How To Write a Short Story

The (3) novels that Ive been working on started out as an attempt to write a short story that almost immediately snowballed into a novel.

Do I ask too many questions? Do I understand what a short story is? For the latter question, Im beginning to think I dont have a clue. When I try to reign myself in, I end up with something more akin to a “vignette” rather than a story. I always start with a character and visualize a scene they are in, but when I start doing the basic work of figuring out why and what, it goes off the charts and suddenly Im dealing with something far bigger.

Is there a formula that I can use to keep a short story in line? What questions do I need to ask of myself to write a short story? And how can I write a short story that has “meaning” or at least a purpose in it?

You’d think with all the writing Ive done in my life, Id have figured this out…but no…



Allow me to present an example of a short story I remember reading in high school called The Ruum. Assess what makes this a short story and decide if your manuscript fits the same parameters as The Ruum does. Otherwise perhaps you have a novella or a novel on your hands.

Update Jacob reports the link won’t work for him. Let me suggest anybody wanting to read the story search the Internet for the terms “the ruum” filetype:pdf to locate a copy.


Link expired (“ExpiredToken” error).

Sometimes I happen to have the same problem as you. Here is what I do :

  • Write a full sum of the story and highlight everything relative to the plot, action and conflict resolution, in order to see what my plot.
  • Now that I have my plot, I try to see what isn’t important in the plot and in the story and chop it down. As if I was cutting the branches from a tree.
  • If the tree is still too big for me, then, I’ll look into the plot and try to change it so that my characters will go quicker into conflict, and into resolutions.

And well, sometimes it doesn’t work. The story doesn’t want to get shorter and it simply means that it doesn’t have to be a short story…


Structuring a short story vs structuring a novel is basically a question of complexity and scope. (And efficiency, since you have so much less space for things.) I like writing short stories because you can play around with form and really work on honing language. And they let you iterate faster.

I’ve found Mary Robinette Kowal’s perspective on constructing short stories helpful. Even if you don’t use her structuring methods (which I don’t always), the way she thinks about short stories is helpful framing.

If you want a rough (and sometimes wildly inaccurate depending on the writer) estimate of length, there’s this formula: (Covered in WX 12.27)
(In English: Add the number of characters and the number of locations. Multiply that sum by 750. Then multiply that number by 1.5 times the number of MICE elements the story incorporates.)

And this ep about the MICE quotient: WX 12.32

The general rule of thumb is that a short story will likely only have 1 or 2 MICE elements, because you don’t have time to tackle much else.