Writing Short-Form by Lynne Collier

What is a short story?

Writing short stories can be a way to create a story without the daunting task of writing a full-length novel. It doesn’t mean writing short fiction is easy. Like all forms of writing, it comes with its unique challenges. 

In a short story, you can build a world but not to the extent you would in a novel. You don’t need all the details of magical powers and interior design. You can give your characters a whole backstory and arc, but multiple subplots and complicated twists are better left for longer projects. A short story can typically be read in one sitting.

Short stories have fewer words, specific settings, and smaller casts than novels. But they can be just as impactful on readers. Here are a few short stories that pack a punch:

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)

O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” (1905)

G. K. Chesterton’s “The Blue Cross,” “The Invisible Man,” and the series “Father Brown.”

C. S. Lewis’s “Ministering Angels” (1958)

How long is short?

A short story is a work of fiction generally between 1,000 and 10,000 words. It has the same elements as a novel but relays them in fewer words.

Stories under 1,000 words are known as flash fiction, and stories of 500 words or fewer are considered micro-fiction.

However, there’s no limit to how short a story can be. Consider Hemingway’s famous six-word story: 

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

“In just six words, Hemingway evokes an entire scene and the backstory that led to that scene. This is an extreme example of a short story, and it relies on the reader extrapolating meaning from the words, but because it does so successfully, it counts as a short story.” — Lindsay Kramer, Grammarly Blogger

The Five Elements of a Short Story

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Theme
  • Plot
  • Conflict

The characters are the people, animals, aliens, or mythical creatures the story is written around. In a short story, four to five main characters are usually sufficient. Your protagonist is the character who undergoes some change (or lack thereof) due to the conflict. Your antagonist is the character who wants to thwart the plans of the protagonist. (The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. It could be something in protagonist’s personality, an environmental event, or an accident, for example).

The setting is the time and place where a story’s action occurs.

The plot is the series of events that tells the story and the conflict. Keep it short. You may decide to begin partway through what you initially think of as the beginning. The backstory can be written later through timely dialogue and action. Begin with a rough outline.

The theme is its central message. What do you want the reader to know, feel, or ponder?

Conflict is the action that drives the story’s plot. It’s the obstacle the protagonist has to overcome. A conflict can be internal, like an inner struggle with self-esteem or something from their past they need to overcome, like a fear of rabid rabbits. Conflict is crucial to the theme and plot. So, think of that first before you go onto brainstorming.

Brainstorm your ideas for the setting, characters, the conflict they face, and any key plot points you already have in mind. Start with that and fill in the gaps later.

Outlining Your Story

Organize the notes from your brainstorming session and create a skeleton of the story from beginning to end. This will allow you to see if the storyline flows and the conflict makes sense, fulfilling the theme.

Don’t worry about grammar or formatting in your initial draft. No one will read your story in this initial stage. So, throw down the words and fix your errors after you finish.

  • You don’t need to explain everything. Cut it out if it doesn’t matter to the rest of the story.
  • Keep the ending in mind, so, as you write, the story flows.
  • Write dialogue frequently rather than narrative to drive the plot forward.
  • Let your story sit for a day or two before reading it through for revisions.

Writing Your Short Story

Most short stories readers are looking for an easy read that won’t take them six months (or years) to finish. Use everyday language and precise words to convey your thoughts.

“While an advanced vocabulary can lead to good writing, it isn’t a requirement for it.” — Stephen King.

Editing Your Story

The easiest way to correct grammatical errors is to run your manuscript through Grammarly. I downloaded the app to Word on my laptop. So, it’s right there when I’m ready.

After edits, send your manuscript to a few beta readers to get some feedback, and revise it again if necessary. You can find beta readers in your writing communities, like here at InScribe.

Distributing Your Short Story

Assuming you want people to read what you’ve written, you will need to find an outlet for your story. Most writers will either choose a traditional publisher or self-publish. Traditional publishers have a set of guidelines on their websites that you must adhere to. Writers often self-publish through Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon). There are also many magazines looking for short stories. The guidelines usually near the front or back of their publications.

You may also be interested in sending your work to authors compiling an anthology. Several authors have done this successfully for Christian writers in our InScribe group.

Other venues to consider would be:

I write for Medium and have several short nonfiction stories published in various publications. As a Medium member, you can read all the stories published in all the magazines and earn money for writing your own!

If you’re interested in checking out Medium, you can use my link: https://lynnecollier.medium.com/

Happy short-form writing!

Lynne Collier is a writer of stories and poetry. She’s a Christ-following Yorkshire lass living in Ontario. Lynne loves nature and gardening. https://lynnecollier.com/my-books/

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1 comment

  1. Tracy Krauss says:

    This is a great overview of the short story format as well as some how-tos! My favourite short story of all time is “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

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