You might be thinking of writing a short story but you’re not sure what short story elements are.
Or you might know they exist but with all the information out there, you’re not sure which short story elements you absolutely have to include.
Or you might have started writing that short story already and you’ve been winging it, but you’re now in trouble – you know you’re stuck.
But (and this happens to a looooot of writers) you’re not sure
- what’s wrong
- how to fix it
- what to remove to keep your short story to a specific word count, or
- what to add cos your short story (as it is) is much shorter than you need it to be.
By the end of this post, you’ll know what short story elements are, the ones your short story has to have, and why.
So, a short story begins with an idea, but there are six short story elements you must know about and include for your short story to stand out.
Think about this as the who in/of your story. And no, they don’t always have to be human.
So, the characters in your short story can all be animals, inanimate objects, natural elements or supernatural beings that you’ve given human characteristics and emotions.
Although short stories are of different types (flash fiction, short story, longer short story) = they’re of different lengths, bear in mind that a short story isn’t a novel.
So, you just don’t have as many words to work with in a short story, as you do in a novel.
Knowing this, bearing it in mind will have an impact on what you do with your short story elements. So, if your short story is meant to 3,000 words for instance, you’re not going to spend 2,000 words on one character.
For the same reason, you’re not going to create 15 characters for one short story.
If you do that, you’re most likely not going to have enough words to spend on the other five short story elements.
Meaning your entire short story will fall flat, you’ll get horrid reviews, you get the picture.
But to create characters even as one of your short story elements (as opposed to for a novel), there are questions you absolutely need to ask and answer.
- Who is this character?
- Why is this character relevant to my story?
- What are their characteristics?
- What’s their back story?
- Even if my audience doesn’t like this character, is this character believable?
- Is this character static or dynamic?
A static character stays the same from the beginning of a story till the end; a dynamic character changes in some pronounced way.
The main character of a story just can’t and shouldn’t, under any circumstances, be static.
If yours is, you haven’t created the character properly or done a good job of developing the character.
There’ll actually be other questions you’ll have to ask to develop characters but those are usually dependent on the genre and length of your short story.
The ones listed above are the ones that tend to apply across the board. Even for when you want to include minor characters.
You don’t have to reveal the answers to all the questions for your audience – especially cos the length of your piece, might make it impossible or redundant.
But you absolutely have to know your characters inside out.
Please request our character sketch cheat sheet below and compare the info you’ll find there, with what your short story needs.
This is another of the really important short story elements; think of it in terms of time and place.
In other words, the when and where of your story.
Just like you don’t have leeway to use many characters in a short story, the same applies to settings.
Depending on the length of your short story, there can be more than one location. But you can’t have too many.
Else it won’t flow, you’ll give your audience emotional whiplash cos it’ll be difficult for them to keep up, and you’ll probably go over your word count.
When thinking of time as one of the components of setting (which is one of the crucial short story elements), you need to consider the period in which your story is happening.
So is it historical, contemporary or futuristic?
And even within ‘period’, try to nail down a more specific time frame. It doesn’t have to be something like Oooh, this happened on 24th September, 1959 (although it can be).
But you need to remember that a lot can change in a century. Or even a decade.
So, saying My short story is set in the 1800s, or 1950s or 2060 and leaving it at that, really isn’t going to cut it.
Even if you don’t provide an exact date for your audience, you’re going to need to be a bit more specific for the sake of your story.
So, for instance, the 1980s & the 1990s were in the same century, but things – like mindsets, the way people dressed, spoke, lived, where they socialised, income levels, political situation, etc – didn’t remain the same.
With the place component of setting, you need to ask where your short story is happening.
That means you need to take into account things like climate, landmarks, etc. And decide how important they are to your story.
In other words, is your setting just when and where stuff happens or is it central to your story?
So, if for instance, your short story is about an industrial or political revolution, chances are the time and place are crucial to the story – especially if it’s based on real life.
The third of the crucial short story elements, you want to think about this as the how.
In other words, how whatever you’re writing about, plays out from the beginning to end.
You’d have to take style into account to determine the structure of your short story.
But even within your genre, the plot has to be believable else your short story falls flat.
On the one hand, there’s no hard and fast rule in that some short stories are actually told from the beginning, some from the middle, and others are started from the end.
On the other hand, there’s a rule in that short stories must all have
- a beginning
- a conflict which isn’t necessarily physical or aggressive
- a climax
- an end/denouement/resolution.
Again, the number of words you dedicate to each, will depend on your total word count.
4) Point of view
This is one of the short story elements that some people either ignore completely (till they run into problems).
Or are confused about cos they’re not entirely sure what it should be.
But the point of view is the perspective from which the story is told or narrated.
In fiction, there are four points of view: first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient.
And you know from which point of view a story is being narrated cos of the pronouns used.
Please, note this isn’t to do with dialogue.
With the first person point of view, your short story reads like an autobiography cos of the use of I/my.
So, something like
I came home that night to find…
Again, this isn’t dialogue. It’s literally the point of view from which the story is narrated to the reader.
The second person point of view uses you/your.
It’s not dialogue, it’s just the way the story is told.
You didn’t know this, but…
The third person point of view uses (s)he/us/they/his/hers/theirs/ours.
He saw her coming and he…
But the difference between the limited and the omniscient is that the former is limited to what the reader knows, but the omniscient version knows everything.
So third person limited point of view would be
He saw her coming and he felt excitement welling up in him.
But third person omniscient point of view would be
He wanted to explain but she felt repulsed.
Now, unless she tells him, he doesn’t know what she’s feeling cos he can’t read minds.
Even if she has a look on her face, he can deduce or guess; he doesn’t know for sure = the story isn’t being told from a third person omniscient point of view.
Now, the problem with telling your story from the third person omniscient point of view is the temptation to tell, not show.
So, you could find yourself literally telling your audience the entire story without leaving them room to discover anything, or for their imagination to work.
I’d honestly advise to pick one point of view for your short story. And stick with it.
Otherwise, it gets confusing and your short story gets badly muddled up.
Second person point of view isn’t impossible but there’s a danger of morphing into a really weird version of third person omniscient cos you’re trying to tell the story of another person as fully as possible.
So, pick one point of view and stick with it.
As one of our short story elements, this is more to do with how you tell the story.
So, things like figures of speech used, certain words your audience might come to associate with you, and emotions you evoke in your audience would come under style.
It’s more than being formulaic or genre-specific; this is your storytelling style that makes you stand out from others in your genre.
There are certain writers whose work you might recognise, even before you see their name attached.
And that’s cos of their style.
They’ve created or chosen a style that differentiates them from others – even within the same genre.
What style should you adopt?
The one that comes most naturally to you.
Yes, style is one of the truly important short story elements. But there’s really no need for you to get stuck trying to write a story, just cos you’re trying to create a specific style that you want your audience to think of as deep or different.
If you keep at the writing, you’ll develop over time anyway. But you don’t have to complicate things for the sake of it.
Deliberately placed last on our list of short story elements, this is the what of your story.
So, what your short story is about.
Not who, where, or when.
Not even how.
So, with this one, you want to think of the emotions or issues you’re trying to convey or show.
These are themes.
All the other short story elements already mentioned, are used to show the what.
Have you learned anything new about short story elements and/or how knowing about them can prevent you from getting stuck?
Let us know in the comments below.