Award-Winning Author ~ Editor ~ Writing Instructor
Writing Short Stories


So you want to write short mystery fiction. Well, I have good news and bad news for you.

The good news? As other publication opportunities keep shrinking, new short mystery fiction markets pop up all the time. The bad news? Writing short demands entirely different skills than writing novels. If you want to create publishable short stories, it's a good idea to brush up on those requirements.

Where do you start? The best place is with the idea. How do you know when a plot better suits a story, rather than a novel? Stories work best with “short” or “small” ideas, especially in the short-short (up to 1500 words) or mid-length (up to 4000 words) range. In “small” ideas, the action is played out over a short arc and can usually be summarized quickly.

If the concept comes to you whole, especially when coupled with a twist ending, or if you hit on a clever title first that relates to an ironical element in the plot, or if cries out for a black humor tone--it's a good bet that's a short story idea.

Longer stories (4000-5000 words and up) will sometimes employ an idea that could be developed to novel length, but the idea will be treated more narrowly, with fewer complications.An easily remembered formula that can be used for any length story is A-B-D-C-E:

A = action. Hook the reader with a burst of action or an intriguing concept.

B = background. Provide some background or explanation of the initial action/hook.

D = development. Further develop the action of the story.

C = climax. Bring the elements together in a confrontation.

E = ending. Wrap-up.In a longer story, the “development” portion of the story can be played out longer.

Provide more ups-and-downs for your characters at this length, but don't pad it.Other points to remember when writing short stories:

* Start fast. It's essential that you hook the reader's interest quickly. Characterization, setting and conflict must be established early, as well as the crime. It can be effective to start the story as close to the climax as possible, even if it means back tracking to share backstory information.

* Eliminate the unnecessary. The form demands economical writing. That doesn't just mean writing tightly - it means, whenever possible, elements must achieve multiple purposes. Learn to say more with less.

* Keep it in scale. Every element should be in proportion to the length of the story. That includes both the development and the number of characters, as well as setting, action, and all other elements.
Dialogue must be direct. And just as the structure is more streamlined than a novel, the resolution should be quicker than in a novel.

* Eliminate most transitions. A story just jumps from one scene to the next.

* Limit scene changes. Many short stories take place in a single scene. While scene changes are permissible when required, limit the scope of place.

* Write to a single theme. While a novel may explore many ideas, a short story should be sharply focused.
Generally, a short story reflects a single point of view, but not always. A technique that's sometimes effective is to create two viewpoints that appear almost parallel, but which will actually intersect in the climax. It can be a powerful device, especially if the reader doesn't guess where the two forces will collide, or why.

Similarly, while most stories employ a linear chronology, shifting between the past and the present until the times converge in the climax is also an option. Both techniques require some skill, however, so they might not be an ideal choice for a first story.

When writing a story, the only limit is your imagination. Short stories in the crime genre aren't burdened by as many rules as novels. They can be mystery or suspense, whodunits or howdunits, traditional or totally groundbreaking. They can be written from the detective's point of view, as novels generally are, or from the killer's, or even the victim's--the possibilities are endless. Some editors do want to see the villains suffer the consequences of their choices, while most just insist you provide a good read.

Stories allow writers to create characters that might become tedious at novel length, but which can be deliciously fun for a short time. Writing stories can provide a writing workout, allowing writers to try new techniques and flex particular muscles, and well as providing a faster sense of accomplishment. Publishing short stories provides professional credentials; most writing associations consider published short stories as sufficient conditions for membership.

In an age when no one seems to have enough time, there has never been a better time to read and write short.

Return to Writing Tips.