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How to write a short story – Bridget Whelan

I recently came across the WikiHow entry on how to write a short story. The actual article contains good advice, but I arched an eyebrow when I read the introduction.

While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, just about anybody can craft and, most importantly, finish, a short story.”

No, they can’t – unless the writer means that almost anybody can produce 1000+ words of grammatically correct sentences that somehow link up together, but that’s no more a short story than a roll of material pinned into a tube is a dress.

I resent the idea that short stories are an easy option. The very size means there’s nowhere to hide flabby ideas and weak sentences. A clunky phrase stands out as brashly as if it had been highlighted in neon yellow.

But what is a short story?

Sir Angus Wilson who, with Malcolm Bradbury, helped set up the first MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in the early 1970s, felt that short stories and plays were similar. “You take a point in time and develop it from there; there is no room for development backwards.”

I think Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, was saying much the same thing when she described short stories as ‘a world seen in a quick glancing light. ’

Usually a short story has a very restricted range of characters and the action takes place over a relatively short period of time – days rather than years – and there’s no room for time slips or flash backs, Usually. As soon as you try to formulate any rule of writing you can think of brilliant exceptions, but for the Hysteria Competition you only have 2000 words at your disposal and I think your have to accept that this is a small canvass. I read a lot of short stories every term of that length and here are the most common problems I come across.

Too much information – in particular too many names.

I don’t need to know that the head gardener is called Barry and is a veteran of the Falklands War if all he does is knock on a door. It may sound like being a member of a spy ring, but everything’s on a need to know basis. If Barry only has a walk on part readers don’t need to be introduced.

Too timid

Safe stories about safe subjects don’t linger long in the memory. Once you’ve got an idea ask what if? and keep on pushing the boundaries…

Too much description

If you think of a story as a journey, description forces the reader to stop. It’s as if the author is saying hold on a moment, I know you want to find out what happens next, but I’ve created a whole new world for your enjoyment: stop and look at the sun reflecting on the water, the child’s soft curls and the cold blue of the spring sky… Too much description and the reader might not bother to wait for the journey to start again. Too little and the reader might not care where the journey is heading.

Here are a few stories that are worth reading and re-reading because there are only two ways to learn how to write and one is to write as much as you can and the other is to read as much as you can.

The Dead by James Joyce
Sometimes called the best short story ever written. Nothing much happens in this middle class, middle aged world of Edwardian Dublin except you feel you’re there, elbows on the dinner table, eavesdropping on the conversation.

Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
Tight dialogue where the sub text is all important.

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
Extraordinary science fiction story portraying its own kind of hell (good title too).

Raspberry Jam by Angus Wilson (read it when I was 12 and I’ve never forgotten it)
A haunting portrait of old age and the limits of spinsterhood

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield
It starts with an amazing opening line ‘And after all the weather was ideal’ which puts you right into the middle of the action…

Now it’s your job to write something that will amaze the judges. Write something unexpected, something that surprises you…

Bridget Whelan


  1. Thank you for your wonderful e mail. It has caught me at a low mood and has raised my inspiration to get back to writing again. Thank you very much.

  2. Glad you found this post useful Kathryn. Start writing even if you don’t know where it will end up…after all you can’t edit a blank page.

  3. Hi Bridget,
    I am very taken with this article. Indeed, I shall link to it in my next newsletter for Stringybark Stories. As a Judge I have read over 2700 short stories over the past two years and I can quite categorically say that short stories may be ‘easy’ to write but never easy to write well. A good short story, in my view, often needs more careful crafting than a novel. Every word counts. Every nuance is important. You can’t hide poor writing in a short story. It is for this very reason that crafting short stories is great practice for all writers — and they are fun! Short stories are ideal for sharpening style and ensuring that the writing is well crafted.
    Best wishes for the competition,

    David Vernon
    Head Judge, Stringybark Stories

    1. Thanks for spreading the word (Stringybark in Australia and wider afield) and so glad you liked this post. Agree with all my heart that “you can’t hide poor writing in a short story”.

      A short story is a polished gem, not a dusty wad of cotton wool. (Does that metaphor work? Not sure, but it does sum up how I feel about it….)

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