A friend and fellow writer made an offhand comment in the writing/accountability group we both belong to, as he was talking about his writing progress. Short stories are harder than novels, he said. I wholeheartedly agreed with him. I’ve had repeated attempts at shorts derail themselves in an attempt to go long, very long. Writing an effective short story requires so much, in such a small arc, that it’s difficult to compress.
I was listening to a podcast the other day about, among many, many other things (and it’s an excellent episode, I highly recommend it, called Frittering Away Genius), the compression of video, and what makes this possible. It’s the diffs.
What’s the diff? Well, in this case, it’s the differences between one frame and another in a movie. The less diff, the more it can be compressed. It’s when, the host explained, you have a lot of jump shots and rapid action, it becomes harder and slower to compress it. Which, as I was contemplating the problem of writing short, really came back to me.
Part of how you can compress an entire world into a short story is to have as few differences from the reader expectation as possible. And when you do have, make them count. Tropes exist for a reason – we know and understand them. They are shorthand, which the reader can mentally unpack, making your story bigger than it actually is, in the mind of the reader. Rather than taking the time to explain every little thing, just slide it in, and see what happens.
The jump cut applies to shorts, too. You can’t have too many places, too many people, in a short story and have it work effectively. Which, as I say this, I’m certain that someone will come up with an example. As a rule of thumb, thought, shorts are necessarily limited in scope. Which also means action – you aren’t going to be able to pack multiple action scenes, even with spare description that you have pared down to the essentials, into a short story. Pick one, and run with it, unless you have the luxury of a longer structure – ten thousand or more words. Keep in mind that the film analogy plays out here, too. A feature length film is, more or less, a novella worth of material. Which is why the book is always better than the movie. You have to seriously truncate a novel to cram it into one movie.
And now I’m going to wander off to get ready for work, and leave it up to you all. How do you like a short story? What are some of your favorites?