Why You Should Write Short Stories

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Hey, guys. Sorry this post is so late, but it’s been a busy morning. I made it. That has to count for something.
Anyway.

It’s been a busy morning because I’ve been finishing up and editing a story for an AU anthology (and waiting fifteen minutes for a damned cup of coffee, but that’s irrelevant). Doing it got me to thinking about something I hear from a lot of writers:

A lot of us–a damned big-shame lot of us–never write short stories. Or: we try to write short stories, and they turn into novels.

Why is this such a shame? Because short stories are like the Adderol to your novel’s cocaine. (Insert some less offensive metaphor here, if you can think of one that’s still apt). Finishing a short story might not give you quite the buzz finishing a novel does, but it’s still damned fun, and it’s a good deal less involved. You can crank out a five thousand word short story in a day, if you feel like it. You can crank out two, if you have nothing else to do.

And writing within a word limit can teach you a loo-oooot about plot pacing.

Think of a short story as a novel without all the fluff. You need a complete story–a complete plot, rounded characters, a believable setting–but you need it in a fairly small amount of words. You need, my dears, to learn the art of economy to make it work. You need to make your action–and your other stuff–fit the size of your undertaking.

So here’s some stuff to think about, as you write:

1) Choose an idea that fits your word limit.
If it’s one hundred word flash fiction, the action can be something as simple as dropping a flower. If it’s five thousand words, we want to know why the flower was dropped, what happens before and after, why the flower is significant, and all the action that descends from this flowerful droppage. If it’s more than five thousand words, we want more action. Honestly: we probably want more action if it’s over five HUNDRED words.

But there needs to be action. There needs to be plot. There needs to be character. And it needs to fit the size of your story.

If you pick a plot that’s too simple for your word limit, your story’s going to be fluffy and dull. If you pick one that’s too complicated, it’s going to be confusing (and, therefore, dull). Character-based though much of my writing is, even I have to acknowledge the importance of plot as infrastructure–if you don’t frame your dwelling soundly, no matter how pretty it is, it’s going to fall down.

2) Keep within your word limit.
We’ve all done it: you started out to write a 10,000 word story, and you wound up writing a 500,000 word trilogy. Whoops! Tee hee! Aren’t you an adorable little overachiever? Doesn’t that just prove you’re soooo totally committed to your cause?

No. It just proves you can’t write a short story.

For those of us who tend to literary effusiveness, the short story is a tool, and one of some worth. It teaches us to trim, to cut, to cinch in our literary verbosity. It teaches us not to use three words (like I did in that previous sentence–natch!) when one will do. I started a novel, once, with some stunning (to me, at least,) visual imagery and a plot that moved like treacle. It took me owing something to a publication on VERY short notice for me to look at that half-finished novel and realize: all that time, it had been a short story. It didn’t have enough of a plot to work as a novel. So: I relieved it of its pretense and rewrote it as it was meant to be. And it was much better.

Valuable lessons learned.

3) What’s important?
This is a subset of item two, really, but it’s worth mentioning in a separate context. To keep within your word limit, you’re going to have to think pretty hard about what’s important in your story and what isn’t. Short stories will teach you how to kill your darlings, and they’ll teach you how necessary that sometimes is.

In a work of fiction under 10,000 words, the main question you need to be asking yourself is:

Does this scene do two things?

Does it show your main character’s bravery and get the toothpaste in the picture for that cavity-fighting scene that happens later on? Does it provide a crucial amount of the mother’s backstory while casually reinforcing how hard it is to find a good dentist in town?

If it doesn’t accomplish at least two purposes, you could probably use those limited words a little better. People say every scene needs to mean something in the course of your story, and yeah, that’s true. Otherwise, you just rewrote Tropic of Cancer. In a short story, however, take that advice and double it: now everything needs to have two purposes, and you need to be a literary Macguyver.

4) Experiment!
The other great thing about short stories, kids: you’ve got a LOT less editing to do when you’re finished. It’s easier to stay in control of a shorter story. There’s less time, as it happens, for your faults as a writer to boil to the surface. You can think about the bare-bones mechanics of the story a little less, simply because there are less of them.

Therefore: short stories are a great place to experiment. Been debating an attempt at second person present for a while? Write a short. Just kind of curious how a story written from the POV of a dying star would look? Dabble all you like. Want to write a circular tale where the end and beginning lines are both the onomatopoeaic sound of an elephant’s ear wax dribbling down a concrete wall? I reckon that sound is sshlrrp. Have fun. If you find something you like, you can craft a heavier plot and novelize later.

5) Learn to accept defeat.
I know, nobody likes to see that one. But there are times–a LOT of times–where the thing you’ve been trying so hard to save just isn’t going to work. You’ve tried to patch it up so many times it’s more deus ex-type patch than story. There’s a plot hole that’s too big, a character inconsistency that’s too prominent. And in these cases, you have two choices: either put the thing down, ostensibly to give it a rest but really probably never to pick it up again, or start over.

I’ve had to start a TON of short stories over, and while it’s never pleasant, let me say this: it gives you the experience to recognize when this needs to happen with a novel, and it gives you the courage to LET it happen. Not everything’s a keeper. Everyone has a literary slush pile. Don’t be ashamed, but likewise: don’t be afraid of the work. If you really feel like there’s something in there that could be saved if you just start over, start over.

Wow. That’s probably going to be my next blog: When to Quit. It’s an important thing and it never gets talked about.
At any rate, love.

EFR

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5 thoughts on “Why You Should Write Short Stories

  1. I’ve written maybe 30 short stories and thought that was a pretty decent number. Then I read something from David Foster Wallace and I’ll have to paraphrase because I can’t remember where I read it and can’t seem to find it, but he said he didn’t even want to work with student writers until they had written 50 short stories. At that time, they can begin to learn something. So, I’ve got a lot of writing still to do.

    1. Huh, I wonder how many I’ve written. Somewhere between one and one hundred. Probably closer to a hundred. I have no idea. 😛 I think that’s good advice though, and even after fifty you should just keep writing ’em. Writing novels is great, but there are lessons you learn from short stories that novels just don’t give you.

    1. Oh, I’ve been stewing over one of these for years now. About a magician who dies, and forces his departing soul into fifty or so rings…then write the story as a series of vignettes, each featuring a ring, carrying the action along bit by bit through fifty different viewpoints. I never get past the first few stories before I abandon it once again for something less difficult, but that’s my fault. I love those interlocking story-books.

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