How to Write Short Stories

How to Write Short Stories

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No matter what else you write, every fiction writer needs…

A Simple, Systematic Approach to Writing GOOD Short Fiction!

I already know I want this…

Good short stories are a career staple for writers. They give you quick projects that are inexpensive to produce and that become an inexpensive way for you to:

  • keep your current readers happy,
  • experiment in different genres,
  • test new markets, and
  • explore contests, anthologies, and other tools for reaching new readers.

Writing good short fiction is as essential skill in any writer’s toolbox.

So in How to Write Short Stories, I walk you step by step through the entire process of mastering this ESSENTIAL fiction-writing career skill.

LESSON 1—How to Think Short: Painless Short-Story Idea Creation

There’s a significant difference between an idea that will work for a short story and an idea that will work for a novel. They’re both fiction, so they both need IDENTICAL story components. What ideas for short stories have, however, is a structural “door stop” that keeps them short.

Keeping the idea short isn’t the only problem, however.

  • You have to like the idea
  • It has to be a good idea
  • It has to be a workable idea
  • It has to be a finish-able idea
  • It has to matter to you, and…
  • It has to matter to your reader

One tiny digression:

You are a reader first.

So first, realize that ALL READERS including you live at life’s fiction buffet table, with everything you like and everything you hate already prepared for you. As a reader, you get to read only what you like. You go to the buffet and pick out just the fresh asparagus, the sautéed beef tips, and the raw sliced pears of the literary world. And if you never want to eat anything else, you never have to. To become a writer, you HAVE to be a reader first, and you have to know what you like. You as a reader don’t have to know why you like it, though, or how to define what you like, or what makes what you like different from what you don’t like.

Here’s the bad news…

Writer You doesn’t live at the buffet table.

You live out in the wild, in savage conditions, where you have nothing but what you can make with your brain and your own two hands.

  • If you don’t make clothes, you’re naked.
  • If you don’t find food, you starve.
  • Out here in the wild, you have to learn to “eat the elephant”—to not turn your nose up at anything that can teach you how to survive.

You have to learn how to use every part of the elephant—skin, bones, meat, offal, dung. And you might not find every part of the process fun.


The thing you decide NOT to learn because it isn’t what “Reader You” likes may be the very thing you’ll need down the road to save your story. Or your career.

So prepare yourself mentally to:

  • Read a lot of short stories you may not like, because every story—whether great, okay, or awful—can teach you something
  • Learn techniques you don’t think you’ll ever use, because life will push you into every hole you decide you don’t want to see
  • Discover parts of yourself you may find uncomfortable, because fiction comes not from the place where you’re cozy and safe, but from the place where you’re scared and uncertain and scrambling just to survive from one minute to the next

In spite of errr… threatened discomfort…  I need to know this…

LESSON 2—How to Plan Short: Fun, Effective Story Design

Writers frequently define themselves as over-planners, under-planners, hopeless planners, or complete non-planners.

Knowing how to plan your work, though, is the difference between starting a hundred stories and finishing none, and starting AND finishing a hundred stories.

It doesn’t have to be much of a plan. But if you’re setting out to write a 6000-word contest story and you don’t want to end up with Yet Another Unfinished Novel, you need to know how to plan short. So this week, you’re going to get my Second Definition of a Short Story, you’ll learn to build scenes that work, and then you’re going to build eight (yes, EIGHT) short story plans. Not all of my approaches will work for everyone, but try them all, and figure out which ones work best for you, which ones work with struggle or modification, and which ones don’t work at all (yet).

IMPORTANT: Go back to the ones that don’t work at all from time to time as you go through this course (and go through it again later) and test.

Experience and success with past stories can train your brain to think in new ways, and processes that didn’t work initially may turn into your favorites.

In this lesson, you’re going to learn and use:

  • The Six Cookies Approach
  • The Scene-Based Approach
  • The Length-Based Approach
  • The Character-Based Approach
  • The Twist-Based Approach
  • The Setting-Based Approach
  • The Plot-Based Approach
  • The Muse In Circles Approach

Each of these comes with a “live as I’m doing it” demo on the page, followed by a Your Turn with worksheets.

LESSON 3—How to Write Short: Get the Story You Want at the Length You Need

So at this point, you have multiple short-story ideas. You have at least one story plan. Now it comes down to the words. And if you tend to let your characters ramble, this is where things get dicey.

There is no rambling in short fiction.

The biggest thing I’m going to teach you this week is how to THINK SHORT.

To stop yourself from writing the words that will derail your story by eliminating them before you write them. And you’re going to do the writing to cement the thinking process.

In this lesson, you will:

  • Work on the steps to writing your (possibly first) 3000-word short story…
  • You’ll learn to identify four writing mistakes in short fiction that can cause you to run long, and how to not write them in the first place
  • You’ll learn how to identify the essentials that must stay in your story (and how to get them in each scene if you haven’t been)
  • You’ll learn to ask yourself the two Essential Questions for planning and writing scenes to length
  • You’ll learn how to strip down scene length while increasing your content
  • You’ll learn the scene-by-scene writing work flow that will get you through entire STORIES while writing to length
  • You’ll get my favorite technique for getting words on the page (it doesn’t work for everyone, but if it works for you, it’s truly amazing)
  • You’ll learn how to build your own Functional Story Structures by building a few
  • You’ll write your story up to BUT NOT INCLUDING THE END
  • And we’ll go over Literate vs. Literary [my definition] differences in story content: I don’t teach Literary writing, but I do teach Literate writing.

