So You Want to Write a Short Story

If you are a new writer, you will find it easier to write a good short story if you follow a set of simple guidelines. There are many such on the Internet, and many books on the subject. Here is my contribution:

Step 1: Create a Thesis Statement

What is your story about, and what do you want your reader to do, understand or feel after reading it? Write a paragraph or two stating your thesis. Then, as you prepare your story and as you write it, check your thesis from time to time to make sure what you’re writing is what you intended to write. If it isn’t, you have two options:

  • Edit what you’ve written so it is in accord with the thesis.
  • Change your thesis statement and continue to write according to the new thesis.
Step 2: Memorize This
  • A story is made up of characters, action and exposition.
  • A story is about conflict, climax and resolution.
  • Every action in a story should contribute to conflict, climax or resolution.
  • Every sentence should move story forward, contribute to character development, or both.
  • Exposition—background or explanation—should be included only when action cannot tell the story.

If you commit these five sentences to memory, you will find that your first story is a better one and that you have fewer rewrites to do.

Step 3: Prepare your Story

You need to take some steps before writing your story to establish believable characters and a story line that will allow your reader that “suspension of disbelief” so often mentioned.


Who is your main character, the person you want your reader to identify with or react to? Write a paragraph or two that describes this character. (Or write a complete history and psychological evaluation, but understand this is to order your own thoughts, not to be included in the story except through the action and dialogue.)

Conflict, Climax, Resolution

Does your main character face off with an enemy? Who? Is she in an unenviable situation? What does he want and what is stopping him from getting what he wants?

Write a paragraph or two that analyzes the conflict, climax and resolution in your story. Then, as you prepare your story and as you write it, check your conflict analysis from time to time to make sure you don’t veer off track.


Set up a table with headers like the ones you see below and with maybe a dozen rows. Use the first two columns in the table to briefly describe each action in your story and to identify the purpose of that action: to develop character, reveal conflict, bring conflict to climax or manifest success or failure.

As you list actions, keep the following in mind:

  • Actions in chronological order are easier to manage, with no or few flashbacks.
  • The progression in a simple story should be from introduction of character and situation to conflict to climax to resolution. If your story is more complex, add or reorder actions as needed, for example to keep a surprise ending a surprise or to give a reader hope for success in a story about failure.
  • Be as detailed in the outline of your plot as is necessary to record the development of character and theme, but don’t try to write your entire story in the table.
# Action Purpose (character, conflict, climax, resolution) Main Character Feels/Understands Exposition
1 [this action] [this purpose] [feeling] [exposition if needed]
2 [etc.] [etc.] [etc.] [etc.]

(Note: Creating a plot outline is the simplest way for a new writer to prepare a story. More experienced writers sometimes begin a story by creating a character, putting that character into a situation and letting the story tell itself. This approach may be more fun, but it leaves room for mistakes, inconsistencies and even impossibilities. )


Ideally, each action taken by or forced upon the main character should contribute to that character’s development. Use the Main Character Feels/Understands column to briefly describe the result of the action.

Each step in the development of your main character needs to be the result of the preceding action and support the succeeding action. Add, delete or reorder actions as needed to make this happen. Check the result against your conflict analysis and redo anything that needs redoing.

(Note: In in a short story, it is usually best for a new writer not to get into the character development of a protagonist or any secondary characters.)


Finally, in the Exposition column note where action cannot tell the story to your satisfaction. Briefly describe the background or explanation needed.

Rarely, a narrator, who provides necessary background and explanation, replaces your main character. More often, however, too much in the Exposition column means you need to add actions, not make your narrator the main character.

Step 4: Write your Story

At this point, writing your story should be a breeze. Just keep the following in mind:


Use active voice where possible (The boy threw the ball, not the ball was thrown by the boy).


Consider using first person in a very short story (I threw the ball, not she threw the ball) to make the story “real.”


Use dialogue. Many readers will put a book down if there is no dialogue in the first couple of pages. However, don’t have two characters speaking in exactly the same way.


If you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it. If you’re not sure about a word, use the dictionary.


If you don’t know the proper use of semicolons and such, don’t use them. Sentences will usually suffice. And don’t use semicolons and such in dialogue; people don’t normally think or speak semicolons.


Be specific rather than general.

  • It was a crayon your character’s daughter used when she drew a big heart on the wall.
  • When he held out his hand, did she see his dirty fingernails?
  • What did they have for dinner? Describe how it tasted in such a way as to indicate she is having (or not having) a good time
  • Did the meadow smell like violets? Sage? Horse dung?
  • Not “Work was tiresome and boring.” but “If she had to input one more six-page credit application or produce one more customer delinquency report, she thought she’d simply pass out and be found the next morning in the breakroom in yesterday’s blouse and an imprint of her keyboard on her cheek.” (You could get even more specific than this, or provide different detail, depending on the need for a particular kind of detail in a particular story).

Bring all five senses into your story: that crayon—it was maroon; the peppery scent emanating from the witches’ brew; the scent of death when the refrigerator door in the abandoned apartment was opened; the small shush of a woman’s skirt brushing against her legs; and so forth. And maybe have your character reach out and touch something important.

To Summarize

“Show; Don’t Tell” is the one thing literary people will tell you over and over and over: Don’t tell your reader about your story or your characters (this is exposition). Instead, have your characters do something (this is action) or say something (this is dialogue).

To this, I would add: First, create a thesis. Second, go through the steps in this set of guidelines to prepare your story so that your thesis is revealed. Then, show; don’t tell.