Welcome to another post on Writers’ Corner. Today, I am excited to introduce our guest star J. W. Martin who will be telling us all about the art of writing short stories! Joe is one of the first writer/book-bloggers that I’ve met. I think we’ve known each other for something like two years? (Whoa! Time flies!!) Please do check out his blog – he has a good blend of writing, reading and motivational posts and he always writes with a good dose of humour!
As someone who has way more experience trying to write novel-length fiction, writing shorter stuff is… well it’s kind of like when you need to carry something that’s really big, but still pretty light. You end up awkwardly shuffling your way through doorways or maybe into a car. And in that situation someone always shows up and asks if you need help. And, like everyone else who’s been in that situation, you say: It’s not heavy, it’s just awkward.
That’s how I feel about writing short stories. It’s not hard to write, but it can be awkward. It’s like wrapping my arms around a huge beanbag chair. I don’t always know how to maneuver the plot points and character development through the doorway before the story’s climax. Maybe if I angle it…
Below is the modest list of principles and axioms I discovered while writing a number of shorts. I am by no means an expert, and the only success of these stories thus far is that they were really fun to write.
Come in Later
If you’re usually a novel writer, like me, you tend to want to start back at the beginning of the story. The very beginning. It’s debatable if novels should even start there, it’s an absolute must not with short stories.
For example, if I were tell you the story of Sophie asking me to write this guest post: the novel version might start when Sophie are I started exchanging messages on our blogs for the first time, getting to know each other.
The short story version however, is going to start in the middle of me actually writing the post.
Denouement is the place where everything is wrapped up and final questions are answered. In the case of the short story, it’s the thing that happens AFTER you actually end the story.
LEAVE IT OUT.
Make your readers answer those questions on their own. Make them want more. Just be careful not to leave people feeling unsatisfied.
In my guest post story (which sounds really boring, but writers more talented than I am could make it work) the novel version is going to address feedback from Sophie and the reactions from people who read my guest post on her blog. Maybe we’d even see some discussion for another joint venture.
The short story version ends when I send my draft to Sophie.
Your Cast of Characters Needs to Be Limited
A character’s backstory, no matter how brief, takes up word count. That doesn’t mean you can’t do a short story set in New York or in a busy restaurant. But limit the amount of characters that are actually given a name and dialogue. People everywhere in the background is fine. It’s pretty normal in most real-life situations, but you don’t have the time to tell us about John and Mary Smith at table two.
Keeping with that example, let’s say those crazy kids at table two get engaged and that makes one of your main characters angry because she’s been waiting for a ring for years. A novel would allow you to start a scene by telling us all about John’s history and why he’s decided to propose to Mary. In a short story, however, you’re better off starting your scene with your main characters arguing, then across the restaurant there’s a shriek of delight and everyone in the restaurant applauds as a pretty woman adores a shiny ring on her finger.
The Pacing Needs to be Turned up to 11
In most cases, you’re going to need to move your limited cast down your shortened plot lines at break neck speed. Game of Thrones is a great example for this.
In the earlier seasons, a group of characters would establish that they needed to travel from one large city to another within the Seven Kingdoms. The journey would start at the beginning of the season and they wouldn’t arrive until the end of that season (maybe even the beginning of the following season.) This is the pace for novels.
In the later seasons, another group of characters would have another journey to take, and they’d be there in the next scene. Pretty much instantly. This is your short story pace.
Some Ideas are Meant to be Short Stories… some are not
If you usually write down your ideas, you can probably tell pretty quickly which ones have the legs to be novel-length, and which feel incomplete. There’s a good chance the latter isn’t missing anything, it’s just perfect for a short story.
Learn to recognize which has good potential for a short story, and flag them. Before you know it, you’ll have a catalogue of great short story ideas just waiting for you.
But be warned: Some ideas have a way of taking on a life of their own. Something that feels like an epic trilogy might fizzle out around 5K, while something that started off as flash fiction just keeps going and going.
Despite what I’ve learned about writing short stories, I’m sure there’s a lot that I don’t know. You could fill a book with the things I don’t know. I’m pretty sure people have done just that. Though honestly, the best education might be to grab a bunch of anthologies or literary magazines and read as much as short fiction as you can.
Take notice of the things that work well and the things that don’t. When something doesn’t work, think how you would fix it. If something is really great, can you see any way to make it even better.
Then just write.
What do you think about short stories? Do you like writing them? Do you have any favourite short stories?
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