Writing Short Fiction: An Uncertain Guide

First, did you read yesterday’s post? Operation: Your First Motherfucking Sale? Go there. Read that. Come back. Okay. You back now? Good. Let’s rock.

Yesterday, in the comments, 8dnail said: “You’re a diseased crotch-goblin who failed to provide us with truly awesome short story tips.” Or something like that. He may have been nicer about it, but don’t you worry: I heard “diseased crotch-goblin.” I hear that all the time, actually. “Paper or plastic, you diseased crotch-goblin?” “Would you like fries with that, Mister Diseased Crotch-Goblin?” “I want to make love to your diseased crotch, goblin.”

So, here am, kicking down the door and riding into your living room on my snorting white mare, ready to deliver a hot steaming fist-full of spectacular short-story-writing tips to your eyes and mouth.

Except, ehhh, I don’t know that I really have any.

I haven’t given this a shit-ton of thought.

Writing short is not something I do all too often, largely because as a market it’s hard to make the scratch necessary to pay the mortgage new and old.

Still, I love writing short fiction.

So, you want tips? I’ll offer tips. I’ll offer whatever tips come a-tumbling out of my head.

Then, you — you — come and add your own. Or disagree with me. Or throw things at my diseased goblin-flavored crotch. So many options! That’s just how we do it here at terribleminds.

Ten Tips (In No Particular Order)

• It’s unlikely that you’ll feel constrained by the novel form — the novel is a sprawling beast, multi-headed, a stomach of many chambers. You might have 60,000 or 120,000 words or more. In a novel, what’s daunting can be the space — it’s like moving from a studio apartment to a mansion. Short fiction requires thinking about storytelling in a new way: spare, light, elegant. Quick on its feet. A lot with a little. You only have 3,000 words. Or maybe 5,000. In that space we need all the things we want from a novel — or from any story — though in a more compacted form. We want conflict. Character. Theme. Mood. All that jazz. The short story is still a story. Microcosm, yes, but a proper one: it contains all the necessary elements.

• That means, get to the goddamn point already. Don’t fritter away time. Don’t dick around. What’s there must be necessary. Your language doesn’t have to be blank, or cold, or Spartan. But it must not waste.

• All the more reason to look for junk language and kill it. Not that you want it in a novel, but let’s be honest: you read enough novels, you find plenty of junk. Short fiction is less forgiving.

• In a novel, escalation happens chapter to chapter. In a short story, it may happen paragraph to paragraph. Sentence to sentence. We want to feel that rise and fall swiftly: not much time, not much time at all.

• So many of the rules for writing large apply to writing small. One that’s important for me, and maybe not you: write a kick-ass opening sentence (or paragraph). You’re still trying to hook ‘em.

• That said, short fiction allows you to experiment more boldly — the reader is only going to be with you for 3,000 words. If ever there’s a time to play, it’s with shorter works to see what flies, and what lies.

• Doubly important to start the story as late as you can. Exposition is the uncaring murderer of good short fiction. Start after the exposition. Arrive to the party late when the wine’s already gone and the glass table is smashed and the hooker is already dead in the upstairs bathroom.

• Shorter paragraphs and shorter sentences will give the story greater urgency.

• A lot of short stories have to do with “the twist.” This is fine, but don’t let the story be the twist. The story has to be there for the first 2500 words, remember. It still needs all the stuff to make a story great. Do you know who these characters are? Do you know what the story is about? Have you identified what you’re trying to say, and why you’re trying to say it? Remember: the twist is not necessary.

• Because the short fiction market is not a robust one and won’t be a career-maker, above all else have fun and stay true to your own voice. You can and should still write for markets (unless you’re self-publishing or publishing only on your blog or site), but with short work there’s less on the line.

• Okay, fine, an eleventh tip — don’t spend a ton of time writing short. Writing short work can be exhilarating and liberating, but it can also be a slow-growing pit. You step into it thinking, “Okay, here goes a few hours of my life,” and suddenly it’s a week later and you’re still spinning your tires, sinking deeper and deeper without being done. Further, I’ve seen plenty of people who Should Be Writing Other Things get caught in the short story trap — “Oooh, just had a great idea for a short, going to stop what I’m doing and work on that for a while.” Mm-hmm. Good luck with that. You’re like an ant in the pit of an ant-lion, now.

What else?

Whatchoo got?

Agree? Disagree?

Deliver unto all your wisdom.

16 comments

  • It might be the fact that it’s early. It might be my exceedingly good mood. But I agree with all of that. Top to bottom, back and forth.

    I’ll throw out that it’s also necessary to go in with a bit of an outline, but don’t spend too much time on it. Know the three big points (the hook, the turn, the end), know your main character at the very least, and go go go. You can always (and should) rewrite.

  • Last time I checked, I was of the female persuasion (and if that’s changed since then I’d love to know how) ;) –no fault to you, crotch goblin. This is the ambiguous intarwebs.

    Liking the tips, though. Especially the note about being able to experiment more in a shorter format. The one short I do have lurking on my computer is walking that path. I wrote it for class, and when I got critique back on it there were two camps, people who liked what I did with it, and people who found it confusing (and couldn’t seem to get away from the have-dialog-need-quotation-marks thing that I blatantly discarded).

    Another question, for everyone– Is it ‘easier’ to go from novel-length to short, or short to long? (I realize ‘easier’ is going to be relative to the person, but what works best for you lot?)

    • Damn you, gender confusion!

      Ahem.

      I am a mighty crotch-goblin.

      :)

      Others can answer better, but for me, I don’t know that it’s easier one way or the other. Just different. Painful and beautiful in their own ways.

      — c.

  • I find short stories to be uniquely liberating. I’ve written two (and a half) novels and they require much more constraining. Every plot line and character serves the novel. The short story is like “ka-pow, here’s the whole point, bitches!”

