This week we are talking all about the art of writing a short story. Short stories can be a creative exercise used to explore a new idea. They can be entered into anthologies or submitted to magazines, and they can be repackaged into collections by the single author. I've found short stories to be some of the most challenging writing I've done, and some of the most fulfilling.
In setting out to write a short story, it doesn't hurt to know that the short story is a fairly young form, dating back only to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his 1837 book Twice-told Tales. For Edgar Allan Poe, who called them "prose tales," the fact that short stories could be read in a single sitting was key to the form. It allowed the reader to have an uninterrupted experience of the fictional world.
As a recent genre, the short story has few formal elements that are not shared with the novel. The challenge for the short-story writer lies in developing the major elements of fiction — character, plot, theme, point of view, etc. — in about ten to twenty-five pages. The cut-off for most journals is 10,000 words. To meet this challenge, short-story writers generally follow, consciously or unconsciously, a pretty standard list of rules.
Writing a short story differs from writing a novel in several key ways: There is less space to develop characters, less room for lengthy dialogue, and often a greater emphasis on a twist or an ‘a-ha’ realization. Ultimately, every story has a beginning, middle, and end. But the secret to successfully getting a short story published is to add something special to your storytelling mix…something that captures the attention of editors and readers alike. While there are no hard and fast rules for creating a great short story, here are a few secrets that will help your writing stand out:
Identify the Heart of Your Story
Explore your motivations, determine what you want your story to do, then stick to your core message. Considering that the most marketable short stories tend to be 3,500 words or less, you’ll need to make every sentence count. If you over-stuff your plot by including too many distractions, your story will feel overloaded and underdeveloped.
Use Few Characters and Stick to One Point of View
You simply will not have room for more than one or two round characters. Find economical ways to characterize your protagonist and describe minor characters briefly. Having only one or two protagonists naturally limits your opportunities to switch perspectives. Even if you're tempted to try it, you will have trouble fully realizing, in a balanced way, more than one point of view.
Limit the Time Frame When You Write a Short Story
Though some short-story writers do jump around in time, your story has the biggest chance of success if you limit the time frame as much as possible. It's unrealistic to cover years of a character's life in twenty-five pages. By limiting the time period, you allow more focus on the events that are included in the narrative.
Understand That a Short Story is Different to a Novel
However, it shares a fundamental similarity: it needs to have a coherent beginning, middle, and end. Anything else is a vignette, or something experimental. To sell a story, you need to tell a whole story. The skill is in only telling enough to keep it short but retaining all that’s required for a satisfying read.
Don’t Try to Write for a Market
This applies to novels too, but it bears remembering. You need to write the stories you want to write, the stories you want to read. Tell the stories only you can tell in the way only you can tell them, then go looking for markets to sell them. There are so many online and print magazines and anthologies these days, that you’ll surely find somewhere eventually if the story is good enough.
Plan Structure and Themes Around the Publications You’ll Submit To
One of the benefits of writing short stories either as preparation for writing a novel or for their own sake is that there are many publishing opportunities for short fiction. You can get your story published in:
Literary journals and magazines
Writing contest anthologies
Anthologies curated around specific topics or themes
Online publications (digital journals, writing websites and e-zines)
Make a list of possible publications once you have decided on your core story scenario.
Minimum and maximum submission word counts
Any specified formatting requirements
The contact details for the person in charge of submissions
The themes and topics most frequently featured by the publication
It’s wise to have these guidelines for formatting, word count and areas of interest worked out before you start, because this will enable you to make your story meet requirements for acceptance. This will save time later when it comes to revising.
Create a Strong Climax and Resolution for a Satisfying Story Arc
The climax of a story is crucial in long as well as short fiction. In short stories in particular, the climax helps to give the story a purpose and shape – a novel can meander more. Many short story writers have favored a ‘twist in the tale’ ending (the American short story author O. Henry is famous for these).
The climax could be dramatically compelling. It could be the reader’s sudden realization that a character was lying, for example, or an explosive conflict that seemed inevitable from the first page.
Writing a good short story ending can be achieved many ways. Besides using an element of surprise, you can have an ending that:
Is open: The reader must piece together the final pages’ implications
Is resolved: The meaning of the outcome is clear and fits the preceding events’ pattern of cause and effect
Returns to the beginning: An opening image or action returns and the story is given a circular structure
As with poetry, the short story requires discipline and editing. Every line should either build character or advance the action.
If it doesn't do one of these two things, it has to go. William Faulkner was right to advise writers to kill their darlings. This advice is especially important for short-story writers.
Follow Conventional Story Structure
he standard rules of narrative we all learned in our high school literature classes apply to writers as well. Though you may not have room to hit every element of traditional plot structure, know that a story is roughly composed of exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement.
However, much you experiment with form, something has to happen in the story (or at least the reader has to feel as though something has happened). Things like conflict and resolution achieve this effect. Storytelling may seem magical, but the building blocks are actually very concrete. As with any type of writing, the beginning and the end are the most important parts. Make sure your first and last lines are the strongest in the story.
Know When to Break the Rules
As with all rules, these are made to be broken. Alexander Steele points out in his introduction to the Gotham Writers' Workshop's Fiction Gallery that the short story lends itself to experimentation precisely because it is short: structural experiments that couldn't be sustained for three hundred pages can work beautifully for fifteen.
And today, the lines between genres such as the short story and the poem are blurred in exciting ways.
Keep in mind, however, that telling your story is still the most important thing. If breaking a rule allows you to tell your story more effectively, by all means, break it. Otherwise, think twice, or at least be honest with yourself if the innovation fails.
Following these rules should help you complete your stories successfully. If you find that your story overflows these boundaries no matter what you do, consider expanding it into a novel. The short story isn't for every story. Just like anything, short story writing is a skill, an art, and a craft. Read as many as you can to learn other peoples’ methods. Write as many as you can to develop your own ability. And, like all writing, never give up. With that being said, check out my available book titles on Amazon and Barnes & Noble…I know you want to! You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and of course you can tweet me @d_vanalst. Have a great writing week!