Short Story Writing Basics for Students

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Twice during senior year, my students have to write creative writing pieces under test conditions. Here is some of the advice I give out in a way that is easy to remember.


When you have a short time frame to write in it is important to plan your time wisely. For a two hour, 600 word short story exam, my students use the 20/60/40 timing. Twenty minutes for planning, sixty minutes for drafting and forty minutes for writing out the good copy. It’s a good idea to do a practise run first to see how well these time limits suit you.

During the planning you might want to follow these steps:

  1. List everything you can to do with the topic.
  2. Select your focus. Try to avoid selecting the most obvious choice.
  3. Determine the character and setting.
  4. Write out a detailed plan that sets out the structure of your story.

Remember the old saying, ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail.’


In most cases, school-based short story exams require structure. Here are some suggestions for how to structure your short story:

  1. Action, Orientation, Action, Climax, Resolution
  2. Exposition, Action, Climax, Resolution

Write What You Know, Yo!

Write what you know is good advice but if this was always the case then how are stories about aliens, vampires and giant transforming machines ever written? WWYKY is great advice about emotions and experiences. You may not have personally experienced an alien invasion (or you might have – who am I to judge?) but perhaps you can recall a time when you were scared, excited, overwhelmed etc. Think about how you want your characters to react and then recall a situation where you had similar emotions.

PPP       Paragraphs, Psychological and Physical.

Remember to write in paragraphs and to address the psychological (emotions, motivations, beliefs etc.) as well as the physical (setting, the five senses etc.).

High Five

Use your five senses. Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste and Touch. Think about this:

I unwrapped the ice cream packet and took a bite.

Snore! Are you still awake? Before the re-write, try recalling what eating the ice cream felt like physically. How did it taste? What did it smell like? Were there any sounds involved?

The foil was icy and smooth beneath my fingers as I trailed one finger across the beads of condensation that had formed across the wrapper. With a crinkle I tore open the seal and immediately the delicate aroma of caramel wafted gently towards me.  My mouth began to water and for a moment I admired the smooth golden shell of chocolate before I sank my teeth in with a gentle crack. A hit of creamy caramel with a hint of salt sent my taste buds into overdrive.



This acronym is a handy reminder for some basic literary techniques:

Alliteration: A low resonating rumbling rolled across the ground.

Metaphor: His nerves were a snake that slithered around his belly.

Onomatopoeia: There was a whoosh of air followed by a loud thud.        

Simile: Her words sounded like honey laced with fire.

Speech – Only use when necessary. Dialogue is best used only as a tool to drive the story. Okay, this one isn’t so much a literary technique as it is a reminder for good writing practice.

TTT        Title, Tense and Time-frame.

Title: If the type of writing you have to do requires a title then remember to put one in. It doesn’t have to be complicated but avoid being obvious.

Time-frame: Think about how long the piece of writing needs to be and how this will affect your planning. A 2000 word short story allows for a greater span of time to explore the story, themes, etc. than say, a 600 word story. If you are set a limit of around 600 – 800 words it is usually better to stick with one setting and one timeframe. In this shorter length style of writing, flashbacks can be utilised to help convey important information for context and character development.

Tense: This is a really easy one for students to overlook. Choose one tense to write in and be consistent. Far too often I read student work where the tense goes back and forth between past and present. Generally speaking it seems to be easier for students to write in past tense.

KISS       Keep it Simple Sweetheart

Depending on your required word length you may not have enough time for any extravagant story lines. I read a 600 word story once where the following events happened:

  1. Students were sitting around enjoying an average day at school.
  2. One student was being picked on.
  3. Said student decided to go off by himself to avoid the mean kids.
  4. The mean kids sat around the cafeteria laughing about the student.
  5. An alien space craft hovered about the school and released smaller crafts.
  6. The smaller crafts started firing lasers at the school.
  7. Students and teachers were running around panicking.
  8. The headmaster and the teachers all met to decide what they should do.
  9. Students were being attacked and captured by the aliens.
  10. The student who went off by himself decided to come up with a plan.
  11. The local police force and nearby army arrived to fight back.
  12. The student came up with the ultimate weapon and brought the alien forces down.
  13. The student was hailed a hero.

This story did not follow KISS. It was an overly complicated storyline with no description, character development or any depth to the writing.


So when faced with a creative writing task remember to High Five, KISS, PPP and Write What You Know, Yo! A little AMOSS and TTT can help improve your written piece significantly.