A Guide to Writing a Short Story

Your Seton English counselors have crafted a mini 'course' to give you the best chance at succeeding in the short story contests. Let's Start

“I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”
–Flannery O’Connor

Studying a story is well and good—perhaps by now you have perfected the art of book analysis writing—but when there is a Seton High School Short Story Contest deadline approaching, how does one go about writing a story?

As Catholics, we want to write stories of true craftsmanship that both entertain and inspire.

Pope Saint John Paul II in his “Letter to Artists” encouraged artists to offer to the world new “epiphanies of beauty.” A beautiful story does not have to have all admirable, good-looking characters, or a happy ending in which somebody gets married.

Rather, a story that is beautiful has three qualities identified by St. Thomas Aquinas: unity, proportion, and clarity.

Short Stories: An Art Form

A crucial consideration is that a short story is not a novel. It doesn’t follow the life adventures of its protagonist (main character), nor comprise multiple situations disconnected from a single plotline.

A short story is a single event in a person’s life, or an event in a situation. No extraneous time is spent on detail, backstory or relationships, unless it directly relates to the single message of the story.

In a novel, you have the time and space to delve into subplots, wax rhetorical about lyrical landscapes and include a wealth of dialogue to display character traits and intentions.

Not in a short story. In a short story, everything unnecessary is whittled out, in the same way that a good joke is reduced to the barest elements to set you up for a memorable punchline.

This is not to say that short stories are mathematical or scientific in their presentation. Not at all; they can be breathtaking, rich with description and lovely with people. They can also be gripping with action, or filled with soul-searing tragedy.

Keeping all this in mind, one of our Seton English counselors has crafted this course to give you the best chance at succeeding in the short story contest. If you enjoy writing, then you’ll enjoy learning how to craft the poised, precise and flourishing art of the short story.

Part 1: Unity

For a story to be unified and whole, it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The Beginning

In the beginning, the main character and his or her conflict is introduced.

  • The secondary characters and the setting are also introduced.
  • The tone of the story is established and some indication of the theme is given.

The Middle

In the middle, the plot develops, and the main character faces increasingly difficult challenges as he attempts to overcome his conflict and reach his goal.

  • Throughout the middle, character and theme are developed. The story’s action is controlled by character and theme.
  • The events of the middle should lead up to a climactic moment which will occur at the end.

The End

In the end, the story reaches a climax, a moment or scene in which the main character confronts his conflict most directly and is changed in a significant and lasting way.

  • Because short stories usually end with the impact of the climax, the resolution may be brief. Give details of actions, words, or imagery that indicate that the main character has changed and that his life will never be the same again.
  • The ending does not have to be happy to be satisfying to the reader; the ending may be bittersweet, or funny, or sad, or frightening. For an ending to be satisfying, all story threads should be tied up, and the conclusion should be both surprising, yet fitting.

5 Short Stories

These five short stories  have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and conclude on a climactic note.

Part 2: Proportion

A story is made up of many elements. In a harmonious story, each of these elements will work together—each doing its job, each in due proportion to its purpose and importance—to make up a unified whole.


A short story usually will have a single plot line, without subplots, which takes place in a brief space of time.

Plot is what happens in a story. Plot refers to the way the actions and events are arranged into a dramatic whole: beginning, middle, end.

The time frame of a short story’s plot should be brief. The events might unfold in an hour or a day; they should not cover more than a few weeks.

Plot is driven by the conflict and by the choices that characters make.


Some obstacle or threat arises which interrupts the main character’s normal life and motivates him to take action. Conflict is what kick-starts a story and what makes it a story.

Conflict is the struggle between the main character and another person or an internal or external problem. The story is the main character’s efforts to overcome each obstacle, until he either defeats or is defeated by the opposition.

A key part of making a conflict compelling is to think about what is at stake for your main character.

  • What is the worst thing that could happen to my character in this conflict?
  • What will my main character lose if he loses this conflict?

Knowing the answer to these questions will help you to make the most of your conflict.

