20 Tips For Writing a Captivating Short Story (Part 1)



by Mindy Halleck

Today, as I edit, trim, cut, and otherwise obliterate a short story I wrote that ended up to be 8,000 words, but needs to be 5,000 words, I am reminded of this quote:

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” -Henry David Thoreau

Wise man.

I thought I’d share some editing tips this morning, not so much for you as for me. I’m sure you can relate to loving the creative process and wanting to bang your head on the desk in the editing process. This is where the skill of craft comes in, and this morning I have more doubt than skill. Arg!

I will share these tips in three concurring post over the next two weeks. Five tips per post to give you reminders or some tips on getting started [Now condensed to 2 posts].

Anyway . . . drum roll . . . .

Writing short stories is a great way to investigate diverse genres, characters, settings, and voices. Something I tend to have a lot of (in my head—you know, the voices) and I enjoy exercising them in shorts. You know I mean ‘short stories’, right? I also tend to write in multiple points of view so short stories are where I play with voice.

Here are some editing tips that hopefully will keep you from banging your head on the editing desk.

  1. Watch your word count. Obviously I would start here. Short stories are normally 500 to 7,500 words long, maybe 10,000 with some presses. If you want to submit to a magazine or contest, study their guidelines as to length.
  2. Craft a VOICE for your story by first understanding your character(s). I’ve gone as far as shopping in Pike Place Market as one of my characters, then sitting down in the café (she would have chosen) and writing in her  I wrote about her grief as a widow, her fear as an immigrant alone in a new country, and so on. I got to know her. Then I created a story in her voice. This is where you really need to let creativity flow.
  3. Create a complex, magnetic character. Your protagonist should be multi-dimensional and sympathetic, so readers can connect with her/him right away. As well as outer conflict add an inner conflict and vulnerability, so readers can care straightaway. Remember, readers need to care about characters before they will start caring what happens to them.
  4. Disrupt your character’s world. DO NOT start your story with a character alone, just waking, looking in a mirror, musing, thinking, obsessing, in other words, get outside of your character and be active.
  5. Design a main story quest or question and a tight plot or storyline. Create a central conflict, and other lesser conflicts/problems, with tension throughout. Give your character a significant goal that is thwarted. Remember, no conflict = no story. Conflict can be internal or external, or both, and can be against situations, people or nature. If nothing is happening, there is no reader fulfillment. Your protagonist must be someone the readers care about. He/She has to meet with a demanding challenge, and some form of resolution by the end; happy or sad doesn’t matter.
  6. Create arresting secondary characters. Give each one a unique personality, with secrets, hopes, actions, fears and quirks. Maintain a distinction between supportive characters and the protagonist.
  7. Keep it tight. A short story is a ‘slice-of-life’, not the entire pizza. It’s best to limit it to one significant character plus a few secondary characters, one physical location, and a specific, tight time-frame, like weeks, days, hours, or tauter yet, minutes.
  8. Experiment! Take risks! Short stories can be edgier, darker, or more extreme because they’re short, and readers can endure something a little more risky for a limited time.
  9. Enter contests! Make characters and stories distinctive and unforgettable. Try to surprise the readers somehow, with a unique, magnetic, even peculiar or weird character, and/or a unexpected topic or plot-twist.
  10. Start out on fire! Begin with a disturbance and tension in the first few sentences. There’s no room in a short story for a long, twisting approach to the story problem. There’s also no room for a lengthy overview of the setting or the characters and their backstories. Jump right in with the protagonist’s life being turn topsy-turvy in some way.

Check out part 2 for the rest of the tips!



Mindy Halleck is an award winning author who lives in the Pacific Northwest. In 2015 her short story, A MOTHER’S CONFESSION won first place in the Writer’s Digest Fiction Writing Contest, and another of her short stories, THE FRENCHMAN, won first place in the Edmond’s EPIC Fiction Writing Contest. Check out her blog for more of her articles.

25 thoughts on “20 Tips For Writing a Captivating Short Story (Part 1)

  1. Hi
    Love your posts! As a newbie writer, I read everything that I can to get more ideas. I have one problem! What program do you use to keep track of submissions? I tried one out and it is so un-user friendly that I am thinking of going back to just posting them on my computer under file explorer.


  2. I like what the book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular has to say about short fiction’s characters. Although stereotypes are still not allowed, flat characters are. As little room as there is in a short story, people don’t expect well-rounded characters with complex motives–not that trying to write one would be a good idea in short fiction anyhow. Of course WiGSSiP as it is called, tells how to write literary fiction as opposed to genre, Still, it makes for a good read.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.