A Complete, Totally Definitive Guide to Short Story Craft

1. Start the story with an intriguing first line, something that propels the reader forward, captures their attention, makes them feel compelled to read on. Do not start with something boring or commonplace. This is the worst thing you can do. This will make the reader throw your story into a trash compactor and compact it with the rest of the garbage, which is where your story deserves to be because it is yawn-inducing and lame.*

*Unless, of course, you are Alice Munro, who frequently begins with a much more subtle first line. Ex. from “The Progress of Love”: “I got a call at work, and it was my father.”; or from “The Beggar Maid”: “Patrick Blatchford was in love with Rose.” Are you riveted? Probably not. But you read on anyway. Another writer who doesn’t seem to care much about a snappy first line is Anton Chekhov. Ex. from “Grisha”: “Grisha, a chubby little boy, born two years and eight months ago, is walking on the boulevard with his nurse.”; or from “The Darling”: “Olenka, the daughter of the retired collegiate professor, Plemyannikov, was sitting on her back porch, lost in thought.” See what I mean? Not a ton of pizazz there. These two writers are not interested with hooking the reader right from the beginning, but with setting a confident tone from which the rest of the story can develop. Alice Munro and Anton Chekov. Those two.

Chekhov, looking writerly

Where possible, Chekhov advises cultivating a writerly mustache

2. Also, start the story with the main character. The only exception to this rule is if you want to start off with some natural imagery to set the scene, or maybe a date is okay, but then get right to it. Present his/her name as soon as possible along with any other pertinent information, i.e., physical description, age, social position, food allergies, etc. If you don’t, your reader will likely feel like one of those baby penguins who gets off course from their penguin flock and ends up frozen in the antarctic tundra. Do not turn your reader into a frozen baby penguin.*

*However, there is a pretty famous story that doesn’t do this at all. The story is called “The Dead.” It is by a writer named James Joyce. This story doesn’t introduce its main character, Gabriel Conroy, until page 3. The story starts with Lilly, the maid, who really doesn’t figure into the story too much. Ulysses also doesn’t really introduce its main character until around page 50, depending on your edition. I repeat: Ulysses.

3. Do not write pages and pages of backstory before you get into the actual story. This is pretty much always long-winded and ridiculous and sucky for everyone to read. A couple lines here and there—all right, we’re with you, but do not give us pages and pages. There is no way I can overstate this piece of advice. Pages and pages of backstory will be considered an act of aggression, and our retaliation as readers will be swift and devoid of mercy.*

Please see John Cheever’s “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” for a story that starts with loads of backstory—pretty much the main character’s entire life. The action of the story really doesn’t begin till around page 3. That’s Cheever for you.

4. Make sure your characters are sympathetic. Please do this one thing for us, okay? Readers want to feel empathy for your characters. They don’t want a bunch of boneheads doing a bunch of bonehead stuff. They want people who they wouldn’t mind sharing a cup of coffee with, or an egg salad sandwich, or a croissant. If they wanted to be entertained by a bunch of boneheads—well, they could just flip on the T.V.*

*That is, unless of course you are talking about Denis Johnson’s 1992 collection of short stories, “Jesus’ Son,” where the main character, Fuckhead, shoots up a lot of heroin, assaults a mother in front of her kids, punches his girlfriend in the stomach, gets messed up on drugs while he’s working in a hospital, basically does a bunch of abhorrent things. Unless you’re talking about that collection.

5. While we’re on the subject of characters: for God’s sake, make sure your characters are “three-dimensional.” We’ll allow you a couple “flat” characters here and there, but mostly we want your characters to feel “alive”, the same way our friends and family do. Most readers want to pretend that characters are their friends and/or family.*

*Please see the majority of Western Literature before the 19th century for an example of how this is not entirely true.

6. Make every word count. The short story, besides poetry, is the place where every single word needs to count the most, where it must count. Superfluousness is not permitted in this art form and any practitioners of superfluousness will be kindly asked to return their pens, pencils, composition notebooks, typewriters, laptops, home computers, etc., and will thenceforth be forbidden from ever writing again.*

*Then there is Lorrie Moore’s story “Real Estate,” which contains two and a half pages of nothing but the word “Ha!” written over and over again. She does not plug this in as an afterthought, either. It begins on the first page, second paragraph. It’s generally agreed upon—as far as the American short story goes, it doesn’t get much better than Lorrie Moore.  

Lorrie Moore

Pictured: literary consensus

7. Do not screw around with time. Moving around too much in time messes with your readers’ heads. It’s hard for them to keep up with this lousy technique, and they will inevitably get confused and put your story down because it hurts to read it, and they sense, deep down, that you’re a pretentious a-hole, and they’ll be right. Shame on you! Stop messing with time!*

*There could be a very long list of stories here that screw around with time. One of my personal favorites is “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” by Richard Bruce Nugent. Check it out. It’s bad-ass stuff. Also, William Faulkner loves to “Faulk” with time.

8. Conflict, conflict, conflict. What are you doing if you aren’t telling us a story about a character coming into conflict with something? You’re wasting our time. Time being money, you’re wasting our dollar. And guess what? We’re busy people. Thanks for bringing us that much closer to death, selfish. Get another profession.*

*The jury is still out on this one, but please refer to this interesting article about a type of Chinese and Japanese story,  kishōtenketsu, that eschews conflict.

9. We need epiphanies, people! Joyce got it right in 1914 or whenever, and there’s no reason to change that now. How are we supposed to feel connected to the intricacies of human experience and relationships if there aren’t any epiphanies? The answer is, we can’t.  If your characters aren’t epiphanizing, we don’t wanna read it!*

*For a really great essay on why writers should eliminate the epiphany from their fiction, please see Charles Baxter’s piece “Against Epiphanies” from his book Burning Down the House. Charles Baxter gets it.

Charles Baxter, getting it

Charles Baxter, getting it

10. Write about what you know. Do this one thing for us, would you? You are unique. You are a bright, shining snowflake. You are a bright, shining snowflake who can also read and write and communicate through complex language. Yes. You are a walking, talking, writing snowflake. Remember this, always. This is what we, your readers, demand from you. Do not test our patience.*

*Please see T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to learn how to better extinguish your personality and become an instrument of tradition. This has been a seminal thought in literary criticism for the last hundred years or so. Quite a long time.

Travis McDonald was born and raised in Massachusetts, but spent the last decade living in Texas. He received his bachelor’s in English Literature from The University of Texas at Austin. His work investigates communication breakdowns, the unknowability of the other, and the standardization of the American landscape. He is interested in the unique challenges that the short story and the novel face in the technological age. His work has appeared in various publications, including The Adirondack Review and Five [Quarterly].


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