Five Tips for Getting Your Short Story Published

Or, what I learned from judging a short story contest

Several months ago, I was asked to weigh in on a short story contest, and I happily agreed. It was a fantastic opportunity to experience the submission process from the other side. What does the slush pile really look like?

I read the stories blind, meaning I didn’t know anything about the author. Now, I love short stories. I’ve always loved reading them, and I very much enjoy writing them. I find the really good ones downright life changing.

Writing them can be either an excellent exercise–a way to stretch one’s creative muscles–or something deeper, an end in itself. Short stories are often more creative, more exciting, more spine-tingling than a novel precisely because of their brevity. They are a tightly focused moment in a life, and those can be thrilling to read, or write.

Successfully placing a short story in a reputable publication does wonders for a writer’s list of credits, confidence, and opportunities for awards. With that in mind, I thought I’d share five tips for getting your short story published and give it the best chance possible in a competitive field.

You might also be interested in reading editor/novelist’s Holly West’s take on a similar topic, discussing how she chose the stories for the Bouchercon 2023 anthology.

1. A short story might be short, it might even be flash, but it needs the three act structure.

Even if your story is only five hundred words, it needs a beginning, middle, and end. Think of it as problem arises, protagonist tackles problem, resolution. Just like in a novel, the resolution doesn’t need to fix the problem, but it needs to resolve something. If the resolution addresses a problem your protagonist has that he/she doesn’t even know they have, even better.

You might read this and think, well… duh! But before you click “send” on your short story submission, take a look at your narrative and give it the three act test:

  1. Do you begin with a setup that shows us the problem your protagonist is facing? There may be multiple problems in his or her life, but are you showing us THE problem?
  2. Do you show us how the protagonist tries to deal with this situation? If you’re writing in the crime/thriller/mystery genre, are the stakes nice and juicy? Are you giving the reader a good, spine-tingling anxiety that the protagonist may fail?
  3. Did you “stick the landing”? A short story’s end needs to be satisfying, no less than a novel’s. Tie up the loose ends that need tying. Make sure to show us how the protagonist’s life/opinion/day/something changed as a result.

Where writers can go wrong: Sometimes I saw writers confuse a dangerous situation with plot. Of course, it’s perfectly fine to have dangerous situations, but they need to drive the plot and show us how these difficulties change the protagonist, whether by forcing a change on them, or facilitating a change.

2. The Characters Need to Want Something

Again, might seem obvious, but just like it’s easy to overlook plot when trying to shoehorn a narrative into a short word count, it’s just as easy to forget that the most interesting characters have desires. And interesting characters get plucked from the slush pile.

Ask yourself:

  1. Does my character have an overarching desire? If there are multiple characters, they should all want something. Better yet, they should want different things, thus creating tension in the narrative.
  2. Does my character KNOW what they want? It’s okay if your character can’t articulate their needs or desires. What’s important is that you, the author, know what they want. Every person wants something, even if it’s to finally get a full night’s sleep when caring for a newborn. Now, keep blocking your poor character from getting what they want/need/desire, and the plot will build itself.

Where writers can go wrong: Sometimes, it’s easy to confuse reaction to a problem with a desire worthy of being included in a narrative. And often, the difference is a matter of going deeper into context.

For example, let’s say you have a character who is driving home from work when a plane engine falls from the sky and lands on his car. The character survives, but the car is totaled. The character talks to the cops, calls his wife, maybe goes to the hospital. This is a reaction to a problem. It’s a curious moment in a life, but it is not intrinsically interesting as a narrative.

On the other hand, let’s say you have a character who is driving home from work in the middle of the day because he was just fired. A plane engine lands on his car, and now, in addition to being unemployed, he has no way of getting around. He has no savings and can’t buy another car. His insurance says it’s his fault because he’d had a couple of shots before he got into his car. Hell, he might even get arrested for driving under the influence! Now you have more than just a reaction to a problem. You have shown us a person who wants a normal life, but is now staring down a gun barrel of disaster.

