Wednesday, September 16, 2015

So you want to write a short story

A friend recently asked how to go about writing a short short story. Short is a relative term, but generally I'd call that 3,000 words or less.

Cramming a plot into a small word count package can seem challenging. Having come from insanely long novels, to more reasonable sized novels, and all the way to cramming a story into 100 words, I figured I'd share what worked for me. Depending on how you write, it might not work for you. We all have our own methods for creating a story and making it work. Or not work. I've got plenty of those virtually crammed in a back burner folder. But length doesn't have to be the reason why they are there.

If you've started with writing novels and want to try short stories, think of a short as a scene from a novel. You're getting the plot from point a to point b in an entertaining and meaningful way. There is a character, setting, uses of senses, opening, middle and ending, and all the same details you'd write in a larger work, but you need to learn to use less words to do it. Every word has to count.

This is also a useful skill to learn if you've never written the synopsis for a novel, because it's much the same process. Write a novel, boil that same novel down to three pages, then to one page, then to one paragraph. Those three lengths will prepare your novel for most standard submission packages.

But for a short story, we need to first write that story and we don't want to sound like a summary. We want a full story with all the necessary details.

Write a 3,000 word story. Keep it simple for this exercise. One or two characters, getting from plot point a to plot point b. It needs to have a beginning, middle and end. Full resolution, no cliffhangers. If starting out with a word count goal feels more like a collar choking your creativity, just write the darn story however long it ends up being. It gets easier to stay within a word count after doing this process a couple times.

Now read that 3,000 word story. Distill that same story down to 1,500 words. This means you'll have to perhaps lose some of the intricacies of the plot, characterization and description. Maybe the story will have to start a little later or end a little sooner, but it needs to be essentially the same story, just more compact. Tighter. Stronger.

Now read that 1,500 word story. Cut it to 500 words. What is the core of the story? Use only the words you need to make it work in a tiny package. It still needs to be interesting and have a resolution. Keep the feeling. Make every word burn with purpose.

For bonus self flagellation points, take those 500 words and make them 100.

Now you can see what really makes the story work at each length. You can focus each and every word, knowing it's there for a reason.

Next time you start a story, think of what you want to say, what needs to be said, as you write. Have a target word count. Knowing your beginning and ending before you start is immensely helpful.

Don't let the constraint of a word goal stifle your creative process, but staying close to the goal will save a whole lot of editing afterwards.

Good luck and happy writing.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jean - great post - it's more difficult than people realise. Analysing others' stories should help too ... I just write my posts and that's challenging enough ... cheers Hilary


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