How to Write a Prize-Worthy Short Story: A Step-by-Step Guide

by Editor Jodie Renner

Writing short stories is a great way to test the waters of fiction without making a huge commitment, or to experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and voices.

Even if you've published a novel or two, it’s a good idea to try to release a few high-quality, well-edited short stories between books to help with discoverability and growing a fan base.

Also, today's busy readers (especially the young ones) have more distractions and temptations for their time, therefore shorter attention spans, and they're reading on smaller devices, so a short story is a nice escapism-byte for increasing numbers of people.

As our multi-talented host Anne R. Allen said in an excellent article in Writer's Digest magazine, "Bite-sized fiction has moved mainstream, and today’s readers are more eager than ever to 'read short'." For a brief mention of each of Anne's "nine factors working in favor of a short story renaissance", see her article, Short is the New Long and there's more in her post, Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.


Here are 31 concrete tips for writing a compelling short story that is worthy of publishing or submitting to contests, magazines, and anthologies. Of course, these are only guidelines—like any good cook with a recipe, you'll tweak them to suit your own vision, goal, genre, and story idea.

When referring to the main character, I’ll be alternating between using "he" and "she", so just fill in the gender of your own protagonist.


1. Keep the story tight. 

Most short stories are between 2,000 and 7,000 words long, with the most popular length between 2,500 and 4,000 words. Unlike a novel or even a novella, a short story is about just a small slice of life, with one story thread and one theme. Don’t get too ambitious. It’s best to limit it to one main character plus a few supporting characters, one main conflict, one geographical location, and a brief time frame, like a few weeks maximum—better yet, a few days, or even hours.

2. Create a main character who is complex and charismatic, one readers will care about. 

Your protagonist should be multi-dimensional and at least somewhat sympathetic, so readers can relate to him and start bonding with him right away. He should be fascinating, with plenty of personality. But give him a human side, with some inner conflict and vulnerability, so readers identify with him and start worrying about him immediately. If readers don’t care about your character, they also won’t care about what happens to him.

3. Give your protagonist a burning desire. 

What does he or she want more than anything? This is the basis for your story goal, the driving force of your story.

4. Decide what your character is most afraid of. 

What does your heroine regret most? What is she feeling guilty about? Give her some baggage and secrets.

5. Devise a critical story problem or conflict. 

Create a main conflict or challenge for your protagonist. Put her in hot water right away, on the first page, so the readers start worrying about her early on. No conflict = no story. The conflict can be internal, external, or interpersonal, or all three. It can be against one’s own demons, other people, circumstances, or nature.

6. Develop a unique "voice" for this story. 

First, get to know your character really well by journaling in his voice. Pretend you are the character, writing in his secret diary, expressing his hopes and fears and venting his frustrations. Just let the ideas flow, in his point of view, using his words and expressions.

Then take it a step further and carry that voice you've developed throughout the whole story, even to the narration and description, which are really the viewpoint character’s thoughts, perceptions, observations, and reactions. This technique ensures that your whole story has a unique, compelling voice. (In a novel, the voice will of course change in any chapters that are in other characters’ viewpoints.)

7. Create a worthy antagonist. 

Devise an opposition character who is strong, clever, determined, and resourceful – a force to be reckoned with. And for added interest, make him or her multi-faceted, with a few positive qualities, too.

8. Add in a few interesting, even quirky supporting characters. 

Give each of your characters a distinct personality, with their own agenda, hopes, accomplishments, fears, insecurities, and secrets, and add some individual quirks to bring each of them to life. Supporting and minor characters should be quite different from your protagonist, for contrast. Start a diary for each important character to develop their voice and personality, and ensure none of them are closely modeled after you, the author, or your friends.

But don’t fully develop any very minor or "walk-on" characters, or readers will expect them to play a more important role. In fact, it’s best not to name minor characters like cab drivers and servers, unless they play a bigger role.

9. To enter and win contests, make your character and story unique and memorable. 

Try to jolt or awe the readers somehow, with a unique, enigmatic, even quirky or weird character; an unusual premise or situation; and an unexpected, even shocking revelation and plot twist.

10. Experiment – take a chance. 

Short stories can be edgier, darker, or more intense because they're brief, and readers can tolerate something a little more extreme for a limited time.


11. Start with a compelling scene. 

Short stories need to grab and emotionally engage the readers right from the first paragraph. Don’t open with a description of the scenery or other setting. Also, don’t start with background information (backstory) on the character or an explanation of their world or situation.

12. Start right out in the head of your main character. 

It’s best to use his name right in the first sentence to establish him as the point-of-view character, the one readers are supposed to identify with and root for. And let readers know really soon his rough age, situation, and role in the story world.

13. Put your character in motion right away. 

Having her interacting with someone else is usually best—much more dynamic than starting with a character alone, musing. Also, it’s best not to start with your character just waking up or in an everyday situation or on the way to somewhere. That’s trite and too much of a slow lead-up for a short story—or any compelling story, for that matter.

