How to Write a Short Story

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
Short stories follow a pattern that help guide the reader and keep the reader interested. In this lesson, you will learn more about this pattern and the elements you need to effectively write a short story.

Before You Start to Write

So you decided to write the next great short story. Good for you! Some of the most beloved stories ever told are short stories. One of the most famous short stories, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, set the pattern for the great American short story for nearly two centuries. In this lesson, we'll examine the classic short story pattern and elements that can help you craft your own short story.

Before we get started, you need to decide if you want to write fiction, which is made from your imagination, or non-fiction, which comes from reality. If your story is fiction, is it original, or is it borrowed? Some themes, like star-crossed love in Romeo and Juliet, are common, but be careful. If your story is about Stormtroopers fighting the Rebel Alliance, most people would recognize this as Star Wars. That is plagiarism and you should avoid stealing other people's ideas.

Sometimes non-fiction is easier because the story really happened. You have to be careful with non-fiction, too. You cannot say bad things about real people unless you can prove that they are absolutely true. If you cannot prove that they are true, you could be accused of defamation, which is a serious offense.

Short Story Elements

Another thing that you should do early on is think about the point of view of the story. Is it in the first person (I) or is it from the viewpoint of an outsider (he or she)? Think about your characters. Interesting characters make better stories. What motivates him or her? Money, power, fame, emotion?

Regardless of the point of view, nearly every story has a protagonist , the good guy, and an antagonist, the bad guy. Sometimes, though, these characters change and take on different roles, and the antagonist can be a problem or a crisis that the main character must face. Sometimes, the protagonist might have allies who help resolve the crisis.

Next, where and when does your story take place? A story in outer space is very different than a story set in 19th century Britain, even if the theme, let's say lost love, is the same.

Once you have your characters, your motivation and when and where your story takes place, you have to make sure there is a plot, the events that go in a story. These are the scenes and things that happen in your story. Most short stories are driven by conflict. Brushing your teeth is not an exciting story, but brushing your teeth in the White House as the guest of the President after saving the President's life is an interesting story. Drama is the essence of all short stories.

The Classic Short Story Pattern

Now that you are familiar with the most important story elements, you are ready to write. Many writers like to finish a short story in one sitting. A short story can be anywhere from 1,500 words to 30,000 words. Longer than that, and your short story starts to become a small book.

Great short stories usually start with a dramatic opening paragraph.

Most short stories begin with a fantastic opening paragraph. Grab your audience with a dramatic opening. Then the story follows a pattern:

  • Introduction - background of characters, when and where and the problem or conflict
  • Buildup - scenes and details that build on the main storyline
  • Climax - the dramatic point in the story where something big happens
  • Resolution - for good or bad

Little Red Riding Hood and the Classic Short Story Pattern

  • Introduction - when we meet the protagonist

The story opens with Little Red Riding Hood's mother telling her to take food to her sick grandmother. Mother says not to talk to strangers or go off the path.

  • Buildup - when we meet the antagonist

Along the way, Little Red Riding Hood meets the wolf, who tricks her into picking flowers and going off the path. While little Red Riding is picking flowers, the wolf runs back to Grandma's house, eats Grandma, and dresses in the Grandma's clothes. When Little Red Riding Hood enters Grandma's house, the wolf eats her, too.

  • Climax - the dramatic peak of the story

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