Keeping it short

This is a topic on something I don’t know how to do.
Or a request for help.

How do you write a short story, and keep it short? My shortest story is really a novelette, not short enough to be a short.

And not every anthology is going to let me get away with writing a novella when they wanted a short.

In fact, most won’t. I’m no Jim Butcher or Larry Correia… and in fact, both those gents have mastered writing on time, to theme, and to word length. I’ve been working on all three, but as any of us know from resolutions to exercise and eat healthy and Do All The Things, working on everything means no meaningful progress on any single thing.

So shelving on time and on theme for a moment, putting aside the about-to-be-released novel that is my second short-story-that-oops-wasn’t, taking a deep breath and not looking at the stack of research for a novel WIP on the muck that comprises the deepest ocean floor (and glass sponges! So cool!), let me try to focus on your answers. How do you approach short stories such that they stay short?

16 comments

  1. Don’t ask me; my shortest story clocked in at 14,000 words. 😀

    Cutting it too short to tell the whole story wouldn’t have been a good idea. At least, that’s what I think.

  2. Reminds me of the time I was going to write a sequel to my first short story. It just grew and grew until it was 15k words. OK what happened in that case was having a subplot, specifically a romance subplot. Subplots don’t add words, they multiply them. Also stick to only one POV. Try to imply things instead of using lots of words to spell them out in lots of detail.

  3. For me it’s a matter of detail and focus. In a longer story there’s more room for including all the little details that build up a fictional world but a short story is more streamlined so I’ll only include details that are particularly important to the story. In a longer story, for example, I might write “a dozen mercenaries wearing nondescript olive drab uniforms and armed with Fabrique National FAL rifles blocked our path” while for a short story I might go with “a dozen mercenaries blocked our path.” The same goes for describing the setting, naming secondary characters (“the pickup truck driver” versus “Joey Baggadonuts”) or character backstory details – in a short story the readers don’t need to know why Joey Baggadonuts only drives blue pickups – it’s enough to say that he only drives blue pickups and leave it at that, unless story is about the (funny, heartwarming, or tragic) tale of Ole Joe and his blue pickups. Which brings me to focus.

    I guess instead of focus you could also maybe use scope – in either case, by this I mean the number of characters in a story, the number of places they are going, and the number of things they are doing. In a short story I try to limit all of those to the minimum number needed to tell the tale. To use my story in Ghosts of Malta as an example, there are two POV characters (the First Chief and Jill Rousseau); the whole thing takes place on the island of Filfla; the First Chief is looking for Jill, Jill is looking for an artifact. Another short story I wrote, Crossing the Line (my editor was nice enough to share it on her blog as part of her Halloween Extravaganza if you’re bored and looking for something to read), has one POV character, it takes place on a single starship, the narrator is battling her phobia of being in space while trying to avoid being caught by a serial killer, it takes place on a single starship, Since there is only one POV character, I wrote it in the first person and included a lot of details on what the narrator was thinking, feeling, and seeing. The narrower the focus, the more details I’ll include and the broader the focus, the fewer details I’ll include.

    Basically you want to limit the focus as much as possible (maybe think of the story as a “side quest” the main characters are working on while taking a break from the big, epic story you’ve suddenly found yourself inspired to write) and then streamline the details you include. If you find your story isn’t long enough you can always go back and add in some of the details you glossed over the first time through. Hope that makes sense.

  4. When trying to cut something that’s gotten too large, check the time frame. Can you chop out a huge sequence? Elide past travel? If you have more than one POV, can one be shortened to the bare essentials that he saw that were important to the plot, and the main character couldn’t have seen? Or drop it altogether and add a conversation with the MC?

  5. You just have to sneak up on the bloody thing.
    Tell yourself that you are just writing a chapter of a much longer novel, initial introductory by preference. Slap it down on paper or screen and when you reach a convenient break just stop.
    Set it aside for a day or two then edit it for continuity and the usual fiddly bits then hand off to your beta readers for comments. If the main reaction is “moooree please!” send it off.
    Then come back on it six weeks later and finish the damn book.

  6. It’s been a long time since I wrote any,* but the ones I did tended to be myth/fairy tale adjacent, with one to three POVs and fairly archetypical characters. Basically, short stories need to be tightly focused, and you’re probably either going to be doing something with a lot of plot but more basic characterization, something that’s very character-focused but has very little plot, or something that’s very imagery/language-driven, but skimps on both plot and character. Pick whichever suits your writing style.

    *There’s a sort of prologue to Waking the Dreamlost somewhere, I should see if I still have it up on online.

  7. I wrote two novels before I wrote my first short. The only trick I have found is keep it simple. ONE problem. if others crop up, have your character note them for future reference, and go back to the one problem. It really helps if you’re writing in a preexisting universe, but you don’t NEED that. Take for example my first short Vulcan III, new universe (it turned out that it’s a back story for the universe I’m writing in right now, but that wasn’t my plan) Many problems crop up, but they’re mentioned in passing, a sentence, or a paragraph and move back to the big issue, and keep the attempt, fail, attempt succeed loop short.

  8. Another way to look at this that might be useful, and forgive me if I’m being too bold here, would be to use one of your own stories as an example and sort of “reverse engineer” from its current version to a theoretical short story version. I really enjoyed Scaling the Rim and the story sticks in my mind so… I’d say that a theoretical short story version of Scaling the Rim could perhaps consist of just the last chapter of the story. Yes, it would be missing all the background and the events that *led* to the last chapter (although much of it would still be implied due to references, call backs, etc.), but I’d say it would stand on its own as a short story that would inspire your your friends to pester you to write more about what happened and fill in the details behind those references, call backs, and unanswered questions. Again, hope that makes sense.

    1. Most of my true short stories (less than 8K words) are “just the climax,” like the one I posted last week on the blog. Why does the protagonist sense the evil coming with the storm? Why is he willing to flee to the ruined church? What is the evil that’s coming? Where does it go? None of those are in the story. It’s one PoV character, one villain, one rescue, and a lot of description.

      That had readers bouncing up and down and saying “We want the rest of it! Make it a full story!” Whimper, whimper, whimper . . .

  9. Have you tried writing the bigger story, then taking a Sawzall to it? Not efficient, but if you don’t see a better way it might work.

  10. I’ve only ever really managed vignettes on purpose.

    I’m not entirely sure how I managed those.

    Beyond vignettes, I seem to both need an outline of what I will do, and to succeed only by accident. As in, happen to have a workable mental outline, happen to be engaged with writing it, and can write in all more or less at once.

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