I know this is a big lesson with a lot of work. It’s content-heavy, and if you need more than one week to complete it, just remember that this class is entirely self-paced, you have permanent access to take it and retake it, and YOU DON’T HAVE TO HURRY.

Writing everything but the ending? In one fell swoop? Okay…

LESSON 4—How to End Short: Landing Twist, Resolution, and Meaning

You’ve written most of your story, but it isn’t coming together the way you imagined. It feels weak. Thinner than what you wanted, less funny, less passionate, less… something. And you’re struggling to make it matter, to make it mean something. In the included demo story this week, you’ll find something a bit different. The story came from early in my publishing career, and I took my best shot at something difficult. The story sold. It was published.

But it missed what I was shooting for. 

You’re reading the story this week to understand how a story that hit its word count, its deadline, its tone, its theme, and its subject… AND THAT SOLD… could still go wrong.

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

  • How to build subtext into your short stories
  • When to build subtext into your short stories
  • Why subtext matters
  • How to uncover the places in your story where your Muse came up with subtext content
  • And how to make every story you write matter to yourself, and to your perfect reader

This is the single most important lesson I have to offer on writing short stories.

It’s also one of the longest and most involved, and that’s even though I moved the  How to Revise Your Short Story process into the fifth lesson. You’re going to have to do some honest soul searching. You’re going to have to define what matters in your life, because until you have that clear in your mind, you cannot introduce meaning into your story, and until you can find the meaning your story needs, you cannot write a good ending.

Don’t worry about the “perfect” ending. This week you just need a real ending.

And this week, you’re going to get that.

Twist. Resolution. Meaning…

LESSON 5—How to Revise Short: Find and Fix Everything in ONE Comprehensive Revision

The job of the writer who wants to eat and who is depending on getting words into print to put food on the table is clear-cut and simple:

  • Write the story.
  • FIX the story.
  • Sell the story.

And the longer you piddle around with fixing it, the less able you are to pay bills. So THIS week, you’re going to learn how to Revise Short—to get your short stories into the best shape you can in ONE go, get them out, and move on to the next.

And this week, we’re doing things DIFFERENTLY, because this week we have to.

Last week, you read the late-stage draft that became my published story A Few Good Men. This week, you’ll read the lesson, then go through my worksheet demos which are based on last week’s story version. You’ll then go through YOUR story, and do your revisions.

So this week, read the LESSON first. 

Discover how to take your story from wherever it is now to GREAT in one revision… with a caveat that you’ll be seeing again in the lesson.

Here’s the caveat.

GREAT for you now is the best you are currently capable of writing.

It isn’t what GREAT for your favorite writer is, and it isn’t GREAT for the standard to which you’ll hold your work three years from now, or ten years from now, or fifty years from now. You are shooting for the best you are capable of making your story right now, today, using what you know so far.

You will get better. 

If you use the techniques I teach, you’ll still be learning and getting better with every story you write for the rest of your life. So give yourself a break, dammit. Twenty years from now, you’ll look back at YOUR A Few Good Men, and cringe. But that just means that you haven’t wasted twenty years of your life rewriting the same story over and over and over.

This week, you’re going to learn:

  • The importance of the Fresh-Eyed Read Through,
  • The absolute necessity of reading your story aloud, or having your computer read it to you,
  • The process of discovering and clearly identifying your story’s problems,
  • The process of planning for their correction,
  • The process of revising a short story,
  • AND the process of the type-in.

This class does not cover obtaining or working with beta readers for crowdsourced copyediting, nor will it cover line-editing (which is what an editor does), nor will it cover title and copy testing which are covered in Title. Cover. Copy. ) For the purposes of this class, the objective is to finish submittable stories. And then submit them.

I want to do “Write. Fix. Submit.” right.

LESSON 6—Contests, Anthologies, Collections, Spin-Offs: Short Fiction to Build Your Reputation & Market Your Brand

You want to create multiple points of entry for readers to discover you. Short stories in your own anthologies, in commercial anthologies, in magazines, and as stand-alones give you a ways to create those points of entry with less cost in time and effort than by exclusively writing novels. At the point where you want to bring folks into your world, but you need to do it without futzing around with existing characters’ timelines, you:

  • Use a new set in one of your existing Core sets
  • Create new, disposable characters
  • Relate to a kind of conflict similar to the kinds of conflicts other characters in your world have had to deal with

In this lesson you will:

  • Determine what is important to you in building your fiction career
  • Figure out how writing short stories can help you reach your career goals
  • Define the kinds of short stories that fit inside your career definition
  • And lay out the groundwork that will allow every story you write to fit inside the career you want to have
  • You’ll work through Discovery, with the steps of Improvement, Selectivity and Persistence

You’ll begin building your Career Path, including developing a Career Definition that will focus everything you write from now on in the direction that will allow you to reach your goals You’ll build your Walled Garden, and start fitting your work inside of it so that you can build a readership of people who want to read YOU You’ll learn what to avoid: The things that will derail your career and leave you with work that doesn’t help you or bring you the readers you want. You’ll learn how to take your Walled Garden wide, so more readers can discover you in more places. You’ll learn how to hit deadlines for anthologies, collections, and other time-limited opportunities. And you’ll get answers to some of the rest of the questions folks asked that fit inside this VERY big lesson.

This is where you start building the body of work that will define your career. Where you start creating your legacy.

I want to learn career skills…

LESSON 7—Time and the Short Story: Writing 50 Years in 6000 Words

Writers frequently think that the length of a story determines the amount of time that can pass in it. Nothing could be further from the truth, so this week, you’re going to read a story of mine that covers 50 years in 6000 words.

Read it first, and see if you can figure out two things:

  • How I use time in the story, and
  • WHY I cover the amount of time I do.

This week’s lesson is short.

  • It covers only one subject—the use of time in short fiction.

But when you learn to use time in fiction, you acquire the skill to create a short story that can cover anywhere from one second (but it has to be one very important second) all the way up to millennia.

At the point where you master time in short fiction, you’ll be able to do things with your fiction most writers NEVER figure out.

This week you’ll:

  • Learn to read fiction for the importance of TIME
  • Learn how to define WHY time will matter in your story
  • Learn how to plan out what you want time to do in your fiction
  • And you’ll write a time-centric short story
  • While this lesson is short, the techniques in it are extremely powerful. Take the time you need to understand and master them.

Never even thought about time…

LESSON 8—Identifying & Writing Fundamental Genre Elements

In this final week, we’re focusing on genre, and more specifically, how to learn to write the genre you want to learn. With dozens of genres, hundreds of subgenres, and an essentially infinite number of potential genres, finding your place as a fiction writer might seem impossible. But at the point where you know what matters to you and can define it clearly, you have the path to YOUR genre or genres built.

Genre is a tool. It does not define your work, or what you can put in it.

But there’s BIG GENRE, which is what booksellers like Amazon and Apple and Barnes & Noble and Kobo use to market fiction. And there’s YOUR genre, which is the collection of elements that define what matters to you in fiction and how you work that into everything you do.

And then there’s learning how to connect YOUR genre to the BIG GENRES that will let readers find you.

So in this lesson: 

  • You’ll identify the elements of fiction that matter to you
  • You’ll locate stories that contain those elements
  • You’ll find the parts of those stories that fit inside YOUR genre
  • And you’ll adapt them for your own use.

This final lesson is designed to help you create work in any BIG GENRE that is still true to your personal philosophy, to the fiction elements that you love, and to help you create work that will allow you to reach across genres to deliver your kind of stories to your  True Fans, while still exploring new markets and new genres.

All eight lessons and worksheets are complete, excluding one demo story I have to revise and include for the revision lesson.

However, the lessons are still in their original form, awaiting their place on my Revisions and Updates schedule. So the price on the class is lower than it will be once I’ve gone through with my students and finished the bug-hunting and added any necessary upgrades or expansions.

Enrolled Students: Your Lessons Are Below

The Process of Writing Short Stories IS NOT Just A Cut-Down Version of Writing Novels… Or a Jumped-Up Version of Writing Flash Fiction!

It Is Its Own Unique, Learnable Skill… And You CAN Learn It!


  • Eight comprehensive PDF lessons.
  • Printable PDF worksheets.
  • Diagrams and charts as needed.
  • Demos and short stories (by the author) for dissection.
  • Private Class Forum for lesson work, help, and practice.
  • Permanent in-version access, and all in-version upgrades free.

How to Write Short Stories
Single Payment
Short Fiction: An ESSENTIAL Fiction-Writing Career Skill
Single Payment, Permanent Classroom Access
In EIGHT weekly lessons, you will learn how to:
Quickly learn to generate GOOD short-fiction ideas...
And avoid "It turned into an unfinished novel on me" syndrome
Learn how to PLAN to have short story ideas that you and your readers will LOVE
... AND THEN, "Eat the Elephant" in building your fiction-writing tools (or the vegetarian equivalent)
Build story plans that will STAY short by design (and NOT turn into Yet Another Unfinished Novel)
Master all 8 approaches to planning short fiction
Write Short: Get the story you WANT at the length you NEED
Learn how to END SHORT, while still landing your Twist, your Resolution, and most importantly, your MEANING
Learn how to REVISE short: Write the story. FIX the story. SELL the story.
And then learn how to get your stories out there and start building your reputation, and marketing your brand!
Move to ADVANCED short-fiction skills by mastering TIME in short fiction
Identify core features of YOUR genre that you can build into your work to build YOUR audience!
You can do this!

Holly Lisle

Novelist, Writing Course Creator

Course Information

Course Instructor

Holly_Think Holly_Think Author

Novelist. Writing-course creator.