarely need to generate an idea. There are ideas all around, it’s simply about recognizing them. 

Here are some tips for developing your story idea:

Find a Seed

Fiction often starts with a small seed that grows as you nurture it. The seed could be a person, fear, conflict, memory, or more. Find your seed. 

Jot it Down 

Ideas can be fleeting. Write them down. Draft out the story basics. Don’t worry about grammar or writing techniques, just get down the plot. 

Develop Characters 

Once you have the basics down, it’s time for characters. Develop characters based on people you know of. You can mix their traits, habits, appearances, etc. around to create interesting, unique characters. 

Time to Write 

Eventually, it’s time to get writing. The outlining is only the beginning, getting those words down is where the story really starts. 

We’ll dive into that in the next sections. 

Structuring a Short Story 

Even those who write as they go should follow Dean Koontz’s basic story structure. 

  • Submerge your main character into turmoil quickly. For different genres, the trouble means something different. 
  • Your character tries and tries to address the problem, but it only gets worse. 
  • The situation appears hopefully. 
  • Your main character is finally able to put everything they’ve learned to use and win…or fail. 

9 Steps for Writing a Short Story 

1.Get to Reading 

By reading the best, you can learn the ropes of writing. Read all the classics. Read the hidden gems. Just read a lot of short stories. You’ll get a feel for the structure and style. Learn about the strategies they use and absorb the storytelling magic. Eventually, you’ll be able to craft your style.

2. Evoke Emotion  

The most powerful and effective stories move your readers. They evoke deep emotions and they grip them. Some common emotions that work well in short stories are:

  • Revenge
  • Freedom
  • Betrayal
  • Heroic sacrifice
  • Love
  • Redemption 
  • And many more 

3. Focus In 

Short stories must propel readers through a beginning, middle, and end, just like a full-length novel. But instead of hundreds of pages and hundreds of thousands of words, you must do so within roughly 10 pages. 

Instead of a long cast of characters and a sweeping storyline, you must pack a strong punch within far fewer words. 

The limit on words also limits your characters, scenes, and plot points. 

Compelling short stories focus on a snippet of the main character’s life. Narrow in your theme, zoning in on the main incident. 

Here are some ideas for narrowing your scope:

  • Combine characters when possible. Your main character won’t always be able to have a “sounding board”, with short stories you’ll need to keep the cast smaller. 
  • Keep descriptions concise. You don’t need lengthy paragraphs of descriptions. Only say what you must to trigger your reader’s mind in the right direction. 
  • Skip the unnecessary scenes. Avoid the scenes that just move your characters to places. Instead of dedicating hundreds of words to fill the gap of time, a simple “The next morning, Sarah headed to the library” will do. 

Step 4: A Winning Title 

Your title matters. A lot. Spend time on this portion. 

Editors may tweak it, but the title is what will reel them in. The right title grabs their attention and gives your story a chance. It should stand out and align with your story. 

5. Follow the Classic Story Structure 

You must hold your readers’ interest the entire time. No matter the length of your story, this is crucial. 

Follow the classic story structure to do this. 

Throw your main character into some serious trouble as soon as possible. 

“Trouble” in a thriller may be a life-threatening situation, whereas in a romance novel it could be choosing between two suitors. For a mystery, on the other hand, it could be a false criminal accusation. Regardless, the key is to plunge your main character into a fitting version of trouble right away. 

Only tell your reader enough to make her care about the main character. Don’t waste too much time setting the scene, get to the interesting stuff. The trouble will drive your story, so it’s important to get into it quickly. 

6. Brief Backstory 

In a short story, you don’t have space for an elaborate backstory. 

Mention the backstory, keeping it brief. Keep it sufficient, a suggestion of your main character’s history. Keep the details to a minimum, layering in a few key sensory details.

7. Every Sentence Counts 

There’s no room to waste in a short story. Every single word has to matter. If you’re questioning the importance of a word or sentence, cut it out. 

8. Gratifying Ending

The ending of your short story should be resounding. Slam it down. 

Again, it doesn’t have to take paragraphs to do this, it just has to be a powerful ending that satisfies the reader. It should not feel forced or rushed. 

9. Cut it Down 

Great! You’ve finished your story. Now your real work starts. 

Become a strict editor. Examine the flow of the story, and then hone in on punctuation, grammar, perfection, sentence structure, word choice, clichés, redundancies, and more. 

Review the story critically. Are there better ways you can appeal to the reader’s emotions?

Tighten up. Rewrite by omitting unnecessary words. You don’t need to tell the reader that she “blinked her eyes”. Blinked implies eyes, just leave it as “she blinked.”

Examples of Great Short Stories 

  • Vanka by Anton Chekhov
  • The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin 
  • Glittering City by Cyprian Ekwensi 
  • Journalism In Tennessee by Mark Twain
  • The Nose by Nikolai Gogol 

How to Sell Short Stories 


Both online and print magazines purchase and publish short stories. Some of the most popular examples include:

  • Woman’s World
  • Harper’s Magazine
  • The New Yorker
  • Ellery’s Queen Mystery Magazine
  • The Atlantic
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine 

Short Story Books

While these were more popular in the past, some publishers still publish books of short stories. 

Some short story books feature one author, others may feature multiple authors with books of a similar genre/theme. 

Whether you’re looking for a feature in a multi-author book or to make your book of short stories, each story should stand alone. 


Writing contests often offer cash prizes. Even if they don’t, typically they publish the stories online or in a magazine. Winning a short story contest gives you instant visibility (and bragging rights. And sometimes cash). The awards, credibility, and visibility that contests offer make them a great option for short stories. 

Periodicals by Genre

Periodicals cater to audiences based on categories/genre. 

Making it into one of these can be very lucrative for your career. Chances are, the editor will come back to you in the future. 

Working with an editor is powerful for your writing progress and can help you develop key skills. 

Literary Magazine 

Literary magazines tend to focus more on intellectual pieces, but getting published is still great. Some literary magazines are in the market for short stories. 

Start Your Short Story 

Now that you have the 9 essential steps for writing a compelling short story, it’s time to get started!

What’s your short story idea?

The key is to narrow it down to a one-sentence pitch. 

It’ll take some time (and tons of critical self-editing), but once you get your great short story published we’re here to help. 

With Crave Books, you get the highest quality readers and the best reviews. Ultimately, you can use Crave to sell more books! We offer top-level promotional services for authors, providing you with access to the world’s first multi-site author promotional tool. Run all of your promotions in one place and easily manage them with Crave!

Sign up for the free author dashboard HERE!

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