14. Use close point of view.

Get up close and personal with your main character and tell the whole story from his point of view. Continually show his thoughts, feelings, reactions, and physical sensations. And take care not to show anyone else’s thoughts or inner reactions. You don't have time or space to get into anyone else’s viewpoint in a short story. Show the attitudes and reactions of others through what the POV character perceives – their words, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, actions, etc.

Even the narration should be expressed as your POV character's thoughts and observations. Don't intrude as the author to describe or explain anything to the readers in neutral language. You want to keep your readers immersed in your fictive dream, and interrupting as the author will burst the bubble of make-believe they crave.

15. Situate the reader early on. 

To avoid reader confusion and frustration, establish your main character immediately and clarify the situation and setting (time and place) within the first few paragraphs. On the first page, answer the four W’s: who, what, where, when. But as mentioned above, avoid starting with a long descriptive passage.

16. Jump right in with some tension in the first paragraphs. 

As I mentioned, there's no room in a short story for a long, meandering lead-up to the main problem, or an extended description of the setting or the characters and their background. Disrupt the main character’s life in some way on the first page. As Kurt Vonnegut advises, in short fiction, start as close to the end as possible.

17. Show, don’t tell. 

Don't use narration to tell your readers what happened—put them right in the middle of the scene, with lots of dialogue and action and reactions, in real time. And skip past transitional times and unimportant moments. Use just a few words to go from one time or place to another, unless something important happens during the transition.

18. Your character needs to react! 

Continually show your character's emotional and physical reactions, both inner and outer, to what’s going on around him. And to bring the character and scene to life on the page, evoke as many of the five senses as possible, not just sight and hearing. Scents or smells are especially powerful and evocative.

19. Every page needs tension of some sort. 

It might be overt, like an argument, or subtle, like inner resentments, disagreements, questioning, or anxiety. If everybody is in agreement, shake things up a little.

20. Withhold key information. 

This adds tension and intrigue, especially when a character has secrets or regrets. Hint at them to arouse reader curiosity, then reveal critical info bit by bit, like a tantalizing striptease, as you go along.

21. Dialogue in fiction is like real conversation on steroids. 

Skip the yadda-yadda, blah-blah, “How are you? I’m fine. Nice weather,” etc., and add spark and tension to all your dialogue. And make the characters' words and expressions sound as natural and authentic as you can. Avoid complete, correct sentences in dialogue. Use plenty of one or two-word questions and responses, evasive replies, abrupt changes of topics, and even a few silences.

22. Each character should speak differently, and not like the author. 

Each character's word choices and speech patterns should reflect their gender, age, education, social standing, and personality. Don’t have your kids sounding like adults or your thugs sounding like university professors! Even men and women of similar cultural backgrounds and social standing speak differently. Read your dialogue out loud or role-play with a friend to make sure it sounds real, has tension, and moves along at a good clip.

23. Build the conflict to a riveting climax. 

Keep putting your protagonist in more hot water until the big “battle,” showdown, or struggle—whether it's physical, psychological, or interpersonal. This is where they're challenged to the max and have to draw on all their courage, wit, and resources to avoid defeat and/or reach their goals.

24. Go out with a bang. 

Don't stretch out the conclusion – tie it up pretty quickly. Like your first paragraph and page, your ending needs to be memorable and also satisfying to the readers. Try to create a surprise twist at the end – but of course it needs to make sense, given all the other details of the story. It should be unexpected, but also, in retrospect, inevitable.

25. Provide some reader satisfaction at the end. 

It's not necessary to tie everything up in a neat little bow, but do give your readers some sense of resolution, some payout for their investment of time and effort in your story. As in novels, most readers want the character they've been rooting for all along to resolve at least some of their problems. But be sure the protagonist they've been identifying with succeeds through their own courage, determination, and resourcefulness, not through coincidence, luck, or a rescue by someone else. Keep your hero or heroine heroic.


26. Hook 'em in right away. 

Now that you've got your whole story down, go back and grab the readers with an opening that zings. Write and rewrite your first line, opening paragraph, and first page. They need to be as gripping and as intriguing as you can make them, in order to compel the readers to read the rest of the story. Your first sentence and paragraph should arouse curiosity and raise questions that demand to be answered.

27. Cut to the chase! 

The short story requires discipline and editing. Trim down any long, convoluted sentences to reveal the essentials. Less is more, so make every word count. If a paragraph, sentence, or line of dialogue doesn't advance the plot, add intrigue, or develop a character, take it out.

Also, use strong, evocative, specific nouns and verbs and cut back on supporting adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of saying "He walked heavily" say "He stomped" or "He trudged." Or instead of "She walked quietly," say "She tiptoed" or "She crept."

