The Most Important Literary Principles For Short Stories

Do you have stories inside of you just waiting to burst out? For some, that means trying to write a novel. However, writing short stories is also a great idea to share your tales with the world. They don’t take as long to write, and you can get paid for them quickly if they are up to the standards of what publishers are looking for. Besides, if you have many stories to tell, why wait years to get them all out in novel form? With short stories, you tell your narratives quickly and still leave yourself the option to expand them into novels later on. 

However, while writing a short story takes less time than a novel, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Short stories should be written in an impactful way, otherwise you will bore your readers or fail to make a connection with them. Also, if you are unsure of the techniques and methods needed to write your story, then it could become a bit of a mess. 

One of the best strategies you can use to write a short story is to stick with some literary principles that work. They will help you stay focused on keeping your story moving forward, and they will also provide you with ways to connect with the audience. Here are some of the most important literary principles for short stories. 

Show, Don’t Tell

A short story should not give the reader time to breathe. You have fewer words than a novel, and you need to make them count. On top of that, you need to get your reader engaged and invested in the story you are trying to tell and the characters you are creating. You don’t want to bore your reader with too much description of what is happening. Instead, show them what is happening by inferring things and using creative dialogue. 

For example, if Bo is walking down a dilapidated street, a novelist might spend a paragraph describing the sidewalks, the empty buildings, and the general decay. With a short story, you can keep it simple through actual interactions. For example, you might say “Bo stumbled on a broken sidewalk and nearly fell into a rotting doorway.” That quick sentence tells the reader exactly what Bo’s surroundings are like, and they can fill in the rest. 

Chekhov’s Gun

Since a short story is composed of very few words, you can’t afford to give the reader extraneous things. Chekhov’s Gun principle says that only elements which are necessary to the plot should be included. Therefore, if you introduce something early on, then it must be brought back later for a purpose. For example, if a character brings attention to a gun early in the story, then it has to go off later on. You don’t have to be that strict. In other words, a gun doesn’t have to go off, but it must play an important part in some way. It could be that it helps build tension as it is pointed at various characters, for instance. 

This is different from foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is subtle in that you leave clues and hints through the story that point to something happening later on. The reader may not even notice them at all. Chekhov’s Gun is more of an agreement between the writer and the reader. The reader knows that something has been introduced for a specific reason that will pay off down the road. 


Every great story has conflict. It is what moves the plot forward and drives everything that the characters do. With a short story, conflict should be at the forefront of every scene. You can’t afford to veer away from it for too long. It’s what keeps the reader interested and engaged. 

Conflict does not have to mean direct fighting between characters. It can be an inner conflict, such as choosing between two lovers, or a battle with the elements. It is the tension that the characters, and hopefully the readers, feel during the story. 

In Medias Res

In Medias Res comes from Latin, meaning “to be in the middle of things”. With a short story, this is exactly where you want your reader to be. Instead of building up a backstory or spending time on setting things up, start your story in the middle of something happening to the main character with no context or explanation. Your readers will be engaged because they will wonder what is going on and try to piece it together based on how the action is unfolding. 

This also goes along with the tenet that you should start your short story as close to the ending as possible. Get the plot started and get the story moving forward. Your reader will come along for the ride as you go. 


If readers don’t care about your characters, then they won’t care about your story. It’s always a good idea to make sure that there is a character that readers will want to cheer for. Not only that, but they should be able to empathize with them. If they are relatable to readers then they will be more invested in what happens. 

You should imagine your characters to be real people with things that they want. Your protagonist will want something, and your secondary characters will want things too. Those desires will propel the action and dictate how they act during the story. It can be something broad, like “happiness,” or it could be something specific, like money, or to solve a mystery. By defining what they want, readers will be able to understand why they behave the way that they do. 

Getting a story out of your brain and onto a page is incredibly rewarding all on its own. However, if you want to write the best, most engaging story possible, then using these literary principles will certainly help.