Tips on Writing the Short-Short Story
by Marg McAlister
The short-short story has been likened by some as being closer to writing a poem than a story. And that makes
sense--every word has to be packed with power; every line has to move the story along.
The opening paragraph is the most important one in a short story. Use it to hook your readers and draw them into
the ongoing drama of your story.
- In the opening lines, you have to do the following:
- Set the scene
- Introduce the main character
- Reveal the main character's mood, approximate age, his/her goal or problem
- Show that something interesting is about to happen
General Tips on Writing the Short-Short Story
- Begin with a character and let this person take you where they want to go--then when the story is written,
edit, shape and tighten your prose.
- Decide whose story this is. Choose one viewpoint and stick to it.
- Don't force your characters to speak words that sound out of character or engage in actions that don't suit
- Avoid detailed descriptions of setting -- give the reader a quick 'snapshot'. A few powerful words or
phrases can do a lot of work.
- Use the same approach to describe the character's appearance. Choose words that trigger the reader's
imagination and let him/her fill in the gaps -- e.g. "She had a loose-limbed, healthy outdoor look about
- Try to avoid plots that hinge on a coincidence or a misunderstanding that could be cleared up if the
characters would just talk to each other. (You have to be a very good writer to pull this off so the reader is
- Very short stories are a bit like jokes: they build up to a twist or a punchline. The difficult part is
playing fair with the reader in having all the clues there, without making the outcome too obvious.
- Show that your character has grown or changed in some way--she has a new understanding of people or of
herself; she has learned a lesson; she has changed her attitude. NOTE: If your character 'comes to realise'
something important, make sure she comes to this realization through a strong piece of action or a powerful
lesson - not through a weak, "Oh, my goodness, I never thought of it that way before - silly me!"
- Appeal to your reader's emotions. We all identify with loss, sorrow, disappointment, frustration -- make
sure that emotions are powerful elements in your story.
- Make every word of dialogue count -- avoid aimless 'how are you today?' type exchanges; let actions take
the place of words on occasions. And remember there's no need to TELL as well as SHOW -- for example, if you
write "Marcia was really angry at his words. Her face grew scarlet with rage as she yelled, "I can't believe
you said that! Get out of here!' then you've wasted ten words. You could simply have said: Marcia's face
grew scarlet with rage. "I can't believe you said that! Get out of here!"
- When it's time to edit, remember that every word has to move the story forward. This is worth saying a
hundred times, because one of the hardest things a writer can do is cut words. You have to be tough. Cut out
whatever is unnecessary; poorly expressed; overly detailed. In a very short story, it's more likely to be what
you've cut out that sells your work than what you've left in.
- STUDY YOUR MARKET. This seems painfully obvious, but so many writers just can't be bothered. It
makes sense to study your target market. There are a number of magazines that publish the short-short story of
around 900 words -- read as many as you can!
© Marg McAlister