This is the first part in what will be a moderately long series. It will eventually be compiled into a PDF for free release. It’s not as though I imagine my perspective on writing short stories is unique, or even unusually valuable… but it can’t hurt to lay out some very simple ideas on the field for people who are new to the game.
I’ve had these notes and ideas for years, and used them in many seminars and workshops. Putting them all together into a single document is happening now because of my poor kid Jake, who has just suffered through a first-year university course in short-story writing.
Needless to say, their approach wasn’t particularly practical. Or useful…
Short Stories: Why do we bother?
People outside the writing community seem to believe that a novel is a much more difficult thing to do than a short story. In a way, they’re right. The average novel takes a two-year bite out of an author’s life. (Or it used to. Your Mileage May Vary.) It requires persistence and dedication to write a novel — a real streak of bloody-minded stubbornness.
However, a surprising number of writers will tell you that it’s much more difficult to do a really good short story than it is to do a novel. Why? Because there’s no margin for error.
In a novel, you are given a grand canvas upon which to realise your vision. You can spend whole pages in building your characters, whole chapters in setting up your conflicts. You can add lots of exciting sub-plots, build in dozens of twists, wander down blind alleys, insert red herrings, and generally play to your heart’s content. After all, you’ve got about a hundred thousand words to work with.
That’s not the case with the short story.
There are a few different lengths to which the short story is written. Most often, a short story is between two thousand and five thousand words. Up to ten or twelve thousand is still a short story, but once you’re in the region of fifteen thousand, you’re starting to stray into novella territory. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, is the short-short story, which is generally about a thousand words, and then the tricky, five-hundred to eight-hundred range: “five minute fiction.”
The exact length of a short story isn’t critical, except where market considerations (rules of a contest or specifications of a magazine or anthology) are concerned. What is important is that you are working to create a vivid, potent impression in an absolute minimum of space.
There is no room for mistakes in writing a short story. If you have only two thousand words with which to work, a single sentence out of place looms as large as a deadly iceberg. Having no room to get to know your characters through exploration, you must know them perfectly the moment you start writing, so you can be sure that they never put a foot out of place. Without a grand sweep to build your setting, you have to use every sentence, even every word, to make sure that your readers have a sense of place. A short story is about one idea, one conflict, one theme. You have to wrap it up as tightly as possible to present it, while still giving the impression of a whole world of imagination.
In short, writing a really good short story is a hell of a challenge.
So why bother? Why not just plunge straight into the novel or the screenplay? Why go through the effort of mastering the short-story form? After all, short stories are hard to get published, because the market is overcrowded. And rates of pay for short stories are ridiculously low. Once upon a time, it was potentially possible for a prolific writer to live off of short stories — but with changes in the reading habits of the public, the death of the pulp magazines, and the rise of television, cinema and the Internet, it would be a great surprise to find any author left in the world who was living off the income from short stories. In fact, it’s probably flat-out impossible. What makes it worth your while to learn the skill?
Simple: the very fact that it is a skill, and one which can be finely honed and polished. Producing a well-rounded, well-written, thought-provoking short story is one of the most satisfying things a writer can do. On top of that, all of the skills required for writing novels and screenplays are required for the short story — except sheer bloody-minded persistence — and it is necessary that those skills be sharpened to a much finer point for the short story than for the novel. Plenty of short-story writers have gone on to produce really fine novels, but the number of dedicated novelists who have shown themselves able to write good short stories is much, much smaller.
Learning to produce well-written short pieces is a valuable step for any writer, and best of all, it doesn’t have to take years off your life. When you’ve done your homework and mastered the basics, you can know the satisfaction of building a good, strong tale of your own in the space of a few days. In fact, some of the more famous writers of short stories — Saki, Robert Silverberg and James Thurber, for example — have been known to produce more than one complete short story in a single day.
So, what are these basics? What are the common elements, the things shared by almost all short stories? What should we know before we get started? Well — a command of language, spelling and grammar are desirable, of course. But beyond that, we might break the art of the short story into basic elements.
- Characters: the actors and agents within the story.
- Theme: the central element, the teaching thread of the tale
- Conflict & resolution: the basic source of tension or disagreement in the character(s), and the manner in which it is resolved or addressed.
- Presentation & Style: the individual look and feel of the story, including the all-important “hook” or opening, the ending or punchline, the genre, the target market, and the “voice” of the writer.
If you can learn to identify and understand these elements, so that you can pick them out of any published story, and so that you can ensure they are properly placed and balanced in the stories you write, you’ll have made a damned good start. That’s what this very basic guide is about. By the time you’re done with this material, you should have the information and the understanding you need to write a solid short story.
After that, it’s up to your own talent and determination. Good luck!