Keep It Tight – Tips for Writing the Short Story

May 20, 2015

Today I welcome fellow writer Kathy Otten to talk about writing the short story.

I wrote my first short story for a contest when I was sixteen. The story was one of the winners chosen for publication in a magazine for Christian teens.

Since then I’ve had several short stories published, in historical romance, historical fiction and contemporary romance. The shortest piece I’ve written was 495 words and the longest 20,000 words, which is the length of my latest release, After the Dark.

Short stories have grown more popular since the advent of ebooks. Years ago a reader was willing to wait a year for the next book from their favorite author. Today an author needs to keep up a fairly constant flow of product to maintain their presence on the web. If an author writes novels, like I do, and has a family and a full-time job, producing a full-length novel on a regular basis is not easy.

Short stories are a good way to fill the gaps between books and to keep your author name fresh in the minds of your readers.

However, writing a good short story is not as easy as it would seem and some authors struggle to weave plot, characters, conflict, description, and backstory into a mere 3500 words.

I say 3500 because that seems to be the most marketable length for magazines and other collections. But for now, I’ll say in today’s market there is opportunity for a variety of lengths. Still, to write short you must learn to write tight. Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years.

Word Count

Unless you have a specific market in mind, which has a clear word count, such as 1500 words for a magazine, I wouldn’t worry about the count too much during the first draft. Many words and paragraphs will be deleted or changed and lines rewritten as you self-edit your story.


The shorter the story, the fewer the characters. Because of your word count there is little time  for character introductions. Your characters should already be acquainted and have some knowledge of each other’s back story at the start of your story.  In a romance, any courtship or relationship building should be in the past. The only time it would work is if your short story is a basic cute-meet.


Limit your view-point character to one. If you have the word count you can get away with two, but be sure the switch is important to the story. The reader needs to bond with your main character as soon as possible and that takes time. Switching to another view-point runs the risk of your reader not becoming emotionally invested with either character. And you want your reader to care.


Keep the timeline as short as possible. Start your story right at, or as close to the climax as possible, depending on word count. Even for a short story you have to know what your character wants and why he/she wants it. Remember your story arc: introduction, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Depending on the length of the story, some of these may occur at the same time or close together on the time line. The shorter your word count, the closer to the climax you need to start. Remember, conflict comes from the plot, tension comes from the character, and their reactions are based on their backstory.


You should know your character’s backstory, but much of your character’s past and what happened with the plot prior to the start of the story can be implied.  Only incorporate the bits necessary to move the plot forward.


Jump right into the action. Use strong verbs and avoid adjectives and adverbs if possible. Show don’t tell. A long paragraph of description will slow the pacing and use words you can use for something else. Condense your descriptions to a line or two.  Use strong verbs and sensory detail as your character moves and reacts in the story.  Replace as many speech tags as you can with action beats.


It’s a great way to increase the pacing of your story.  You can also use it to convey backstory. Keep it natural and true to your character’s voice. Don’t use long exchanges of dialogue to dump in backstory or retell plot information the reader has assumed. Make the conversation between your characters sound real. Even though you may have a tight word count, your characters should all have their own voice. Be sure they don’t all sound the same.

“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Don’t Miss After the Dark

After the DarkMonths in the trenches of France have left Liam Gallagher wondering why he has survived when better men did not. His guilt intensifies when he returns home only to come down with the deadly Spanish Influenza sweeping the country. Once again Liam lives when thousands do not.

Now the only bright spot in his monotonous life is the time he spends each day walking with Rosalie Moretti. Their talks give him hope for the future, a future possibly to include this vibrant, loving woman. Until one dark, catastrophic afternoon, when Liam realizes the reason his life was spared has come down to minutes and his ability to perform one selfless act.

Available on Amazon.

Discover more about Kathy Otten at her website at

One thought on “Keep It Tight – Tips for Writing the Short Story”

  1. Kathy Otten

    Hi Jessie,
    Thanks for having me today. Hope some of these tips are helpful.

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