How to Write a Short Story

James Scott Bell

A novelist friend recently asked, What is it that defines a short story? What’s the key to writing one? How is it different from a novel or novella?
My “boys in the basement” have been working on it, and the other day sent up a message. It said, “A short story is about one shattering moment.”
I pondered that for awhile. Could it really be so? What about the different genres? There are literary short stories (e.g., Raymond Carver), but also horror (Stephen King), science fiction (Harlan Ellison), crime (Jeffery Deaver) and the like. They couldn’t all be about one shattering moment, could they?

I decided to have a cheeseburger and forget the whole thing.
But the boys would not let me drop it. And now I think they’re right (as usual). So let’s take it apart.
When I took a writing workshop with one of the recognized masters of the modern short story, Raymond Carver, I found his genius lay in the “telling detail,” a way to illuminate, with a minimalist image or line of dialogue, a shattering emotional moment in the life of a character.
The story we studied in his workshop was “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” A married couple, middle class with two young kids, have a conversation one night. The wife brings up an incident at a party a couple of years before. Slowly, we realize she needs to confess something, needs to be forgiven. She’d slept with another man that night. That is the shattering moment in the story, the husband’s realization of what his wife did.
This happens in the middle. The rest of the story is about the emotional aftermath of that moment. Thus, the structure of the story looks like this:
This is the same structure as Hemingway’s classic, “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this story about a couple conversing at a train station, the shattering emotional moment occurs inside the woman. It’s when she accedes to her boyfriend’s desire that she have an abortion (amazingly, the word abortion is never used in the story). We see what’s happened to her almost entirely via dialogue. In fact, she has a line much like the husband’s in the Carver story. She says, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
We know at the end of both these stories that the characters will never be the same, that life for them has been ineluctably altered. That’s what a shattering moment does.
Structurally, this moment can come at the end of the story. When it works, it’s like an emotional bomb going off. Two literary stories that do this are “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. That structure looks like this:
Now let’s move to the genre short story. Here, the same idea applies. The shattering moment is usually one that is outside (i.e., a plot moment) as opposed to inside (i.e., a character moment). Often, that moment is a “twist” at the end of the story. The most famous example is, no doubt, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”
Jeffery Deaver is a master of this type (see his collections Twistedand More Twisted.) Get your hands on his story “Chapter and Verse” (from More Twisted) to see what I mean.  It’s one of my all-time favorites.
My recent crime short story, “Autumnal,” follows this pattern as well. We think the story is going one way, but at the end it is quite another.
This is also the structure most often used in The Twilight Zone. Think about some of the classic episodes:
“To Serve Man.” Remember the shattering shout at the end? “It’s a cook book!”
“Time Enough at Last.” Always voted the most memorable episode, because of its heartbreaking twist at the end. This is the one where the loner with the thick glasses emerges after nuclear war has killed everyone, but now has time enough at last to read all the books he wants. And then…
“The Eye of the Beholder.” This one blew me away as a kid. It’s the one where the surgeons, in shadows all the way through, are working to save the disfigured face of a patient. One of the all time great twists.
This pattern is just like the one described above for literary short stories, only now it’s a shattering plot twist at the end:

And, you guessed it, you can also do a story with the shattering moment somewhere in the opening pages, and work out the aftermath in the rest of the tale. Lawrence Block’s “A Candle for the Bag Lady” is like that (You can find this story in Block’s collection, Enough Rope). The structure looks like this:

So there you have it. If you want to write a short story, find that moment that is emotionally life-changing, or craftily plot-twisting. Then write everything around that moment. Structurally, it’s simple to understand. But the short story is, in my view, the most difficult form of fiction to master. So why try? Two reasons: First, when it works, it can be one of the most powerful reading experiences there is. And second, with digital self-publishing, there’s an actual market for these works again. The short story form was pretty much dead outside of a few journals. Now, in digital, you can make some Starbucks money with them. That’s what the Force of Habit and Irish Jimmy Gallagher stories have done for me. And when I put together a collection, I expect to make even more.
And nothing will give your writing chops a workout like a short story. Why not make them part of your career plan?

25 thoughts on “How to Write a Short Story

  1. Thank you for this great post on the short story. I’ve struggled to understand how to put together a short story–for some reason the concept of short story has a hard time clicking in my brain. But this helped a lot.

    The examples of short stories is a great help too–gives me ideas on ones to study because I’d like to give it a shot.


  2. I love short stories. Both as a consumer and as a writer. “TO SERVE MAN” still gives me the heebie jeebies when I think about it.

    While I’ve not done a shorts series, I do have over a dozen of them out there and am working on more as well. The focus on the newest ones is to build back story for my characters, that can both help me write my next novel and feed the reader’s hunger for said characters in between full length features.

    Much like my novels, I tend to keep the shorts action packed and keep the POV, as you said above, focused from one character throughout. In a novella I may do the approach from a couple different POVs but in a true short (10k words or less) single POV only.

