How to Write a Short Story
Many short stories contain a formula, as do many novels. The following is an example of a
common model: AN ENGAGING CHARACTER faces ALMOST UNBEATABLE ODDS and BY
HIS OR HER OWN EFFORTS achieves a WORTHY GOAL.
**This is only one example of a model. Like everything else, there are exceptions to this model. For
example, the main character could be a very unlikable person who in the end gets what is coming to
Challenges novice writers may face
1. The character is not engaging/interesting enough: The reader wants to be able to
identify with how the main character resolves his/her problem(s).
2. The odds are not unbeatable enough: The character must have a REAL PROBLEM.
For example, the character must walk through a desert in order to save a friend. It would
not be nearly as effective if someone showed up in a Jeep and just gave him/her a ride.
3. The character does not solve his/her problem(s) through his/her own efforts: The
reader will be disappointed, to say the least, if the problem is solved for the character.
One wants to sweat and worry about what will become of the character. The reader
needs to watch him/her struggle and overcome the odds.
4. The solution is expected: The reader has known from the start how the character will
solve the problem. It is the writer’s responsibility to keep the reader engaged, even if the
outcome is expected.
5. The goal is not worthy enough: Or else the audience does not see its worthiness. Who is
the target audience? A child may see things as worthy that an adult may not.
Beginning your story
Before you even begin writing, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Choose a place to write away from all distractions, and gather all your
materials. Try to use the same place every time you write.
2. The first paragraph is the toughest to write. Don’t waste all your time agonizing
3. Don’t criticize your work as you go along. Compliment yourself as you go along.
4. Avoid editing prematurely. Wait until the editing stage, because if you start too
early, you’ll lose momentum in your writing.
5. Create incentives to keep you working. If you tend to procrastinate, make a deal
with yourself (i.e. vow that you’ll write a page or two a day).
6. Use a computer when possible. Most writers work faster when they have a computer
at their disposal because they can make the corrections easily.
**If you still have problems starting, take a look at The Aspirin Alternative (to Writer’s Block)
handout by Daisy Steinke or find it at this address:
The 5 W’s and How
WHO is your main character? Male? Female? Old, young, human, alien, rabbit, snake, strong,
weak, rich or poor?
WHAT kind of story are you writing? The first paragraph would be different in a Gothic as
compared to a Western. Develop the mood early, also. Is it funny, sad, serious? Who
are you writing for? Who is your target audience (i.e. young adults ages 12-15)?
WHEN does this take place? In order for your readers to be able to form a picture in their heads,
they need to know if this is happening in the past, present, or future.
WHERE does this take place? Is it set in an old mansion or a dungeon? Perhaps it is a different
planet. This also is important when the reader is trying to form a mental picture.
WHY does this take place? What is the theme or main point you are trying to get across to the
HOW does the plot unfold?
Analyzing your story
What kind of person is your main character? Is this someone that your readers will be willing
and able to relate to? Keep your target audience in mind.
How can you best tell the character’s story? Would first person, third person, or omniscient
observer be most effective? Is the story funny, creepy, mysterious, dramatic?
At what point does the story begin? At what critical part of the main character’s life do you
begin? Normally you would not begin where the character is born.
What are you trying to say? What is the point to your story? You can not just say at the end
“the moral of this story is...”
Show your readers, don’t tell!!!
Keep the reader interested. If they get bored with the story, there’s nothing easier for them to do
than just put it down. You can lose the reader at the beginning of the story where he or she just
can not get into it, or at the end, where he or she disagrees with the resolution. Try to keep the
reader wanting to turn the pages.
Bradley, M. Z. What is a Short Story?. 1996 http://mzbworks.home.att.net/what.htm.
Hairston, Maxine, John Ruszkiewicz, and Daniel Seward. CoreText: A Handbook for Writers. New York, 1997.
By Wendy Rissman, 2002