The conflict could be as low stakes as a child trying to finish baking Mom’s surprise birthday cake before she comes home, or as high stakes as a man fighting for his life in a hostile wilderness.

In the first scenario, the stakes are that the surprise might be spoiled by Mom coming home too soon, or that the cake itself might not be baked properly due to being rushed.

In the second scenario, the stakes are much higher; if the man does not overcome his conflict with his environment, he will die.


A short story should be limited to a small cast of characters, and the main character should have changed in some significant and irreversible way by the end.

Some short story writers recommend limiting yourself to a main character and no more than two or three secondary characters.

The main character is involved in a conflict and has a want. The thing that the main character wants moves him to act to get what he wants. The main character’s choices move the story forward.

Often, what the main character needs in order to be a better person and live a better life will not be the same thing as what the character originally wants. Having a character sacrifice what he wants and instead choose what he needs is a great way to show character change.

For example, a young man wants to take the easiest route to becoming a musician for the sake of being rich and famous. He meets an elderly, retired musician who becomes his mentor. Through this relationship, the young man realizes that what he needs is to take the time to truly learn the craft and then use his talents to serve God and neighbor.

In order to be believable, character change must be motivated. Be sure to incorporate enough motivation to account for the change; the bigger the change, the greater the motivation needed.

  • What does my main character want?
  • What will my main character lose if he does not get what he wants?
  • What does my character need? Is it the same thing as what he wants, or something different?
  • How does my main character change?
  • What motivates that change?
  • How will I show that the change has happened?


The theme is the heart of the story; it is what the story is essentially about, below the surface.

A theme is an insight about life or human nature that grows naturally out of the particulars of the story. The characters’ choices, the consequences of those choices, the resolution of the main conflict, and the change in the characters all reveal a certain message about life.

You might discover your theme as you write, and the theme likely will become more complex as your story develops. At the same time, the theme also acts as a measure that tells you which details are more important, which are less important, and which are irrelevant to the telling of your story.

  • What lesson does my main character learn by the end of the story?
  • What do the consequences of my main character’s choices and the resolution of the conflict reveal about life or human nature?
  • Once I’ve discovered my theme, how can I revise the story so that the theme is communicated more clearly?


What the characters say should stir up conflict, reveal character, or develop tone. Particularly effective dialogue does all of these at the same time.

Character and action are the main movers of the plot; dialogue is secondary. In other words, who your characters are and what they do is more important than what they say.

Story conversations should sound believable, but should not be just a transcript of real-life conversations. Rather, craft dialogue for a purpose. Dialogue should lead to action; it should “make something happen” in a story.

A character’s history, age, education, circumstances in life, and personality will affect the way he speaks and the words he chooses. While dialogue should reflect the personality and motivation of the speaker, remember that characters do not usually explain their thoughts, feelings, and motivations to other characters; most of the time, the writer needs to convey these things indirectly.

Dialogue also includes a character’s thoughts. Character thoughts should not be placed in quotation marks. Either leave thoughts in plain text or italicize them.

In The Lilies of the Field, readers are given Homer Smith’s thoughts at the end of his first day working for Mother Maria. His thoughts show his easygoing, informal manner: “These nuns are nice people, he thought, and that old lady’s got a shrewd mind, loose and easy.”


Make the setting unique to your story, and intersperse vivid, descriptive details to show your characters living and interacting in a particular place and time.

Setting details may include geographical location, year, season, time of day, weather, indoor or outdoor location, and the objects in a room.

Have characters interact with the setting. The description of the setting can reveal information about the personality and state of mind of your characters.

For example, the fact that Ebenezer Scrooge is the only tenant in “a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building” tells us something about his miserly character. Scrooge’s disturbed state of mind is shown by setting details such as the description of his dressing gown “hanging up in a suspicious attitude.”

In contrast, when Scrooge is joyful on Christmas morning, the day is lit with “golden sunlight” and filled with the sound of “merry bells.”

  • Where does my story take place?
  • Have I made my setting clear to the reader?
  • How does the setting affect my story?
  • Could my story be told anywhere else?

Point of View.

