Not every story requires a full-length telling. In some cases, a tale can become iconic because it ended when it did. This is why many writers still prefer short stories over other forms of the craft. If you want to know more about short story writing, start by getting a list of books that can help you with your journey.
Table of Contents
What are short stories?
Short stories are works of fiction that typically go from about a thousand words to a maximum of 10,000. The concise nature of these stories tends to attract a lot of readers because they can finish the work in one sitting. They can be found on ebooks, published collections, standalone releases, or even on Reddit and Facebook.
This type of story is a staple in the industry, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Most novelists have short story collections under their belts. Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemmingway, H.P. Lovecraft, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce are some of the best-known authors of this type of craft. Their contemporaries — Stephen King, George Saunders, Alice Munroe, and Anne Beattie — continue the tradition in their own unique ways. So if you’re a writer, you really need to try out making one of these. And if you’re new, well, I’ve got just the thing for you.
How to write short stories
Decide on a topic
Most writers write for audiences that are like them. So it’s a good idea to figure out what you like to read and then develop your story from there. Make sure that it’s compelling, though. You want to keep your readers’ engagement high throughout the brief experience. But this doesn’t mean that you need to always shoot for stories of grand adventure and fanciful revenge. Short stories tend to revolve around a single topic, idea, event, or conflict.
Now, I’m going to give you a writing prompt (a man sitting in a bare room), and we’ll discuss where we can take this in a later section.
Work your plot
This is the nuts and bolts of any type of storytelling. You need to cover the setting, characters, and events that will go into your tale. It’s a good idea to harmonize the core elements of your story with a central theme — it makes for a more meaningful experience. And while you don’t need to outline extensively, the best course of action here is to plan out your plot. You don’t have the amount of real estate some novels have, so make it lean and avoid the Sagging Middle Syndrome. Or you can opt to do discovery writing and cut it down once you’re done with the first draft. Oh, and it is possible to write connected short stories and publish them as a full book later on.
Start with something eye-catching
Good introductions get readers mildly interested in your story. It’s like hearing someone call your name in a public place. Great introductions, meanwhile, drag your readers face-first into your imagination. This works doubly so for short stories. You don’t have a lot of space to flesh out your characters and world to the degree that novels can, so you need to hook your readers early and hook them deep. The opening must also capture the theme or essence of your story. Here are some examples of the best short story introductions I’ve read:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”— Stephen King, “The Gunslinger”
“Gaotana ran his fingers across the thick canvas, inspecting one of the greatest works of art he had ever seen. Unfortunately, it was a lie.”— Brandon Sanderson, “The Emperor’s Soul”
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”— H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”— Edgar Allan Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado”
Write complex characters
You don’t have the luxury of focusing on multiple characters and POVs. Focus on a handful and then develop them as well as you can. Background, motivation, and personality traits that are relevant to the story have to be hashed out, whether subtly or conspicuously (to a degree, but more on that later). Some of the best short stories out there only have one character. In those cases, it comes down to the author’s skill and prose to portray them and the story well enough to keep the readers invested until the end.
Don’t be afraid to explore and experiment
Let’s get back to the writing prompt. “A man sitting in a bare room” doesn’t have a lot of details going for it, and that’s a good thing, story-wise. Why is he there? Is he waiting for a torture-interrogation? Waiting for bad news from surgery? Is he the last man on Earth? Or is he a pet kept by alien overlords? Is he even real? The “short” in short story means that you don’t always have to present logical background information about your world and characters. You can be as weird and as freaky and as experimental as you want.
Edit, revise, and repeat
Just because you wrote something short doesn’t mean you get to skip out on the revisions. It’s always a good idea to review your work in case you missed out on ways that you can improve your story the first time ’round. Maybe you’ll find certain symbolisms that you unconsciously worked into your story, like what Stephen King realized when he re-read Carrie (the story had a lot to do with blood, you see.) Or maybe there are a few plot holes, or just one, but it’s the size of an open city grate. Again — and I cannot stress this enough — it always pays to re-read and revise.
Best books about writing short stories
The Elements of Style (1920) by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White
This book was published a hundred years ago. I need that to sink in for the moment because the last hundred years of our civilization have been the time of greatest advancement for our species. But despite everything that’s changed, especially in the writing and publishing industry, this book is still regarded as the best introductory book for newbie writers. It contains timeless advice like tips on using active voice, omitting unnecessary words, and cleaning up your prose by using parallelism. You’ll find this in almost every “best book about writing” list out there. Tons of famous authors still recommend the book, including the likes of Stephen King. Speaking of the King of Horror—
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) by Stephen King
If you want a writing guide with a lot of personality in it, then this is the book for you. King offers his journey and writing process with no filters and no sugarcoating. He’ll tell you how he hates adverbs. Then he’ll talk about the writer’s toolbox. Later, he’ll discuss the mechanics of grammar rules. And then he’ll segue to how he liked to chug mouthwash back when he was struggling with drugs and alcohol. It’s not just about writing novels, either. King talks about short stories in his book and how he thinks it’s a vital art form that every writer should know.
