How to Write a Short Story

By Liternauts posted June 10, 2016

At first sight, it seems the difference between a novel and a tale lies in the length of the story. While a novel tells a story that goes on for pages and pages, a tale presents the facts in a much more condensed way. It’s said that in order to define a story as a tale, it should be less than 20,000 words long. But there is no bottom line; there are stories of less than 1,000 words in length. Is it really possible to tell a story in less than 1,000 words? Of course it is! Just take into account that the mechanics of a tale are different from those of a novel, so let’s analyze them.

It may seems the difference between a novel and a tale lies in the length of the story, but there's much more.

1. Focus on the action. 

Focus on the action – not the anecdote. Writing a tale consists of telling a story, not of transmitting an anecdotal incident. But at the same time, the account of the facts must be more reduced than in a novel, and there’s no time or space for wandering away from the subject.

In a tale, there’s no room for long descriptions and extensive moral or psychological ramblings. This doesn’t mean the story must be simple and completely free of these elements. They can be in the subtext or summarized in few words. It’s all about word economy!

Some time ago, I read a quote that stuck in my mind: “A science-fiction novel describes a sci-fi world; a science-fiction tale narrates sci-fi facts.” Despite their different characteristics, both the novel and the tale can give the readers pause for thought.

2. Don’t try to cover everything. 

Sometimes, writers aspire to tell very ambitious stories with features that exceed the limits of a tale. Remember that in general, a tale tells a story that develops in a short period of time, has very few main characters (two or three at most), and a main setting. If you’re unable to adapt your story to these premises, you may be writing a novella rather than a tale.

3. Find an idea and simplify it. 

Any idea can be simplified – just think outside the box. For example, imagine you have decided to tell the story of a greedy man who, after spending many years devoted to his work, achieves professional success at the expense of his personal life. Time goes by, and over the years, he makes a series of financial mistakes that eventually lead him to bankruptcy. In his desperate situation, he finally realizes what’s really important in life.

Is it viable to tell a story like this in few words? Yes, but in a simplified manner. To that end, identify its most meaningful part. The rest of your tale will be built around that scene. In my opinion, the crucial episode of the sample story is that in which the main character is aware of how hi

Let’s see how it might look... John Doe is a beggar who begs for money on a corner of the city in the central office area every morning near the place where he used to work. The same executives he worked with and was equal to in the past are those who now ignore him and walk past him without even realizing his presence. Remember: when you have your idea, simplify it. Look for the meaningful part of the story; find its crucial moment.

4. Show – don’t tell. 

This must be the most common piece of advice in books and articles about the art of writing, right? But it’s essential to remember (and often forgotten), especially in the case of tales.

A short tale is not a summary of a story; it’s the whole story itself. Continuing with the example above, you could write that John Doe is a beggar who begs every morning on a corner not far from the office where he worked some time ago. He was very successful in those days even though he had just divorced and didn’t have much time for his children because he was only dedicated to his professional life and all that stuff. Do these sentences fit in the tale? Not at all. In any case, they would appear in the summary of the story.

To tell the story, you have to focus on the action such as John Doe counting the coins in his box and realizing it hadn’t been a good morning because he had barely enough for a hot beverage. Show what happens, provide the readers with descriptive images, and tell the story through action.

5. Keep the structure. 

Even very short tales must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For example, the beggar counting the coins in his corner with the executives wrapped up in their coats and walking past him would be the introductory scene. It puts things in context and answers the “who, what, where, and when” questions.

The middle could be that the beggar is worried because he needs a hot beverage but doesn’t have enough money. He keeps begging, but the executives ignore him. The end is open to your imagination. For example, you could imagine that someone takes pity on him and gives him the money necessary to buy himself a cup of coffee.

6. Don’t tell everything – suggest it. 

In a short tale, what is said is as important as what is silenced. As I previously stated, there’s no room for going off topic. Forget about explaining that the beggar feels badly because of his current situation or that he regrets losing his family. That must be implicit in his actions. Let your readers figure it out.

