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.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Light BulbAuthors who’ve been around awhile, and have more than a few books out there, are often asked two questions.

The first is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I like how Harlan Ellison used to answer that: “There’s a swell idea service in Schenectady. Every week I send them twenty-five bucks, and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”

Every now and then someone would ask him for the address of the service, and Harlan would do to that person what Harlan always used to do all such folks, i.e., not suffer them.

The other question we’re asked is, “Which book is your favorite?”

The answer is complicated. There are books we love because we worked so hard on them. Others because they were so much fun to write. And still others because they helped pay the mortgage.

But when I am asked about a series, I pause a moment, then name my legal thrillers featuring Ty Buchanan. They originally came out in beautiful hardcover editions, then trade paper.

As Seinfeld would say, yadda yadda yadda, I am pleased to report that I’m now releasing all three books in new digital editions. And to celebrate, I’m pricing each one at $2.99 for this kickoff period.


Allow me to tell you how I got the idea for the series, and indeed for each book. It started with my regularly scheduled “creativity time.”

Back when newspapers existed, I would read either the L.A. Times or the L.A. Daily News, and one legal newspaper, the L.A. Daily Journal. I’d scan for interesting stories or legal issues, and clip them and throw them into a box. Every now and then I’d go through that box, seeing if the ideas still interested me.

One item kept vying for my attention. It was a tragic story about an L.A. man who shot his young wife to death, then drove to a freeway overpass, got out, shot himself, and fell 100 feet to the freeway below. He crushed a Toyota, killing the driver. How bizarre is that?

So one day I wrote this up as an opening scene. When I got to the part about the woman being killed, I made up a character: Jacqueline Dwyer, a twenty-seven-year old elementary school teacher.

And then I paused, switched to a First Person POV voice, and wrote:

This would have been simply another dark and strange coincidence, the sort of thing that shows up for a two-minute report on the local news—with live remote from the scene—and maybe gets a follow-up the next day. Eventually the story would go away, fading from the city’s collective memory.

But the story did not go away. Not for me. Because Jacqueline Dwyer was the woman I was going to marry.

Who was narrating? That’s how Tyler Buchanan was born. I made him an up-and-coming, hotshot lawyer with everything going his way, until this. And especially after a shady guy finds him and tells him Jacqueline was still alive after the crash … and someone murdered her.

That book became Try Dying.

Book #2, Try Darkness, was based on a story I clipped from the legal paper. It was about illegal evictions from downtown transient hotels. There was a trick landlords were using to get around the law, so I made one of fhs evicted a mother with a six-year-old daughter, who comes to Ty for help. And then she turns up dead, and the plot, as they say, thickens.

The last book in the trilogy is Try Fear. Again, this came out of a real story I clipped. One Christmas season the LAPD stopped a very large man on suspicion of driving under the influence. He was about 6’5”, 280 pounds. He was also wearing nothing but a Santa hat and a G-string.

I found myself thinking, This has to be Ty’s next client. So that’s how Try Fear begins.

The reviews were kind. Please allow me to toot two small horns:

“Engaging whodunit series … Readers will enjoy Bell’s talent for description and character development.” –– Publishers Weekly

“The tale equally balances action and drama, motion and emotion. Readers who pride themselves on figuring out the answers before an author reveals them are in for a surprise, too. Bell is very good at keeping secrets. Fans of thrillers with lawyers as their central characters—John Lescroart and Phillip Margolin, especially—will welcome this new addition to their must-read lists.” — Booklist

I’ve been asked many times if I might add another book to this series. I’ve considered it, but I also think the series ends in exactly the right spot, with exactly the right scene, and indeed, even the right line. I am hesitant to mess with that. But if you do decide to read all three books, I would love to hear what you think I should do!

The books are on Kindle and Nook, and soon will be on Kobo and in print. If you want to know when, you can subscribe to my email alerts and I’ll be sure to let you know.


Try Dying – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #1

Try Darkness – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #2

Try Fear – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #3


Try Dying – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #1

Try Darkness – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #2

Try Fear – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #3

Now we turn to you, TKZers. What is your favorite way to get ideas? And have you ever been to Schenectady?