How to write short stories

Guest Blogger: Wyatt Dalton

Short stories are a great way to build publishing credits. But for those of us used to writing long, complex works, it can be a real challenge. So here are some dos and don’ts for epic fantasy writers breaking into the short story market.

Don’t: open with a prologue or other long introduction

Dive right into the action. Hook the reader. Get the story moving right away. The people who want to read short stories don’t need you to know how old the kingdom is, and they don’t need you to tell them about a battle that took place ages ago, in order to enjoy the story.

Castle Epic Fantasy

Photo by Mathias Mazzetti • freeimages.com

Do: write a story that moves quickly

Avoid the urge to go into detail about the intricacies of every interaction. Hint at it if you must, but keep the momentum moving forward so you can get to that climax quicker and make the fireworks bigger.

Don’t: start in an unnecessary dream sequence—you don’t have enough time!

Simplicity is key to short stories. If you have too much going on that doesn’t add emotional value, or doesn’t cause the reader to invest in the character, you’re just going to end up with a mess.

Do: start the story with your character doing something

An active character is an interesting character. Interesting characters hook readers. You want to hook the reader as soon as possible, so start your story with an active character.

Don’t: take any extra time to describe every insignificant detail

Again, simplicity is key. The reader isn’t going to care about the way that the breeze made your character’s nose hair tickle. Leave that part out.

Do: focus on your character

You want your readers to fall in love with your character as quickly as possible. That being said, you don’t have much time to work with, so spend a majority of your time creating connections between reader and character.

Don’t: get too ambitious

It’s called a short story for a reason. I know it’s difficult for us epic fantasy writers at times, but your short story will be much more effective if you limit yourself to one or maybe two story arcs, one setting, and one plot line.

Do: be creative with conflict

Every story, no matter how short, needs some sort of conflict. But with short stories you don’t have time to establish an overly complicated problem for your character to work through. Keep things simple. What does your character want? Why can’t they have it?

Don’t: write a short story with multiple parts… That’s cheating

The challenge of short stories, is that they’re short. Don’t ruin that by writing a story with multiple parts. If you feel like you need to write it in multiple parts, what you actually need to do is simplify the story. Limit the scope. Bring it in. Contain it…

Do: contain your story

What I mean by that is this: when you’re writing a short story, nothing else matters outside the scope of the story you’re writing. There could very well be other things going on in the world at the same time, but if it doesn’t make an appearance in the scene, and if it doesn’t affect the scene, forget about it.

Don’t: feel like everything needs to have a lesson behind it

For some reason, long form writers like to weave great cosmic lessons about life, love, and whatever else into their stories. You don’t have to. The beautiful thing about short stories is that they can just be fun. As long as you’re writing is entertaining, you’ve done your job.

Which brings me to my last point…

Do: have fun

When it comes to writing, especially when writing for entertainment, if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it very wrong. Relax a little bit. Play with your writing. HAVE FUN.


Wyatt Dalton a writer, blogger, writing coach, and mentor—but he simply prefers to think of himself a storyteller. He has a passion for stories; and he is driven to help struggling writers work through the issues that plague their writing, and tell their stories. He accomplishes this through his website (survivingthenovel.com), where he provides encouragement, inspiration, and direction to his readers.


8 comments on “How to write short stories

  1. I like to write short stories and I’m going to offer two points in which I disagree with you a bit:

    1. You say start with you character doing something–I say start with your character in an interesting situation.. Often this will be him/her doing something, but not always.

    2. Writing short stories in parts is the art of writing a serial–a number of well known novels were originally published as serials. The short story in parts needs to have each part ending in a cliffhanger–and is not worth doing unless you have a publisher interested in taking on a larger story in parts. Anyway, a novel in series doesn’t quite follow the rules of a novel and doesn’t quite follow the rules of the short story–so writing that way isn’t really cheating on a short story per se. It’s just another type of story…

    • Hi Travis,

      I agree with the first point: an interesting situation is what causes a character to jump into action. The problem is though (and I’m speaking from a epic fantasy writer’s perspective here) that some writers have trouble getting into the meat of the story if they can’t take the first few chapters of a novel to properly develop an interesting situation. Obviously you don’t have that much time in a short story; so my point here was to skip the long buildup of an interesting situation and jump right in with an interesting character.

      On the second point I think you mistook my meaning just a little. I wasn’t necessarily trying to say that writing a series of stories is bad, I was trying to get the writers that prefer to go on and on and on with their words (again, looking at epic fantasy writers) to work on containing their writing to one story. If they can’t keep their idea to one short story, and they decide that they’re going to split it in two instead, then they cheated. 🙂

    • 1) There is a difference between a character-driven author and a plot-driven author. One follows one approach by preference, the other follows the other approach by preference. So one will say “start with your character doing something” and the other will say “star with your character in an interesting situation”. Neither approach is superior, but one will work better for one kind of author and the other for the other kind. Thank God for Jeff Gerke’s common sense on the matter!

      2) I think that by definition in this essay, a short story is *not a serial. If you’re writing multiple parts, you’re not writing a short story, you’re writing something else. But the something else – a serial – isn’t invalid simply because it’s something else.

      I think this is not so much disagreement as a pair of false dichotomies. It is not either-or, it is both-and – in both cases.

  2. John, one commenter here, and I are in the very early stages of trying to create a format to write a book together. Having only written blogs essays etc , this is an uncharted territory for me. But any book that really drew me in from it’s beginning , was by a primary character in a dire emotionally intense situation. If a book does not have those necessities for me, I find myself dragging to get involved. My character for our story, I desire and for my interest, will come in under a universal storm of many kinds moving in. And her apathetic and worn demeanor at the point will open a can of emotional worms that will only escalate. One thing I do not care for in teading books or now in writing one with John, is I get bored , bogged down with more detail than what is really necessary to understand the characters or plot of a story I’m teading or writing. To me it is an unnecessary distraction that loses me and I susoect loses others. I want my story to be less detail complicated but immersed in emotional and feeling motives desires drives and action. That is what’s at the heart of life anyway. I do agree with many of your points as if want some of the same things. Tonight because I do need fantasy and imagination exercises, given I had no opportunity to freely exercise them in my life, john tooke through one telling his tale from his world engaging me into it. In that scenario I found myself comfortable and willingly role playing. I look forward to more of these to use as a positive tool for writing together.
    Your post was interesting insightful and helpful for me. It also confirmed some ideas I’ve had and felt about writing.
    Thank you yisraela

  3. Reblogged this on Matthew E Nordin and commented:
    Do’s and Don’ts for a great short story.

  4. […] “How to write short stories” via The New Authors Fellowship […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: