Writing short stories is more difficult than it seems before you try it. If you read a lot of short stories, you know how simple a good short story can seem. But in the same way a dancer works for years honing muscles and talent in order to make dancing look easy, writers spend months (and years, sometimes) perfecting that 15-page story you breezed through in less than an hour.
So if you really want to write a short story, you should know that it's going to take time, commitment, and probably a lot of frustration. Still interested? Here are some basic things to think about when you're just getting started:
• Characters are your reader’s guide through the story, helping to connect the reader to the story and its plot and cluing them in on things that they might not already know or understand. Successful characters are complex and fallible. This means that they, like real people, have conflicting ideas, beliefs, and desires, and that they make mistakes. In fact, your characters' mistakes are what will make your story interesting. Good characters are also active; they make their own decisions and are responsible for their own actions, rather than simply having things done to them.
• Plot is inextricably connected to character. This is because plot is not just about what happens—it’s about WHY it happens. What circumstances, beliefs, and decisions make the characters in your story do the things they do? Just as in real life, nobody in a story should do anything without a reason. Part of your job as a writer is to demonstrate to the reader, through exposition (straightforward explanation) or action why characters think and do the things they think and do. You should also remember that a short story, because of its length, has less room for extreme plots with lots of twists. Most short stories focus on one moment or aspect of a character's life, rather than the entire life.
• Good dialogue gives each character their own unique speaking voice, and that speaking voice should be a reflection of the character’s personality, background, and circumstances. Good dialogue also means that a character’s mood and actions during a conversation affect the conversation itself. It's also important to consider every conversation from the perspective of each character involved. Because short stories have limited space, you should include dialogue only when the conversation itself matters to the progress of the plot and/or character development. Nothing slows down a story like a long chain of dialogue that doesn’t tell us anything new.
• A well-chosen setting can be a useful tool for establishing mood, character, and social mores in a short story. The place and time a character comes from fundamentally affects who they become and what's important to them; likewise, the place and time in which a character lives over the course of the story affects the character and the kind of story that can happen there. Choosing the right setting can also help you to find new conflicts and solutions to problems when you get stuck in the writing process.
• Description helps the world of your story come alive, and helps make your reader feel like they're there. Good description SHOWS readers what you want them to see/experience in your work. Sensory details (smells, tastes, sounds, etc.) allow your readers to feel like they're inside the world of the story. Be as specific as possible so readers can experience the same things your characters experience. Figurative language gives your descriptions character, makes unfamiliar situations more familiar, and gives readers a more concrete understanding of things like emotions. In short fiction, it’s key to make sure you only describe the most important elements of your story. Giving detailed descriptions of every tiny thing slows down the story and bores the reader.
Keep in mind that not all great stories hit all of these marks, and hitting all of these marks doesn't necessarily mean you've written a great story (although it's almost impossible to write a good one without hitting at least a few of these marks). Writing good short stories isn't just about technical precision; it's also about the spark of magic that comes when a writer falls in love with what she's writing, and that love seeps into the words she writes, infecting the reader. It's chemical, and impossible to manufacture.
You should also keep in mind that the first few attempts to write a short story may very well turn out terribly. That's okay. Every writer in the world has written some truly terrible stuff. But if you have something to say, and you keep trying to say it until you get it right, eventually, you'll have something great.