To Make a Long Story Short: Elements of a Short Story

Nisha Tuli
March 31, 2023
April 20, 2023

The short story. It seems like it should be simpler to write because it’s, well… short. Right? Maybe. It depends on you and a few other factors. Short story writing is an art unto itself, and while yes, there might be fewer words overall, you still need the same kind of practice and care you exercise when writing a longer piece. 

If you’ve ever wanted to write a short story, then pay attention, because we’re digging into everything you need to know to tackle your own. 

What is a Short Story?

Let’s start with the basics, shall we? A short story is a type of prose fiction that is shorter in length than a novel but longer than a brief anecdote or vignette. Short stories are usually intended to be read in a single sitting and are designed to capture the reader's attention and imagination quickly, often with a surprising or unexpected twist at the end.

The origins of the short story can be traced back to ancient oral storytelling traditions, but the short story as we know it today was developed in the early 19th century. The format became increasingly popular throughout the following century and continues to be a vital form of literary expression. There are plenty of journals and websites dedicated to publishing short stories out there. 

One of the defining characteristics of a short story is its brevity. While there’s no absolute word count, you’re probably aiming for somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 words in length. What this means is every word and sentence must count, and you’ve got a pretty limited amount of space to tell a compelling story. 

Like with novels, short stories encompass all kinds of genres, topics, and themes. Realistic or fantastical, humorous or tragic, they explore a variety of subjects, including love, loss, fear, and redemption. 

Some of the most well-known short story writers include Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Shirley Jackson, Alice Munro, and James Baldwin.

If the idea of tackling an entire novel feels too intimidating for you, then starting with short stories can be a great way to hone your writing skills. A lot of famous writers began by writing short stories before moving on to longer works. 

What Do You Need in Your Short Story?

One of the challenges of writing a short story is creating a sense of immediacy and urgency that draws your reader in from the first sentence. Because there is less space to develop characters and settings, you need to use language and imagery to evoke a vivid and memorable world.

You also need to pay special attention to its structure. Most short stories have a clear beginning, middle, and end, with a central conflict or problem that’s introduced early on and clearly resolved by the end. You might even experiment with different narrative structures, such as flashbacks or nonlinear timelines, to create a more complex and layered story.

With that said, your short story still needs a few key elements that include:

Plot: The plot is the central storyline as the events unfold from beginning to end. A well-constructed plot has a clear beginning, middle, and conclusion. The beginning introduces the characters, setting, and conflict; the middle builds tension and reveals character motivations; and the end resolves the conflict and brings the story to a close.

Characters: Characters should be well-developed and realistic, with distinct personalities, motivations, and desires that drive the story forward. 

Setting: You need a setting to help bring your story to life. Settings are often used to help create mood and atmosphere in a short story, since you don’t have the space to include a lot of details.  

Theme: The theme is the underlying message or idea you’re trying to convey through your story. It can be a moral lesson, a commentary on society, or an exploration of the human condition. A strong theme can help give a story depth and resonance, making it more memorable and impactful.

Conflict: Conflict is the central problem or obstacle that the protagonist must overcome to achieve their goals. It can be internal, such as a struggle with self-doubt or addiction, or external, such as a battle against an enemy or a natural disaster. Conflict creates tension and drives the plot forward.

Point of View: Point of view refers to the perspective from which the story is told. It can be first-person, where the narrator is a character in the story and uses I or we to describe events; third-person limited, where the narrator is an outside observer who can only access the thoughts and feelings of one character; or third-person omniscient, where the narrator can access the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters.

Tone: Tone is your emotional attitude toward the story and its characters. Tone can be humorous, sarcastic, tragic, or hopeful, just to name a few examples, and gives your story depth and complexity, evoking a response in your reader. 

Differences Between a Short Story and a Novel

People tend to be more familiar with novels, so let’s take a quick look at the differences between a full-length book and a short story. 

Length: The most obvious difference between a short story and a novel is the length. A short story is typically between 1,000 and 10,000 words, while a novel can range from 40,000 to well over 100,000 words. Novellas fall in the range of about 10,000-40,000 words. The shorter length of a short story means it’s more concise and focused than a novel.

Plot: Short stories and novels both have a plot, of course, but the way the plot is structured is different. A short story usually has a single plot line, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. A novel, on the other hand, can have multiple plot lines, subplots, and more complex structures. This allows for more intricate character development and more in-depth exploration of themes.

Character Development: Short stories tend to have fewer characters than novels, and the characters are often less developed. In a short story, the focus is on a single character or a small group of characters, and you must convey their personalities and motivations quickly and efficiently. In a novel, there is more time and space to develop a wide range of characters, and your readers can get to know them more intimately.

