How to Write a Short Story: Steps, Suggestions, and a Poem
The Writing Life
I find writing a story to be an enjoyable, challenging, frustrating, and fulfilling activity—sometimes on the same day. It’s often sad to see the problems that exist when a piece of writing is finished and then read. Occasionally, it's exciting to discover that my creation matches my intent. Despite the difficulties, I enjoy the creative process and the challenge of trying to express my thoughts in written words.
In this article, I describe the steps for writing a short story that I find useful. They are based on suggestions from writing teachers and authors. I've added ideas that have arisen from my own experience. I also share a poem that I wrote about a writer examining her story. The poem may sound like a fantasy, but for me it contains a large dose of reality.
Steps in Writing a Story
Writers have their own preferences for the best way to write a story. "Rules" don't have to be followed in creative writing. According to many writing teachers, however, an efficient way for beginners and others to create a story is to follow the five steps listed below.
Experienced writers may blend certain steps, change some of them, or follow a different plan of action. The list is a good guide for creating a story, though, and seems to be used by many writers. I describe the five steps below.
Creating a Story in Five Steps: A Summary
In general, the following activities occur in each step of the writing process. Individual writers may have their own ideas about what should be done in each of the steps, however.
- Prewriting: the writer chooses a topic for their story and creates a brief plot outline or synopsis. They also decide on the setting and create a rough outline of the characters. In addition, they decide on the intended audience for the story and the voice to be used.
- Writing: a person creates the first draft of their story. During this stage, the person is more concerned with the actual story than with the mechanics of writing. The decisions made in the prewriting step are the basis for the writing step. As the story progresses, though, the writer may change some of their previous decisions.
- Editing or Revision: the writer makes alterations in order to improve the story. Although glaring spelling and grammar errors may be corrected during this step, the emphasis is on editing the story instead of the writing mechanics.
- Proofreading: the writer checks for spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar errors.
- Publishing: the writer shares the story with others in some way.
Some people may add additional steps to this sequence. After the editing step is finished, a writer may ask for peer reviews from other writers. Based on these reviews, the person may re-edit the story. In addition, after they have proofread their work, they may ask someone whose skills they trust to also proofread the story.
John Dufresne is a writer of novels and short stories. He is also a creative writing professor at Florida International University. In the video below, he gives tips for writing a short story.
Advice for Writing a Short Story
Prewriting: Generate Ideas
Many strategies can be used to come up with ideas for writing topics. Some of the ones that I use are described below.
- Walk in new environments (as long as it's safe to do so) as well as familiar ones. Observe people, places, buildings, plants, animals, and objects. Examine the outside and the inside of buildings if this is possible. Use as many senses as you can in your observations.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Even advertisements and posters seen on a walk or litter on the ground can provide inspiration for a writer.
- Watch an unusual or special event if one is available. The event may provide multiple ideas for stories.
- Record your observations and thoughts in a small notebook that you carry around with you. Make sure that you have quick and easy access to the notebook and a pencil or pen.
- A notebook is useful even if you carry an electronic device with you. Paper doesn't run out of power and doesn't need to be recharged. I take two pens with me when I leave my home in case one stops working.
- Record interesting snippets of conversation that you hear.
- Also record interesting words, phrases, or ideas that enter your mind during the day. These may provide inspiration for future writing.
- Record your dreams in your notebook. Keep a pen and paper beside your bed so that you can write a description of a dream. Write the description as soon as you wake up and before you get out of bed. Memories of dreams fade quickly.
- Use brainstorming or mind mapping techniques to think of writing ideas.
- Keep a diary or journal. Although many people use these words interchangeably, some use a diary to describe daily events and a journal to describe thoughts and feelings.
Learn New Facts to Get Writing Ideas
- Read nonfiction widely to learn new facts and stimulate the imagination. This is not as simple as it sounds. There is a huge amount of information available in books, magazines, and newspapers and on websites. Most of us need to limit our reading so that we have time to write. This means that we need to choose which information sources to explore and which to ignore.
- Listen to the news or read news reports in a printed source or online.
