Elements to Writing a Great Short Story

Stories are an ancient art; they have been passed down orally for centuries and recently have evolved into the printed form so popular today. A short story can range in length from 1000 words to several thousand but to make your work effective a few basics have to be considered: You theme and your delivery.

Theme (What)

The theme is essentially the heart of the story that binds all the other elements together. The same way blood is pumped throughout the body by the heart and then returns to the heart, the theme is both the source and the destination of your story. In other words, the theme is everything. What is your story about? Why are you telling the story? What is your message, your question, your idea?

The theme is important because without it it is impossible to tell a cohesive story. Determine what your theme is by asking yourself why you want to tell this particular story? Why is it important to you and why do you feel it should be important to your audience? What do you want your audience to take from this? What is it about? If you have answered these questions and you are still clueless some self-examination is necessary. What do you believe a good story should be? Do you think about your characters? What does this story mean to you?

Short stories can launch your writing careerDelivery (How)

Once you have a clear idea of why you are writing – what your story is about it is time to use the appropriate tools to make it great. Plot, setting, tense and style are all essential building blocks to creating a compelling story – your particular choices in those areas are what differentiates yours from another author. Your skill in manipulating these elements to make a cohesive whole is what the audience is judging when they read your work.


A story is not a story without a plot. A story is defined as a series of events so if you describe a series of still images or a collection of thoughts and opinions on global warming you have not chosen the right form. The series of images can be manipulated to create poems and thoughts on global warming should be organized as an essay.

The plot must be chosen to support the theme. Although there are many theories on what is considered a great plot, a simple blueprint applicable to any genre is the one created by Aristotle. Read Aristotle’s Poetics to get a basic idea of the influences that have informed literature since its inception. It has been used for centuries and continues to be the base of storytelling. Once you have mastered it you should manipulate it to suit your story – change it in ways to more effectively support your theme.


With a few notable exceptions, almost all stories are told in past tense. Do not use the present tense unless you have a fundamental reason to do so. It is a risk and can be irritating to your reader unless it is to illustrate a particular point. Any rule can be broken but it must be deliberately done for the betterment of your work and to support your theme.


The style is not as concrete as the other tools used to create an effective story. It includes everything from voice to word choice to syntax and despite the wide range of choices can create an unmistakable and clearly defined world to excellent effect. The element that is necessary no matter the specific choice is that the style supports the theme. If our theme is that all endeavors are pointless or that life is meaningless, we might want to tell the story in a way that would support that meaninglessness. We might try a variety of methods depending on our skill level and personality.

No matter your theme an author is judged and defined their choices. How we choose to tell the story and how effectively we do so is what makes your work success or a failure. Regardless of the result, a story can always be improved upon, edited and structured to more effectively support your theme. Storytelling is an art and as such can almost always be improved upon.

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