Being a Better Writer: Keeping a Short Story Short

Hello readers! Welcome back after a spectacular Life, The Universe, and Everything writing convention! I hope you were able to attend, or if not, that you’ll be checking their youtube channel to see what’s posted as they upload panel recordings! The experience was incredible!

It was not without risks, however. Such as the dreaded “con crud” (aka you’ve just been exposed to around a dozen different colds and you’re low on sleep), so today’s post is going to be a little shorter than normal. No news, possibly some flat-brained typos, but I’m getting it done! So then, let’s talk about keeping your short story short.

This was a topic that actually came up in one of the LTUE panels I was on, in a roundabout way. An audience member asked about keeping short stories short stories, and said that they’d been told the best way to do it was to think of a short story as either the first or final chapter of a story. In other words, they explained, it either set up a beginning, or tied off an ending.

That’s actually a pretty good way to think of it, provided you’re thinking of a story where everything that can come before is capable of getting squeezed into that one chapter (though yes, that’s more important for a story that’s the “end” of something than the beginning, as one sets up and the other ties together).

Don’t misunderstand, what I said above applies to any short story, and in fact, that’s the challenge of a short: Making sure the content you have is light enough to pack into your word limit, whatever it may be. This was, after all, the issue I had with the short that ended up in A Dragon and Her Girl: The original attempt had too much content for a short, and was completed as a 120,000 word novel draft in January (Axtara – Banking and Finance). But A Game of Stakes? Still long for a short, but there was a much more direct focus.

One of the panelists, in response to this individual’s question, addressed this directly in response to their question. In a full novel, they noted, you can think nothing of having one or more big themes, along with several ideas for subplots. You’ve got the space to expand.

However, they noted, you don’t have that space to expand in a short. A short, they suggested, needs to be something that works comfortably with one theme, and one subplot if at all.

Building off of that, I suggested that the chapter analogy was a good one to keep in mind with the short. A chapter only has so much space, but is like a small story in and of itself, save that with a short you have to introduce everything you need to address. But a chapter in a story is often written with a goal in mind, such as “The characters journey to here” or “This character acquires this thing,” “This character tells so-and-so how they feel,” etc. You get the idea. Each chapter has a direction or a goal in the larger story.

Well, with a short, you’ve cut away that larger story, or to put it another way, made it less vital to the scene we want to explore. Sure, your character may want to become the world’s greatest explorer, but that’s background to the short, since there’s not space to address it. Instead, our short might be about their attempts to join the explorers guild, or to find a partner for a dangerous expedition.

Again, this goes back to and does reinforce what the audience member had asked, about a short story being a beginning or an ending, but again I’d expand that to say it can be a “chapter” in their life as long as it has an ending. Combine that with what my fellow panelist said about keeping the entry confined to one theme and and maybe an idea, and you can keep your short, short.

Let’s go back to the above example about the character that wants to be an explorer. We can make a short about any point in their life. In fact, let’s do that now, and show how we keep the theme and idea, for lack of a better term, narrow.

  • Beginning: Character is just starting out and wants to enter the explorers guild. Possible conflict: Needs guild entry fee and conflicted about joining guild. Does an odd job for the fee, reaches their conclusion (join or not).
  • Middle: Reaches a far out and largely unexplored island, and is looking for a partner to follow a river inland despite the danger.
  • Middle: Races a rival explorer to find the peak of a mountain first while dealing with an apprentice.
  • Ending: Protagonist attempts to achieve one last, dangerous mapping credit to their name for their “legacy,” but can end deciding it’s too dangerous for them anymore and that their legacy is all the journey they had along the way and the inspiration for those who follow.

Okay, now that’s a little rough, but see how each of those could be a short story of a few thousand words all on their own. Each one is a microcosm of a larger story that could connect together, but they’re all each confined with their own theme and ideas. Each has its own challenge, direction, etc.

Now, if you combined them together, yes, you’d get a novel. Or if you tried to cram the ideas of two shorts into one of the stories. Then it’d have too much to handle for a short and become a novella at the least. But when you narrow them down … you get material perfect for a short as long as you keep that focus.

All right, now for the final kicker of today’s topic: Why? Why can’t you just mass all of the above ideas into one short story?

Because there simply isn’t time to give any of the ideas their proper due. If you want to write three of those bullet points above but need to be below 4000 words, well … your story is going to flash by everything at light speed in order to cram it all in, which means you won’t have time to dig into your ideas. Your audience will be left taking a single bite out of every concept rather than having a full meal.

There’s just not space in a short to tackle a three or four big ideas. One big idea is enough. You can upwrap it, explore it, and tie it back together in 2000, 1000, or 4000 words quite nicely. Ending with a reader that’s satisfied and content.

Now, one last note. This doesn’t mean you can’t nod in the direction of other concepts. For example, a short I read last night offered plenty of lines that expanded the world and setting of the short story, but didn’t walk down them. Like side-paths to the main road that the characters looked down but did not explore. This worked because the author wrote the story so that you knew they didn’t need to go down the side road, and so the audience was content knowing that it existed, but was content following the main road. Like looking down a side road on the way to a big monument, noting a restaurant, and thinking “Oh neat, they have that here!” but continuing on to your destination as you don’t need to go there at this time. The goal is the monument, but seeing those side roads helps expand that these are other interests in the setting.

