Writing the Short Story, Part II

Author Zadie Smith once reportedly advised writers who are planning a short story to start as close to the end as possible. In Part I of this series, I discussed the narrow focus of the short story. Since the short story is generally limited to 1,000 to 3,500 words, writers must keep to a minimum the number of scenes, characters and time frame. Beginning a story close to the end might sound contradictory, but there is a logic to it.

Let’s say the crux of a short story centers on the deteriorating relationship between a father and a son. Substitute a husband and a wife or two lovers. The ending is the final break between the two people in the story. It is irreparable and absolute. In a short story the writer doesn’t have the space to explore the relationship from its beginning and to delve into the origins of the conflict. What the writer will convey in a short story is the final break, the tipping point.

If the short story centers on a journey, it must be a short one–a drive from Boston to New York as opposed to a cross country trip. A hero’s journey in a short story must begin “in medias res”–in the middle of the action. In a novel, the hero faces a  series of mounting challenges before the ultimate test. In a short story the hero is in the middle of the final battle, the ultimate challenge. The writer may weave into the story some references to the hero’s humble beginnings or earlier challenges, but it must be a fleeting glance back.

Similarly, the writer cannot give the protagonist multiple problems or challenges to solve in a short story. Choose one problem that signifies the larger issue. If the protagonist must overcome his need to get out from underneath his father’s shadow, show this through a single episode that pays off the theme. The protagonist should face one problem in a short story. The problem must link to something the character wants (or something the protagonist doesn’t want to happen to him). And, as in a novel, there must be a consequence for failure, though it doesn’t need to be as life-transforming as in a novel.

Though others may differ, I believe strongly the writer must stick to a single point-of-view (POV) in a short story. Multiple POVs work in novels because a writer can select a POV character for a scene and switch POVs in other scenes, based on the needs of the story and who is affected most by the scene. Changing POVs in a short story which has one or two scenes at most will confuse the reader.

Similarly, I would advise sticking to one setting, or two at most, in a short story. The setting, of course, must match the mood and the genre of the story. 

I will discuss short story markets in the next installment.

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