Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a digital marketplace that connects authors with the best resources and professionals to help them self-publish. Savannah works on the Reedsy blog and helps judge the weekly Reedsy short story contest, which means she has read thousands of short stories for nearly 100 contests. Here’s her advice on how to make your story stand out.
Despite its pithy premise, a great short story is a tough nut to crack. It calls for just the right balance of thematic depth and nimble prose: a stellar idea condensed into 3000 words or less.
This is what my colleagues and I look for each week as we judge the Reedsy short story contest, a massive competition that receives hundreds of entries per round. With the help of our community judges, we peruse all these stories and narrow them down to a single winner by the week’s end. And after two years of taking part in this intensive process, I can confidently say that it’s honed my short-story sensibilities far more than my own writing practice ever has.
But I also recognize this kind of experience is hard to come by for most writers – which is why I’m always happy to share my knowledge with those who’ll put it to good use! On that note, here are my top five tips for crafting short fiction that judges, literary magazine editors, and readers will love, complete with brilliantly executed examples from Reedsy contest winners.
1. Grab the reader’s attention ASAP
Most fiction writers instinctively understand the importance of hooking readers in the first part of a novel. As you might expect, the same applies to short stories; however, because the medium is so much more compact, it becomes crucial to do so as quickly as possible.
Coming at it as a judge, I need a hook within the first paragraph – ideally the first sentence – to convince me that the rest of the story is worth reading. After that, it becomes exponentially more difficult to gain my attention and investment, especially when I have more stories waiting in the queue. Much as we might want to, judges simply don’t have time to go digging for diamonds in the rough! You need to dazzle us right away, otherwise we’re bound to check out.
The good news is that there are many ways to do this: by making a dramatic statement, revealing a secret, conjuring a vivid image, etc. Again, anytime within the first paragraph will do, but the sooner the better when it comes to short stories. On that note, here are some of the most captivating first lines from stories that have won our contest:
- Here’s something I can tell you: he never really knew how to talk to me.
- The chance of you breaking up with me right now is 19.67%.
- This is a story about the man who wants to kill you.
Even in isolation, each of these lines packs a punch, immediately posing questions that compel the reader to keep going. You’ll notice they don’t need fancy language to achieve this – it’s all about jumping right into the story, not prevaricating with pretentious prose.
So my recommendation would be to keep your first line to 20 words or less, and to start as deep in medias res as possible. If you find yourself commencing your story with a flowery setting description stuffed to the gills with 50-cent words, you need to reel it back and try again.
2. Focus on the key emotion
On the subject of subjects themselves, F. Scott Fitzgerald once advised, ‘Find the key emotion; this may be all you need.’ It’s good advice for all forms of writing, but I didn’t realize how vital it was to writing short fiction until I started judging this contest.
As it turns out, there’s only so much you can do within the space of a short story. I’ve seen countless stories spread themselves too thin in their attempts to encompass the scope of a novel; I’ve even done it myself, before I knew better. While ambitious plotting certainly isn’t a bad thing, I’ve learned that with this particular medium, you have to cede the notion that an elaborate, multi-act structure is the only way forward.
Instead, you must concentrate on your characters and the ‘key emotion’ that connects them. You don’t need to have experienced this emotion in the exact same context as your characters, but you should have some experience to draw on to help you write more empathetically. With any luck, the result will be a profound sense of feeling that permeates every part of the story, moving the reader just as much as a densely plotted novel (if not much more so).
Every winner of our contest has a strong key emotion at heart, but for exemplary stories, I’ll point you in the direction of these two winners: ‘The Traveler Wife’ and ‘A Cat of Ganymede’. Both deal intimately with emotions of love and loss, communicated in candid prose that makes it easy for readers to empathize. Here’s a particularly wrenching passage of ‘The Traveler Wife’:
When I left, I said the one rule was don’t argue with me and don’t make me want to argue with you. I don’t have time for that in space. I can’t be thinking about fighting you when I can’t even hold you. I don’t care if it’s funny. I can’t do it. I told her and so far she’s never brought any of it up and I haven’t either. And it doesn’t feel real.
Such raw emotion, conveyed simply yet powerfully, is what separates this piece from the dozens of other relationship-based stories we receive every week. If you want to find success with your short stories, your writing must do the same.
3. Attend to the little details
If powerful emotion is the main dish of a story, then subtle descriptive details are the side dishes that complement it. They contribute to the tone, regulate the pacing in between more active moments, and may even become the element of your work that readers remember best.