This last one can be a bit tricky, but think of it as the background flair that helps flavor the universe and setting, rather than a potential plot to follow. A road the character is already familiar with, meaning that they can address it and move on. With out explorer, for example, it could be a line from the guild admission board of “You’ll need to get these mapmaking supplies and learn from these places how to use them” and the character replying “Already done that!” It’s there, and knowing about it is good, but we don’t need to explore that road.

And there you have it! Some LTUE advice for keeping your short story short! So focus on the key element you want to tell (not elements) and get to it!

Good luck! Now get writing!


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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Keeping a Short Story Short

  1. It’s true that, all else being equal, a complex story needs more words than a simple one. But I think that observation kinda… ignores the larger question, which is how to write short. And I think this question is completely ignored by all writing books and instructors and critics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single word written by prose writers on how to write short. It’s undervalued, even /denigrated/, by critics.

    One literary reason for writing long is that a lot of early writers wrote long. The Aeneid is > 120,000 words. Some translations of the Iliad are > 200,000 words. That’s not because they’re so deep–they are, but that deepness coulda been packed into 40,000 words in both cases. These were poems meant for an aristocratic audience that had lots of spare time. Same thing with 19th-century Russian novelists.

    Another is that critics evaluate /per book/, not /per word/. You never hear a literary professor say that Chekhov is more worthwhile than Dostoyevsky because he could say with 5,000 words what Dostoyevsky could with 100,000. But it’s right there in the word “worthWHILE”.

    And there are commercial reasons. Book publishers want authors to write one story per book, and they want that book to be 100,000 words long, because thin books get neglected in bookstores. But pick up almost any great book written before 1970, and it’ll be 50,000-90,000 words, The Great Gatsby and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are both 47,000 words. I hope e-books, without such physical marketing constraints, will be shorter as often as they are longer than today’s novels.

    Screenwriters, though–they know how to write short. We talk about movies like they were big, significant things, like novels. But a typical screenplay is only about 20,000 words. That’s a novella. The average Shakespeare play is 22,600 words.

    You’ll get an idea how they can be so short if you read Jim Mercurio’s 2019 book /The Craft of Scene Writing/ ( https://amzn.to/3bJvdBL ). He doesn’t approach it as trying to write short; he gets to the same place by trying to write dense. Figure out what your story is about, eliminate everything that doesn’t contribute towards that, then move all the bits and pieces around, and change the backstories, character introductions, locations, and actions until it’s all tightly interlocked thematically, symbolically, and plot-wise, like a jigsaw puzzle. Make every word do double duty. No boring lines are allowed. If a line doesn’t say more than it says literally, rip it out and find another way.

    Writing short is one thing I feel confident saying I do well. For me, a long story is anything over 3000 words. I owe a lot of this to laziness. Growing up, I read more short story anthologies than novels, because short stories took less time to read. And when I’d open up a short story anthology, I’d check the table of contents and read the shortest ones first. There’s a great book called “100 Great Short Short Science Fiction Stories” ( https://amzn.to/3bScLqr ) that I recommend to any writer. The very shortest stories are gimmicks, but there are plenty of sub-1000-word stories in there that are complete stories, though admittedly without subplots. If you’re too cheap to get that, check out my own “The Twilight Zone” on fimfiction, where I post my sub-1000-word stories.

    I don’t think short stories are really different than long stories. There’s a dogma in academia that short stories should be slice-of-lifes, because they don’t have enough room to be anything else, but that’s nonsense. /Ulysses/ is 260,000 words, and /Remembrance of Things Past/ is a million, and they’re both slice-of-lifes, not really stories. Meanwhile our own Write-Off ( https://writeoff.me ) regularly has contests with an 800-word limit, which people write complete beginning-middle-ending stories for. They are weak on character arcs, but somebody who can write a story in 800 words can write a character arc in 2500.

    I think most stories out there could do with a lot of condensing before their writers should consider reducing their complexity. It’s typical on fimfiction for a story to be 5-10 times as long as it needs to be for what it does. I think that’s because too many writers think “edit” means “line edit”, not “rip your story into pieces, and push the pieces around until you see how to fit them back together into something smaller”.

    Certain styles and POVs are better for writing short. An extremely short story, say under 500 words, will often drop us into the middle of the action and summarize or imply what came before, like my “Fraud!” in /Twilight Zone/. Or it may put the story in the same location as the narrator, but in the narrator’s past, so the narrator can give us physical descriptions while summarizing all the events of the past, as in my “The Gentle People”. Or a narrator may summarize what appears to be the story, while at the same time the voice, word choice, and attitude of the narrator are telling the “real” story, the thematic story, as in my “Bedtime Stories” and “Shut Up”.

    A lot of times it helps to throw grammar out the door, say what you gotta say like you were talking. You see that in scripts a lot, both in the dialogue and in the author’s set descriptions.

    Like

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