The Art of the Short Story
I used to play around with short stories. I didn’t think there was much to them. They were a novel in miniature without all the detail and fluff.
Well, no. Not exactly.
It’s great to have an opinion on something when you have little experience actually doing it. Like raising kids, it is SO much easier to find fault or room to do better when you aren’t tired, frustrated, and at wit’s end, i.e. when you don’t have kids. My sketchy idea of what it took to write a comprehensive and gripping short story hit the solid wall of reality with my current WIP.
For some reason, okay probably because I thought it sounded EASY, I decided to write short stories covering a period of twelve years and a lot of ground. They would cut to the heart of events leading to and through a disastrous war. Windows into a world gone mad, they would be like a novel without the detail bits and filler in between. And hey, I could space them out and release them while working on the two novels. Congrats. Great idea. I gave it approval and jumped right in.
And found myself paddling in circles in a puddle of words.
Nope. There is more to writing a short story than in crafting a chapter in a long novel. And considering that the short stories I decided to tackle are mere snapshots of evolving events, a lot happens in between. Sometimes only months have passed, but sometimes over a year. Plus they are told through different characters whose experience of events is not necessarily the same. I realized pretty quickly that this was a whole new undertaking!
But I like to learn and I love challenges. Plus I’ve always admired writers who could whip off a good short story in a week. I couldn’t. At least not one I would say was decent. So instead of backing down and writing a novel, I took up the challenge: Learn the art of short story writing and explain twelve years of a war in nine short stories.
I won’t say I’m an expert. I still don’t have a short story sold to a magazine or anything (of course, I don’t actually try either). But this is what I learned:
1. Start with Action
I write epic fantasy and adventure type stories, but I think this idea is sound with any story of any length. Grab a reader’s attention and hold on. For romance, girl meets boy and hates, loves, hits – all three – him. If you start with action, you don’t waste time describing the world, emotions, governmental ideals… A short story runs between 1000 to 20,000 words (and that is up to debate as a Google search will reveal!). There is no time to feel out events. Get to them. Dive in and describe the impact, not why the main character decided to go swimming today.
2. Have a point or goal
This is a personal motto that I use with everything I write no matter the length. Novels have a direction or theme (this is what you’d use in the synopsis!). I outline themes in my notes at the beginning of every chapter right along with POV. If there is no purpose I can lay out for a chapter, I don’t bother writing it. Any necessary action that would have been in that chapter can be summed up in a paragraph when needed.
And the same goes with short stories. I outline the goal of the short story and break down ideas on sections (see number 3 below) and then get to work. And boy, does this help. I don’t flounder around describing the clouds while wondering where the story is going. I write. Once I started doing this, I hit my goal of a short story a week. My biggest limit is time or I could whip off a lot more than one a week! Which has improved my chapter writing too, I’m happy to say!
3. Have at least three ‘parts’
I call them ‘scenes’ and I aim for five. I’ve heard of similar techniques for writing novels: having three, five, or seven acts to a novel. Well, that is true for short stories too. I also assign a rough goal of two page to every scene. With five in most of my stories, that makes ten pages, which averages over 5,000 words. A decent length for a short story.
Like I wrote in number 1, I like to start with action. No time to worry about world building or setting the scene. Hit the ground running while dodging bullets. After that, I try to have an explanation of what is going on (without telling, of course! You have to show the altered world). That builds into a crisis (scene three), which needs resolution (scene four).
The ending (scene five) runs a variety of purposes. These are a series of stories. So, sometimes the ending is a lead in to the next event. Sometimes it reinforces a view of a character, especially since these stories are character driven (see number 5 below!). Somehow things have to end and at least wrap up the major event(s) of the story even if not all the details are wrapped up. Which leads me to…
4. You don’t need to fill in all the details
It really comes down to minimizing the word count while writing a gripping and emotionally invested story. I try to keep my short stories under 10,000 words and there is just no way to tie up everything going on in global war in that many words, at least while still writing sentences conveying anything interesting or comprehensive!
So I try to stick with the theme outlined in number 2 above. Wrap that up. And be aware that not every character will be introduced or described (especially if the character is familiar with them but the reader is not), not every action or event will be explained. As long as the major theme is solid, a few blurry details won’t ruin the narrative.
And on the other side of that, this is only a 10,000 word story – at most. You can get away with mentioning a detail once. And only once. Trust the reader to catch it. There are not chapters between events requiring reminders to jog memory. A short story should be able to be read during a lunch break. Don’t keep hitting readers with the same concept or they’ll run away!
5. Its about the character and how the events affect them, not about the events
This goes back to the idea of concept versus character. A lot of really bizarre/wild/terrifying/wonderful things can occur and the reader can care less if she/he can’t relate to the character. This is especially true in a short story. There isn’t much time for character building or a slow warm up to like a difficult character. They have to come across fully formed with flaws, nuances, and pet peeves right on the surface.
I’ve got the advantage of nine linked stories (gosh, I’m tempted to make that ten just because I like round numbers!). But, characters evolve in between the stories. An inkling of changes in one story is a complete mindset alteration by the next. Not to mention, a reader could find the stories out of order. Each one must stand alone even if they refer to prior (or future) events. Reading all the stories together might buy greater attachment to the characters, but I want that inner personality to shine by the end of page one. Preferably within a few paragraphs. Short stories are the time for snap judgments. Do you like the character? Are they trustworthy? Is there more to their motivation leading to a potential revelation (and some tension/curiosity building) later?
So these are my tricks. I feel like I’m hitting my short story stride just as I’m writing story eight out of the nine (ten????). What about you? How do you tackle telling a story in under 20,000 words?