How to Write Short Stories Worth Reading

by James Scott Bell

I love rooting around in Project Gutenberg. This amazing site has been digitizing public domain works since 1971! But wait, there was no internet then, so what gives? A visionary, that’s what. A 24-year-old grad student named Michael Hart at the University of Illinois foresaw the coming of a network of computers sharing knowledge. Gaining access to a university mainframe, he started adding digitized literary works in the public domain.

Thus, Hart was the inventor of the ebook. Really.

He spent the rest of his life (he died in 2011) dedicated to his project, which he called Gutenberg. And how did the books get digitized and uploaded? They were hand typed! By Hart himself and a team of volunteers. This work went on for 25 years until the coming of scanning technology. Since that time Gutenberg’s growth has exploded. It now has over 66,000 works in its collection available for free download on any reading device. Among works that have just come into public domain are Winnie-the-Pooh and The Sun Also Rises.

And not just books. Gutenberg is adding pulp magazine stories from the golden age, e.g., science fiction, detective. Also some audiobook versions. I have dozens of Gutenberg books on my Kindle.

I get their daily update and always find some interesting titles to have a look at. The other day it was Modern Essays and Stories: A Book to Awaken Appreciation of Modern Prose, and to Develop Ability and Originality in Writing by Frederick Houk Law, Ph.D., published in 1922.

Dipping inside, I came across the entry on what makes a good short story.

Brevity is the first essential of a short story, and yet under the term, “brief,” may be included a story that is told in one or two paragraphs, and a story that is told in many pages. A story that is so long that it cannot be read easily at a single sitting is not a short story.

That’s a good definition, as it includes what we now call flash fiction, and draws the line before crossing over into the novelette and novella range.

So what does a good short story do?

To make one strong impression on the mind of the reader, and to make that impression so powerfully that it will leave the reader pleased, convinced and emotionally moved is the principal aim of a good short story. To the production of that one effect everything in the story—characters, action, description, and exposition—points with the definiteness of an established purpose. All else is omitted, and thus all the parts of the story are both necessary and harmonious. Centralizing everything on the production of one effect makes every short story complete in itself. The purpose having been accomplished there is nothing more to be said. The end is the end.

Well now! If I may modestly mention my own book on the subject, How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career, this affirms the “secret” I found by analyzing thousands of short stories. I call it “one shattering moment.”

What that moment is depends on the type of story you write. If it’s a crime or mystery story with a “twist,” that’s one kind of moment, and usually comes at the end (see Elaine’s post on that subject here).

Another type of story is the one that lays you flat with an emotional punch. Here the shattering moment may happen in the middle, as it often does in a Raymond Carver story. The emotional shattering can come at the end, as in Irwin Shaw’s classic “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.”

Keeping one shattering moment in mind gives you all the direction you’ll need to write a short story worth reading. Just add your own stamp and creativity.

A good short story can be a gateway for readers to discover you and your full-length books. So where can you publish? There are established venues, like Alfred Hitchcock and Analog. These can be hard to crack and take a long time to hear from.

Some authors, like yours truly, use Patreon. (Hey, can I urge you to give it a try? No obligation, and I’d love to hear what you think!)

Many more use sites like Wattpad, Medium, and Comaful. Heck, you can start your own blog just for short stories.

Or why not go right to Kindle? Publish it in Kindle Select, price it at 99¢, and run a free promo every 90 days. Make sure you have links to your website and books in the back matter.

And if you can find a real bookstore with a window, you can sit there and type a story on the spot, like Harlan Ellison used to do. Ha!

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Short stories and flash fiction are good ways to keep your creative muscles juiced, and offer a nice respite from full-length fiction. And if you can give readers that shattering moment, they’ll come looking for your other work!


BONUS: For you craft fans, I’m participating in a great StoryBundle of writing books. Check out how you can get them all at Write for the Win.

37 thoughts on “How to Write Short Stories Worth Reading

  1. Good morning, Jim. Thanks for this piece. It’s a great example of the elements you set forth for a good short story. It’s a keeper.

