Short stories, like all aspects of the written word, have taken their rise and fall in the course of time. Today, we not only have the timeless short stories of the past, but we also see writers daily adding to the plethora of short stories on the market. The short story is not a dying art, but it just may be suffering the abuse of many thoughtless writers.
The Boring Stuff
Before we talk about how to write a short story, let’s get on the same page about the definition of a short story. For starters, let’s look at that word: short.
Having little length. Not lengthy or drawn out.
Abbreviated, brief, precise, short-lived, shortened, terse, compressed, condensed, little, summarized, concise, undersized, unprolonged, unsustained.
So, in essence, a short story is a brief and concise fictional work.
The general accepted standard for length in word-count is as follows:
Flash fiction: 100-1,000 words
Short stories: 1,500-10,000 words (some sources say up to 30,000 words, but I find that to be an unpopular suggestion)
Is Your Idea Short-Story Worthy?
Not all ideas can be told in a short story. Similarly, I have read some novel-length ideas that probably should have been written as just a short story. How do you know if your idea is solid material for a short story?
Dennis Whitcomb, in The Writer’s Digest’s Handbook of Short Story Writing, says, “See if your story can be put into a single sentence [e.g. Bragging leads to humiliation]. You may discover that you are really writing more than one story—or that you are straying from the point of the story.” (Pg. 112)
This is a good test for your idea. In essence, a short story must have only…
Remember: the short story is brevity in both words and ideas.
Go ahead and fill out the “ones.” What is the one theme with which you want your character (and, in essence, your readers) to leave? What is your character’s one goal? The one plot that gets them to that goal? The one main conflict that prevents them from their goal?
All you need is an idea. This doesn’t mean that your idea has to be of small value. It just has to be small in proportion. But it can be an idea that packs a powerful punch and leaves the reader with something to ponder for years.
What to Cut
Let’s dwell on the word concise. According to Merriam-Webster, concise is “marked by brevity of expression or statement; free from all elaboration and superfluous detail.” For me, that is the perfect description of short story. If you write with “concise” blazoned in your mind, you will notice a lot of unnecessary elements to cut.
Only write what is relevant to the story (remember: you have a lot of singular goals for this story—play them out for all they’re worth, but don’t add unessential fillers).
You don’t have time to ramble. You don’t have time for elaborate descriptions. You don’t have time for incessant monologue. Unless… such extremities are completely necessary for your story to be told (e.g. Do not use 100 words to describe a sunrise in the first scene unless your story cannot move without it). Yes, you do need description—you need solid setting, the right mood, and little extras that reveal your character’s depth—but be sure that you’re adding them because you need them, and not because they’re fun to write.
The same goes for characters. Every single character you portray in your short story must have purpose. You only have enough room for the characters that really matter. In like manner, you must cut the niceties in dialogue. “How are you doing?” as everyday lingo must be cut (on the contrary, if your character has lost his wife and his mother-in-law sits beside him with the same question, you may have something relevant to the story).
And What Not to Cut
Though we are dealing with concise, we are not dealing with shortcuts. Many of the writing principles that you apply
to novels should also be applied to short stories. Your characters still need to be well developed (What does he want? What stands in his way? How is he unique?). You still need conflict. Your character still needs to solve his own problem (rather than
an outside element coming to the rescue). You can still make life miserable for your character before he sees the light of day.
The process that Mike Klaassen points out in his book, Fiction-Writing Modes, applies very well to short stories: Character + Goal + Stakes + Attempts + Resistance = Conflict. Complications that make good conflict do not need thousands of words to intensify. You may not have time to build the conflict, but you can present that it is there, and that it offers just as much resistance to your character’s goals as if they were the stars of a novel.
Start Your Story
Don’t set-up the story. Start the story. As Mariana Prieto suggests, “The short story should begin at a high point, a dramatic scene, if possible. If it is necessary for the reader to know how the character got in this situation or what went before, that led up to this situation, then we must introduce a flashback.” (The Writer’s Digest’s Handbook of Short Story Writing, page 160) Mariana continues to caution that the flashback is used only to relay relative information and ultimately to move the story forward.
Fill Your Story
After you have gripped your reader, continue with a purpose. Always keep in mind the end goal and work relentlessly toward it. Every sentence, every paragraph, should move the story forward. Don’t drag in the middle. Keep pushing it forward. Keep stressing your character. Keep intensifying his problems.
End Your Story
Your character has achieved his goal, the theme of the story has been preached, so end your story. End completely, but end without rambling. Remember: concise.
Benefits of Writing Short Stories
Short stories are a great way to practice writing. They give the writer a platform on which to experiment with character, conflict, word choice, point of view, voice, tense, plot development, and something as simple as bringing a project to completion. Because you’re dealing with fewer words, short stories are faster to edit, format, and publish (note: they are not always easier, but it takes less time to wade through 5,000 words than 50,000).
Downfalls of Writing Short Stories
However, with every pro there is a con. Many Indie authors see short stories as a way to make a quick buck (literally: most short stories sell on Kindle for $0.99). Because of this, many authors churn out pulp fiction (i.e. low, cheap quality). Short stories should never be an excuse for our quality to suffer. Every published work with your name on it is a reflection of the care you put (or do not put) into your work and will work either for or against you in the long run.
Short story writing does not need any less attention or serious thought than a novella or novel. It’s just that the angst of writing is shortened because you have fewer words to deal with. Don’t just write a short story to present something to the public in a hurry. Don’t skimp on research because it’s “just a short story” (in fact, I challenge you to never think of it as “just a short story”). Write something that is just as creative, just as thought-provoking, just as polished as any longer work. Expect a short story to take hard work and effort.
Write Your Short Story!
Evaluate your idea. Solidify your character. Sit down at the computer (or grab a pen and paper), and write. Step back, criticize your own work, and edit it. Make it the most smashing short story you can. Make it worth your time. And make it worth your reader’s time.