3. Write to the Prompt

If the submission says set it in the 1920’s, then do that. If it wants vampires in top hats, do that. Set it in a psychiatric hospital? Yes, please.

Do your research, thoroughly. Thank goodness research is easier than ever nowadays.

Where writers can go wrong: Not always being clear on genre distinctions is one area prone to weakness. If you’re writing for a publication that wants traditional mysteries, then make sure you know what a traditional mystery is.

If the requirement is to set the story in the ’80s, then dear god don’t give your characters cell phones. Please. (Yes, I saw someone do that, once. A very young, very sweet writer.)

4. Kill the Cliché. Or at Least Give it a Twist

Clichés come in many flavors, not all of them in words or sentences. There are many free editing tools that will help you find and kill the word and sentence level ones. Use them! But story lines and characters can also be cliché. Those are a little harder to spot in your own writing, but it can certainly lead to your story, no matter how well written, being left in the slush pile.

Tips on how to avoid cliché characters:

  • The easiest way to make sure your characters are not a cardboard cutout, is to give them flesh and brawn. Ask them some very pointed questions.
  • Spend fifteen minutes writing a scene that takes place outside of your story, with your character. Can you imagine them doing something different?
  • Can you describe them with one word? If so, then you probably need to give them some more thought.

Thoughts on avoiding a cliché plot

This is a tough one, but a plot that’s not original enough can keep your story languishing in the pile. If you’ve had trouble placing a story, take another look at the plotline. If you have your three act structure, and your characters are complex and want stuff, and you’re giving them plenty of obstacles to overcome, then ask yourself if you can twist the plot in a different direction. Sometimes a single twist is all it takes to move a story from ho-hum to dynamite because now you’ve done something unexpected.

5. Every word counts. Make sure your descriptions move the plot forward.

Descriptions, whether of the weather, clothes, or physical attributes of your characters, must set the mood and move the story.

If you’re choosing to describe a woman by mentioning her breasts or legs, this needs to be in context: who is looking? Whose voice is making this observation? Are the breasts and legs relevant to how the woman will behave, how others perceive her, or how the POV character sees the world? Same goes for men, too. If you need to tell us he is muscle-bound, the muscles need to play out in his responses to the problems you throw at him.

If you describe the weather–and there’s nothing wrong with that–make sure there’s a reason for it. Think of weather as another character who either stands between your protagonist and their goals or helps them along.

Same goes for clothes, hair styles, eye color, body types, gardens, houses (inside and out), etc. If a character’s eye color is not relevant to the story, why mention it? And if you must, then give it a twist, some word that says something interesting about the character. Go beyond “blue” or “black”.

Where writers can go wrong: Sometimes we get so carried away with imagining our perfect character, we forget that every word must serve the story. We forget about tone and mood. A description of a character as catastrophically near sighted is more crucial than telling us he has green eyes. Unless you use a word that can connote both the color and an inability to see. With often as few as 5000 words in which to tell the story, every word counts.

Ready to try your luck? Check out some submission suggestions here. Writing mysteries? Join the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Have thoughts about short fiction? Share below!

Emilya Naymark

Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.

When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.


  1. Emilya, this is a great SS primer. I truly appreciate this and will save it. I find SS challenging at the best of times~

  2. Emilya,
    Great article.
    I’ve had a few short stories published in local anthologies (only one was a true mystery), and a few rejected (AHMM, EQMM, and Malice Domestic–twice).

    Thinking about the ones that didn’t get accepted, obviously the competition was a lot stiffer. However, a light bulb went off for me with your number 2: The Characters Need to Want Something. I think the other four elements were in place (or mostly), but I don’t think I gave the main character a strong drive for why they needed to accomplish their objective.

    When I finish what I’m working on now, I will take another crack at getting a story* published in EQMM–something I’ve wanted since 1978!

    * I don’t count the two Detectiverse they published in the 1980s. Still, they were my first writing paychecks, $5 each!

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