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Writing A Short Story



Writing a short story is different to writing an article, a sketch, a book or an essay because a short story must be self-contained. It must work as a whole so that the reader comes away feeling a sense of completeness, even if the outcome is uncertain or mysterious. Like a poem, a short story presents a part of someone’s experience, perhaps a few moments, a day or longer, as though that experience, moment or episode contains an essential truth about that person.  A novel, for instance, is made up of a string of scenes that fit together like beads on a necklace. A short story is like a single jewel. Though we may speculate about what happened ‘before’ and ‘after’ the story event, we do not need to know that in order to understand the story or its main characters. To achieve all this, the writer requires a particular kind of discipline and focus, more like the focus of a poet.


A short story tells about a particular person’s experience, usually about an event or a series of related events. Because the writer has limited space and time in which to develop the story, it should quickly take the reader into the action and the key problem or conflict. The story must be concise and punchy, so the writer cannot afford the luxury of detailed description or slow character development. Both the beginning and the end should be quickly digestible and neat, and the body should include only what is essential to the development of the story. Every word, every action, every piece of dialogue or description should serve the purpose of elucidating the theme. Everything else must be eliminated.


The Building Blocks of a Short Story

Typically, a story is made up of theme, plot, characters, setting, scenes and voice. But first, the writer must have an idea, and for some, this is the most difficult part of writing.  If the writer comes up with a good idea, the other elements can sometimes just fall into place as the idea is developed. If the initial idea is weak, the writer will probably find that none of the other elements come together.


Theme, plot, and characters might be considered the basic elements of a story, and the beginning writer should develop a good understanding of what they are, and what they contribute to the meaning of the story. Scenes and voice are also key elements, but to keep it simple, we will focus on the basics of a story.



Ideas for short stories can be drawn from even the most familiar or ordinary of sources:  from the writer’s own experiences or others’; from imaginings, others’ narratives and questions; from news and current event stories; from observations of individuals and their relationships with others; and from other stories. (Writers are frequently inspired by other writers).


As you explore ideas, become an observer of the world around you. Take notes, or better yet, start an idea journal, and jot down any ideas that come to you before you start evaluating them to choose what you want to write about. Some writers prefer to explore ideas in private, thinking, reflecting, looking at their ideas from different angles.  Others find it helpful to discuss ideas with others, not necessarily as ideas for stories but just as ideas, to get different perspectives and other inspirations from the resulting discussion. Do not rely on memory, as your mind will be busy with ideas and other matters, and you can easily forget a great idea.

The famous American poet, Robert Frost, wrote: "There is no art to writing but having something to say."
Your theme is the underlying message or unifying thread along which you develop your idea.
Beginning writers are often confused by the concept of ‘theme’, and might not develop a theme until they are well into the story and finally recognise where they want to go with the story. For some writers, the theme grows and changes with the story, so that an idea that began with a vague theme of acknowledging one’s ‘dark side’ might develop into a theme on the courage it can take to be true to oneself. However, you should try to begin with some kind of a theme in mind, for this will identify the message that you are getting across, what you want your protagonist and your reader to take from the story. A theme should carry the main meaning or message of a story. It is what you want to say to your readers.

The theme for a short story should be something that can be conveyed quickly. The theme of overcoming personal barriers or of human evil are too broad to be developed in a short story, and are better suited to novels. Themes of awakening to one’s true motives, of discovering the friend in a former foe, of appreciating what one has, of learning from failure can be explored in a short story. Several themes can be woven into a dominant theme in a novel, but a short story will only have one central theme. More than this and the story will lose its punch, and it may be difficult to stay within a reasonable word limit. The ideas for themes are limitless, but generally, the best are those that really interest you and have some experience of.  The theme is your message, and unless you know what you are talking about, and care about it, your lack of interest and knowledge will generally show through.

Plot  or Storyline

Unlike the plot of a novel which often is built by weaving several different story threads into a unified whole, the short story plot or storyline will typically contain one course of action, one goal, one road, though it might take the character a few attempts to find it. The key events tend to be the decisions that the character makes along that path, and these will be enacted in the characters’ actions.


In other words, in a short story, perhaps more than in other genres, the actions of the character must tell us something about the character, and will represent the character’s choices. The same goes for the obstacles that the character faces, whether these are psychological, other people or events, or simple fate: what the character does when faced with an obstacle should give the reader a clear insight into the character. This means that while a short story may develop around action, that action should play a secondary, supportive role to revealing the character and that character’s growth or self-awareness.


Sometimes, the action is unchanging, representing how that character usually behaves. This kind of action can reveal much about the character, or it can emphasise the significance of the change. For instance, if a character who usually feeds her cat each morning before she leaves neglects to do so one morning, this can signify distress or anxiety without the writer having to tell the reader that the character is anxious. Sometimes, an excellent story is neither especially exciting nor dramatic, but introduces us to a character in a way that stirs our interest, caring or curiosity and provides insights into that character.  Our knowledge of human diversity and nature is deeper, and we learn more about what it is to be human.


To achieve this result, identify and focus on key actions and events of the story.  Keep the story simple, though the character, motives and emotions may be complex. Focus on one character or two at most. Begin by quickly creating tension or suspense, and conclude with some resolution of that tension that leaves the reader satisfied, even if sad, with a sense of having learned something. The ending should not be a mere winding down or tying up of loose ends. It should reveal the true form and shape of the character’s experience so that the reader leaves believing that the character’s choices reflected who that person is, or perceives him/herself to be.



Given the brevity of the short story, the relationship between action and character is very tight, and warrants the writer’s serious attention. The writer doesn’t have time or space to slowly reveal a character. Rather, character should be reflected in every action or piece of dialogue. Action should reflect character and should therefore reflect changes in character. For instance, a meek character might not typically create conflict but if she becomes tougher after a particular crisis, she might be more likely to confront conflict, though with great reluctance or maybe even a false show of bravado. Conversely, character will be affected by action. A series of events might force the character to be decisive and forceful, changing her into a stronger character. Such changes must be carefully managed to maintain credibility and some kind of internal consistency.


The writer decides what kind of character might best match the plot, but there is no rule for doing this, and the writer need not make predictable choices. In fact, it might be better not to. A forceful, confident, honourable character might make a good hero, but so might a vain, self-centred, or rather immature person. The writer must balance between avoiding stereotypic or cliché characters and avoiding too much subversion of reader expectations. The former can lead to predictability but so can the latter, and if the reader gains a sense that the writer is trying to be unconventional or rebellious or subversive, the effect is lost. Therefore, the writer should think about how to balance ordinariness and surprise. A character that is in every way distinctive, unusual or unordinary can be very irritating, whereas a skilful reader can make an ordinary-seeming character shine.


As beginning writers learn to work with theme, plot and character, they will find themselves better able to understand the functions of the other story elements – scene and voice – and to manipulate all the elements to achieve desired effects.



This article was written by the staff of ACS, a correspondence school in Australia and the United Kingdom. For information on over 350 courses, see www.acs.edu.au or  www.acsedu.co.uk

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