3 Ideas for Crafting a Great Short Story

Let me begin by saying I’m not an expert on writing short stories. I don’t write them often. When we studied short stories in high school, I loved reading them. In the publishing world today, it seems that novels are king, and fewer short stories are published—but you can still find them, primarily in literary publications.

Seeing as that I’m not an expert, I called this blog post “3 ideas” for crafting a great short story—not 3 “rules” or 3 “guidelines”. First of all, I don’t believe in following the rules. I’m an intuitive writer. You do need to know the rules, but then you can break them if you have a rationale for doing so.

I recently won First Place in the 2018 Writers’ Digest Popular Fiction Awards for a short story I wrote titled Eighteen. This is a Young Adult/Fantasy story that started out as an attempt to write a Fantasy novel. I really wanted to try world building, and I was excited to write a story with DRAGONS.

Guess what? Writing Fantasy is incredibly complicated and I should probably stick to contemporary fiction!

But writing that novel was not a waste of time (writing is never a waste of time), because I realized I could distill down some of the best elements of the novel into an effective short story. In a short story, you’re not expected to recreate a whole world; rather, I think of it as a snapshot of a specific place and time in a fictional world.

I’ve come up with 3 elements that I think contribute to a great short story. These are based solely on my personal thoughts as a reader. This is what I gravitate to when thinking about a short story that excites me.

Sensory detail

If you’re going to immerse a person in your fictional world in a very short amount of time, it helps to infuse the story with sensory detail. The heady smell of a freshly mown lawn. The feel of gritty dirt on the palm of someone’s hands. The searing pain of a sprained shoulder. Get the reader involved immediately, as if they’ve plunged into a pool.

Consider a twist

I don’t necessarily mean a plot twist, although many famous short stories end with a “didn’t see that coming!” change of fortune. A twist could simply mean that not everything is as it seems in the beginning, and maybe some information is not revealed until later in the story. Or perhaps a character’s perspective is not as expected, or his actions don’t match his thoughts. Readers love to be surprised.

In Eighteen, I included a few subtle twists, where some readers will stop and say—wait, what? That’s not what I expected. I enjoy subverting reader expectations.

Throw out what you know about writing a story arc

Short stories aren’t necessarily like a novel in that they need a plot with a beginning, middle and end. Some beautiful literary short stories are a series of moments that end with an emotional revelation.

In John Updike’s A&P, you can find what you might call traditional plot points: the inciting incident (girls come into the store in bathing suits) and resolution (the main character, a teenager, quits his job at the A&P).

In Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, the main character sketches a cathedral for his visitor, who is blind, yet nothing is exactly resolved or tied up in a bow. And that’s okay. It still makes an emotional impression.

Final thoughts

I suppose the last thought I have is that in a short story, every word counts. Make sure every single word in every single sentence is the right one, the one that evokes the tone and impression you mean to convey. Don’t be afraid to play with unusual turns of phrase and poetic language, if that’s your thing. Readers will emotionally invest in the story if the voice is compelling.

Eighteen will be available to read on the Writers’ Digest web site, I think in May 2019. I’ll post a link once it’s live.

Do you write short stories? What do you think are the elements of a great short story?