- Try to get information from a variety of sources instead of relying on the same newspaper or the same website all the time.
- Visit a library. Libraries are often a wonderful source of new and sometimes surprising information.
- Read fiction for pleasure and in order to discover how other writers handle writing challenges.
- Consider participating in an activity that you've never performed before. New experiences can generate thoughts and ideas that can be used in writing. Even something as simple as eating a new kind of food can be helpful.
Get Writing Topic Ideas From Photography and Art
- Carry a lightweight camera with you when you leave your home in order to take photos. Looking for good items to photograph improves observational skills. As you examine your photos, you may get new ideas for your writing.
- Photograph familiar objects from unusual angles or examine objects with a magnifying glass to get a different view.
- Using the filters in a digital imaging program to play with a photo may enable it to "speak" to you in a new way.
- Look at photos in your family photo album to trigger memories and thoughts.
- Doodle, sketch, or draw as a way to stimulate your imagination. Tell a story in your illustrations. Creating collages and even mini-collages from random items can also help to generate ideas.
Create the Story Synopsis or Outline
At some point, the preliminary exploration for ideas must end if a person wants to write a story. The writer must eventually create a written synopsis or outline for their story (or a mental one in the case of some writers). Some people may be able to simply start writing on a sheet of paper or a computer screen and find that a story appears. For many people, though, a plan is helpful before the story is actually started.
The degree of detail in the outline is up to the writer. Some writers find that a brief overview of the story is sufficient. Others prefer to flesh out characters and/or create a detailed overview of the plot, especially when they hope to write a long story.
It may be reassuring if a writer knows the main points of the story before they start writing it and realizes that the characters and the plot will probably work. On the other hand, some writers like to explore a character's traits as they write and enjoy creating twists in the plot that they haven't planned in advance. This can be an interesting process that may boost creativity, but it can be a risky way of writing a story. It's probably not the best strategy for a beginner. A story that is unfinished because the writer can't find a realistic or satisfying way for a character to escape from a dilemma can be discouraging.
Writing: Create the Story
- Write your story—or a section of the story—while trying to ignore your inner critic. Start in the middle or the end of the story if that works best for you.
- Write random words, nonsense, or stream of consciousness thoughts—whatever pops into your mind—if you're having trouble starting your story.
- Describe the objects around you or your thoughts about your surroundings if you don't know what to write. (What do you see, hear, smell, or feel? What are your thoughts or feelings about the item or the sensation?)
- After you've starting writing by one of the techniques described in the previous two points, you may find it easier to to guide your thoughts and written words towards your story. Any apparently irrelevant writing should be kept after it's enabled you to create the story because it might generate ideas for a new project in the future.
- Writing the first words or paragraph of a story can help you clarify your thoughts and also help you produce the next section of your composition. This section may be more closely related to your story than the first part, which you can modify later.
- Describe a character that you know, have observed, or have created. Some story writers find that the best way to start their stories is with a character description. Plot can flow from character.
- Don't worry too much about spelling or punctuation at this stage, unless these are essential in order for you to understand what you write. Your writing can be revised and improved later.
- Try to resist the urge to edit until the first draft of the story is finished. Stopping to change the text can interfere with the flow of ideas and the progress of the story. Once the story is finished, you can fix any problems. The only exception to the "no editing until the end" rule might be a major change in the plot or characters that requires severe editing of a previous section in order to make sense.
Editing and Proofreading
Differences Between Editing and Proofreading
"Editing" means checking factors such as vocabulary, clarity, logic, and effectiveness of the story. It focuses on the content of the story. "Proofreading" means checking factors such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.
Sometimes it's convenient to do both editing and proofreading at the same time. At other times, it isn't. When the processes are done separately, editing is done before proofreading.
Performing Editing and Proofreading at Home
A writer should read their article carefully to check for compositional errors, inconsistencies, and vocabulary problems and for factors such as ineffective and redundant sentences and unnecessary repetition.
Writers should have some trusted references to help them edit and proofread their stories. A good dictionary, grammar and style books, and websites created by reliable sources are all useful. While it's true that a writer often becomes more knowledgeable about writing mechanics as they gain experience, resources are still useful and are often essential.