  2. Not a believer in coincidences (having been raised Presbyterian, you know), this morning’s post follows an e-letter with a link to writing advice from Ray Bradbury (and I KNOW your thoughts and opinions – and, dare I say admiration? – for him)… that speaks to short stories (among other things, but one of the main things for which he was known…)

    “The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or at the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful.”

    “[Read as many short stories from the turn of the century as you can, but] stay away from most modern anthologies of short stories, because they’re slices of life. They don’t go anywhere, they don’t have any metaphor.”

    “The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour. …If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.”

    For this, and more, the link is:

  3. While I prefer reading novel length work, I do love it when you come across a short story that really hits you with that ‘one shattering moment’. That satisfying emotional burst that mentally feeds you when you’re finished.

    Toughest part is staying on track to that one shattering moment when writing short fiction. I haven’t had time to do the needed research, but for a few years I’ve had in mind to do a handful of short stories about different people surrounding one particular incident in time and how it affected characters differently. The advice from this post will help me keep putting myself back on track when I start going down too many rabbit holes with story ideas.

    • BK, I love that idea. It has the potential for becoming a memorable novel. See Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and John D. MacDonald’s Cry Hard, Cry Fast.

  4. If I may, I’ve had a similar idea – sort of short-story-cycle that begins with one character that leads into another character’ story, that flows…. eventually coming back around to the original character…

    And not to throttle Bradbury’s ghost, his collection of short stories entitled THE ILLUSTRATED MAN does something somewhat similar…

  5. Great post, Jim. Thanks for the background on Project Gutenberg. I’ve downloaded quite a few of the classics. I didn’t know they had pulp magazines. I want to check them out.

    I found How to Write Short Stories… very helpful, and would recommend that to everybody. And – a call to action for everyone reading this morning – You don’t want to miss out on Patreon. The ongoing serial of Bill Armbrewster is just getting started. Don’t miss the train. It’s going to be a wild ride.

    One other plus for short stories: They are a good opportunity to add some awards to your C.V. Look for anthologies that will be published with the winners of a short story competition.

    Thanks for all the info this morning. Have a great day!

  6. For reading, I enjoy short stories. Writing them has been a struggle. I’ve managed a handful, but the short stories I’ve tried recently have turned into novellas, and the novellas into novels. On the flip side, my novels have gone from 110K to about 85-90K. Getting there?

  7. Short stories were my fiction-writing boot camp–one a week as Bradbury suggested. In the late ’80s and early 90s, the big cahunas like The New Yorker, Atlantic, Redbook, etc. all featured shorts, along with lots of “little magazines.” .

    Shorts were the perfect length to read while in doctors’ waiting rooms.

    Sadly, they grew rare as print mags went out of business. I’m glad to see today’s resurgence.

    Jim, I’ve really enjoyed your Patreon shorts with their ironic twists at the end. Now, I’m following Wild Bill’s adventures. Next installment, please 😉

  8. Good morning, Jim. Great post on short fiction. As someone who started out submitting to F&SF, Amazing Stories and Omni back in the 1980s (no success then), I love this digital age. The print magazines are still there, but they receive a great many submissions and can be very tough to get into. Now, we have a raft of digital magazines, especially in “speculative fiction” (SF/Fantasy/Horror). I made a number of flash fiction sales in a few years back to smaller digital markets.

    But, as this piece points out, the opportunities are more widespread with that, with the routes you laid out: Patreon, Wattpad, Medium, etc., plus your own blog, newsletter (I’ve shared flash several times with mine) and of course, the digital retailers. While I’m wide with my novels, I can certainly see the possibilities with Kindle Unlimited.

    And of course we can always bundle up our short stories and sell them as collections, too 🙂

    For someone who spent years trying to “break into” a handful of print magazines, the varied opportunities to reach readers today with short fiction is breath-taking.

    Have a wonderful Sunday!

