Short Story Writing


The Short Story Format

A poet mentioned to me that they were interested in writing short fiction. I started listing some things, but it got long, therefore, this is a brief description of what I wanted to say.

The formula for short story writing (the shell outline) is simple. It has fast enthralling action, crisp descriptive phrases, & poignant character development. Space is limited (3-5 pages typed double spaced) so every word literally counts. (Avoid the word “and”, use because, then, additionally,  any substitute words that pushes the story toward the ending. Write toward the end of the story and select words and phrases that say the end, then says the ending over & over.

Foreshadowing is good, but repetition of the theme in different conotations is the point. Poets know how to abbreviate emotion and this is paramount in a short story. If no one is feeling or talking about how they feel, or thinking emotionally in the short story, there is no short story, no tale. Every story has one over all theme: It is about the human condition and the results of humans interacting. (Unless it's sci-fi fantasy and robots are the main characters). Still they repesent humans. It must be so.

All environments are valid:  time, place, temperature, the season, placement of things and people, the room, gestures, habitual mannerisms. The list is only as limited as the imagination. 

A suggestion: Write the end first. "Shocking everyone, the school room blew up destroying all the research and the only prototype for the stolen invention." or "Uncommonly known is that Mariannia was the true daughter of the estate and the Heiress had no blood tie to the Earl at all." Okay, pretty hokey, but you get the idea. The last line of the ss condenses the entire 3-5 pages the way the title summarizes the work.


Next, write to the ending using every literary technique possible - onomatopea, caesura, creative punctuation, every poetic device you know: imagery, adjective clauses following noun clauses (and verb/adverb clauses as well). Hard nouns, strong high impact verbs with cause and effect or transitional connective words. Writers with a strong prose style know how to do this. It takes practice.

I once suggested, suggest mind you, that a poet not use the word "I" to make the poem more objective. I was told to fuck off. So, if any of this sounds like bullshit to you, just remember the "I" story.


Sharp physical description is important. "The paper sailed through the wintry air of the back porch and landed like a paper airplane on the lap of the three year old who turned into a mound of uncontrollable giggles."  Word substitution or extended metaphor, a plain word (paper) turned into a poetic passage, carries the action forward.


Action: The tendency is to be long winded and lose track of the goal. Use action verbs often and move the characters around with purpose and intent. That is a mouthful. The how is in experimenting, Writing, rewriting and rewriting until the setting or action or description conforms to what you imagine in your thoughts. Another mouthful.


I once heard a writer say writing a short story is hard. I said, “No it’s not.” With the formula and the steps to take in your fore-thinking, it can be accomplished quite easily.

Consider your favorite short story – take it apart, lay the pieces out like a puzzle and look at how each passage fits to other passages, paragraphs enhancement of later paragraphs. If you need more help, pick up a book on prosody, but emotional content and the way the reader experiences the prose is mostly the way to go.


Sensitivity (feeling internal and external) and empathy (forming a connection of understanding between the characters) must be present to reach the reader, the audience who stand as witnesses to your tale.

As with any work of literature, start with a large enough idea to uncover the core of the central theme like peeling an onion, layer by layer. If you start writing with the hope of “discovering” a story as you go along, it could take years. Make a plan and follow it – edit later, but do the lay out- know where you are going before you start. It’s easier. Do the w ork, think it through, then begin.


Use every human interaction and characteristic you know. Physical description, mannerisms, voice type, dress, jewelry, shoes, choosing details that help define the character. Ex: She had a small scar on her left wrist from previous attempts to end her life. The bracelet covered her past the way a bandge covers a flesh wounds. (This woman is dangerous and capable of considerable mayhem) based on her description. Her character is inside her description. Ex. He walked like a man heading for trouble. The knife in his belt sheath was double edged, almost as lethal in his hands as the 45 caliber Magnum in his holster. – Who is this guy – a warrior of some sort or a murderer, a hit man. A soldier, special forces. His description tell the reader about his abilities with weapons, his familiarity with them, assuming he has used them often and well.


This is the thought process, the same as in a poem. Start with a skeleton and slowly build it into your character that is needed based on the story line. Ex. The story is about who lost the remote control and the investigation that leads to a hilarious conclusion. "She always let the dimple deepen whenever she was lying. It sank into her cheek next to a smirk frozen mouth like an invisible push pen was using her face for a pin cushion. She knew something. I knew that look."


Practice: Define the theme for an ss. A murder, describe the detective in charge: 1. She was tall. The men in the room had to look up when she spoke. 2. Blond, check, make-up perfect, 3. Her reputation for taking down the Murray Ring in Santa Fe preceeded her, but when she spoke, it was soft and whispy like a little girl. No one was fooled by the youngster sound when she said, “I’ve shot sixteen killers of everything from old men to babies to pregnant women. I’m going to catch this son of a bitch and bring him in alive, but first I’m gonna make him cry.”


Tough guy/gal descriptions should be in your face candid. Practice, practice until you get the right words to do what the text requires of the character.


Description of place: Remember, you don’t have a lot of time so lists help. Ex. The room was small, mostly paint peeled with the wood frame exposed and rotted. The smell said old. The plaster was mostly dust on the ground, the floor long ago eroded and destroyed by rain and heavy winds. It smelled of rot and made the nostrils flare with the need to get out of there as soon as possible. Rat droppings were everywhere.

How much do you want to gross out your reader? If it is a scary tale, then go for it. It is always better to include lots of listed details that you can edit out or expand later. Better overstatement than understatement. Start really big and pare it down later. If you start small i.e., “It was a normal room, nothing remarkable about it.” Then you kill the opportunity to add textures, colors, history, smell (the room or space’s character).


I know, it’s a lot. But it is a place to begin. Something spectacular must happen in the story and be summarized in the last line exceptionally well. Write a list of what will happen and why – limit the number of characters and use general references to crowds or onlookers as a part of the setting. The emotional state of the main character is more central to the story than any other trait. Never lose sight of your main character who is in every scene start to ending – even if it is in a casket in a funeral parlor and the question to start story goes: "Dead in a brass casket. From where I started on Monday, how did I end up here on Saturday?" Title: The Long Weekend.


This is a way to get started, there are tons of material written on how to write a good short telling. I say, stretch the imagination, rev up all your emotional juices, and paint portraits to entertain, enlighten, or scare the reader to tears or to shit and back. Or crack their sides with laughter, if you have a good sense of the hilarious. All that aside, you must first be like that shoe company’s slogan. Just do it.


Lady A





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ReilaMorello's picture

Love This.

Thank you so much for posting this. Incredibly helpful and informative, I can see myself coming back to this.

allets's picture

Just A Few Notes

Thanks for the comment, RM. I never know the reader's opinion of what I offered unless they tell me. I'll keep this up on pp for later reference. I just re-read it and apart from one wrong tense on one word, I think it will serve as a starting place - yours in writing - Lady A