For a long time now, I've been reading books on how to get the first draft of a novel written. I've finally begun putting the knowledge I've gathered to practice and look forward to the results. In the meantime, I'm interested in trying to write short stories as well, mainly because they require less prep, the first draft will be finished sooner, and I'll have something to practice revising (I'm hoping if I become more familiar with revision it will help me through some of the issues that have demotivated me when it comes to writing novels).

My question is, do I need to know anything to write a short story that I probably wouldn't have picked up in studying to write novels? Does the size difference significantly change the way I should understand issues like characterization, plot, conflict, theme, or anything else? I'd like to avoid buying a book on the subject if I don't have to, since I've fallen into the trap of study-as-procrastination before and what references I've seen seem to go back to the basics I've seen in novel-writing anyway, but I don't want to miss anything important either.

  • Generally speaking, questions asking "How do I deal with problem X?" are much stronger than "What problems might I run into when approaching topic Y?". Particularly since inserting Y's into the latter is so much easier than X's into the former... :P
    – Standback
    Feb 17, 2012 at 11:51
  • 1
    Thank you for your advice. I don't know of a way to edit this question to fit the Problem X model, but I'll keep this in mind when writing future questions.
    – Sheelawolf
    Feb 17, 2012 at 12:43
  • Why aren't you writing, @Sheelawolf? Feb 17, 2012 at 15:57
  • @JohnSmithers, actually, I did get started on a novel. It's going to be a while before its ready for the revision stage, though, and I feel it's important to become more familiar with revision so I'll be better able to push through the first draft. So I'm looking at short stories again while working on the novel.
    – Sheelawolf
    Feb 17, 2012 at 18:07
  • With respect, for a would be author, books on how to write books are kind of like what a medical book about human sexuality might be for a horny teenager. What you need is a skin mag, son, not a technical dissection of writing by people who don't do it themselves. Read novels! Specifically ones you feel a connection with, and that will lead to you writing one much quicker than a "how to" book. Same thing with short stories. Want to write them? Read them, not dry discussions of the genre, unless you want to be an editor, not an author.
    – JBiggs
    Jul 26, 2017 at 16:50

5 Answers 5


I often think of different forms of writing as a continuum along a line of compression. In non-fiction you may have a book-length treatment being the least compressed, an article somewhat more so, etc. In fiction a novel is the least compressed, then a novella, then a short story, then a "short short" such as the 50 word challenge pieces. Those shortest pieces often verge on poetry, layering many meanings and significances into individual words and phrases to get the full message across.

In my experience the biggest and most important skill for a novelist who wants to write a successful short story is to be able to compress your story. Your expression needs to be more compact. You have less time to sketch your characters and make me, the reader, care about them. You may have fewer characters to work with. You have less space for conflict. Your climax typically comes relatively later in the work and your denouement is shorter. Your pacing is often faster, ratcheting up the conflict faster than in a novel but not so fast as to leave the reader feeling frantic.

The world of a short story may be smaller than the world of a novel, but it should be even more richly layered with meaning. That's what makes short stories so wonderful to read.

For great examples, get a few years worth of Best American Short Stories. Not only will you learn from what was deemed by an esteemed author to be the best short stories of each year, you'll have a lot of fun reading some great fiction.

  • 1
    I disagree with the use of the word "compressed" here. The best short stories are based around tales that are the right size to begin with, not around longer tales that have been compacted. Feb 17, 2012 at 18:52
  • @NeilFein - good point. By compressed I don't mean compacting ideas, but rather expressing a lot in a short space. I basically think of all fiction as on a hierarchy from poetic (many layers of meaning in the word choice, imagery, rhyme structure, etc.) to the world-building novels of the Victorian era. Short stories are closer to poetry and further from world-building.
    – justkt
    Feb 17, 2012 at 19:14

I wouldn't say you need to know anything new, but I think you need to know a new side of the old stuff.

Writing short stories is a distinct skill: there are people who are masters at it, and people who are much better with more space. A Gabe says, the basic elements of fiction are the same whether the work is long or short, but the way you use these elements is quite different. Short stories rarely have subplots. They rarely stray from the standard Climax, Rising Action, Climax, Denouement structure. They rarely give much attention to secondary characters. They rarely switch POV. They rarely give a whole lot of back story. The conventional wisdom is that writers have to make every word count even when writing longer fiction; this wisdom is even more important in a short story.

So it's not a whole new skill set, but don't assume that everything you learn from writing short stories will carry over to writing novels, and don't assume everything you've learned about writing novels will be useful when you're writing short stories.

  • A note on the structure: short stories may keep it pretty close to that structure, but the emphasis tends to be way different than in a novel - the denouement is typically a lot shorter (sometimes as short as a paragraph or sentence, or maybe almost non-existent) leaving to a much stronger sense of shock.
    – justkt
    Feb 17, 2012 at 15:41

A good short story has many of the same elements as a good novel. Character development, a strong plot, good descriptions, and realistic dialogue. However, a short story has one thing a novel usually does not: conciseness. A short story has to deliver the same force as a novel, but in a much smaller package. Think of a novel as a 280mm battleship shell. It is large, heavy, and certainly gets the job done when it impacts a target. A short story is more comparable to a 9mm pistol bullet. It is small and lightweight, but delivered well, it can accomplish exactly what is needed. The difference then lies in delivery. Those battleship shells can level a house, but they require massive quantities of energy. A 9mm, nowhere nearly as much. A 9mm requires much focus and precision in order to be effective. A battleship shell, just point it and fire. Now, in relation to novels vs. short stories, a short story requires great focus. That is one thing that is rarely taught by studying novelwriting.

In response to your question, I do not think it is a matter of buying a book, however. It is a matter of practice. Take a novel that you have written or even one that you've read before. Attempt to focus the plot and message of the book into a short story. Evaluate the end result: does it make you feel the message, or was it lost in translation? Rinse and repeat, as they say. Focus on capturing the emotion and message of a piece, over its details and grandeur. Before long, you will be an expert short story writer. :)


A short story is the same as a novel, except you leave out the first 450 pages. You just write the end. It’s not a short novel, it’s the shortest possible story.

There is no better way to learn how to write short stories than just to read a ton of short stories.


You would not want the reader to think you wrote a short story from what you picked up in studying to write novels, do you?

The two are different genres and for a reader, each has a different sense of appeal.

You do have to think afresh and approach your writing from a different perspective.

  • 1
    Why ahouldn't readers thing I'm using novel skills to write short stories? Any time I skim books or websites on the subject, I find the advice tends to run along the exact same lines I've read for novels in terms of characterization, plot structure, ect.
    – Sheelawolf
    Feb 18, 2012 at 13:03
  • 1
    I'm afraid this doesn't answer the question. You don't say what OP should know, or what is different between the two formats. You just say that there is a difference, which is not particularly helpful.
    – Standback
    Feb 23, 2012 at 13:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.