How to Write a Short Story

You probably came here thinking I’d have some sage advice for you, right? Or at least I’d be able to direct you toward some Better Way of Writing. “Here’s a college graduate who studied writing for four years and is going to grad school! Surely she knows something about writing that I don’t,” you think. Well, I have some bad news for you.

There’s no real way of writing a short story.

I hear you. “But length has something to do with it, right?” “My teachers taught me the conflict-crisis-resolution model. You’re saying that’s not true?” “What about a realization for the characters? That’s got to be necessary.” After all, I’m no professor or educator. What do I know, really?

Here’s something your writing professors might not tell you. There’s no single true way to write a story. It’s tempting to define a short story by length, number of characters, time elapsed in the narrative, presence of epiphany, adherence to a conflict-crisis-resolution model. Humans endlessly seek to categorize things they don’t understand, and more than a few scholars and writers have attempted to define a short story as such. But the truth is, defining the short story is counterproductive. Every story is different—every writer is different. To expect the same things of Anton Chekhov’s and Tobias Wolff’s and Samuel Beckett’s stories is to ignore the specific circumstances, styles, lives of each writer.

There are a few generalities we can apply as a loose definition of a short story. They are short enough to be read in one sitting, are interesting to readers, resist paraphrase and summation, and provide some sense of completeness for the reader. Additionally, a short story is complete when nothing can be added or removed. But the further hows and whys of a story resist definition. Where one successful story might have a singular point-of-view character, other equally successful stories may have a wide host of characters. Where one story might occur over the span of a single dinner, others may stretch over a whole lifetime. The one truth of short fiction, it seems, is that for every rule posited by a writer, there are scores of stories that laugh and thumb their noses in the face of such rules.

Some young readers might feel more comfortable with the confines of a conflict-crisis-resolution model where others would prefer a more fluid approach. Similarly, when first starting out as a writer, it can be easy to restrict the scope of one’s writing to focus on single characters and strict timelines. But that’s not to say stories that don’t do those things are bad or wrong. They are simply different. And they all start the same way: as an idea.

Exercise: Write about a time when you or a character had a realization, or epiphany, and found out later that the epiphany was wrong. Stay concrete and specific, and write about what led to you or the character realizing the error of the epiphany.

This post was influenced by Alice LaPlante’s book, Method and Madness, chapter 4. The exercise included here was paraphrased from the book.