How To Write A Short Story

There are many reasons to write short stories.  None of them are the reason I learned.  I learned because I’m an idiot. Being an idiot, I read very outdated books that said that to break into novels you must have a track record in short stories.

By the time I broke into publishing, getting a short story published was actually much harder than getting a novel published.  There were fewer slots.

But I’m an idiot, and therefore, despite the fact that I’m a natural novelist and short stories had to be painfully learned, I ended up with over 100 published (though only two before I sold a novel.)

So, supposing you’re also a natural novelist, how do you go about writing short stories? (Short stories sell less on amazon, but otoh think of them as loss leaders.  People might buy (or get free) a short story then invest on your novel.  Every time I keep a short story free all month, my income doubles from the novels, so… Perhaps it’s not cause and effect, but it tracks too well to be coincidence.)

First: Stop thinking of a short story as a shorter version of a novel.  You can’t cram all that stuff in there.  Well, you can, but it won’t be a story.  more like Cliff’s notes to a book unwritten.

Second: Stop thinking of a short story as a chapter in a novel.  While these can sometimes work, mostly they read like… chapters in novels.

The best way to think of a short story is as its own thing.  And what is its own thing?  Well, it’s hard to explain.  It’s almost a completely different art form from a novel.  You could say it deals with “smaller” themes, but stuff like Cold Equations or Midnight Mass (the short story) pack a huge wallop in a tiny space.  Granted some other short stories are lighter feeling or bubbly, but really that can’t be the definition.

So, what is the definition?

To me a short story is a complete and coherent emotional experience.  But wait, isn’t a novel that also?  Sure. But a novel stretches over a longer frame, and can evoke many emotions, before pushing you into the final climax and catharsis.  In fact, even horror novels should have funny bits, etc.

A short story is more one note.  Because you’re working with a shorter space, you have to concentrate on inducing and heightening a single note of an emotional experience — be it fear or joy, romance or horror.

Because of its shortness and in terms of technique, a short story usually revolves around a single incident that forces the emotion or takes you through a single choice and its consequences.

Take cold equations — while there is a reference to the brother and the reason she’s so attached to the brother, it’s all in the past.  We don’t even get her sneaking aboard, we just get her aboard and the decision forced by the cold equations.

In the same way in Midnight Mass (F. Paul Wilson) we don’t get how the vampires took over the US, just this one priest’s struggle to celebrate just one mass in the world of darkness (which in a way has to do with clearing his name, etc.)  The novel he wrote based on the short is a hot mess because it can’t have that focus and too many politically correct shibboleths fell into it.

So even if the story you have to tell is very long, pick the dominant emotion/experience you want to convey to the readers and concentrate on it.  Give only the essential past in flashbacks.  And remember, keep it to the essential, because words count in short stories.

Pick an incident that involves choice and/or action on your character’s part and one whose consequences can at least be foreseen after the choice is made, or whose consequences are pretty immediate.

So, if you picked the moment your character decided to save the world?  Dude, you’re writing a novel.  (Unless saving the world involves putting it in a ziploc baggie, of course.)  If you picked the moment your character chose to save his brother, even though his brother is prophesied to destroy the world?  Ah, there you have something.

Then pick a choice that can play itself out in about six thousand words.  So, if your character has decided to become a general, dude, you’re writing a novel.  If your character picks up the flag when the standard bearer lets it drop, that’s more like it.

Then put that incident under the microscope.  One of the mistakes of first time short story writers is what I call “And then they were done” so the whole story takes place in about a thousand words.  “He had to make this choice, he made it, it played out.  The end.”

Remember that this incident has to be presented as highly significant and evoke emotions in your readers.  Your character should still have a try-fail sequence at least twice, before succeeding.  And the decision needs to be important to him and not overly obvious.  And you should show, not tell.

Okay — I confess I have cabinet-refinishing brain, so I hope the above is helpful.  If it’s not, or you need more, ask questions.

36 thoughts on “How To Write A Short Story

  1. “Your character should still have a try-fail sequence at least twice, before succeeding.”

    A common technique is to have one (or more) of the try-fails happen before the story actually starts. Your protagonist is forced to rob a bank in order to get the ransom to rescue his child, and the climax of the story is what happens when he confronts the kidnapper after failing in the robbery? Then you might start with him in the getaway car with police sirens after the robbery went horribly wrong. Describe in flashbacks how he got to this point: his child’s kidnapping, the discovery of the note, and the botched robbery. Or you might start in the middle of the robbery. The earlier incidents might be compelling, and they might make a good story; but if you’re looking for very short and focused on how he deals with the kidnapper, then you might cut out and just tell or even just imply what came before. Not every try-fail has to happen “on stage”. And sometimes you can even start in the middle of a fail and imply the try.

  2. My “natural length” is the novelette. I have a story in my head, start writing it, and something like 12-15000 words later I type “The End” and the story’s done. I don’t have anything more to say (in that story–I might have other stories with those settings/characters, but that story is d o n e.)