28. Make every element and every image count. 

Every significant detail you insert in the story should have some significance or some relevance later. If it doesn’t, take it out. Don’t show us a knife or special character skills, for example, if they don’t show up later and play an essential role. You have no room for filler or extraneous details in a compelling short story.

29. Make descriptions do double duty. 

When you're describing a character, for example, rather than just listing their physical attributes and what they're wearing, search for details that reveal their personality, their mood, their intentions, and their effect on those around them, and also the personality and attitude of the character who is observing them. And there’s no need to go into detail on everything they're wearing. Just paint in bold brush strokes and let readers fill in the details – or not, as they prefer.

30. Stay in character for all descriptions. 

Filter all descriptions through the attitude and mood of the main character. If your POV character’s aging father shows up at the door, don't describe him neutrally and in detail as a brand new character. Show him as that character actually sees her own father arriving at her house.

Similarly, if a teenage boy walks into a room, don't describe the room as an interior designer would see it – stay in his viewpoint. He is most concerned with why he entered that room, not all the details of what it looks like.

31. Pay attention to word count and other guidelines! 

As I mentioned earlier, short stories are generally between 500 and 7,500 words long, with the most popular length around 2,500 to 4,000 words. If you want to submit your short story to a website, magazine or contest, be sure to read their guidelines as to length, genre, language no-no's, and so on. Also, for your own protection, do read the fine print to avoid giving away all rights to your story.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you write short stories? Or are you like me and keep getting bogged down in big novels? Can you work on stories when you're in the middle of a novel? Have you ever won a story contest? Are you going to run out and enter one now? (If so, do scroll down to our "opportunity alerts".) Do you have any questions for Jodie?...Anne

Giveaway: Jodie will be giving away an electronic copy of her new writing guide, Captivate Your Readers, to the first four people who request it below, and she'd love it if winners wanted to leave a review at or Also, if you haven't read any of Jodie's writing guides, mention that in the comments! You'll be eligible for a grand prize of all three books, in mobi, ePub, or PDF (your choice).

Jodie Renner (@JodieRennerEd) is a sought-after freelance editor and award-winning author of writing craft books: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers, as well as time-saving clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List. You can find her at,, and the award-winning Kill Zone Blog. When she’s not editing, reading, or writing, Jodie loves to pursue her two other passions, photography and traveling. In fact, Jodie loves traveling so much, she’s considering changing her tagline from "Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing" to "Have laptop, will travel".


Captivate Your Readers – An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction

This third guide to writing compelling fiction by respected editor and award-winning author Jodie Renner provides concrete advice for captivating readers and immersing them in your story world. It’s all about engaging readers through techniques such as deep point of view, showing instead of telling, avoiding author intrusions, writing riveting dialogue, and basically stepping back and letting the characters tell the story.

Today’s readers want to lose themselves in an absorbing story. Renner shows you how to provide the immediacy and emotional involvement readers crave in fiction, the direct, close connection to the characters and their world.

This book is available in both e-book and print form, through all Amazon websites. Available soon in print through Ingram and at many independent bookstores and libraries. 

"Jodie’s books are packed with practical writing and editing advice. Get ready to improve your manuscript today." – Steven James, author of Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules

"Want to write solid, marketable fiction? Read this book. Regardless of your experience level, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS gives you clear and concise tools that will help you create a believable story world and spin a good yarn."  – DP Lyle, award-winning author of the Dub Walker and Samantha Cody thriller series

"Jodie Renner nails it! Captivate Your Readers should be at the top of every new and experienced writer’s arsenal, as well as a preferred resource for every teacher of writing. Her no-nonsense, easy-to-understand approach is perfect. Bravo, Jodie Renner!" – Lynn Sholes, bestselling author of the Cotten Stone series and The Shield


MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST  Entry fees: $12 Young Author or $22 Adult. 7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015

The Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, Managed by Australian Book Review. Entry fee $20 (AUS). First prize of $5000 and supplementary prizes of $2000 and $1000. Stories must be 2000-5000 words. Deadline May 1st.

Writer's Digest Writing Compeition. This is their biggie. First prize is $5000 plus your photo on the cover of Writer's Digest. Entry fees are a little pricey at $25 for a story, $15 for a poem but there are lots of big prizes. Categories for many genres of fiction, Creative nonfic, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Early Bird deadline May 4th.

The Vestal Review is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.

The 2015 Bulwer Litton Bad Writing Contest. Wretched Writers Welcome! This is the "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night" Bad Writing Contest! Write the worst opening line you can come up with (about 50-60 words). Must be a single sentence. NO FEE. Small cash prize. Deadline April 15

CANADIANS! The Kobo First Book Contest is for you! Did you publish your first book in 2014? Do you have a Canadian passport? You could win $10,000! Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Non-Fiction categories. Winners will be announced in June. Deadline March 31.

INDIE AUTHORS: Here's a list of 50 contests open to self-published books. If you've always wanted to be "an award-winning book author," this is a good place to start. List compiled by the Alliance of Independent Authors.

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