Thursday, September 19, 2013


by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Writing short stories is a great way to experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and “voices.” And due to the rise in e-books and e-magazines, length is no longer an issue, so there’s a growing market for short stories. You can also publish a collection of 3 or 4 of your short stories yourself in a short anthology, relatively easily on Amazon, and they don’t even need to be on a common theme. Here are some guidelines for writing a compelling story, worthy of publishing or submitting to contests, magazines, and anthologies.
Of course, these are only tips and guidelines – like any good cook with a recipe, you’ll tweak them to suit your own vision and story ideas.
1. Pay attention to word count. Short stories are generally between 500 and 7,500 words long. If you want to submit your short story to a magazine or contest, be sure to read their guidelines as to length. Also, read the fine print to avoid giving away all rights to your story.
2. Keep the story tight. A short story is about just a small slice of life, with one story thread and one theme. Don’t get too ambitious. It’s best to limit it to one main character plus a few supporting characters, one geographical location, and a short time frame, like a few weeks maximum—better yet, a few days, or even hours or minutes.
3. Create a complex, charismatic character. Your main character should be multi-dimensional and at least somewhat sympathetic, so readers can relate to him and start bonding with him right away. And give him a human side, with some inner conflict and vulnerability, so readers care about him and start worrying about him immediately. A worried reader is an engaged reader. Remember that readers need to care about your character before they’ll start caring what happens to him.
4. Put your character in motion right away, and disrupt her world. Having her interacting with someone else is usually best – much more dynamic than starting with a character alone, musing. Also, best not to start with your character just waking up or in an everyday situation or on a routine trip to somewhere. That’s too much slow lead-up for a short story – or any compelling story, for that matter.
5. Think of a main story question/problem and a tight plot or storyline. Give your character an important goal that is thwarted. Create a main conflict, and other lesser conflicts/problems, with tension throughout. No conflict = no story. Get your protagonist into some hot water! The conflict can be internal or external, or both, and can be against man, circumstances, or nature. Something has to happen in your story, to achieve reader satisfaction. Your main character, someone the reader cares about, has to run into a difficult challenge they need to confront, and you need some kind of resolution at the end.
6. Develop a unique “voice” for this story by first getting to know your character really well, then journaling in their voice. Just let the ideas flow, in their point of view, expressing their hopes and frustrations with their words and expressions. Then carry that voice throughout the whole story, even to the narration and description, which is really the character’s thoughts, perceptions, observations and reactions.
7. Create interesting supporting characters. Give each of your characters a distinct personality, with hopes, accomplishments, fears, insecurities and secrets, and add some individual quirks to bring each of them to life. Supporting and minor characters should be different from your protagonist, for contrast.
8. To enter and win contests, make your character and story unique and memorable. Try to jolt or awe the readers somehow, with a unique, charismatic, even quirky or weird character, and/or a surprising topic or plot twist.
9. Experiment – take a chance. Short stories can be edgier, darker, or more intense because they’re short, and readers can tolerate something a little more extreme for a limited time. 
10. Jump right in, with a disruption and tension in the first paragraph. There’s no room in a short story for a long, meandering lead-up to the main problem, or an extended introduction of the setting or the characters and their background. Jump right in with the main character’s life being disrupted in some way.
11. Start right out in the head of your main character. It’s best to use their name right in the first sentence to establish them as the POV character, the one readers are supposed to identify with and root for. Then let readers know really soon their gender, rough age, and role in the story world.
12. Situate the reader early on. Don’t forget the 4 W’s: who, what, where, when. Establish your setting (time and place) within the first few paragraphs as well, to situate your reader and avoid confusion. But avoid starting with a great long descriptive passage.
13. Use close point of view. Get up close and personal with your main character and tell the story from his or her point of view. You don’t have time or space to get into anyone else’s viewpoint in a short story. Even your narration is your POV character’s thoughts and observations. Don’t intrude as the author to describe or explain anything to the readers in neutral language.
14. Show, Don’t Tell! Don’t use narration to tell your readers what happened—put them right in the middle of the scene, with lots of dialogue and action and reactions, in real time. And skip past transitional times and unimportant moments. Just use a few words to go from one time/place to another, unless something important happens during the transition.
15. Show your character’s reactions, both inner and outer. And to bring the character and scene to life on the page, evoke all five senses, not just sight and hearing.
16. Every page needs tension of some sort. It might be overt, like an argument, or subtle, like inner resentments, disagreements, worry, etc. No tension = boring.
17. Dialogue is war! Skip the yadda-yadda, blah-blah and add spark and tension to all your dialogue. And make your dialogue sound as natural and authentic as you can. Each character should speak differently, and not like the author. Use contractions, partial sentences, slang words, interruptions, one-word answers, silences, evasive replies, and lots of tension and attitude! When it comes to dialogue, ignore the computer lines that indicate incorrect English. Read your dialogue out loud or role-play with a friend to make sure it sounds natural.
18. Go out with a bang. Don’t stretch out the conclusion – tie it up pretty quickly. Like your first paragraph, your final paragraph needs to be memorable, and also satisfying to the readers. A surprise twist would be great, but it needs to make sense, given all the other details of the story. It’s not necessary to tie everything up in a neat bow – in fact, short story endings can be more ambiguous than for novels – but do give your reader some sense of resolution. And be sure the protagonist solves his or her problem or triumphs through their own courage, determination, and resourcefulness, not through coincidence, luck or a rescue by someone else.
19. Hook them in with an opening that zings. Write and rewrite your first line, opening paragraph and first page. They need to be as gripping and as intriguing as you can make them, in order to grab the readers and make them want to read the rest of the story. Your first sentence and paragraph should arouse curiosity, and raise questions that demand to be answered.
20. Cut to the chase! The short story requires discipline and editing. Trim down any long, convoluted sentences to reveal the essentials. Less is more, so make every word count. If a sentence or line of dialogue doesn’t advance the plot or further develop a character, take it out. Use strong, evocative, specific nouns and verbs and cut back on supporting adjectives and adverbs.  For example, instead of saying “He walked heavily” say “He trudged.” Or instead of “She walked quietly into the room,” say “She tiptoed…”
21. Make every element and every image count. Every element you insert in the story should have some significance or some relevance later. If it doesn’t, take it out. You have no room for filler in a compelling short story.   

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, workshop presenter, judge for fiction contests, and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. Jodie has also organized and edited two anthologies for charity: Voices from the Valleys, and Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at, and on Facebook and Twitter. 


  1. Excellent post, Jodie! Another keeper, and it helped me ensure I covered the basis for the children's story I wrote. :-)

    1. Thanks, Tracy! I'm glad you find my tips helpful. :-)

  2. Great blog, Jodie. I like your style of creating a clear itemized list for us to work with. It come in handy, especially during the review stage of the short story. Numbers 2 and 21 hit home for me. Keep the story tight and make every element and image count. Awesome.

  3. Thanks, D.F. I'm glad you found these suggestions useful for your writing! :-)