What are you writing these days? One of the best ways to improve your writing skills is to master the short story. Master? Ok, there is no such thing. But to have a firm grasp on writing to length and how to construct a short story is a great skill to have if you hope to make a living with the written word.
What is a short story? You can characterize, although these are not hard-fast rules, all genres by length.
Novel – over 40,000 words
Novella – 17,500 to 40,000 words
Novelette – 7,500 to 17,500 words
So what is the difference between writing a short story compared to a novel? Writing short stories means beginning as close to the climax as possible — everything else is a distraction. A novel can take a more meandering path, but should still start with a scene that sets the tone for the whole book. A short story conserves characters and scenes, typically by focusing on just one conflict, and drives towards a sudden, unexpected revelation. Go easy on the exposition and talky back-story — your reader doesn’t need to know everything that you know about your characters.
While I am non-conformist in story structure where novels are concerned, I see that there really is no point NOT conforming to a more rigid structure in a short story. Within my collection ´Mexican Mutts, Tequila Pups + Chili Dogs – True Stories of the Dogs of Mexico´ I mixed Short Stories, and Novelettes and one piece even came close in word count to that of a novella.
Depending on length, there may be room for some variation. If there is any room for some back-story, it is not an absolute taboo to include it. The same would apply to character development, motives, conflict etc.
What caught me off guard was the microcosm element of writing short stories. I had written a memoir and a novel. I wasn´t sure what I wanted to do next so I figured a short story collection would be an easy way to keep writing. ¨I´ll just whip off a bunch of short stories while the idea for another novel comes to me,¨ I thought. HA!
It turns out that writing a short story is not that much different in the long run from writing a novel. The story is the story and the cosmic, psychological, mental weight of carrying that story to term is exactly the same for all stories. You have to get it right, you have to make sure it all makes sense, you need to keep an eye on every little detail, no plot holes, have to understand you characters even if you don´t include every detail of their lives in the final draft, have to have a setting, a conflict etc. En fin, you have to give birth to a fully formed story that convinces the reader of its validity and which also entertains and sucks them in, keeps them interested and fulfills a promise, that of delivering a satisfying conclusion. In short, everything a novel would do but on a more condensed scale.
So does that condensed scale make it easier? From an editing and proofreading perspective, yes! You are much more likely to discover a typo or grammatical error within 20 pages as compared to 250 pages.
From a writing perspective, it may take less time to write a short story but you will put in nearly as much sweat off your brow and mental energy in the long run.
Then there is the question of what to do with your short story once you have it finished. In some cases writers are selling their short stories on Amazon but this is no longer as effective way as in the past to see a payday. So your obvious answer is to do like I did and put together a collection of short stories.
Now you are definitely carrying heavy weight. One novel of 200 pages compared to a short story collection of 200 pages? It´s quite likely the short story collection was the harder job for the writer.
A final note – to write short stores well, read the form as much as possible.
Here´s a list of some of my favorite short story collections.
The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North – Jack London
Fifty Egg Timer Short Stories – Richard Bunning
The Books of Blood – Clive Barker
Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Last Flight of Jose Luis Balboa – Gonzalo Barr
Four Past Midnight
Nightmares & Dreamscapes
Doghouse Roses: Stories – Steve Earle
I am currently working on a Novella and expect it to push the limit to around 40.000 words. Still don’t have a name for it.
Keep on writing.
David Gordon Burke
Find my books here.