Constructing a short story is a delicate art. As a short fiction writer and regular judge of Reedsy’s short story contest, I’m especially well-acquainted with this fact — and over the years, I’ve learned that there are certain crucial elements that go into every great piece of short fiction.
Today, I want to translate these elements into clear, actionable tips for short story writers who hope to get a better handle on the form — and who may even want to enter a contest or publish their short stories for a wider audience! Without further ado, here’s my best advice on how to build a short story from the ground up.
While emotional resonance is ideal in every kind of narrative, it’s imperative in short stories. You have so little space to make an impression that you can’t rely on gradual escalation of plot, as novels often do. Instead, you need to jump straight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings, and cultivate the right atmosphere to complement them.
One need look no further than some of literature’s most famous short stories to see this in action. In “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson quickly establishes a sense of unease lurking beneath the mysterious procedure of the lottery, then ratchets up the eeriness with her evasion of what’s causing this disquiet. In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” we can immediately tell the characters are holding something back, and this tension leads to a revelatory moment when they begin discussing the issue at hand.
If you want to write an excellent short story, you’ll need to take this same tack. Before you begin writing, ruminate on how you want to make readers feel: anxious? frustrated? wistful? joyous? Whatever you decide is your “key emotion,” you must build your entire story around it, making use of everything from scenery to dialogue. (On a personal note, some of my best short stories have come from my attempts to process real feelings and experiences — so if you’re having trouble finding an emotional pillar for your story, try writing what you know.)
Once you’ve nailed down your key emotion, you’ll need to work out how many scenes are required to convey it. As the examples above demonstrate, sometimes all it takes is a single well-rendered scene to capture the right atmosphere. Other times you’ll need several, as in more expansive short stories like Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent.”
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that more scenes automatically equates to a deeper story — on the contrary, you risk diluting its impact and losing readers’ interest. For each scene you want to include, ask yourself: what purpose does this serve? Every scene in a short story should contribute to the atmosphere and advance the action. If a given scene only does one of these things, consider how you might incorporate the other. If you can’t think of a way to do this, perhaps that particular scene shouldn’t be in your story at all.
Be especially wary if you have more than four or five scenes total in your short story, as these can most likely be condensed. While there’s no universal decree on the best short story length, I’d argue that few stories suffer from being made pithier. If you want to edit still more rigorously, ask the same question of every paragraph, or even sentence, of your work: what is its purpose? A sentence doesn’t need to accomplish as much as a scene, but if it’s not building toward something — or if it repeats something you’ve already said — then you can cut it.
On that note, take care to not only reduce fluffy and redundant sentences, but to enhance the sentences you do keep. As Jaq D. Hawkins touches on in this post on short story mistakes, you should calibrate your prose to always “show” rather than “tell.” In other words, don’t instruct the reader what to think or how to feel; instead, immerse them in what’s happening and trust that they’ll find their own way.
The best way to do this is with vivid sensory descriptions, as in this passage from one of our recent Reedsy contest winners, “Hello, Meredith”:
The sound of the night insects had grown into a cacophony in my ears. And the hot, humid air pressed against my face like a damp cloth. I couldn’t breathe. My heart beat against my ribs. Was the overpass quaking beneath me? Or was it just my body trembling… all my skin and bones shuddering? A thunderstorm raged inside me, and I was just made of fragile skin. I leaned forward, ready to plunge into the asphalt river, just to be free of the tornado of my thoughts, the rabbit of my heart.
Rather than unceremoniously stating “I was overstimulated and overwhelmed,” the narrator paints an evocative portrait of external stimuli and internal emotions. The use of strong verbs and figurative language can really help with this — indeed, even if you’re not much for similes and metaphors, they can do a lot of heavy lifting in a short story! If nothing else, take it as an opportunity to push the limits of your style, “showing” as much as possible and “telling” as little.
You’ve identified and expressed your key emotion in a short story of minimal scenes, with beautiful sensory descriptions that would make Nabokov weep. But you’re not in the clear just yet — you still need to wrap up your story in a memorable and satisfying way.
I emphasize this because it’s one of the most common issues among our contest entrants, as well as one of my own weak spots as a writer! Even when I have my ending planned from the start, it’s still tough to pull off in a way that doesn’t seem forced or rushed. Worse yet are those stories that don’t have endings. I’m not talking about ambiguous endings (which can be satisfying when paired with a certain type of story), but about stories that trail off aimlessly or end at an arbitrary point, seemingly because the writer just got sick of their own narrative.
To avoid this, keep a specific end point in mind as you’re writing — and, circling back to my first tip, don’t lose your grip on what you want readers to take away. Then, when you feel your story drawing to a close, don’t waffle! Wrap it up in a paragraph or two, drop the mic, and get out of there. (Check out “No Hard Feelings” and “The Play’s the Thing”, two of my favorite recent contest winners, for examples of strong, succinct endings.)
Fittingly, we’ve now come to the end of my craft advice, and you may be thinking: what next? Well, there’s always the Reedsy contest, not to mention tons of other exciting places to submit your short stories. Or you can strike out on your own and publish an ebook — this option may be especially appealing if you want to expand your story into something more substantial!
But even if you don’t plan on publishing anytime soon, I’d strongly encourage you to keep writing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my short fiction experiences, it’s that your best story will not be built in a day. The more short stories you construct, the more you’ll master this form — and the closer you’ll get to someday submitting a piece you’re incontrovertibly proud of.