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Elements of a Good Short Story

Updated on December 17, 2016
Stephen Austen profile image

Stephen Austen is an Amazon author, writing on a diversity of subjects and genres. He writes short stories, novels and self-help books.

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As an amazon writer, I write a lot of short stories. I love the short story, which is actually making a comeback these days, especially with the e-format reading that is done today. Kindle users travelling to and fro on the bus, train, or on holiday etc, love this type of story as it's a quick read and you can store a lot of them in your electronic device.

But what makes for a 'good' short story? What elements govern the easy reading of the story without it becoming too complicated? Let's outline a few basic tips below that will help you to get started if you're new to writing in this format or if you want to improve what you're already doing.

Word Count

This is going to be the one factor that determines your story as a pivotal point around which all other factors will be revolving. This is especially so if you are entering competitions for short stories that stipulate a certain word-count that must not be exceeded. The average short story is usually up to a maximum of 10,000 words, but many are often shorter, and some competitions don't want the story to be longer than say 2,000 words or even less. There is even 'Flash Fiction' these days which can be nothing more than a few lines, much shorter than most poems.

Alright then, let's have fixed in mind, roughly a goal of 10,000 words maximum for our new short story. If it goes beyond that number, up to say 15,000 to 20,000 words, we will be in what is known as a 'novelette' which is basically a longer short story. There's a fair amount of leeway on the actual number that tips the scale into the novelette, but let's not mind that right now. Let our average short story target be set at 10,000 words. I find that having this figure in my mind really helps me to curtail how much detail or complexity goes into the story.

For me, some stories that start out in my mind as being aimed at the short story category, may become a novelette or even a novella (20,000 to 40,000 words, roughly) or go beyond that range into the novel status. But if I know intuitively that a certain story won't have that kind of longevity to it, I keep to the 10,000 word rule. It might even be shorter than that number.

So, when you're staring at your computer keyboard and ready to write the title on the first page, by the time you get to the bottom of that page, you may already have covered around 400 or so words. So, after 5 pages you've written around 2,000 words already! Get the picture? You'll gobble up those stipulated 10,000 words more rapidly than a rampant photocopier that's out of control. Twenty-five pages later, and your new blockbuster short story is complete. Or is it? Right, what comes next then?

Limit your Characters

One thing that tends to hold true, is limit the number of characters involved in your short story; too many characters will of course, require too much information about them, and before you know it, you have swallowed up whole paragraphs just by giving explanations concerning the new character you've introduced. Too much. So, keep the number of people in your tale down to a bare 'skeleton crew.'

Normally, I would say, have around three or four main characters, (if even that many) and you may have some basic 'peripheral' characters that may offer a useful cameo part such as a nondescript butler perhaps, who may not even require to have a name ascribed to him, and see these other characters as your 'film extras.' They're necessary for the smooth running of the tale, but not essential for the plot per se, so we don't need to know too much about Private Schulz on guard outside the prison camp; the poor bugger may only be relevant when he gets his throat cut by an escaping inmate.

Don't overload your main character with too much detail; we don't need to know about his or her past too much, except in passing remarks, and we don't need details of family members or friends except where it pivots on the basic story line. We cannot afford to go off into tangents when dealing with the short story, as it requires our constant attention to the theme of the story. That brings us conveniently to the next important point.

The Theme

Whatever your short story is about, try and stick to the theme. Don't get thrown off into other areas, unless you want to turn the story into a novelette, novella or full-blown novel.

Remember: Theme, Theme, Theme.

The story idea itself should give you the theme. If it's a war story, your theme is obviously revolving around that basic setting of war. A love story of course won't go off track into science, as there just isn't room for everything because your word count won't allow for it. Unless of course, your love story is set in space, so science might then have a role, but it must be clear to the reader what the theme is or they'll get confused and give up reading the thing. Perhaps a love story between an android and a scientist might work though!

So, unless the theme of your story can cross easily into other areas, it can work, but you always have to stay on top of the basic theme as time will run out. Ten pages later, and 4,000 words or so, and you're almost halfway through your allotted 10,000 words, so take care not to overdo it before your word count runs out.

Try for a Twist

Most great short story telling has a twist coming up, which is unexpected by the reader. This isn't necessarily an essential point in the story telling, but it often works well as the unexpected quality brings the necessary "Oh my God!" reaction that every author craves his/her audience to experience.

Think of the excellent T.V. series The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, two of my favourite shows, and how these 'short stories for T.V.' as I call them, often have a twist towards the end. It's the tension of the unexpected that creates for the brilliance in this kind of writing. We didn't see that coming, the hero is really a villain, or the villain is really a hero, the liar is telling the truth, etc, etc.

Great short story writing often has that element of 'things are not what they seem' to them. But it can also just be plain and to the point, but with such a meaning that the reader is moved emotionally. A good short story has you thinking afterwards; what if? That's so true. That happened to me. That's the sort of response to our writing that we can evoke from our story telling.

Keep it Simple

Great short story writing keeps things simple. Complexity must ever be reserved for the longer story formats, because, as we have already established, the limitation of the word count won't allow for otherwise.

There's nothing wrong with this, and in fact, it helps us a lot more to then focus on the basis theme we talked about above. It's liberating too, because it can eliminate excessive research, for example, if you are writing a Sci-fi short story or an historical short. We can then really simplify the tale without the need for too much detail, sticking to the essential point.

Finally, one of the best things about short story writing is that it means you can accomplish a lot more writing volume without the sometimes 'hard slog' of research that can go into a novel. All those ideas that you have jotted down for 'future reference' for writing projects can often be turned into short stories. They don't have to be novels or even novellas to be good or even brilliant.

The short story is making a comeback; why not contribute to this excellent means of expressing your literary skills?

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© 2016 Stephen Austen

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    • Tinsky profile image

      Tina Dubinsky 5 months ago from Brisbane, Australia

      Hi Stephen,

      Great advice for short story creation, especially limiting characters and keeping it simple. I would also suggest limiting the settings (something I have learnt through trial and error), though perhaps this may depend on the work count. Most of my short stories are under 5,000 words.

      Hm, I think you've sparked my creativity as I feel the urge to return to revising my collection of short stories.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

      -Tina

    • Stephen Austen profile image
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      Stephen Austen 5 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

      Thanks Tinsky,

      It's very much appreciated! Yes, good point on limiting the settings too, of course. I hope that you get into writing short stories more fully.

      Best wishes,

      Stephen Austen

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