Many writers, myself included, tend to devalue short stories because of their brevity. “Real” writers are supposed to craft novels. Some of the most famous authors of the twentieth century, however, were masters of the short story. Think William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor, and O. Henry.
At only 5 or 10 percent the length of a novel, a short story may seem far less intimidating, if not downright easy, to write. But short stories come with their own set of challenges that can help hone your skills for larger projects. Whether you’re a seasoned writer or a total beginner, here are three reasons you should try writing a short story.
1. You’ll Learn to Make Every Word Count
Short stories impose strict limits because they’re so compact: 1,000 to 7,500 words. Those perimeters force writers to evaluate and choose every word for maximum effect. No room for fluff or rabbit trails. You receive an object lesson in tight, deliberate writing.
“The Last Night of the World” by Ray Bradbury opens with a gut punch: “What would you do if you knew that this was the last night of the world?” Within a few lines of dialogue between a husband and wife, Bradbury convinces his audience that the world will end before morning because all his characters had a premonition. His first sentence haunts readers throughout the story, leaving them wondering how they would react.
This demonstrates how a short story can pack a single powerful message into an accessible medium. The idea that “less is more” is entirely true. Rather than hampering creativity, restrictions foster it. Throwing more words at plot holes, eye-rolling clichés, and tired tropes isn’t an option in a short story, which causes those problems to stand out. Don’t be afraid to confine yourself to a specific word count. Just identify what you’re hoping to communicate in advance so you can ensure that every detail has a purpose.
2. You’ll Gain a Better Grasp of Story Structure
Story structure shapes the plot into a cohesive and satisfying whole. While it’s easy to understand conceptually, hitting all the right points requires extensive practice. Life is short, and novels are long. The short story isn’t. Not only does it compress structure into a manageable form, it also simplifies the plot and shrinks the cast of characters.
“The Whirligig of Life” by O. Henry is about a Tennessee couple attempting to get divorced. In less than 2,000 words, Henry sets the stage (the mountains), introduces all the main characters (the justice of the peace and the couple), and raises the question of whether these two poor souls, who don’t actually want to be separated, will stay married. He also weaves in a tiny subplot for the justice of the peace and a five-dollar bill. It’s concise and straightforward.
As you study what makes a short story solid, map out a simple plot that follows the traditional framework of inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. This will allow you to concentrate on moving each scene through the dance and buildup of an engaging story.
3. You’ll Understand How to Tie Plot and Characters Together
What happens in a short story matters a lot less than how it impacts the characters. Novels that are bursting with conflict sometimes have plots that don’t affect the protagonist, but the issue may be hard to detect due to the magnitude of the work. Effective short stories, however, must immediately capture the audience with a compelling character, then show how everything influences her growth throughout the plot. Because of the small size, you can quickly see whether you’ve succeeded or failed at that goal.
The grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a perfect example of a strong character who defines why the story’s progression is important. Without her, the climax (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it) would be nothing except another tragedy in a long series of disasters that occur every day on planet Earth. But because Flannery O’Connor revolved the plot around the grandmother, the climax is almost unbearable.
Characters are the core of any story, regardless of the length, but short stories narrow the focus even more so that little else can intrude. If writers don’t instantly create a connection between readers, the characters, and the plot, the story’s events will become meaningless and confusing.
When beginning a short story, decide what journey your protagonist will take and construct your plot according to her character arc, whether it’s positive or negative. You’ll discover that every moment can have huge significance when centered around character change.
Small but Mighty
The writing world has many more channels to explore than just full-length novels, and I hope this article has convinced you that short story writing has merits. When you put yourself under pressure and test your skills in a new arena, you’ll grow. If you stretch your creativity with a short story, you won’t regret it. When you’re finished, you’ll have a story to shelve for another time or to give to others to enjoy. Either way, as an author, you win.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 21, 2020. Updated May 22, 2023.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.