Even some famous novelists will tell you they have trouble writing short stories, and some say they cannot write them at all.

Since I have a much easier time writing short stories than novels, I decided to try to figure out why that’s so. Or at least how you can do it yourself.

It may be obvious, but if you’re a novelist, you’re thinking on a grand scale. You fill your story with characters and subplots. And even settings.

For shorts, you need to hone in on probably one or two characters, one problem/plot point, only a setting or two, and forget about subplots.

Timeframe is also different. Most likely, a short story takes place in a short amount of time. You don’t usually wrap up your main character’s whole life in the story. Instead, you use a fascinating incident to point up your protagonist’s good and bad points. Give her a problem to solve, an interesting setting, another character or two to talk to and you’re good to go.

Often mystery writers say they have a problem writing a puzzle mystery in the short form. I agree this is very hard to do, so I rarely write that type of story. You need at least three clues and a red herring or two. You need three or four suspects. And a villain, plus the protagonist. The setting is often important in a puzzle mystery. It can be done, has been done, but it’s very difficult.

I’ve only written a couple of short story puzzle mysteries. Instead I write what are called crime stories. These are stories that, obviously, have crimes in them, but are not necessarily traditional mysteries. The reader may know right from the beginning who did it. There may not be anyone even interested in solving the crime. Other things are going on in the story.

If you want to write short crime stories, I suggest you find several of your favorites and deconstruct them to find out why they appeal to you. With the bones of your favorite, make up your own characters and settings and see what you come up with. You may surprise yourself. If you try this, please come back and let me know how it went. And of course, who published it. Think positive!


  1. Anita, I just heard about deconstructing stories and then using what I call the “bones” to write your own. I think this would work well (I’ve never tried it) with short stories. I’m going to (in my spare time-ha!) try that with a few famous short stories and see what I come up with. (Thanks for commenting–I do appreciate it.)

  2. Jan,

    Having written both novels and short stories, I can truthfully say that short mystery fiction is the more challenging. In a short amount of space, you create plot, character and setting plus solve a mystery. And it’s great fun!

    • Jacqueline, thanks for commenting. Bottom line–any writing is challenging if you want to do a good job, no? Some just seems more difficult to some of us than others.

  3. Excepting a couple efforts way, way back in my career, I’ve mostlly come to short fiction in the last 7 or 8 years, but find that I like it a lot and seem to have a talent for it. But I also think that for me (I’m along in years) a short story is just less intimidating. I know I can knock one off in a few hours, but sitting down to start a novel, I find myself wondering if I will still be around at the finish. I know, morbid isn’t it? But I am thinking about another novel – we’ll see.

    • Hi Victor. Glad to “see” you here! I did the opposite from you–I started by writing short stories, figuring I’d learn to write faster that way. However, I learned that usually one or the other is easier for most writers, and I struggle a lot more with novels than with shorts. Whatever your reasoning is, I’m glad to see you writing shorts.

  4. As you know, Jan, I love short stories and continue to write them. You’ve outlined the challenges extremely well. Maybe that’s because you write short stories extremely well.

  5. I enjoy short stories and I’ve written hundreds and published perhaps two dozen or fewer. They’re very challenging and in some ways harder to write than novels. Your blog post finds all the essential points in good short crime fiction, so I’m thinking about trying another story. Good post.

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