I’ve never thought I was capable of writing short stories. Novels? No problem. Give me an idea and I can run with it for eighty-thousand words without hesitation. But ask me to tell a complete story arc from start to finish in five-thousand words or less? Never. Not a chance.
That’s how I’ve always believed things to be. And I never imagined I’ve have a differing perspective on the matter until just very recently. It occurred to me the other day that though yes, there are definitely technical differences between writing short stories and full length novels, it’s also very much a mental game with yourself. If you back yourself into a corner, only ever believing you’re capable of one or the other, you’ll never truly succeed at anything else. You’ll forevermore be uncomfortable with writing out of that space you’ve become extremely familiar with.
I’ve written short stories – good ones, in fact. I’ve been writing them for almost two whole years in a collaborative piece with my writing friend, Lyndsay. The only difference between those pieces and what I’ve always thought of as a traditional short story? The ones we’re writing require some previous knowledge from the respective books we’ve each written.
I guess it’s different when you’re working with characters who already have a background you’ve delved into – maybe it makes it easier. And in a way, there’s less work for you to do. Your reader already knows information about this character – yes, maybe there might be that odd person who hasn’t read your novel yet, but that’s what those quick pieces of background information you throw in there are for. So when you start that short story, you can focus on the plot, on where you’re taking the piece and how it’s going to end.
But of course, there are still some short story rules you should follow. I’ve learned a lot of these the hard way (which resulted in a lot of rewriting!).
- Make sure you limit the number of characters. Don’t have more than a couple of protagonists. Too many will clutter the story and take the focus away from the action going on in the plot!
- Time frames should remain quite short. In novels, it’s much easier to spread your story out over a series of months, but since the short story format is, well – short! – you need to keep the timeline reasonable to allow for events to feel important and carry the weight they deserve.
- Every word counts! This might be the most important thing to remember about short stories. You have a limited word count, so every single one should have meaning and be there for a reason. If you’re adding unnecessary fluff, take it out. Fluff is not needed.
With all this said and the rules laid out, it still doesn’t make writing a short story any easier. Yes, this might provide you with a bit of a guideline for what you should and shouldn’t do in short stories, but we’re writers. Let’s be honest, sometimes rules just have to be broken. Now please, don’t break all of them at the same time (and the three I gave are by far not the only rules – more like a couple of examples). But don’t be afraid to push the boundaries and bend the rules to fit whatever it is you’re writing about. After all, that’s what writing is all about, right?
Keep writing, everyone, and if you have any other short story tips, pass them along in the comments section.
Until next time.