    Occasionally, the story that comes to me will be longer or shorter, but by and large it will fall right in that slot where, so far as I can see, there are the fewest paying markets. Indie’s a possibility, of course, but sales, at least for me, are just not there.

    1. I hear ya! Related to that, I find (with some exceptions) that my stories run about 1,500 words per “incident”: building up to a try, surviving a fail, etc. So that 12-15,000 range is 8-10 incidents, which is a pretty good story structure.

    2. Um… For novellas they won’t be. To make a novel out of these think how your character got there. To make a short concentrate on the most impactful part of it and ruthlessly cut out every non-needed character and event.

  3. Sarah, I would like your permission to repost this in the 1632 writing forums on Baen’s Bar. I am trying to provide many different resources for people who have basically never written professionally to get good enough so I can buy their stories for the Grantville Gazette (in case you hadn’t heard at Libertycon, I’m the new editor of the Gazette). May I use it?

  4. I have a really hard time getting from the short story idea to a fleshed out novel. Even novella is hard for me. I have ideas floating around in my head, just not the how to get it from ‘cool idea’ to fully formed characters and plot arc. That’s one reason I don’t don’t let anyone else read the tripe I write.

      1. If you read it in order, it’s super helpful. Then you can read it out of order all you want. As many times as you want. And there’s always something new to be gotten out of it.

        1. What Laura and Sarah said. I go back to it about once a year, and look at individual chapters and sections more often.

  5. It has been my experience that although some people might go for a short story, on the whole, a batch of them in a collection sells better.

    Even when all the stories are available individually.

    1. I’d always heard y’all speak on how poorly shorts sell, but really didn’t believe it until I published my own short.

      As of right now, my story has sold exactly 13 copies, yet still made it into the Top 100 Bestsellers List for Kindle Short Reads>One Hour (33-43 Pages)>Mystery, Thriller & Suspense. It only hit the #90 slot, and has since slid out of the Top 100, but still… 13 copies. Holy schmoly, y’all weren’t kidding!

      1. Write some more and package them together. I’ve sold more than 13 copies of my collections without going that high.

      2. Are Short Reads and One Hour a category you select, or is that determined by an Amazon algorithm?

  6. I find that the hardest thing about writing short stories is finding a concept “short” enough. Usually, when I come up with an idea, I have a hard time fitting it into one book, much less a few thousand words. That’s perhaps the reason why my favorite short story that I have written is almost 8,000 words. That’s a tenth the size of my first book. *Sigh*

  7. I think of a short story as a party anecdote—it’s the sort of thing you can tell to someone you just met, complete in and of itself. “The Firebug,” a fictional title for a real-life event wherein I got to help fight a wildfire as a summer camp counselor, is one such anecdote. If I wanted a novel, I’d need at least enough of a friendship that I could go on about four years of “this one time at Scout camp…”

    Incidentally, whenever I think of “The Firebug,” I think of it in comic book format. And while I am an artist, that is NOT my skill set.

    1. From this non-expert’s perspective, the shorter the fiction, the closer it gets to the structure of a joke. You have your hook, set-up, and pay-off..

      1. And as with jokes, you want the funniest part (or the pay-off) to be as close to the end as possible. If you are able to non-awkwardly structure a sentence so as to have the funniest word of a joke be the very last one, do so.

        Does anyone remember the story plot curve? With a short story, it’s as though you cut off the sides… and the shorter the story, the more you cut off. Some short stories end at the climax while others get all of one line of post-climax resolution.

  8. Taking notes. I’ve got a few short stories I need to work up, and a few serials. My brain tries to make them interchangeable and they aren’t. Thanks for the tips. 🙂

  9. My problem is that I seem to be good (relatively speaking) at short stories, but can’t seem to write anything longer that 5,000 words. I’ve had plenty of ideas that won’t be stuffed into a box that small, but when I try to write anything longer it feels like a bunch of short stories in succession.

    1. Well, write that series of short stories in succession, then. Nothing wrong with that. And if it really bothers you, hand it to someone who can see if there’s an overarching plot line you could stick in through there.

      1. And see if there’s a way that you can make the success (or failure) in story 1 be the cause of story 2. That will turn the stories into Try/Fail cycles.

        There was a video making the rounds a couple of years ago from the South Park creators with a simple but powerful writing rule: instead of “And then” transitions, prefer “So therefore” or “But” transitions.

        An “And then” transition is one where one scene just stops and another starts, with nothing connecting them. You might do that in a longer story where you’re trying to approach the conflict obliquely from many POVs; but in a short, it usually means you’re wandering. Your scenes don’t connect logically, and you don’t have much space to connect them down the road.

        A “So therefore” transition means that one scene is recognizably a cause or contributor to the next. A “But” transition is like an “And then” transition, but stronger. Instead of “Joe went to school, and then Bill came home”, it’s “Joe went to school, but what he didn’t know was Bill came home.” It’s a scene that sheds light on a previous scene.

        If you took a number of short stories and figured out good ways to connect them with “So therefore” or “But”, you would start to build a longer story. Then with practice you can decide which stories are weak and should be left out or replaced, making a stronger story still. And you may discover that these lead to an unexpected big finish.

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