How to Write an Effective Short Story

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, I know what you’re thinking. Jordanna East writes ONE short story and she wants to dole out advice. That’s actually not what’s happening. Months ago I came across this post by Limebird Writers, outlining several tips to writing effective short stories. I was in the middle of writing my first short story at the time, so I saved the post and referred to it often. Here’s what was listed and how I applied it to my short story, Crossing Lines.

  • There is no way a great short story could be stretched into a full length novel if done well. (The other panelists disagreed with this sentiment). I actually agree with this. I’ve read a few novels that felt like they were adapted from short stories (and not well) and as soon as I read the acknowledgements my suspicions were confirmed.
  • Short stories should be very focused, you should never feel like you’re getting ready to settle in for a long read. Crossing Lines is the story of a family man, pushed past the limits of normalcy into the realm of lunacy, and on the run–with a twist. Since I’ve been writing longer works, I was tempted to delve into background information more thoroughly, but was able to rein it in and I think I provided the reader with just the right amount of information. 
  • Short stories have a greater emotional punch at the end, the ride is fast and the end should hit you hard. At first I wasn’t sure I should end the story with such a poignant cliffhanger, but after reading this list, I felt so much better about it.
  • When starting the story, start as thick into the action as you can. (This reminds me of a screenwriting sentiment imparted on me by various professors, start the story at the last possible moment.) I try to apply this principle to all aspects of my writing. You only have but a few pages to grab the reader’s attention, a few paragraphs in the case of a short story. With Crossing Lines, the opening sentence starts with the main character’s car racing along the New Jersey Turnpike, except that I describe the car as stolen and weaving between the lanes.
  • You should establish tension immediately – you don’t have several pages to draw the reader in, they need to be drawn in right from the start. Umm, see previous?
  • Short fiction can be a great place for authors to explore different genres or story types than they are used to. It can be an amazing tool to experiment and find your voice. I stuck to my usual genre and voice, psychological thriller, for Crossing Lines. I have two more short stories in the works and neither of them explore anything outside of my comfort zone. But maybe one day…
  • Always write something you want to read yourself. This is another tidbit of advice that I always find helpful. I can’t see how anyone can write something that they wouldn’t want to read themselves. Can you put the same passion into a piece of writing that you don’t believe in, that doesn’t interest you, that bores you? I couldn’t.

I’m pleased to say that following the guidelines above was a godsend. I entered Crossing Lines in the South Jersey Writers Group Fall Contest and it WON! I received a monetary prize AND my story will appear in their 2014 anthology! For a limited time, you can read the original story (unedited) on Wattpad. I’d love to hear what you think! And if you have your own pointers about writing short stories, feel free to leave them in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “How to Write an Effective Short Story

  1. I’ve thought about writing short stories from time to time, but none of the ideas I’ve had seem to want to work into a short story. It’s a great deal of work and I commend you on going for it. 🙂

      • That’s pretty interesting. I’ve only occasionally thought a dream would make a good story, though this thought came as I was half asleep. It was only upon being fully awake that I began to second guess the idea. Still written down so, you never know.

      • Yeah, I have some pretty vivid dreams and I remember them well so I’m able to write them down, revisit the ideas later, and mold them into something that’ll work and isn’t such a cluster fuck of junkfood-induced nonsense. Lol

      • Sometimes I can recall a dream and other times I can’t, it’s rather strange. But I’ll definitely have to keep some ideas in mind for the possibility of a short story or even a novella, depending on how much depth I want to go into. I can’t remember what the word count cap for a short story is but I suspect anything over 5k would be too much.

      • I think I depends on where you intend to submit it. I just beta read a short story that was just shy of 10K. The one I’m working on now, the submission guidelines stipulate a maximum word count of 7K.

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