NaNoWriMo: How to Write a Short Story With These Tips

NaNoWriMo is upon us! But maybe writing a novel in a month is too intimidating. Write a short story collection instead! You can still reach 50,000 words!

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Short stories are a great way to start your creative writing journey. You need to have the talent to be a creative writer by having an imaginative mind that can create endless worlds of life lessons and narratives. However, you need more than just plain talent to write a successful short story. I may not be able to teach you how to be more creative, but I can show you how to execute storytelling. Read on for these fine tips!

1. Character and Setting: The Driving Forces of a Short Story

Most, if not all, short stories consist of a character-driven narrative, or the setting is the driving force. It can also be equal parts– such as Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephant.” The classic consists of equal stripped dialogue (character) and stripped descriptions of the story’s surroundings (setting), yet they are equally crucial to the story.

“Where are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates takes a different approach. It’s a more character-based story. This, of course, doesn’t mean the setting is wholly omitted; rather, the reader has most of its focus on the protagonist, Connie, and the antagonist, Arnold Friend. 

Very few stories avoid a protagonist, but one that always creeps back into my mind is “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. The town is our focus, so if that’s a story you want to write, you must build the world with a strong foundation. 

A bunch of different people representing characters that you could write. Some sit, a few dance- all different color skin-- shapes and sizes. Two superhero fly in the sky and batman is standing amongst the crowd. Most of the people are in a group and some are on the right. On the far right behind tan box a text is written, "Which one is your character?"


For a character, you want to figure out who this person is. It’s okay if their personality or actions change as you write. You may want your protagonist to do something outlandish, but it should feel natural based on how your character would actually react. Don’t force your character to do something they wouldn’t do. 

Some Basic Things to Note about Your Character(s):

  • Name:
  • Age:
  • Introvert or Extrovert?
  • Who do they live with?
  • Describe them in three words or more:
  • What do they look like?
  • What’s their problem in the story?
  • Who is their best friend?
  • Do they have fears?
  • Do they have enemies?

There could be countless questions that you can make up for yourself. These questions aren’t necessarily for your story. It’s more of an understanding of your characters and how you want to write them.


As for the setting, it’s similar. Why are we at this location in the story? Does the environment matter? Will the setting have to change over time? Is it the weather conditions, or are the characters forced to go somewhere else? 

3 photos, far right New York in the street, the forest green with the sun beaming, and California with palm trees. Text above reads (behind the text is tan shade) "Where will you go?"

Some basic questions you should answer about the setting:


  • Why this location?
  • What does it look like?
  • What does it smell like?
  • Does the location matter to the story/Why does this location matter?
  • What are some symbols used within the setting?

Again, these are questions for you. You can leave them out of your story. 

2. Why are You Writing This Story?

A guy at the side is typing with notebook next to him and then on the side with all white reads, "Why are you writing this story?"

Most often, people write short stories to convey a message. It’s argued all novels have messages to be said. Most people don’t realize it, though– they enjoy the action, romance, or anything remotely entertaining. With short stories, you want to get straight to the point. For me, I work kind of backward. I write the story I want, and as I edit, I figure out what this story actually means to me and what it could mean to others. If you cannot figure out the message of your narrative, it’s safe to say you have to rework your story’s purpose. 

3. Outline: Beginning, Middle, and End

Outlining is a very loose blueprint. Your story will change over time, so it is best to create a roadmap to the narrative.

the iceberg diagram of some sort for plot line. Exposition (character, setting, and conflict) Rising Action (Events increasing conflict) Climax (High point in conflict) Falling Action (Events after climax) Resolution (Life afterward)

The Beginning

  • Exposition 
  • Setting
  • Character introduction
  • Conflict introduction
  • The actions that lead to the second act

The Middle

  • The problem is fully unveiled
  • Rising action
  • Rising action 
  • The climax

The End

  • The climax ends
  • Falling action
  • Falling action
  • Resolution

Not all stories follow this trend, but it’s a rough guide that you may want to follow. 

4. Read

Writing a short story is a science. Read classic shorts, new shorts, and anything related to what you hope to write. 

I suggest you read Writing Fiction, Tenth Edition: A Guide to Narrative Craft for a more straight-to-the-point formula-driven how-to. For a mixture of analysis, experience, and many short stories throughout, I highly recommend The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing

5. Just Write!

Sounds easier when just saying it, but it’s true! If outlining doesn’t work for you, start the writing part and plug in your character chart after.

a girl is typing on her bed, can't see her face though

Try this: close your eyes and think of a person — fake or real. Rest your fingers on the keyboard– or grab a pen/pencil. Think of a place, a horrible hell you’ve never been to, or somewhere sacred, like a beach on an untouched island. Where do you want to take this character? Where are they going? Now open your eyes, or leave them closed. Whatever is most comfortable. All I know is I have the power to make magic out of thin air, can you? 

Write even when it’s crap. What’s crap to you may not be crap later in the day. Remember, we are our biggest critics. Do not mind the mistakes, typos, and grammatical errors because you’ll fix them later once you’ve finished.

6. Share Your Work

a group of people are talking at a table with tablets and coffee

Sharing with your friends and family is a start, but eventually, you should venture out to people who share your creative writing passion. I know it sounds scary. Trust me, it is. Join workshop groups — people who owe you nothing, so there will be no bias.

Get multiple opinions! Join a college workshop class that prioritizes short stories and takes criticism, or submit your work online, like Sometimes, people may not like your story, and that is okay. Take what they say. Do you agree? Disagree? Maybe you’re in the middle. It’s okay if you have to change a part of your narrative. This is why you share with people to improve your writing. Edit to your heart’s desire. Take criticism or don’t. It’s your story, after all. 

Endings are difficult. In short stories, you only have a few options. Death or clarity. All you can do is practice, practice, and practice your storytelling. That’s the only way you can get better at writing.

Want more writing tips for NaNoWriMo? Click here!