short story

presentation and format

As a short story writer, you need to know how to format and present your short story, whether it is for a competition or to a magazine for publication.


It may seem like a no-brainer, but white A4 with black text, a 12-point size font (Times New Roman for best practice) and double line spacing, makes a good first impression. Double line spacing also makes for ease of reading and allows for any comments judges may wish to make. If you are submitting for publication in a magazine, double line spacing will be de rigueur. From there, we can move on to correct formatting.


Margins should be at least 1” on all sides. This gives your script the right balance of “white space”, a term more commonly used by graphic designers but also now in the writing world. It refers to the space surrounding your text and will give your story better “readability” rather than the appearance of masses of words crammed into the space available. For the same reason, leaving your text unjustified achieves a more natural appearance of the “white space”, avoids a more dense and crowded appearance, and makes your story more enjoyable to read  not only for competition judges and magazine editors but, also, for proofreading and/or a critique (if you have requested either/both).


It is another surprise how many writers think it enough simply to write from one side of the page to the other, line after line, page after page, without any thought of line spacing or paragraphs. Before we move on to paragraphs, however, it is worth pointing out, as well, that modern practice is just one space after full stops and other punctuation – and no longer the historical practice of two!


Paragraphs. In a short story, the first line in every new paragraph needs to be indented, with the rest of the paragraph straight down the left margin. This, then, eliminates the need for a line break to announce a new paragraph. If you do need to indicate a change of scene/time/whatever, use the hash # sign on a line by itself with a line of space before and after it, before the next new paragraph.


Beware of the paragraph that is overlong, intricate and difficult to follow. It will be a chore to read and will interfere with the enjoyment of the story. Every new paragraph should indicate a form of progress, however subtle, movement forward in some way: further development, a new angle, aspect, idea or change of some sort etc.


Dialogue. This is too huge and complex a subject to discuss at length here. For that reason, it will not normally be covered by proofreading. A few basics are, however, worth touching on.


  • Correctly written dialogue is always a challenge and punctuation is extremely important. It can make all the difference to emphasis or even meaning.
  • Spoken words with any linked punctuation eg question or exclamation marks, are always inside the quotation marks which are usually double, in order that any quotations by others referred to by the speaker, can be placed inside single quotation marks within the speech.
  • Lower case letters should be used after any speech whether complete or incomplete, if followed by ‘he/she/they” or any other word that is not a proper name.
    For example, “Can we get to the main road by the same way we came?” he asked.
    “Yes, you can,” said Liz.
    “No, you can’t,” John said.
    “He’s right, this is a one-way system,” replied Peter.
    “Oh, of course, I had forgotten that,” she said.

  • Remember – a new line is always used for a new speaker. This will allow you, at times, to omit repeated use of the names of the speakers as it will be obvious from the conversation who is speaking.
  • When action interrupts dialogue, lower case letters are used to continue the speech.
    For example, “If you knew there could be trouble,” she said calmly, “why didn’t you warn us?”


There can be many variations and subtleties when dialogue is used and you need to familiarise yourself with as many possibilities as you can.


Certain aspects of your story will vary from writer to writer and you will develop your own style. Some writers, for example, like to write ‘END’ (without the single quotes) on a new line at the end of their stories. Some also like to enter the word count on the title page.


It is good practice to keep in mind whatever you think could help the judges or editors to assess your story with as much ease as possible. Put yourself in their place of having to read and assess possibly as many as hundreds of stories. What will help them? What will make your entry stand out and be impressive (for good, positive reasons!) in addition to your choice of subject and the quality of your writing? Remember, the judges are human, too!






writing tips

Only one tip matters: and that is to remember there are two people involved in any story, the writer and the reader. It is far too easy to forget the reader when you are struggling to get the words together and to put in the last full stop.


 What interests readers are the characters in the story and how they deal with the events as the plot line unfolds. You do not go to the theatre to look at the scenery you go to see the actors. Similarly, In a story, especially a short story, you only need to sketch in the background, let the reader fill that in for you. For example, if the action takes place in a kitchen just say ‘in the kitchen’ and the reader will create their own kitchen. Concentrate your words on the actions and behaviour of the characters and on moving the plot forward

You want your reader to empathise with the characters, to care about them and want to see what happens to them as the plot unfolds. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters they will not read on. So, give your characters attributes the reader can relate to, give them emotions, make them laugh, cry, shout, be angry….. make them live. I am sure you have been told before, but it is worth emphasising, the easiest way to do this is to use dialogue, let the characters speak for themselves. How you make characters show themselves is by their reactions to the events unfolding in the story line. Let them show the reader how they react.


Of equal importance is the plot line. Judges are always looking for originality, a new theme or a new take on an old theme. The plot line needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end, sounds obvious but…  The beginning paragraph and even the first sentence are crucial. In a short story you need to gain the reader’s interest immediately. You can see examples of this in newspapers where first lines in stories are specifically written to grab attention. The middle section is where the main work of plot and character development, the heavy lifting, is done and the ending is set up. The ending, as the beginning, is crucial. The reader wants to see closure to the story.  Try to avoid obvious endings. Not all crime fiction stories need a murder nor do they need to start or finish with a dead body. Try to surprise the reader with an ending they are not expecting.


 Characters and plots are crucial but other aspects are also important. Writing technique alone cannot make a good story but poor technique can ruin one. Use analogies and metaphors to bring wording to life, try to find new ways of saying something. Then, when you have done all this edit, edit, edit… Every sentence counts. If it does not move the plot forward or develop the characters why is it there? Are you just painting the scenery?


Now the ending, sorry no surprise, it just comes back to where we started. When you have put in the last full stop step into the reader’s shoes and read your story from their point of view.

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