I remember reading this around 2007 when I was trying to find my writer’s voice. I came out of the experience with what I needed, along with an endless fountain of motivation and enough momentum to push through any kind of rejection for writing that would last me a lifetime. Spoiler alert: My biggest takeaway from this book — and the most resonant advice I have gotten from any writer — is this: “Learn the rules so you know when to break them.”
Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (1998) Ursula K. Le Guin
If you’re going to get advice, you might as well take it from the very best. And Ursula K. Le Guin ranks as one of the best in fiction writing. The author of The Earthsea Cycle discusses both her personal writing process and other styles to accommodate as many novice writers as possible. Her easy writing style and propensity to give readers specific examples of what she’s discussing make the book easy to get through. There are also writing exercises dotted throughout, making it both a collection of essays and a writing workbook.
Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You (1992) by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury, the man behind the iconic Fahrenheit 451, is widely regarded as one of the best and most imaginative writers ever. This collection of essays from him doesn’t dip too much into the mechanics of writing itself. Instead, it provides authors with insights into how Bradbury seeks inspiration and motivation to write his stories. This is more of a love letter to the craft than a guidebook, and Bradbury really loves writing. He insists that writers shouldn’t be bogged down by the rules, and instead enjoy the freedom to explore their craft in any direction they want with their creative instincts as their guide.
How to Write a Short Story, Get Published & Make Money (2015) by Christopher Fielden
Now that’s a title that gets straight to the point. Christopher Fielden’s book on the world of short stories is not limited to writing advice, though it has that by the bucketful. The book also covers the inner workings of the publishing industry, like where to submit what to get the best chance of getting published, plus a few exercises thrown in to help writers generate ideas or practice. It’s also very readable; Fielden doesn’t skimp out on the humor, and his tongue-in-cheek style makes the whole experience relatable and easy to get through.
The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience (2014) by Chuck Wendig
We like lists, don’t we? It breaks down the topic, makes it easier to read, and gives us breathing room whenever we need it. So here’s a whole book filled with lists of how to become a better writer. Chuck Wendig’s signature style of irreverent and humorous deliveries shines through this work, along with great advice on theming, a chapter outlining, character work, and sharpening dialog. He engages with his audience through the use of practical exercises and writing prompts, giving his readers a chance to apply the advice immediately after receiving it. And with actual 1001 pieces of advice inside the book, it’s pretty certain that any reader with specific needs can get in and get out with what they were looking for.
The Art of the Short Story (2005) by Dana Gioia and R. Gwynn
This book has a lot going for it. One, it features stories from some of the most renowned writers in the world, like William Faulkner and Margaret Atwood. Two, Gioia and Gwynn aren’t content with featuring Western writers. We have stories from Yukio Mishima, Chinua Achebe, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, giving the readers a taste of different cultures from all over the world. Three, the authors talk about how they wrote their stories in essay form. It’s like taking a peek into how their great minds work when writing, and let me tell you, that sort of thing is invaluable when you’re starting out.
Write Short Stories and Get Them Published: Teach Yourself (2015) by Zoe Fairbairns
This reference book contains practical and pragmatic guides for writing short stories. It’s excellent for people who like the mechanical side of writing. The author discusses each part of the process with great detail and provides exercises to make sure that everything sinks in. It’s also sectioned step by step, from brainstorming to publishing, making it one of the best books you can give to a newbie author.
Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction (1997) by Damon Knight
Damon Knight is one of the best Science Fiction writers of his generation. His book starts by describing the four stages of the writing process. He also talks about how to develop your ideas and a great starting checklist of what to include in your stories. This is a great starting point for fiction authors.
Write and Grow Rich: Secrets of Successful Authors and Publishers by Alinka Rutkowska et al.
This is one must-have resource if you plan on making a career out of writing. Write and Grow Rich not only covers the fundamentals of the craft, it also gives readers valuable insights into the world of publishing. It presents a collection of strategies, advice, and experiences from accomplished authors and publishers, aiming to help aspiring writers achieve success. It also encourages others to overcome insecurities and self-doubt by presenting the authors’ personal struggles and how they overcame them. It’s both a reference book and a guide on how to make the best possible decisions when getting into the writing industry.
It’s always nice to see writers trying out the different forms of the craft. I hope this list has helped you on your way to becoming a short story writer. However, remember that nothing beats practical writing experience. Reading a lot of books might help, but you need to write short stories to get better. So get on with it.