Setting: While both short stories and novels have a setting, the way the setting is described and developed is different. In a short story, the setting is usually limited to a single location or a small number of locations. You must convey the mood and atmosphere of the setting quickly and efficiently. In a novel, the setting can be more expansive and varied, and you have more room to explore its details and nuances.

Themes: Short stories and novels can both explore a wide range of themes, but the way they do so is a little different. In a short story, the theme is usually more focused and less complex than in a novel. A short story can explore a single theme in depth, while a novel can explore multiple themes and their connections.

Pace: Because of their length, short stories tend to have a faster pace than novels. Short stories must convey a lot of information in a short amount of time, and this often means the action moves quickly. Novels, on the other hand, can take their time and develop the plot and characters at a more leisurely pace.

Tips for Writing a Short Story

By now, I know you’re salivating to get writing your own short story. So here are a few tips. 

Choose a hooky idea: A good short story starts with a strong idea. Something that is unique, interesting, and emotionally resonant and can usually be summarized into one snappy sentence. Anything more than that and you might struggle to keep it within the correct word count. 

Keep it simple: Because of the limited space in a short story, it's important to keep the plot simple and focused. Limit the number of characters, locations, and plot threads, and stick to a single, central conflict or problem that your protagonist must overcome. Resist the urge to add subplots and only give the reader necessary information. 

Create engaging characters: Every story needs characters for your reader to connect with. Even though you have limited space to develop your characters, they should still be fleshed out and relatable. Give them distinctive personalities, goals, and motivations, and make sure they are active participants in the story, not just passive observers.

Use vivid imagery: Because you have limited space to describe your setting and characters, it's important to use vivid and descriptive language that paints a picture in your reader's mind. Use sensory details to evoke the mood and atmosphere and make your setting come alive. Think about how you can describe a scene with fewer words and more impact.

Keep the pace moving: Because short stories are designed to be read in a single sitting, it's important to keep the pace moving. Use action and dialogue to propel the story forward, and avoid long, descriptive passages that slow the action down. Keep backstory and exposition to a minimum and focus on need-to-know details. 

Create a satisfying ending: A good short story should have a clear and satisfying ending that resolves the central conflict and leaves your reader with a sense of closure. However, don't be afraid to leave some questions unanswered or to end on a note of ambiguity or mystery, as long as it feels intentional and satisfying. Short stories often end with a twist or a surprise ending. 

Short Story Examples to Get Acquainted With

And of course, as with any type of writing, one of the most important ways to get better is to read lots of short stories. Here’s a short list of some classics you can check out. 

If you think you’d like to submit to a short story magazine or journal, then be sure to read some of their back issues to get a sense of what types of stories they like to publish. 

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe: This classic horror story is effective because of its vivid imagery, tense pacing, and unreliable narrator. The story is narrated by a madman who has committed murder and is haunted by the sound of his victim's beating heart. The story's use of foreshadowing, symbolism, and psychological horror has made it a lasting favorite of the genre.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson: This well-known story is a powerful commentary on the dangers of blindly following tradition and the mob mentality. The story's slow buildup of tension and sense of impending doom is masterful, and the shocking twist ending has kept it relevant for years. 

Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway: This minimalist story is effective because of its subtle use of language and themes of communication and relationship dynamics. The story is about a couple who are at a train station in Spain, waiting to travel to Madrid. Through their conversations and interactions, the reader is able to infer the deeper issues and tensions between them, without the story ever explicitly stating them.

A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner: This Southern Gothic is effective because of its haunting imagery, nonlinear narrative structure, and exploration of themes of decay, isolation, and the burden of the past. The story is about a woman named Emily Grierson, who lives in a crumbling mansion and is rumored to have committed a terrible crime. The story's twist ending and exploration of the dark side of human nature keeps readers enthralled. 

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: This feminist story is effective because of its vivid and disturbing portrayal of the mental breakdown of a woman who is forced to stay in a room with yellow wallpaper. The story's use of symbolism, an unreliable narrator, and exploration of themes of gender roles and mental illness have made it an enduring classic.

If this article was useful for you, then check out Dabble U, where we post new articles every week to help make the most of your writing and publishing journey. 

Nisha Tuli

Nisha J Tuli is a YA and adult fantasy and romance author who specializes in glitter-strewn settings and angst-filled kissing scenes. Give her a feisty heroine, a windswept castle, and a dash of true love and she’ll be lost in the pages forever. When Nisha isn’t writing, it’s probably because one of her two kids needs something (but she loves them anyway). After they’re finally asleep, she can be found curled up with her Kobo or knitting sweaters and scarves, perfect for surviving a Canadian winter.