The Short Story

Novels give you a lot of latitude. Think about it: you have time to develop characters, describe places, elaborate on plots and subplots, and explore philosophical questions. There’s a lot of luxury there: luxury of time, luxury of space.

Generally when you’re writing a novel, you’re not aware of the luxury you’re experiencing. It comes home to you, though, when you start thinking about writing shorter fiction. Suddenly you have to telescope everything: plot, drama, characters, background … and still make it sound good!

There are plenty of directions online for how to write a short story, some of them better than others. I’ll leave you to sort through them. In the meantime, though, here are some things to think about before you start writing:

What is the point? Short stories have this in common with other pieces of writing—the eternal question is, so what? You may have great characters and a fabulous story arc, but unless there’s a compelling point, some sort of moral imperative, a point that the reader will take away, the story won’t work.

Focus on your opening line(s). Readers are less invested at the beginning of a short story—and are far more easily distracted—than they are once they’ve committed to a novel, so you need to grab them right away with a really riveting opening line.

POV: Don’t commit too soon. Choose a point of view that you think will work, but as you write, you’ll figure out whether your choice is in fact what works best for this story. Be flexible and ready to rewrite if your characters tell you they need a change.

Don’t forget conflict. It’s even more important in the short story than it is in a full-length novel; otherwise the story seems pointless. Often, the conflict is what will answer the so what? question. A story arc may even be more important here than in a full-length piece.

Editing is critical. Pare your story down to the barest of bare bones. Try and shorten it by at least a third from your first draft. Be concise, be succinct, be clear. Sometimes a mere suggestion is as powerful—or more so—than a long description. Trust your reader to read between the lines.

At the end of the day, remember that it’s always about the reader. In many ways, short stories demand far more of the reader than do other genres. In some ways, they demand more of the reader than they do of the writer! There’s a whole lot of trust required: I’m going to plunge you directly into an environment you don’t know, surrounded by characters you haven’t met, and make you think about things you don’t expect. And all of it in the space of five minutes.

If you don’t believe me, try it. Put together a stack of short stories. Read three or four of them in a row. Exhausted yet? It’s tricky to plunge into a reading story and then, just as you start to feel comfortable inside it, find that it’s over. Be good to your reader, and don’t make them work any harder than the genre already requires.