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Elements of a Short Story

When elements of a short story are missing, editors will notice the omissions after reading only the first few paragraphs. At this point, rejection is likely because poor editing or missing story elements cause the story to fall flat. If a story fails to engage readers early on, editors know that the likelihood of it becoming engrossing later is slim.

Then again, if the first page is engaging and has no problems, the odds that the rest of the story will be good increase significantly.

Key Elements of a Short Story

The key components of a short story, the elements present in all good stories, are:

  1. An interesting opening that hooks reader attention (See Story Starters)

  2. A clear character goal (See How a Strong Story Premise Sets You up for Success)

  3. A strong story or scene question ( See Scene Questions Hold Reader Interest)

  4. A significant theme

  5. Vivid, memorable characters (See Creating Fictional Characters, Part I)

  6. Interesting setting (See Writing Story Settings)

  7. Specific, accurate detail (See Write Mind Movies)

  8. Exquisite language (for literary fiction)

  9. Twists, and at least one solid turn or shift in plot direction (See Plot Better Stories)

  10. An unpredictable ending

All but the last two items on the list can be determined in the first page or two of material you submit for publication.

If you have been careful to include all the elements of a short story, and still your work results in nothing but rejections, check that your writing is tight and well edited.

I recommend enlisting the help of a professional for this—an editor, an English professor, a seasoned author, etc. Scribendi offers a fast and reasonably priced service, and I recommend them. I also offer an inexpensive evaluation that will quickly determine whether or not a manuscript is ready to submit for publication.

I've worked with emerging writers for fifteen years, and most fail to spot at least some of the issues in their work until someone else points them out, at which time the problems become obvious and can be resolved. This inability to really see our own work is natural. Only through learning and feedback do we begin to understand what we miss and how to remedy the problems.

Do You Want to Improve as a Writer?

If you want to improve your writing, you'll find numerous free creative writing lessons and articles on the elements of fiction on this site. Use the Sitemap to find them.

Are you using speaker attributions correctly? Have you punctuated your dialogue according to standard conventions? Are internalizations handled correctly? Are your details specific enough? Have you separated adjective strings? Is the writing original or derivative?

These are all small points an editor will pick up on within seconds. Submitting a tight, well-crafted story does not guarantee publication, but submitting a poorly edited story does guarantee rejection. To better understand the elements of a short story, you may also find it helpful to consider the Characteristics of a Short Story.

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