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 Being an idiot, I read very outdated books that said that to break into novels you must have a track record in short stories.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.