Once upon a time I uttered the words, “I can’t write short stories!” I’ve since heard many others state this same sentiment. I implore you—don’t fall for this trap. You can write short! (By short, I’m talking flash at 750 to 1,500 words to longer short stories at 3,000 to 7,000 words.) Here’s how to do it.
This is the key. It’s easy to wander off on an epic adventure with tons of characters and weaving plot lines. For a short story, this is too much. Focus on one moment, one character, one scene. Think of the whole story if you must, but you’re only writing the most important part of it. Pick the scene with the most action or impact. Resist the urge to tie everything up perfectly. Some ambiguity is fine in shorts. We know the story goes on when the writing stops.
2. The Situation
Find a situation to work with. Writing prompts are brilliant for this. All three short stories of mine that are being published in anthologies this year came from a prompt. They were: 10 (could be anything, but had to use 10 in some way), a person looks into a mirror and sees someone other than themselves, and a photo of a chair (with the instructions to write about it—where is it, what’s it doing there, etc.) This is a glimpse of a life. Part of the bigger story. Get in quick and get out quicker.
3. The Character
Stick with one main character, two at the most, but definitely one point of view. A short story doesn’t allow for too many characters, and switching points of view can get very confusing. Make your one character unique and interesting and make the reader fall in love quickly.
4. The Point
It’s not enough for something to happen. There has to be a point to the story. A lesson learned, a person changed, whatever. Why are you telling this story in this way? What is the point of telling it? What can be seen through this character’s eyes?
5. Think Differently
Now that I’ve been writing shorts stories for a little while, I think about them differently. When I get an idea, I know instantly whether it’s a flash story, a short story, or a novel, based on what happens and how involved it is. Every time the prompt comes out for the 24-Hour Short Story contest by Writers Weekly
, somewhere in my thinking, I’ll get at least one idea that’s too “big.” This is a flash contest, so I know I have less than 1,000 words to say what I need to say and move on.
6. Read It
I didn’t see how anyone could write under 1,000 words and have it mean something until I started reading flash. And there is some good stuff out there. I realized that even some of the classics, like Anton Chekov and Raymond Carver, wrote some stories that are flash length. Read longer stories, too, like Flannery O’Conner, Joyce Carol Oates, and Alice Munro and pay attention to what’s included and what’s not.
Every quarter, Writers Weekly holds a 24-Hour Short Story contest. You pay $5, they send out a prompt and you have 24 hours to write a story under 1,000 words (the exact word count differs each time) and send it back. I’ve found this contest to be a lot of fun and great practice. I even got an honorable mention in the spring! But there are a ton of places to find prompts. Search for some and go nuts.
8. Write it Long, then Trim it Down
When I first wrote “10 Items or Less” for the Carlow 10 Anthology, it was seven pages long. The max was four. This gave me the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson in where to start and end a story, but also in learning which elements had to be included and which were not needed. The story originally started with a page and a half of the couple blubbering through their morning to make it out the door to her hair appointment. With the help of a brilliant critique partner, I realized that the story could start in the hair salon and much of the earlier stuff could be skipped or implied. But it’s easier to see what can go when you write with the freedom to write it as long as you see fit, then worry about word count when you edit.
Why is this important, you ask? But I’m a novelist, you say. I don’t need to write short stories! Well, it’s important for the same reason that writing and reading poetry is important. It teaches you how to write better. When you can fit a whole story in 1,000 words, it won’t take you half a novel to get to the point. You’ll get better at showing and at not including superfluous details. You’ll know how to nail a description and set the scene in a sentence or two instead of a page.
Then, when you do go back to writing long, you can make the plot shine, the characters jump off the page, and the dialogue spark because you’ll know how to get to the point and stay there.
I might also add, it’s a great way to get out there. You can expand your readership and get some publishing credit. Many have monetary prizes attached (like the Writers Weekly one). It’s a good way to test the waters and see if your writing sinks or swims before you start querying agents for your novel. There are a ton of opportunities, too. You’ll find something that fits, and if you submit regularly, you’ll see something happen. If not, you’ll know you still have room to grow. (Don’t we all!)