    If you want a sample my latest short story collection, BLADE OF HEARTS, A Novella and Three Short Stories”, will be free Monday Mar 25 – Friday Mar 29. Book mark it, spread the word, and leave some reviews pretty, pretty pretty pretty please.

    disclaimer: these are not for cozy mystery fans…they’re PG-13 to R for violence…no foul language, very little nudity…but lots of violence

    As a matter of fact…feeling generous and wanting to advertise my skills…any TKZ folks (writers, agents and publishers in particular…but anybody else too) who would like to hear what I can do with a short story in audiobook format, send me an email to the below address during those same days (Mar 25-29) and I will send a link to download the 2+ hour audiobook BLADE OF HEARTS.

    All I ask in return is to leave an honest review on Amazon or Audible (official audiobook version to be released in 6 weeks, so you’re getting a pre-publication promotional copy dudes & dudettes) … unless you think I truly suck…then just send me an email and say “Basil…you suck” and I will get back on the mothership and head back to the rock in space from which I crawled out from under and return to shepherding Slarditbarfast’s interplanetary dweezle-sheep.

    Basil Sands
    basil (at) basilsands (dot) com

  3. Thanks for the tip on e-book stories – years ago I wrote a story targeted for a specific magazine, and by the time I got the story to how I wanted it to be, the magazine no longer accepted fiction.

    And about those Twilight Zone episodes, I can picture each one. Strange how these things lodge in our memory, but I bet it’s the emotional kick that does it.

  4. One of the things I always found the most intresting about short stories was the way Edgar Allen Poe approached them. When I was studying writing I remember learning that he had insisted that a short story should be able to be read in a single sitting so that the entire experience could be ingested in a single emotional state.

    And then he went on to write novellas that no one today has the kind of time to read in a single sitting….

    I had never really thought about the “single shattering moment” as a definition of the short story, though it is a really very fantastic summation of it. I’ve often used the model of being able to answer the question “Why do we care about Character A now? What’s going on to make us want to become observers in her life?”

  5. Great post, Jim. Thanks for the links too. The idea of one shattering moment and where to place it in the story is a great way to look at a powerful and memorable short story. Great tip. Have a good Sunday.

  6. I am a big fan of flash fiction, usually the 100-word variety. All the frills are dispensed with and one moment, one slice, is caught in words.

    I just won an informal flasher contest where you had to murder someone in 200-words or less. My weapon of choice was lime Jello. Not a scrap of setting or description, yet I wrote about her bitter attitude, her bad marriage to a mother-obsessed lout, her fondness for crime documentaries, and a clever poison.

    I keep threatening to do a flash anthology. So, I’ll threaten again. I love love love love short stories and that the net is reviving the art form.


    • Thanks Basil! My bucket-list accomplishment was winning one of agent Janet Reid’s flashers last year. My prize was a pair of thrillers and some serious bragging rights.

      I’m going to check out the audio version of your work. I’ve listened to some of your podcasts and the voice work is great.


  7. Love love love this post. I wrote tons of short stories as a kid not even realizing what they were. I didn’t try writing one again until about 5 years ago. And now I realize why I wrote that story — it was a single “shattering moment” and I knew instinctively it wouldn’t support an entire novel.

    Just recently I have also returned to reading short stories. Started with Cheever’s “Goodbye My Brother.” I was awe-struck then I got to that last paragraph. Sorry but I have to post it here:

    “Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming–Diana and Helen–and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

    After that I couldn’t write for a week. I mean, why bother? πŸ™‚

    Now I am working my way — slowly — through Saunder’s “Tenth of December.” What amazing stuff.

  8. Holy goodness, Batman. Thank you so much for this. Also, I love that you referenced my all-time favorite short story: O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. πŸ™‚

  9. Awesome tips. Short fiction is my love, and the concept of the shattering moment and its place in the story will do much to improve what I’m doing. Thanks!!

  10. “They couldn’t all be about one shattering moment, could they?”

    Interesting. I started my first novel 3 yrs. ago and this is how I planned it. One shattering moment, an upside down ‘V’ Didn’t finish that one

  11. James

    Great post.
    I loved the Deaver collections, and I really like a lot of Stephen King’s short stories – especially his earlier stuff.
    Science fiction author Orson Scott Card also wrote some good shorts in his early career – and has been promoting the form with his own magazine (Intergalactic Medicine SHow) for a while.

    Do you know if any of Carver’s “workshops’ survives in any form? Audio or Book form? I quickly ran a Google search but couldn’t find anything.

  12. I agree with you that, in some ways, the short story is “the most difficult form of fiction to master.” That’s why I started a website dedicated to creating writing exercises based on published short stories. You can find it here:

    Michael Noll

  13. This is great advice, thanks. I have yet to write a short story because the short form seems so much more difficult to write than a full-length novel. If I ever have any spare time, I might give it a try.

  14. Great post. Loved the images.

    I think you’re over-exaggerating the lack of a market for short stories, though. You can’t make a living at it maybe, but it’s certainly possible to make more than Starbucks money, and that’s in edited magazines, without digital self-publishing.

  15. Great post. I’m working on my second short story now and that crystalized how it needs to flow. Thanks. – Ron

  16. I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of the short story, and for now I’m only willing to write novellas just to get some work under my belt. But after reading your post, I must say my respect for short story-writing has grown immensely.

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