6 Top Tips To Write A Kick-Ass Short Story


In a previous post, we discussed the scope of your short story. You can make it big or small, but this week I want to talk about ‘small stories’. Sometimes we read what seems to be a simple short story, and then it swallows us whole.

How do they do that?

They write small. This is, of course, one way of doing it. There are writers who excel at short stories with a larger scope, but my favourites are the captured moments.

Or as William Blake put it, “to see the world in a grain of sand.” That quote, to me, captures the essence of what a short story is, but how do I squish a whole world into a short story?

The answer is found in another quote from Richard Price:

I love this quote. I‘ve used it before and it tells you exactly what you should do with a short story.

We want to engage a reader’s emotions. It is harder to do when we write a bigger story, as in a short story with a bigger scope. Remember, I am talking about short stories. In a novel, you have 80 000 words to engage my emotions.

To write small, you must zoom in on the story. Narrow your focus so that you have just one incident. I am going to use my story from last month as an example. (You can read it here.)

Six Top Tips To Write A Kick-Ass Short Story

  1. Create a character. Just one, then figure out what is going on. You fill in the rest when you know. Example: I have woman who is attacked by her husband. He is a soldier. They also have two kids.
  2. Give them a goal. Your character needs to do something. Example: She wants her husband to get help. The conflict is present in the attack, and also in his unwillingness to contact the relevant people for fear of losing his clearance.
  3. Add sensory detail. Senses are what help us relate to our surroundings and helps the reader relate to our story. Example: We’ve all sat on cold bathroom floors with bobbly bathmats. We’ve all grabbed hold of a shower curtain. We’ve all touched sweat-soaked clothing and heard tin clink on tiles. These are all sights and sounds we are familiar with. I am using your sensory memory to paint a picture. I also made the first sentence very long, I wanted you gasping for breath, just like my character. I am using your senses to tell my story.
  4. Find your theme. What is behind your story? What are you really writing about? Sometimes I know this before I know how I am going to tell the story. I have been wanting to write about PTSD for a while now. Our prompt was Going Home. The two seemed to match. I wanted an unhappy homecoming. ‘Daddy’s home’ are happy words in our house. I wanted to turn that around. It was my ‘burnt sock’.
  5. Symbolism is a brilliant tool to use. It does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. It is also a great tool for ‘show, don’t tell’. I used the American anthem to drive home my point. Good intentions, ending badly. The song conveyed patriotism and hope in a way I couldn’t. The fact that it is incredibly well known helped a lot.
  6. One scene. Reduce your setting to only one. This scene starts and ends in a bedroom with an en suite bathroom. By limiting your setting, you are reducing the amount of description you need. The bathroom was my primary focus. A space we are all familiar with. It is also a sanctuary for many people.

Can you find these six points in your own stories?  Try using them for your next story.

Happy Short Story Writing.

If you want to learn how to write a short story, join us for Short Cuts. If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.