Short stories are one of my favorite types of stories to read because they’re quick and easy to enjoy when I’m on the go. Sometimes, I don’t have the time to dig deep into a novel and thus short stories are perfect.
In this guide, I’m going to outline everything you need to know about short stories. I’ll explain the basics from what a short story is, how to write a short story, and apps you can consume short stories on.
Top Short Story Apps
I have tried several places to share my short stories and flash fiction over the last 3 years. Here are some of the apps that I found most helpful for both improving my writing and growing my audience. You will also find really great stories to read. By far the best way to jump into the fiction world is to start reading and writing. Here are some places that are great for that:
Commaful has the most supportive short story community I’ve tried. The entire site is dedicated to short-form writing. It seems like their top stories tend to be on the shorter end (under 2000 words).
I’ve found flash fiction works really well here and the community is very engaged. The community tends to skew younger but I’ve run into some very experienced writers hanging around there.
They do have a bit of an unusual posting format that can take some getting used to, but once you’re used to it it’s actually really cool.
I know, I know. Wattpad hasn’t had the best reputation, but hear me out. Wattpad is a huge website filled with stories from short stories to full blown novels. I’ve personally had a mixed experience on there, but you honestly can’t discount it since it has so many users, the potential upside is really big if your story takes off. Think movie big.
Wattpad is especially good if you want to write a story over a few thousand words long.
It helps if you know a bigger writer there who can help cross-promote you to their existing fans.
Figment is a nice in-between of Commaful and Wattpad. I’ve gotten an okay response from the community there and I think they have more total traffic than Commaful though it’s probably pretty close. While Commaful has a different content format, Figment is more traditional writing.
I’ve seen both short stories and longer stories do well here so they do have a vibrant short story group.
I really love the author interviews they do here too which are always fun. They get some good short story writers to give advice as well sometimes.
UPDATE (Thanks to Todd for notifying): It looks like Figment actually got shut down and now re-directs to a site called Underlined. It looks like it’s owned by Penguin Random House (which I guess is cool!), but as of this writing, the activity looks pretty low as of this update
What is a short story?
A short story is a form of fiction that can be generally read in one sitting. Short stories use a number of common narrative elements and literary techniques found in novels, but with a faster pace.
Short fiction stories have a rich history and have been recognized as a natural and even preferred method of storytelling for hundreds of years.
When it comes to word count, short stories can range anywhere from 0 words to 4,000 words. The exact count of a short story has been debated where some insist that short stories must have more than 1,000 words and others refer to stories with 20,000 words as short stories. Typically, stories under 1,000 words are referred to as flash fiction and stories under 100 words are referred to as drabbles. Stories that are considered “too long” to be a short story are often referred to as novellas or novelettes.
Many short story writers enjoy writing short stories because the author doesn’t have the time or budget to write a longer piece. Short stories also serve as a strong testing bed for new ideas for potential novels and movies as it’s generally faster to write short stories
Elements of a Good Short Story
Short stories generally follow typical storytelling formats. You may be familiar with storytelling formats like the Hero’s Journey or Save The Cat or the 3-Act-Structure, which are popular screenplay and movie structures. Most short stories lead with an exposition (an introduction to the characters and situation), complication (something that leads into conflict), rising action, crisis, climax, and finish.
Short stories tend to move through the elements more quickly or even blend certain story elements. For example, many short stories jump right into the action, combining the exposition, complication, and sometimes, even the rising action into one. Some jump straight into the middle of the action right before the crisis.
The end of short stories also tend to be more sudden and in many cases can be left to interpretation. Given the story length, cliffhangers at the end of a story can be very common.
How To Write A Short Story
While short stories can be very difficult to write well, they are really great ways for beginning writers and writers trying to get into a habit to get started. This is because it’s a great medium to experiment and try many types of writing styles. In fact, many well-known authors, like Sylvia Plath, actually began their writing careers by writing short stories.
A short story guide wouldn’t be complete without some tips on how to write one! Here are some tips that can help you get started in your own short story writing career. Combine these tips with one of the writing apps above and you could be on your way to influencing millions of people with your writing.
1) Planning the Plot of the Short Story
Before starting, it’s always good to have an idea of how you want to approach the story. While you may be able to write your novel as you go, short stories are much shorter so you at least need to have some basic ideas in place.
This doesn’t mean you need to plan out the entire story (although you can if you choose to), but it does mean that you should think about your characters and the beginning, middle, and end.
At the end of the day, your short story will likely involve a few characters and a few big moments.
I generally recommend to students to write some basic character profiles. Who are your characters? What are some of the key points to the plot? What is the setting? What will happen? This will help you set up the story.
2) How do you want it to end?
The ending is especially powerful in a short story and often represents the meaning of the story. Many argue that short stories are designed to invoke emotion and the ending is often one of the most important parts of invoking this emotion. How you end the story will determine how the reader feels after reading it.