Who is narrating the story influences the way the story is told.

In first-person point of view, the story is narrated by one of the characters, the “I” of the story, who is either a participant in the conflict or a witness of the conflict.

An advantage with this point of view is that the reader is closely involved in the action. A drawback is that the writer is limited to that one character’s thoughts and observations, and can present only what that one character could logically know.

In third-person-limited point of view, the story is told in the third person (he, she, it), but everything is seen through the perception of one character. The advantages and disadvantages are similar to those of first person; the reader can be closely involved in the action, but the writer is limited to what the viewpoint character could logically know.

In third-person-omniscient point of view, the story is told by an all-knowing narrator who is completely outside of the story and has access to all of the characters’ thoughts, histories, and motivations.

An advantage is that the writer can describe any of the characters’ thoughts and actions as they relate to the main conflict. A disadvantage is that this viewpoint keeps the reader at a distance from the story’s action.

  • Who is the best person to tell my story?
  • How does my story change, depending on which character is the viewpoint character?
  • Would my story be better told by an omniscient narrator?


Choose different incidents, details, and words depending on the feeling you wish to convey, such as humor, suspense, joy, or sorrow.

Tone is also affected by the use of a formal or informal writing style, and a reliable or unreliable narrator.

  • What is the emotional tone of my story?
  • Do my word choices match the tone?

5 Stories

Except for “From East to West,” each of these are humorous in tone and focus on revealing character. “First Confession” has a large amount of dialogue. “From East to West” is suspenseful in tone and uses multiple points of view to produce one effect.

Part 3: Clarity

A short story is not a novel, there usually isn’t time to delve into the rationale and reasoning behind a character’s change of heart. Some stories can do this quite well, but it is extremely difficult to craft a life-changing moment as a short story and make it believable.

As we stated at the beginning of this guide, a short story focuses on a discrete moment in time in their lives, a single event usually ending in a twist or surprise conclusion.

In this sense, ‘clarity’ in the message you want to leave with the reader. If the story is animated by a deeper moral, or example, or a point of humor, or a cautionary tale, then it is the reason for the story existing, and informs how you structure your story.

It is not always necessary to be explicit about your message. In fact, some of the best and most rewarding tales are the ones that allow the reader to infer the message, or the cautionary tale. Try to avoid ‘beating the reader over the head’ with a didactic principle.

When you understand that your reader loves to solve puzzles and unlock meaning in stories, you can focus on the characters, the events and their decisions and dialogue that propel them toward the climax.

Appeal to the senses.

Fiction is engaging and clear when there is imagery and movement for the reader to latch onto.

Appeal to the senses. Paint vivid pictures with concrete descriptions, rather than abstract ones. Keep all five senses in mind when you write, not only the sense of sight.

Use figurative language (but be discriminating; don’t overdo it!)


To convey that the air was brisk, Quentin Reynolds, in “A Secret For Two,” says “the air was like iced wine.”

Likewise, instead of stating that a certain man’s voice is emotionally cold, William Faulkner, in “Barn Burning,” says the voice is “harsh like tin and without heat like tin.”


Michael McLaverty, in “The Wild Duck’s Nest,” compares a boy’s shout to a shower of water; he says that the boy gave “an exultant whoop which splashed upon the hills in a shower of echoed sound.”


Selma Lagerlof, in “A Christmas Guest,” describes a snowstorm in terms of human action: “The storm whirled and played…took a pillar of snow in its arms and danced.”


Choose fitting, active verbs.

Does a character just walk across a room, or does he stride, hobble, stomp, shuffle, amble, swagger, or toddle?

Does the strange machine your character invented just make a loud noise, or does it whir, screech, buzz, creak, clang, rumble, or boom?

Ask the Holy Spirit and St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, to help you to craft a beautiful and entertaining story. Happy writing!

  • The Wild Duck’s Nest‘ by Michael McLaverty (figurative language and vivid description)
  • A Christmas Guest‘ by Selma Lagerlof (figurative language, character change)
  • A Sick Call‘ by Morley Callaghan (complex characters and motivation)

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