    • Those days are called “paying your dues.” So many great writers back then had stacks of rejection letters before breaking in. The gatekeepers were well armed. They still are, but at fewer gates, and we have wide indie world before us.

  9. I started out writing short stories and that’s probably why my writing is lean–every word has to have a purpose and move the story forward.

    I have a bite-bit story on my web page that Woman’s World bought —

    I highly recommend JSB’s Patreon page. But being the impatient person I am, I’m not happy with where you leave me each time. But it’s not long before another story come ins and I drop everything to read it. Thanks for such an entertaining story!

    • Thanks for that, Patricia. To hear that you “drop everything to read” is high praise indeed. Also, thanks for the “biter-bit” story. It’s a great genre!

  10. Superb advice regarding the short form, Jim. I used to write a lot of flash fiction/micro-fiction (stories under 1K words) to test out a new character, situation, or moment, but I’d gotten away from it. Why, I have no idea. So, while outlining my 2022 business plan, following your advice in that fabulous book, I included writing Kindle Select titles on the to-do list.

    • That’s a good reminder, Sue. A flash or short can really put skin on a character. I don’t like doing plain bios for characters. This is a better way. You can imagine a tense scene and see what the character does in it.

  11. Perfect timing. As I spend time pondering the path forward in my novel-writing journey, I’ve been reading John D. McDonald’s “The Good Old Stuff” and thinking I should pen some short stories to keep the little gray cells from getting rusty until I decide which long road to take.

    Like George, I’m not a believer in coincidence (although I wasn’t raised Presbyterian), so I’m filing this post under “Providence” and pulling out your book “How to Write Short Stories…”.

    This should be fun. Thanks!

  12. Since I’m a promo hog (!), that is, always trying to figure out a way to get my books out there–and usually coming up lame-o–I love your idea to get those short stories written and published on Kindle Select. Aside from the editing time, and beta reading, publishing puts us in the eye of readers more quickly than waiting on magazines and maybe puts a couple bucks in the pocket. Thanks, Mr. Bell.

    • You are quite welcome, Nancy. When the Kindle revolution took off many thought it would be the renaissance of short stories. Turns out they don’t sell that well as stand alone ebooks, but their use in promotion is helpful.

  13. Great stuff, Jim! And I echo the high praise for your Patreon offerings. Highly instructive and enjoyable.

    I’m discovering the joy writing short stories with Storymatic. I love grabbing an hour or two and flailing away at the keys fast and furious, with the deadbolt locked against that evil editor inside.

    I still hear her grumbling outside the door, though, trying to convince me if I let her in she’ll behave. Right! ?

    Awesome Sunday to all…

  14. Thank you for the great post and all the links. Gutenberg is quite wonderful. I appreciated your Short Stories and need to read it again. I’m another one who has been inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing which led to my own personal challenge of writing short stories as well as reading short stories, essays, and poems to feed my muse. I discovered flash nonfiction and fiction a few years ago through Dinty Moore’s field guides to flash nonfiction. Wonderful resource and the exercises are tantamount to opening up a vein and letting it all out on the page – that emotional punch in miniature. The fiction pieces helped with creating scenes for larger stories. I didn’t know about your Patreon, I’ll have to check it out. Thanks again and have a great week!

  15. I awoke one night at three, a shattering moment in my head.
    I arose and wrote it, and then returned to bed.
    A night, 2 years later: I blundered into “wounded dove.” What’s this? I wondered. I worked the forgotten story into my novel, where my shattered MC finds closure with his poem:

    Fly away, wounded dove, fly away
    who could catch you
    who could hold you
    when you long only for the sky?
    Do you remember?
    Do you remember a brief encounter,
    a moment of bread and laughter?
    I remember.
    I remember a faint smile
    rising on your face like the dawn
    An angel sang; that stranger, Hope,
    Knocked upon my heart.
    As we parted, something told me,
    ‘You will never see her again.’
    How did I know?
    And now you have flown from the Earth.
    And I remember
    I remember….

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