Keeping the Short in Short Story


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Ever sit down with the intent to write a short story only to have it turn into a novella? Or even a full-blown novel? In my recent preparation for the OWFI 2012 conference contest, I re-discovered how difficult it is to keep the ‘short’ in short story. This year, I wrote a piece for the young adult short story category which had a limit of 1,200 words. Eeek!

My characters wanted me to write a story slightly outside my genre, they demanded a novel length story (which they deserve at a later time), and they had no desire to live confined within the contest guidelines. I knew going into it, they were going to be unruly. Usually when I write, I’m not concerned about word count.

In order to keep it short, I had to change my mindset. Here’s what worked for me:

  • Let the story title work for you. Choose something creative and short that fits the genre of the short story. For tips on attention grabbing titles, check out this article.
  • Strong, fleshed out characters help hook a readers’ interest. Character development is important, because even though your characters are part of a short story, they deserve full attention.
  • Don’t let backstory side track you, no matter how tempting or interesting. There’s no room for it in short fiction.
  • Stay focused on one plot, one event. The more linear time you try to cover in a story, the more complicated the story becomes which may increase word count. This one might not apply to short stories with a word count above 1,200.
  • Limit the number of characters, for the same reason listed above. More characters equal a more complicated story equals more words.
  • The story must have a complete story arc, no matter how limited the word count. The story must have a beginning, middle and end. Lesann Berry, one of my fellow campaign bloggers, recently wrote a post on story structure.
  • Make sure every word belongs. This applies to all fiction. Vanquish weak words.
  • Every item (backpack, gun, frying pan, etc.) you mention should add value to the story somehow or reveal something about your character. For example, if your character uses a frying pan as a weapon in addition to a cooking utensil, it demonstrates that the character is practical and resourceful. Also, if the character doesn’t aim, shoot, and/or threaten someone with the gun by the end of the story, the reader may not need to know about the weapon.

Do you write short stories? What technique works for you?

17 comments on “Keeping the Short in Short Story

  1. Although I’ve attempted to write some short stories, I actually haven’t written very many short stories because I always end up feeling like I have to write the novella or novel-the characters just don’t seem to fit in a small amount of words. Thanks for the tips:) I’ll definitely keep them in mind!:)

  2. Vicki Orians says:

    Hello! I’m following you from the campaign! :)

  3. I’m terrified by the thought of writing short stories, although it was once the case that they were all I wrote. The fact that the thought terrifies me suggests I ought at least give it a try. Time to ponder!

  4. I haven’t written many short stories, but I agree with everything you just said. Great advice!

  5. Hmm… I may need to try to put this stuff to use. I’m working on a story that’s 3000 words by now, and I’m feeling that I’m not making as much progress towards the ending as I’d like to!

  6. I write the occasional short story, and am trying to get in the habit of writing a few more than 1-2 a year.

    Most of what you mentioned up there is what works to keep me on track with one, and I had the benefit of also taking a short story creative writing class at my local community college a few years ago. That class changed my life!

    My main challenge is always sticking to the one event. Usually a bigger story wants to be told!

  7. I love writing short stories along with flash fiction and novelettes. Each present a different challenge. Definitely sticking to the single plot helps to keep them short and I try to keep my writing tight no matter how long the story is.

  8. Lady Gwen says:

    Great advice – it makes me want to try writing a short story again. I’m from the campaign, returning your visit.

  9. Kerri says:

    Yay, I’m in your group again for the Campaign! Great writing tips, thanks!

  10. @ Rebekah – I think writing short stories and finding magazines/anthologies where they fit is a great way to build a writer’s resume. As far as sticking to one event, think of the short story as a marketing tool for the book. It’s bonus material for your readers who already love your characters. :-)

    @ Lynda – My hat goes off to anyone who can write flash fiction. I’ve tried. Can’t do it. Kudos to you!

    @ Lady Gwen – Break out the keyboard and start typing. :-)

    @ Kerri – I know, right! I’m so excited. Are you planning another Choose Your Own Adventure?

  11. […] Keeping the Short in Short Story (writesbymoonlight.wordpress.com) Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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