Writing the Winning Short Story

festivallogoOn August 2nd, Laura Foakes and I spearheaded the forthcoming Candy Jar Book Festival at Cardiff Central Library, talking about some of the best ways to write a short story with a view to winning the much coveted spot in a published anthology. Alas, as with these events, not everybody was able to attend and several asked me to share my Top Ten Rules; so here they are…

  1. Inspiration: What inspires you? With a short story it can be something mundane, something small. Something you see, something you hear, or perhaps something you read that makes you wonder ‘where would I have taken that idea?’. Find one central idea, and build your story around it.
  2. Heart of Your Story: Explore your motivations, determine what you want your story to do, then stick to your core message.
  3. Few Characters: You simply will not have room for more than one or two round characters. Find economical ways to characterise your protagonist, and describe minor characters briefly.
  4. Limit the time frame when you write a short story: Though some short-story writers do jump around in time, your story has the biggest chance of success if you limit the time frame as much as possible. It’s unrealistic to cover years of a character’s life in twenty-five pages (even a month might be a challenge). By limiting the time period, you allow more focus on the events that are included in the narrative.
  5. Ever Line Must Count: The short story requires discipline and editing. Every line should either build character or advance the action. If it doesn’t do one of these two things, it has to go. Keep descriptive passages to a minimum; you don’t have time to be expansive. Use description as pointers to help the reader paint their own picture, don’t do it for them.
  6. Perfect first and last line: Hook the reader with the very first line, and leave them with a final line they won’t forget easily.
  7. Cliffhangers: Don’t give a resolution; leave the reader wondering what comes next. End on a major twist.
  8. Experiment: The short story is a great way to play around with style and form; to try something different. Don’t necessarily go from A to B to C, etc. However much you experiment with form, though, remember something has to happen in the story (or at least the reader has to feelas though something has happened). Things like conflict and resolution achieve this effect. Don’t be afraid to blend genres. Remember, there is very little that is original in storytelling these days, but it’s how you blend the elements that can give a sense of originality.
  9. Shorter Is Sweeter: Resist the urge to go on and on. With a shorter short story, you will have more markets available to you and thus a better chance of getting published. When given a word limit for your short story, always aim or the lower end of that limit. Editors will want to fill a book with as many stories as possible, and so will often be looking for the shorter submissions.
  10. Craft A Strong Title: This can be one of the most difficult—but one of the most important—parts of writing your story. How do you find inspiration for a great title? Have friends read your story and note which words or phrases strike them or stand out. These excerpts from your text just might hold the perfect title.
Laura and I giving our advice at Cardiff Central Library
Laura and I giving our advice at Cardiff Central Library


Additional Hints

  • Reworking Old Stories: If you have old short stories, pull them out and dust them down. Look over them again, and see if you can do something new with them.
  • Write Popular Genres: Write short stories featuring the fads that cycle around. Vampires, zombie, werewolves, ghosts, wizards, etc. Write them and put them aside, then when each cycle comes around again you have a short story all set to submit to anthologies.
  • Look at Publisher’s Output: Consider the publisher you’re submitting to. What else do they publish? Target your story to best suit the publisher.
  • Unbiased View/reader (not family or friend): If able, find an unbiased person to read your story and give you an honest view. Despite the best intentions of family and friends, you will not receive an unbiased view. ‘My mother is my worst critic.’ – don’t believe it!
  • Read Out Loud: Read your story out loud, to somebody else or to yourself. If you stumble over sentences then they’ll need rewriting. Reading out loud will also help you see how natural the dialogue is.


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