Writing the Short Story, Part I

This blog focuses primarily on providing tips on writing novels. In today’s publishing landscape, writers can gain traction by focusing on short stories. There are markets out there for short stories. The short story requires less of a time commitment than the novel. When I was cutting my teeth as a fiction writer, I dabbled in short stories before I attempted a novel.

Conventional wisdom suggests it is easier to write a short story than it is to pen a novel. I’m not so sure. So let’s explore the differences between the short story and the novel. Chief among them is obviously the length. How long should a short story be? In my research, I found a wide range of answers, from 1,000 words to a maximum of 20,000 words. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 3,500 words, or about 14 typed pages at 12 point type, double spaced. Of course, a writer must check the guidelines of the publication to which she is submitting her work as there is usually a maximum word count listed.

With fewer words, every word must count in a short story. The word count limit means a writer must take a different approach to the short story than she would when writing a novel. The story must have a tighter focus. While a novel can span years and even decades, a short story usually takes place in one scene or two at most. Think of a short story as a snapshot, or a microcosm. Short stories challenge writers to reveal large themes in few words.

In a multi-generational novel, the writer can explore intra-family relationships over the course of decades. In a short story, the writer must capture the relationships and conflicts among characters in that family in one or two scenes. For example, a rift may develop in a family over many years. In a short story, one pivotal scene that shows how and why this rift developed must suffice. The writer must shift from a “macro” to a “micro” focus. 

While a limited focus is essential in writing a short story, the writer should also curtail the number of characters. Populating a 3,500-word short story with eight to ten characters doesn’t make sense and will confuse the reader. I would limit the number to three characters, but a writer may need more than that number of characters to serve the needs of the story.

In developing characters for short stories, there is no space for detailed character development. The character’s transformation may be more subtle in a short story than a novel. A few well-placed, descriptive words can delivrer insight. For instance, if a writer describes the main character as having wild hair and a scruffy  beard and wearing tattered jeans, that evokes a certain image. The writer doesn’t necessarily need to go into detail about the characer’s upbringing. Calling a character a grifter and giving that character a test sets up the elements for the story.

I will cover other aspects of the short story in another installment.

What about you? Do you write both short stories and novels? Which do you find more challenging?

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