How to Write a Great Short Story

In the last year, I’ve read about 500 short stories, most of them while judging the Show Off writing contest for my website, In that time, I’ve learned some interesting things about the form and what makes a good story.

How to Write a Great Short Story

Here are a three tidbits of advice for you short story writers:

1. A Few Moments

Robert McKee says the challenge of the writer is to “show a lifetime in a few moments,” and in no other form is that more true than in a short story. You only have a handful of moments to tell the whole story, so you’d better pick those moments wisely.

The stories that won the Show Off writing contest succeeded in that, but many of the writers whose stories weren’t chosen fell into the fatal trap telling instead of showing. Instead of showing the reader a scene in time, with description, dialogue, and action, these writers summarized what happened with expository narrative.

In other words, the writers who won told a story, while many of the writers who didn’t gave a lot of information.

Instead, choose your moments wisely, and show them clearly with action, dialogue, and description.

2. A Character Who Changes

One of the things I would always say to my fellow judges is, “Does the main character in this story change? Is he different at the end of it?”

Stories, for better worse, are intrinsically moralistic. The protagonist must learn something by the end of it, something must happen to her, otherwise it’s a waste of the reader’s (and the writer’s!) time.

Does your protagonist change? Do you clearly show that change? If not, how can you introduce some kind of conflict to help your protagonist along?

3. Be Realistic

I’m not a particularly realistic writer. I once wrote a story about a boy who kills a mountain lion with his bare hands. As we judged the contest, I would often shortlist stories with elements that seemed perfectly plausible to me. However, inevitably, one of our judges would say, “Would that character really do that? Is that realistic?”

One judge in particular was good at finding the flaws in logic in stories. A trauma nurse for over 20 years, she easily found places where the writer fudged the truth to make their story work. And she was always right. We disqualified dozens of stories because they weren’t realistic.

As you edit your stories, perform a realism audit:

  • Read through your dialogue aloud. After each line, ask yourself, “Would this character really say that? Is that true to who he or she is?”
  • Look at each action made by a character, and ask, “Would this character really do that? Is that true to who he or she is?
  • Look at the more spectacular events in your story. Are you taking things too far in order to create false drama? Remember what John Steinback said, “I never exaggerate. I just remember big.”

As you edit (though not as you write), be skeptical about your stories. Those who are reading your work will be.

Let's Write a Short Story!If you want to learn to write and publish short stories, check out Let’s Write a Short Story, an Amazon bestselling book, now available in print and on Kindle. You can get your copy here.

About Joe Bunting

Joe is a ghostwriter, editor, and author. He writes and edits books that change lives. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

29 Replies

  1. Megan

    i think im a good short story writer.

    1. joe bunting

      Awesome Megan. Congrats!

  2. Chung

    Really great tips, will be sure to follow these! Thanks Joe

    1. joe bunting

      You bet Chung. Appreciate your comment.

  3. jp

    I can’t write an interesting story.

  4. John Bastian

    I think I am struggling with my short story

    1. joe bunting

      Sorry to hear that, John. How can we help?

    2. It’s really great that people are sharing this information.

  5. madani

    I have many short stories but they’re written in French. I write in Voltaire’s language. If you master French I would be pleased to send you one.

    1. Tim

      Je parle (et lis) le français. Je serais ravi de lire vos histoires.

  6. Lola jenson

    Im writing a short story need some help with descriptions , although this really helped

  7. shelby

    these are really great tips i write daily and i think im going to send one to my cousins publisher

  8. Bernadette

    So, Reading this week’s NY’er 8/29/16 story,”Gender Studies”, and analyzing it: I can truly find what the main character wanted on the surface: to find her license, which she did. It is about a Moment. But I’m still trying to Understand how she changes, except that she has an experience with a new man for the first time in 11? years. It is a cool story for sure, still in my mind a day later, and I’m going back to analyze again… . Thx for reading.

  9. Atakan

    Dude this is LIT thx for teaching me how to write a good story.

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  11. ***********

    I am writing a 500 word story opening, could you give me any pointers on how to do it and make it good? Xx

  12. Yonah Nyawir.

    First I am grateful for your advice. I am working on a short story about 2800 words. Can you offer to critize my story and probably give the way forward if you may spare me some of your time. Thanks.

  13. Christine

    Hey Joe, thanks so much for this post. Really needed it. I am trying to write a short story for a contest, but it requires 1,600 words and below and I’m struggling to keep it within those guidelines. Haha!

    1. yooooooooo

      dudeeeeeeeeeeeeee that’s hard

    2. Rhonda Bell

      just saw this too, oh my! i am a professor and am trying to find ways to help my students with their short stories 🙂

    3. Melanie

      Once the word limit was 1,000!

  14. Aria

    Thanks a lot Joe! I’m gonna start right away!

  15. Thanks Joe but wouldn’t using these plots be copyright infringement

  16. CJ

    You helped me com up with my own thanks.
    But do you know any editors that i dont have to pay.
    see, Im 15 and my parents wont support this

  17. Immanuel

    Thanks Joe.. Your advice really help…. Let me jump on one short story right away..

  18. Thanks Joe! New here and subscribing today!

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