Updated August 2023
You’re writing a short story and have a great opening line, an interesting plot that will wrap up neatly, and a word count that’s right on track. Yet, it still seems like something’s missing. At Writer’s Relief, we know there are must-have elements that make the difference between a “good” story and a “great” short story—which will also boost your odds of getting an acceptance from a literary journal editor. If you want to be published, here are the most important elements to consider when writing your short stories.
Important Elements Found In Great Short Stories
It’s not enough for your short story to have a good beginning and a great ending—you have to take your readers on an interesting journey through the middle. Most writers follow a standard narrative arc, but if you’re feeling brave, you can always mix it up. Just be sure your readers can follow the plot and the story engages their interest throughout.
At the heart of every great short story you’ll find some sort of tension or conflict. It may be as small as an argument over what to name the dog or as big as a race against time to stop the end of the world—but tension will improve your story. The longer you can draw out the suspense and the higher you can raise the stakes of your conflict, the more invested your readers will be in finding out what comes next.
Your characters might be people, animals, aliens, or even inanimate objects, but someone or something needs to drive the plot forward. To write intriguing characters, you need to give your readers ways to connect with them. Even the strangest space alien should have some qualities your readers can relate to and connect with. Once your readers identify with your characters on some level, they’ll start to care about what happens to them.
Characters also need to be connected to your plot. You could try telling the story of a harrowing divorce from the perspective of a mouse that lives in the wall, but the mouse doesn’t really care how the conflict resolves, so your readers won’t either—unless the divorce determines if the cat stays or moves out. Keep your characters linked to what’s moving the story forward.
If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you know how atmosphere can turn a simple swim into something sinister. When you’re writing, the details you relay about your setting are how you set the atmosphere. Reader expectations about a forest where the trees are “crowded close together, blotting out the sunlight and cutting off any escape” will be very different from a description of those same trees as “nestled together to form vibrant canopies.” Experiment with your wording to ensure your setting accurately reflects the tone of your story.
For inspiration, check out these examples of famous literature that makes good use of its settings.
A good ending offers your readers a resolution that pulls the threads of the story together neatly and includes the result of the central conflict. Did your protagonists prevail, or were the challenges too difficult? And make sure your resolution matches the story: An upbeat, optimistic story with a morose ending will leave your readers annoyed and unsettled. A surprise twist at the end can work, but your story should deliver on readers’ expectations and suit the genre in which you’re writing.
Whenever you finish writing a short story, review the elements listed here to confirm you’ve included all the necessary components. Then it’s time for the next step: Submit your story to literary journals! If the idea of researching and pinpointing the best journals for your work seems daunting, Writer’s Relief is here to help! Learn more about our services here. Our research team will pinpoint the best markets for your work and boost your odds of getting published. And that’s a pretty compelling reason to learn more about our services and submit your work to our Review Board today.
Question: Which element do you feel is most important to a short story? Why?