    Short stories are also a great way of exploring character backgrounds and off-screen situations for a novel. Some parts of those character studies can end up in the novel, too. I find that if I’m having trouble explaining why a character is doing a particular thing or acting a particular way, a quick 2,500-5,000 words can help me understand the situation better. It’s like taking that character and putting them in the spotlight for a while.

    Shorts are cool.

  • More tips, that’s good for all fiction everywhere. Limit the backstory. Sprinkle it through, and don’t put it all as one large information dump at the beginning of the story.

    Also, don’t be afraid of action and dialogue. A good, active pace is much more enjoyable to read in shorts. You might not have room to save the universe, but there is space for an explosion or two. Metaphorically of course. (Or not. Explosions are cool.)

    @ 8dnail – I guess it depends on where you start. I went from short to long and, honestly, didn’t find the transition too terribly difficult. It was nice to have room to spread out. I imagine going the other way around would be a huge lesson in word economy. Especially since a short has to do everything a novel does with the same sense of depth in about a tenth of the space.

  • I can’t remember the last time I wrote short fiction that wasn’t just a one or two page character thing for an RPG, which doesn’t really count since that is linking sessions together for my character rather than its own thing.

    So for this, I love the tips. I’m also taking a more structured approach. I wrote an outline yesterday for my story, I have a paragraph or two on the characters. Some of the information will not make it into the story, sure, thats fine. But it will help me (I hope) keep the characters consistent, give them their own voice, and hopefully the fact that there is more to them will show, even if they don’t get the spotlight.

  • I find it possible to manage and finish short fiction, but much harder to get my arms around a new novel. I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress, though, so both are learnable. But, for me, a novel is definitely harder for now.

  • Shorts are great. I’ve not been actively writing for very long, but I am still very much in the short timeframe of crafting a complete story in a short form. Just my tuppence.

    What I wondered was, have any of you had an idea that you thought was perfect for a short and when you thought about it it fitted perfectly and plotted fine, but when you started writing the story it developed even further and became more long form ? I mean I’ve gone from a great short idea to thinking it would make a nice novella and now maybe even novel length. Where do you guys cut your imagination short, if at all ?

  • Maybe I’m wired differently, but I spend a ton of timing writing short stories. Granted, it’s 10% writing and 90% revision, but because there’s so much less space, I tend to feel that each word has to justify its existence so much more in a short than in a longer piece.

  • Oh, and one of my favorite opening lines for a short that I wrote was in “Gloomy Sunday”:

    The last time Jeanette asked me for a favor, I ended up in jail for a week.

    • @Eddy:

      See, nailed it. What’s great about that opening line? Mystery. Variable. Urge forward. “What favor? Why jail? Who is Jeanette?”

      Boom boom boom.

      Nice.

      — c.

  • @Victoria:

    I know, for me, I’m often writing to a predetermined guideline, so generally I’m trying to cram it all into the space allotted (or, rarely, stretching it out, but I hate that so much more). Every time I allow myself to let the idea fill the space, it ends up feeling bloated and unweildy, so it ends up becoming a short anyhow.

    Then again, nearly all of my fiction is shorts. Even my aborted novella was essentially a lot of episodic installments.

  • I’d add a couple things.

    Make sure you seed the payoff in the beginning as subtly as possible but not so much that the reader forgets about it. That whole “If you have a gun in Act I somebody better use it in Act II” thing.

    I find I usually have to do the opposite. I end up using a gun and have to go back and write it in earlier. Otherwise the gun, ex-girlfriend, plague ridden zombie horde, whatever comes out of nowhere and can ruin a good story.

    Embrace rewrites. Almost guaranteed the story’s going to be bloated and drag in spots and be too quick in others. I’m with Chuck in that you don’t want to spend a ton of time, but you’re probably going to have to tighten a few bolts here and there.

    @8dnail I don’t think you can really compare them, actually. It’s like asking is it easier to write a speech or a play? They’re fundamentally different things. Whether it’s easy one way or the other really depends on the writer.

    It’s tempting to try a novel as though it were a long short story, but that usually doesn’t work out too well. At least it doesn’t for me. Or the other way around.

    It’s too easy to cram everything into the first three paragraphs when you’ve got a little more room to breathe. And it can be crazy making trying to get the pace for the novel the way you want it when you’re thinking of it in short story terms.

    I’ve been having this problem with my WIP. I’ll be writing and think, “Holy crap these things are too long, they drag everything down, I don’t need all this description, I can’t toss in all this backstory….

    And then realize I’ve only written a paragraph.

  • So far, my short-story writing experience of the day is, “Don’t write someone else’s story” as in, sure, it’s a perfectly good story idea, but it doesn’t thrill you so don’t write it; and “Subtle is even harder in a short story so get good at obvious first” as in write a damn story with a character who has a high-stakes goal with an unmistakable motivation and clearly-defined obstacles and Even a Villain to embody those obstacles and an ending that is both unexpected and logical, that satisfies the true, inner goal of the character and not what, necessarily, the character thinks he/she wants, which goes to show that you can pack a lot of meaning into a generalization or two.

    But ask me again next week.; I’ve been reading Dwight Swain today.

  • Nice points, everyone. You’ve succeeded in making me want to try writing short. Do something out of my comfort zone. :P I think my stumbling block is that I don’t know how to think short, or constrain ideas to something doable in 3-5k.

    @Stephen B– I’ll argue that though they’re different, they still have the same basic elements. Just because a cat and a dog both have four legs and a tail, they’re not the same species, but they’re both mammals. But that’s regarding the form itself. Whether one particular person finds short easier than long is indeed a trait of that specific person.

    So far it looks like most everyone who has commented has gone from short toward long, or stuck to mostly short.

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