Short stories are a great way to practice fiction writing and specific techniques you want to master. Shorter works take less time to write, and the repetition will help you develop challenging skills more quickly than you can in longer fiction.
Short stories limit you to a tight structure, and that can be daunting. You have less room, so you must write lean and precise prose. Honing this skill is useful in any type of writing. Wasting words will never make your prose better.
This practice will help you find weaknesses, learn what you need to cut, and improve your self-editing skills. Eventually, some of these problems will fade, and your prose will grow more precise and engaging.
If you’re bored with or stuck on a longer work in progress, a short story can give you a change in focus but keep your regular writing routine. Use a day or two or a week to play with short stories within your story world (which is great material for an anthology, lead magnet, or email engagement) or a different genre.
When you’re between drafts and letting a manuscript rest, you might not want to start another big project. Use that time to experiment with point of view, tense, or plot structure. Keep your readers sated while they wait for the next larger installment.
Experimenting isn’t only for experienced writers. If you’re just learning, short stories can help you develop the art of storytelling and your unique voice. Build your confidence by completing several stories and get to know how they work without the long-term commitment of a novel. The basic building blocks are the same.
If you don’t know how to tell the big story that’s been calling to you, a series of short stories allows you to explore parts of the world you want to create. Tell about one character’s experience and then try another. Write stories that help you get to know your characters and setting by watching them unfold before you.
Short Stories Are the Same and Different
Author James Scott Bell says, "A great short story is about the fallout from one, shattering moment." He defines this shattering event as one that cannot be reversed and that changes the character's life or worldview forever. The event can be anything from learning a new fact to an accident to intentional action.
The event can come anywhere in the story you like, and that will affect what you show in the story.
- If the event occurs before or at the beginning of your story, you can show the consequences.
- If it happens in the middle of your story, you write what led to the event and happened afterward.
- Should the event fall at the end of or after your story, you can write up to it and show it or let us imagine what it will look like.
Just as with novels and novellas, scenes are the building blocks of short stories, but you have fewer words, which means not as many and possibly shorter scenes. The focus is on a moment in time, the shattering event I mentioned above, rather than a series of events, and you’ll likely include fewer characters, settings, and subplots. Rather than a full character arc, you’ll be showing how the event affected the character.
Short Story Mission
If you listen to the podcast, you know I love a good writing mission. Here’s a great one to help you knock out a bunch of short stories for practice or publication.
Stephen Dobyns wrote about this exercise in The Story Behind the Story. A conversation he'd had with Ray Carver inspired him. Carver started his stories with the first sentence that came to mind. (You could use this method for writing blog posts, essays, and other units of writing.) I wrote up the instructions for a friend and thought you might find them useful too.
Write 60 potential first sentences (some might be ridiculous, some clever, some funny, some serious—whatever). Dobyns chose 60, but you could write 40 or 30 or whatever number feels like a challenge but not overwhelming.
Include something "interesting" in the sentence (for example, a place or situation) and a name for the character. If you have a character in mind for a series, you could use the same character in each story.
You don’t need to know what happens next, and your sentences need not be perfect. Just write your sentences. You can revise them later.
Grow each sentence into a paragraph. Not all sentences will become successful paragraphs. That’s okay. From 60 sentences, Dobyn kept 40 paragraphs.
Criteria: Each paragraph should differ from the others and include specific action and detail. A paragraph might include something you've experienced or heard, but not necessarily.
No judgment is allowed. You're looking for potential. Perhaps the seeds of conflict for a story. Don't worry about grammar, punctuation, spelling, or usage. You’ll deal with these concerns later. Focus on the stories you want to explore.
Push each paragraph forward until you have a full page.
Seek the conflicts that arise from the circumstances. As conflicts come up, story events will too because characters will act to get what they want in constructive and not-so-constructive ways. Engage in the inquiry of cause and effect. X happens, character reacts to this, which causes Y to happen.
Not all paragraphs will become a full page. Dobyns wrote 35 pages from his 40 paragraphs.
Work toward a rough draft of a story from each page. I suggest aiming for 3,000–4,000 words (about 12–16 pages of Times New Roman 12 pt. font with one-inch margins). Realize that your story may come in longer or shorter depending on what's needed.
Criteria: Dobyns wanted each story to be different from those he'd written before.
He wrote 25 rough drafts of stories from the 35 pages.
His process was one of invention and progression, of cause and effect. What if X happens?
Your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs will arise and become part of the writing, plots, characters, setting, metaphor, and details. That's natural. Each story becomes personal and reveals your way of seeing the world. Even if you seek inspiration from stories by other writers in the beginning, the questions you circle and their answers to will influence your final results.
Dobyns spent a month revising the stories and was happy enough with 20 of them to further revise and include in anthologies. Your numbers may be different, and you might want to take more or less time than Dobyns did. Even if you decide not to publish or submit the stories, you’ll have learned more about storytelling and yourself as a writer.
If you take the plunge, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!
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