The Insecure Writers Support Group publishes an anthology of short stories each year, so it occurred to me that many of our readers might like to know more about writing short stories and what some successful short story writers have to say about their approach to this literary form.
First, what are short stories? They fall into two categories: escape, which is designed to take you away from your real life, and interpretation, which is designed to deepen and broaden your awareness of life.
Their word count is anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 words. They can only explore a portion of the three-act structure, and this portion must transform the main character. There’s one main character, there are no subplots, and they take place in a short period of time in one or a few settings. While they don’t have the complexity or length of a novel, they are no less challenging to craft.
Some say they’re more challenging because, in a very limited space, writers have to include a character arc, have an intriguing beginning, a compact middle, and an end that is satisfying for the reader. While editing a novel requires a lot of time and dedication, editing a short story (at least for this writer) takes proportionally the same time and dedication.
I’ve pulled together a checklist that I like to use for my short story writing, so I thought I’d share it here. The only original part of this list is the way I’ve collected the items over the years and arranged them on the page.
Before I write, these are questions I ask.
- Am I writing escape or interpretation?
- What character will get me the results I want?
- What are the three major plot points that will take the story from beginning to end most effectively?
- What POV is best for this story?
- What setting will serve this story best?
After I write, these are the steps to editing that I take.
- Put the story on the shelf for a couple to six weeks.
- Print out the story.
- Read it aloud without stopping.
- Read it aloud and make notes about the character’s consistency and his/her clear want or need, why this story takes place when and where it does.
- Make note of clichés, filler words e.g. the fact of the matter was, passive voice when there’s no reason for it, adverbs preceding “said.”
- Ask for critique.
- Consider feedback and make changes you accept.
- Read aloud.
- Scratch out the last two sentences and read again. Decide if the story loses any meaning or if it has become sharper.
- Repeat 6-10 until the story shines.
Something a professor of literature once told me about reading short stories is to read them twice, once to find out what happens and the second time to find out the process that the writer used to create the story. Here are some excerpts from interviews by short story writers that give some insights into their process.
About his approach to writing, Chris Offutt says “The secret is to start a short story near the ending.”
Joyce Thompson has written two collections of short stories and has several pieces in the noted publication, Glimmer Train. She says to pace your story you should “…concentrate on the paragraph as a building block. Craft each one as if it were a poem…the fewer words it takes to tell [stories], the more timely they are.”
When asked “How do you know if what you’re writing is going to be a novel or a short story,” she replied, “To me, a story is a shapely thing. It’s like a circle. A novel, by contrast, is a journey.
David Long is a novelist, but he also has published a collection of short stories called Blue Spruce. He says writers have choices about how to develop a piece of material. Give it a “full scene” or summarize. They can also “account for a long patch in somebody’s life in just a sentence.” His example: And things went pretty smoothly for the next three years. However, he says, “Scene is always inherently more interesting than exposition.”
As in any writing, reading good examples is one of the best ways to improve your own work. If I could only choose four short stories, these are the ones I’d read:
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Twain
The Lottery, Jackson
A Case for Kop, Boll
A Rose for Emily, Faulkner