The trick here, again, is not to overdo it. Though hyper-decorated prose is most detrimental in one’s intro, I’m of the opinion that most writers should avoid it throughout a story as well – unless you are a literary stylist on par with Nabokov, it’s almost always more distracting than illuminating.
But this shouldn’t prevent you from painting your characters and settings in unusual and evocative ways! For an excellent example of details done right, take this description from another one of our recent winners, ‘sole mate’:
He laughed, and it was a wonderful, hearty laugh, a cowboy laugh. The cigarette dangled in his mouth, bouncing between his teeth like mallets on a xylophone. He leaned on the wall beside me, searching through his pockets. He pulled out a clementine. ‘Want half?’ he asked.
What a great little passage this is – each bit of figurative language utterly original, even slightly eccentric, but delivered so naturally you’d think they were common expressions. Yet the author is careful not to ask too much of readers, tempering these phrases with more ‘basic’ language and short sentences to keep things moving.
If you’re already good at writing details, I implore you to keep these principles of balance in mind to avoid overwhelming readers. If incorporating details doesn’t come naturally to you just yet, pay attention to how your own favorite authors do it and try to adapt their methods! You don’t need to dissect every paragraph to the extent I’ve just done, but it may help to think about what sounds especially good to you, why it works, and how you might apply it in your own story.
4. Remember that longer ≠ better
I’ve already touched on how quantity doesn’t necessarily translate to quality in short stories. However, I feel the need to drive it home here, as it’s a very common misconception among our entrants! You wouldn’t believe how many stories we receive that could be told in 1,500 words or less, yet are inflated to twice that size out of authors’ apparent desires to appear more ‘literary.’
Needless to say, whether it’s through overcomplicated plotting or over-the-top description, a bloated short story does no one any favors. True, you may be writing on such a loaded topic that you can’t do it justice in under 3,000 words – but this should be the exception, not the rule.
Don’t think a great story can be told in a mere thousand words? Here are a few Reedsy stories that came in significantly under our maximum word count but still walked away with the prize:
- ‘Full Price’ – a charming yet sincere piece about a group of employees coming to see their boss in a whole new light
- ‘Spring Queen’ – a dreamy story full of gorgeous (but not too purple) imagery, with a compelling mythological twist
- ‘The Memory Garden’ – a poignant and reflective piece that plays with temporality in an interesting way
Each of these pieces does a marvelous job of saying precisely what needs to be said, then mic-dropping and getting the hell out of there. I won’t ignore my own advice by belaboring the point – but basically, if you have doubts about the value of a passage in your story, cut it out.
5. Stick the landing
Ever heard of the first-last effect? A similar thing happens to me when judging short stories: I pay extra attention to the very beginning and end of each piece. The beginning, of course, must persuade the reader that this story will be a good one. But the role of the ending is arguably tougher; it needs to validate the reader’s decision to read through the whole thing.
This is why, for me at least, a story’s ending is actually more important than its beginning. A lackluster intro might make a poor impression on me as a judge, but I’ll still read the rest of the story, which has the potential to change my mind. A bad ending, on the other hand, can ruin the whole story in retrospect – even if everything leading up to that point was solid!
So when it comes to endings, you’ll want to play it relatively safe. Don’t try to pull off a last-minute twist unless you’re 100% sure you’ve laid the groundwork for it, and don’t spring for an ambiguous ending unless it fits perfectly with the tone of the story.
The best thing to do is to strike a firm, genuinely conclusive note. You can end on a subtle revelation if you want – something that’s not so much a twist as an extra bit of insight, as in the last line of ‘The Firebird’s Answer’. Or you can end with something that readers have known all along, but put in an especially eloquent or striking way, as with the ending of ‘Love’:
Theirs was an affair, really, and should have been treated as such. Instead, they fell in love, and there isn’t really that much more to be said about it.
Long story short
Once you’ve penned your final lines, what happens to your story is out of my hands. You might choose to edit and publish it, either by submitting it to someone else or by self-publishing. But whichever path you choose, having followed these tips will make it much easier for readers to appreciate your work – and if you ever do submit to our contest at Reedsy, I’ll look forward immensely to seeing what you create.
Which of Savannah’s tips did you find surprising, and how will you apply them to your own writing? Let us know in the comments, and for more great advice on writing short fiction, check out How To Write A Killer Short Story, Why Authors Who Want To Be Published Should Write Flash Fiction, and So You Think You Know Your Short Prose?