Grammar Checking Software
In my experience, grammar checking programs and ones built into word processors are of limited use for proofreading. It's good that they do catch some errors, but a writer shouldn't assume that their work is free of mistakes just because software can't detect any more errors. The composition may contain additional problems.
If no one else is available to review a writer's work, it's important that the writer moves away from their story for a while before it's published. When the person returns to the story after their break, they may see problems that they never noticed before.
Get Additional Opinions
Once a person has edited and proofread their story on their own, it's a good idea to ask other people to do the same thing. It's important that a writer specifies what they want the reviewer to check in order to get the most effective feedback. They may want them to edit, proofread, or only check one aspect of these topics.
Trusted acquaintances can be a valuable asset for a writer. Constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement can help the writer to grow. It's important to ask more than one person to review a story. Different reviewers may notice different strengths and weaknesses in a story, which can be both useful and thought provoking. If all of the reviewers notice the same problems with the story, that's useful information, too.
A reviewer may notice factors such as confusing or ineffective sentences, descriptions, or explanations. In addition, they may point out style, flow, plot, or character problems. All of this information can be helpful for the writer, although ultimately the content of the story is their own choice.
A writer may be convinced that their work is error free. If they ask someone else to proofread it, they may be surprised to discover that they haven't noticed spelling or grammar errors. There seems to be a strong tendency for writers to see what they expect to see on a page instead of what is actually there. A writer may also discover that they've been consistently making a grammar, spelling, or punctuation error for a long time without ever realizing that it was an error.
Publishing a Story
Publishing a story can be the hardest part of the writing process for a new writer or for one who lacks confidence. A completed story can be left in a notebook or on a computer and kept private, which may be what the creator wants. Many writers want to be read, however, even though the process may be intimidating.
"Publishing" doesn't necessarily mean sending a story to a traditional publisher. There are many ways to show people the story. For example, the writer may show or read the finished story to a friend, relative, or writing group, give it to a teacher as an assignment, post it on a blog or online writing site, enter it in a competition, submit it to a publisher, or create an e-book.
Praise for a story is pleasant and encouraging, but honest and constructive criticism from people beyond the writer's immediate circle can be useful. It may improve the writer's abilities.
A Poem About a Story Writer's Experiences
In my poem below, a writer is disappointed to discover the flaws in her story, which seemed wonderful before she examined it closely. I sometimes go through this experience too, although I’m never as confident as the narrator at the start of the poem. However, like the narrator, if I “walk away” from a piece of writing that is giving me problems, I often find fresh inspiration and think of new ways to solve the problems. Tenacity is important for a writer.
“There’s a hole in your plot,” the critic said,
so I dove right in to see,
eager to investigate
and prove the critic wrong.
The story pulled me in at once
and led me on my way.
I entered scenes with confidence
to meet my characters again.
Suddenly I had to stop,
confused by ambiguity,
embarrassed by silly wordiness,
and struck by lack of clarity.
Then grammar errors screamed their worst
and claimed that I wrote carelessly.
A subject was disagreeing with its verb,
and Possessive was missing Apostrophe.
A run-on sentence roared ahead
until blocked by Dangling Participle.
Sentence Fragment had lost its clause
and was subordinate and incomplete.
My characters tried to speak to me
but I rushed by them all,
afraid to hear some more complaints
and find Lack of Realism, too.
Miserably, I soldiered on,
and found more problems as I went;
language that was trite and dull,
and purposeless redundancies.
It was a sad state of affairs for sure,
though not too hard to fix, I thought—
but then I saw the major flaws
produced by Plot Inconsistencies.
I surfaced sad though not forlorn,
but chastened and depressed.
A major rewrite, nothing less
was needed for success.
I walked away despondently,
the story left behind, untouched;
but soon the urge to re-create
returned to give encouragement.
The next day I was keen to start again
and ready to progress.
Despite the pain, I know what’s true—
Write On for Happiness.
© 2011 Linda Crampton