Writing short stories for adults

Writing short stories is a quick way to get your work up for sale as a Kindle book on Amazon, however many people make basic mistakes which result in their story getting lousy reviews or just dropping out of sight in the rankings. It’s easily done, and when doing reviews of other works, we’ve seen it over and over again. The problem is that it’s a well-known fact that writing short stories is easy money.


What is true is that writing short stories is a relatively quick way of getting your work out there. Obviously a 5,000 word, 15 to 20 page tale is much quicker to write than a 200,000 word blockbuster. But that doesn’t mean it can be just churned out in a day’s work.

Short stories need more planning per word than a full-length novel because you have a relatively small space to:

  • Paint a picture of the setting
  • Turn the principal protagonists into real people
  • Cover the essential dialogue
  • Create a beginning, a middle and an ending

Just looking at the adult fiction market for a moment (writing short stories for children is a very different kettle of fish because of the different language used, the complexity of the story etc): there are a number of basic mistakes that newbies to the short story genre regularly make. (For the record, non-fiction books are intrinsically different although there is common ground with what I’m going to say now.)

Poor perceived value is the main cause of bad reviews.

You know and I know that the length of a book is no guide to whether it’s any good or not. If someone could produce a 1,000 word short story that guaranteed I could become a bestselling author by next weekend (and delivered the goods), I’d say that was a marvellous purchase which was well worth whatever I paid for it even if that sum were hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

However, your short story just won’t cut it if it’s too short. Don’t take my word for it, read all the book reviews on Amazon which grumble about ‘how I paid good money for something that could have been written on the back of a postcard’. The problem may well lie with Amazon’s insistence that a minimum price of $0.99 is charged but they’re a multi-national corporation with a billion dollar turnover. The rules aren’t going to change because you or I want them to therefore we need to learn to live with them.

Think of the customer and their point of view for a moment. They’ve shelled out just over a dollar (more when you include tax and Amazon’s handling fees) and they’ve got a mere couple of pages back. They then peruse this in a few minutes, feel embarrassed and angry that they’ve been duped and tell everyone that you ripped them off. They’ll never buy from you again and you’ll probably get a stinging review.


The lesson to be learnt is to have a minimum of about 5,000 words in every individual piece you put up for sale or put several stories together but try not to mix the genres or you’ll end up appealing to no-one.

Now I want to look at the way the short story’s written.

You’ve got an idea for a story and the ending’s clear in your head. Think about it: how do you get to that ending?

The next batch of traps are favourite ones into which even experienced authors can fall.

Muddled storyline

As I’ve already said, one of the problems of the short story genre is the issue of ‘getting it all said in a small space’. Even a ‘long’ short story will only be about 10,000 words – that’s not much for a complex storyline.

As a result, authors often try to turn their short story into a mini-novel but that simply doesn’t work. A short story has to take just one idea and run with it. You can’t normally get away with multiple threads and complex stories – if you put them in, they’ll only end up making the tale confusing.

Look at the name of the genre – twist-in-the-tail. A tail is a long, thin object which usually has a bend in it. Likewise, your story must be tight but not too straight and linear. Don’t try and introduce forks and parallel threads unless the whole point of the story is the existence of these threads.

Deus ex machina

The notion of not resorting to such a device dates back to the Ancient Greek poet, Horace and you could be forgiven for thinking such a well-established no-no would be a thing of the past. Not so.Hollywood uses it all the time in films (but they have multi-million dollar advertising budgets behind them that can overcome bad publicity and still make people queue to pay – you don’t have this kind of cash).

Examples of deus ex machina might be:

  • Waiting on a station platform in a far-off country, having narrowly missed the train you wanted to catch and then suddenly bumping into your childhood sweetheart.
  • Being desperate for cash, using your last bit of small change to buy a lottery ticket and then suddenly winning.
  • Your lead character finding out he or she is the son/daughter of the bigwig they’re trying to extort money from.
  • A la James Bond style, your specially equipped car having ‘just the right gadget’ to catch the bad guys off guard.
  • Your hero fortuitously spouting fluent Arabic in a tight situation because when he was a boy he had a nanny fromMorocco.

… and so on. Yes, of course in real life you might just be fortunate enough to have this happen to you, but unless you are writing a biography (where it did actually take place) or doing a parody of the Super-Hero stuff, don’t go there.

Reliance on revealed knowledge

To my mind, this is even more naff although there are some reading this that might argue that it’s really just another form of deus ex machina. The way it works is that the story is resolved by (usually) the main protagonist suddenly revealing knowledge that they’ve possessed all along.

It’s a standard plot device for the worst type of ‘mystery’. There isn’t really any mystery – it’s just a secret that the writer’s not letting on about in order to make an unexciting tale appear exciting.

Now, if the story is written from the perspective of just one character, then this might not be an issue. It’s perfectly fair comment to not know something that no-one’s told you or that you’ve not discovered. It would be bizarre otherwise.

However most short stories are seen from an omniscient viewpoint (because it makes them easier to write) and, since omniscient means ‘all-knowing’, how could the narrator not know something that one of the characters knows? That’s completely illogical.

Mixing genres

A short story needs to have its own genre just like a novel. It’s almost certainly not big enough to cope with a blend of genres. Thus, a full-length novel about sharp-shooting cowboys who came from outer space is one thing but doing that in a short story will only confuse the few readers who choose to buy it.

Mixing genres also makes a short story very difficult to fit into an anthology. These have to be finely balanced with each story complementing the others and a slapstick comedy-zombie-romance is not going to be easy to place, no matter how beautifully it’s been written.

In conclusion

These are just some of the main points to consider when writing short stories however hopefully it will give you an idea of what it entails and the main pitfalls to avoid.

The most important thing, of course, is that it has to be an enjoyable experience for the reader. This has the best chance of happening if you stick to the rules set out above.

About the writer

Apart from being a director of Any Subject Ltd, Clive West is also the author of an anthology of twist-in-the-tail short stories called Hobson’s Choice which can be purchased from Amazon.