Instead of writing that the beggar had a family and lost it along with his job, you could insinuate that one of the stressed executives who walk past him is his son. The protagonist recognizes him and tries to attract his attention. In response to this action, the young executive turns to him with a disgusted face and gives him a coin without realizing that person is his father. Thanks to that coin, the beggar can buy himself a hot beverage that morning, but he obviously doesn’t care about doing so any longer.

7. Make every sentence count.

From the beginning to the end, each of the sentences in the tale must be there for some purpose. You must tell a story in just a few words, so make the most of them! This is not necessary when you are writing the first draft, but it is essential at the revision stage. Analyze every word and sentence in detail, and think about its function in the story. Is it indispensable? If the essence of the text can be understood without that word or sentence, don’t hesitate to delete it.

8. Keep the suspense. 

Don’t give all the information in one sentence or paragraph. Measure it out, and make your readers hold their breath until the very last sentence. If you explain that the beggar was an executive and has just met his son in the street from the very beginning of the tale, you’ll run out of resources for the rest of the story.

Whenever possible, try to include a plausible twist, blow, or surprise at the end of the tale as it can provide the text with new meaning. In the sample story, the best idea is to start introducing the readers to the freezing beggar that needs some money in order to get himself a hot beverage. That would be a good starting point.
You can then explain that he was once one of those executives who now walk past him since that will make your readers more curious about the character. Suddenly, the beggar identifies a familiar male face among the elegant crowd and seeks his attention (more intrigue). This person doesn’t recognize him, but he does give him some money. The beggar doesn’t care about that anymore because he has just received money from his very own son (the surprise is saved for the end).

9. Create future impact. 

One of the most difficult but also most important skills to achieve is writing a story that leaves a lasting effect on your readers. Once they are finished reading the story, it should give them food for further contemplation. The last sentence is fundamental in order to succeed with this. If it can contain a twist or a powerful image that sheds light on the rest of the story, you will be on the right track.

Returning to the example tale, it would be great if your readers don’t know who the beggar recognized until the end of the story. In the last sentence (which should be concise and direct to cause a greater impact on the reader), you’ll reveal the executive is actually the beggar’s son (a good ending twist). You’ll imply the beggar isn’t worried about the money (he doesn’t even look at it) because he just realized his son has become an anxious executive, and he can’t keep him from making the same mistakes he himself made in the past.

10. Create a setting with few elements.

You don’t have room for long descriptions or digressions, but the tale must have a good setting in order to captivate your readers. Resort to the tone, narrator, and language to set a very short text and take care in choosing the right words. “Swamp” and “bog” may have a similar meaning, but they sound different. The same thing happens with “mist” and “fog’. Every word helps you create an atmosphere, so make your word choices carefully.

In the example tale, the setting is in the city on a cold winter morning, but you don’t need to explain all of this. Good readers will feel the cold in the vapor coming out of the mouth of the main character or in the way he rubs his glove-wrapped hands before counting the coins. Better yet, have your readers observe everything through the eyes of the executives who are wrapped in thick coats as they walk past the beggar on their way to work. That point of view provides plenty of information Two or three details are enough for them to infer that it’s winter, it’s cold, and the working day has just begun.

11. Remember the importance of the title.

You have very little room to tell your story, and I have made it clear that every word counts, right? Be clever and make the most of them. Title words can be very useful! The ideal thing would be a suggestive and intriguing title that throws new light on the text once it’s been read.

Practice: Can you think of a title for the example story that meets these requirements?

12. Consider an extra rule.

Finally, there is a basic piece of advice for anyone who wants to write tales. Even if this has nothing to do with the writing experience itself, keep in mind that in order to write a tale, you must read a lot of them first. If you want to understand the mechanics of tales in general, it’s essential for you to be familiar with them. Read tales by Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Cortazar, Poe, Saki, etc. Read as many short stories as possible.).


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