Short Stories: know what they are and what they aren’t
If you can tell a story, you can write a short story – right?
Well … yes and no.
From my own experience, I can tell you there are more ways to write something that isn’t a short story than something that is. To understand how that could be, first consider what makes a short story a short story.
First part of the equation is that it is short – but usually not too short. 1000 – 7000 is considered ideal. Shorter than that and you don’t have the room to develop a true short story. Flash fiction generally does not have the space to contain much beyond the very barest of characterization or character development – something that is vital to successful short stories. Meanwhile, stories that are longer than that are pushing into novella territory and likely have more plot, more characters, or more subplot than a short story will typically have.
Okay – so we know a short story is short. What about the “story” part?
Generally, this means there is conflict the main character needs to overcome in order to achieve or learn something. Here are some things that may not meet those criteria:
- A Vignette: I think of these as sketches. They may be of a person or place or both. Vignettes may not have conflict or even any specific action
- An Anecdote: This is “a fun thing that happened.” Imagine your friend telling you how they were walking down the street and they saw a horse with a goat on it trot by. Because of all the fuss, the friend was late getting into the office. There is a narrative. There are characters. Things happen. But this isn’t a short story in its current form. There is no conflict. Nothing is overcome and no one has necessarily learned or achieved anything.
Both of the above can and do get published! In fact, frequently, they get published right alongside short stories but I would say that they are very much not short stories themselves and fewer editors are looking for those kinds of stories
>> Main Point: make sure your story has a character who has to struggle to overcome a specific problem.
Learn from my struggles writing Short Stories: write them quick and dirty
The primary difficulty I personally have with writing short stories likely comes from the way in which I generate ideas.
Unlike many people, I LOVE beginnings. Blank pages don’t scare me and I plunge right in with the writing. I almost always start by “pantsing” it (writing from seat of my pants). Unfortunately, this can and often does mean I end up wandering around after the opening scene or two because I haven’t really considered how the thing ends.
A note on endings: From hard-won experience, I’ve come to the mantra that a beginning of a story is like making a promise. The end of a story is like fulfilling that promise. In order to understand an arc, therefore, it helps to have a clear-eyed overview to make sure the beginning and end match.
How do I propose improving my own writing and yours? Following the advice of Joe Bunting in this article is not a bad way to do it: write the story from start to finish in one go. Write it as you might tell it to a friend. Write only enough detail that you get the gist of it across. Once you know the shape of the story and whether the idea sounds as good as it did in your head, you can then match the beginning to the end, outline more of a development arc through the middle, and flesh out the scenes in between. No more wandering. No more endings that fall flat.
In fact, the piece of advice I think I have seen repeated most often is this: write more frequently. You don’t have to write more words. But if you increase the frequency with which you’re creating characters and working through narrative arcs, the more easily and intuitively it will come to you. I say if the technique above – of writing quick and rough versions of the stories first and then filling in details later – gets me writing more stories, it’s worth trying.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to the very thing that keeps so many people from starting stories at all: the fear that it won’t be very good. The fear that nobody will like it when they see it. Well – if I write these ultra-rough versions of stories for myself, I don’t have to worry about anyone ever seeing them. They won’t and that’s okay. And there will be plenty of time to clean them up afterward.
So there it is – my plan for writing more and better, and an invitation for you to try as well. Write the rough-and-dirty version. Revel in how simplistic and ugly it is. At least when you’ve written it, it’s out there now, and it’s something you can improve (or throw away).
>> Main Point: Write a quick and ugly draft. Write it like you would tell a friend a story at a party. Leave out all but the most important details. If it still sounds like a fun story, flesh it out