Depending on the emotion you want to convey, you’ll want to tweak the ending to show the degree of the emotion you want to showcase. There are a variety of degrees of emotion that you can convey through your ending. For example, an ending with a child getting hit by a bus will likely leave the reader sadder than a story ending with rejection by a date. Even the method of death can convey different meanings and emotions. A beheading versus an accidental death versus death by cancer.
You need to figure out what story you want to tell, what emotion you want to convey and use that to determine the right ending for your story.
If you’re having troubles figuring the ending out, consider looking through a list of emotions and considering scenarios that might convey that emotion. If the emotion fits the story you want to share, perhaps it will work.
3) Start writing. Jump right into the action!
Because the story is short, you don’t have a lot of time for exposition and scene setting. While many writers are able to do set the scene in a short story as well, I generally recommend writers dive right into the action and let the action set the scene. Let’s say you were writing a short story version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Because you don’t have the leisure of hundreds of pages at your disposal, you’d skip all the intro which includes Harry’s back story and how he meets all of his friends. You’d dive right into the action and put Harry in immediate danger while he tries to find who’s trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone. Through the interactions between the characters and the back and forth action, we’ll gradually learn as the plot unfolds that Harry, Ron, and Hermione are friends and Lord Voldemort is the evil character.
The first line is one of the most important lines of the story. If you can’t hook somebody in, they may not give the rest of the story a shot. By starting in the action, you’re more likely to draw people in with the first line. You should brainstorm a number of ideas of good hooks and see what works best. Especially for online short stories where you may be competing with thousands of distractions, the stronger the hook the better. You can test some ideas of hooks on some friends to see what they find exciting.
For a young adult short story, many of the best hooks feel like a cliffhanger and makes readers question what happens next. Did the evil monster get to her? Why is her friend talking so funny? Does he win the fight? Who died? Why is grandma wearing boxing gloves? You want the reader to be asking questions that get them hooked in.
4) After you finish, edit, edit, edit
Once you finish writing, one of the most important parts of writing begins: the editing. Because short stories have a limited number of words, every sentence you allow into the piece is that much more important.
Be very judicious about every sentence. Be like Maria Kondo. Ask if this sentence brings you joy. If it doesn’t, remove it. If you’re like most writers, you’ll need to remove a lot of superfluous sentences.
Play a lot with sentence structure here as well. Because each sentence has a greater impact in a short story, there are often ways to structure the sentences in ways that sound more eloquent or leave a greater impact.
Pay careful attention especially to the hook and the end. While we already talked about both the hook and end in previous sections, these are two of the most critical parts of your story so make sure it is impactful. Start with a strong hook and end with a bang and keep iterating on it until you get it right.
You will want to re-read the story out loud a few times before calling it done. Even if you’ve already done a read through, reading it out loud will almost always lead to some small improvements. Do it a few times paying careful attention to the emotions, the sentence structure, the flow, and more.
Some Notes About Writing for Online Audience for Short Stories
The tips above will serve you well with writing short stories for all mediums, but there are some special tips to keep in mind specifically for writing online and in the above short story apps.
Most online short story apps tend to have a younger audience, which does change the dynamic a bit. While teens have a longer attention span than most goldfish, it’s not by much. If you’ve ever seen a teen scroll on apps like Instagram, you know how quickly people are going through stories.
There’s hope though. If you’re posting on an app, most of the people there are looking for short stories to read. There are 2 additional important tips if you want to be successful in sharing short stories online:
- Pay special attention to the title, cover, and description: Most sites will require you to put in a title, blurb, and sometimes a cover image as well. Take advantage of these areas. These are opportunities for you to incite curiosity and that’s how you will draw people in. A title like The Tree might work if your only goal is to submit to a journal or publish an anthology, but it is certainly not as exciting as Who killed grandma?. If you’re scrolling through a feed of stories looking for something to read, you can imagine which will stand out. Same with the cover. If your first page or cover photo looks the same as everybody else’s, you’ll have a harder time standing out. Using stock imagery is fine, but don’t make it look like stock imagery. A cool looking photo will go a long way.
- Your hook better be awesome: Hooks are always important, but they’re especially important when posting online. A half decent hook might get your friend to read your story, but to succeed online, your hook is competing with many other stories for attention. Many readers stop part way into the story if it’s not exciting so keep it interesting!
Have fun with it!
The beauty of the short story is it’s fun. You can enjoy a light-hearted romance. Or a bone-chilling horror story. All in 5 minutes time. I hope you’ll use your new powers and knowledge for good and spread the power of great storytelling.
The real reason we all write is that we love to tell stories. And there’s no better way to do that than with short stories.
If you enjoyed this piece and want to spread the love of storytelling, consider sharing this post on social media and telling a friend about it!