How To Write A Short Story That Will Keep Readers Hooked

Not every compelling tale needs 400 pages and multiple chapters. Short stories can be just as gripping, interesting, and downright moving as their longer counterparts.

Sure, the length is drastically different. Novels are usually between 50,000 and 10,000 words, while short stories clock in fewer than 7,000. Because they’re short on word count, shorter stories tend to have fewer characters and more simplified plotlines than novels that can afford to branch out into multiple tangents. But both styles share the same narrative prose, central themes, and need for conflict.

The brevity alone makes short stories a great way to challenge yourself and flex your writing muscles. In a few thousand words, you’ll need to build believable characters, craft an intriguing plot line, and deliver hard-hitting conclusions in half the time of a novel. And if the idea of penning an entire book seems overwhelming, it’s a great way to dip your toes into the world of fiction writing.

So how do you create an interesting, engaging short story that readers won’t be able to put down? Here are some tips.

Start Off Strong

There’s no time to waste when you’re writing a short story—every sentence counts. And there’s no place this is truer than in the opening line. No matter what genre or trope you’re exploring, you need to immediately place the reader in the center of the action. That means you need to get to the conflict ASAP.

Whatever your protagonist is battling, make it clear from the get-go. Don’t give it all away, but pique the reader’s interest. This is not the time for long, drawn-out descriptions of the setting. Keep it punchy and fast-paced like these examples:

  • “Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” (The Outsider by Albert Camus)
  • “Dear Anyone Who Finds This, Do not blame the drugs.” (Cruddy by Lynda Barry)
  • “Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.” (Big Machine by Victor LaVelle)

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, writers should aim to start their stories “as close to the end as possible.” In his famously rejected master’s thesis, he says that there are common, repeatable shapes to every main character’s tale—and understanding the flow of the ups and downs can create more captivating plotlines. You can learn more about his theories here.

Keep Building Tension 

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Again—there’s no time to waste. Every scene should continue to escalate the story and get the reader one step closer to the inevitable conclusion. They should flow along a cause-and-effect trajectory (like Pixar’s famous 22 rules for storytelling) that will keep the reader invested and wanting more.

A great framework to use for tension-building is Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient. In his book Characters and Viewpoint, he claims that there are four factors that can be found in every story:

  • Milieu: How the world surrounding the characters affects the plot
  • Idea: How information the reader learns affects the plot
  • Character: How the nature of at least one of the characters affects the plot
  • Event: How events, both big and small, affect the plot

Learning how to balance all of these factors can create a story that not only keeps the reader’s attention but also progresses smoothly from one scene to the next. For more on using the MICE quotient, check out this blog post and this episode from the Writing Excuses podcast.

Throw Out the Backstory

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In novels, you can dedicate entire chapters to peeling back the layers of a character’s psyche. But in short stories, that kind of exposition can take away from the central arc.

Instead, embrace Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory and let the reader fill in some of the blanks. Just give enough information to hint at what’s not written on the page. Probably the most famous example of this (which is attributed to Hemmingway but not verified that it came from him) is this six-word story:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Subtext can be great for giving your story depth without adding unnecessary words. By leaving certain details up to the reader’s interpretation, you can create a richer, more nuanced tale that keeps readers guessing until the very last line.

Don’t Write Off the Ending

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It goes without saying that how you end your short story is just as important as how you start it. Don’t leave your reader hanging off a cliff—they should feel a sense of resolution and closure. That doesn’t mean the ending has to be happy, but it should be satisfying.

Remember to revert your focus back to your characters and think about what kind of transformation they’ve gone through, even if it’s an internal one. As you wrap up the plotline, ask yourself:

  • How have the central characters changed?
  • What new knowledge have they uncovered?
  • How has the conflict been resolved—or not?

Once the dust has settled, your ending should make readers feel like they’ve gone on a journey and come out the other side.

Edit, Edit, Edit

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As with any piece of writing, your first draft is never your last. Allow yourself to write freely, then go back and trim the fat. Short stories are all about cutting down unnecessary details or scenes that don’t further your plot—so look at everything with a fine-toothed comb. 

Unlike with a novel, you don’t have the luxury of multiple chapters to build up your storyline. Every word needs to carry the plot forward. Read each sentence aloud and ask yourself, “Do I need this?” If not, take it out and move on.

The editing process will be different for everyone, but taking your time molding and reworking your story is essential to creating an engaging, captivating piece.

Need a Short Story Editor?

But of course, you don’t have to go through the arduous editing process alone. If you need help perfecting your piece, why not enlist the help of a professional editor? A trained eye can spot plot holes, find ways to increase the tension, and make sure the story flows naturally from start to finish.

Click here to learn more about our editorial services at PDHines.

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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