In January of 2011, Amazon opened its Kindle Singles store. Since then, they’ve sold more than two million singles*, or shorter stories between 5,000 and 30,000 words. Singles sell for between $0.99 to $4.99, and, as you can see, they are selling like crazy. This isn’t meant to be an ad for Amazon or the Kindle, but to give an example of why this is a good time to consider writing short stories.
One of the best reasons to write short stories is that it helps you develop your technique. It’s also been suggested that getting a few short story publishing credits can help you land an agent &/or a publishing contract. The latter may still be true, although the dramatic changes that are happening, like the Kindle Single phenomenon and the growth of indie publishing, may make the strategy less important. The sale of short stories may become an end in itself, and their creation definitely helps you become a better writer, so it’s worth taking a look at how to do it well.
First, let’s talk about what is meant by “short story”. Most of the time, if the piece is less than 1,000 words, it’s considered flash fiction. A piece in the 5,000 – 10,000 word range is a short story, and if it’s in the 15,000 to 40,000 word length, it’s a novella. Other guidelines to keep in mind are those specified by the publisher or contest rules regarding submission length.
Because you’re working with limited space, it is essential that you start strong and make every word count. The first sentence or two needs to sell your voice, hint at conflict, and show some heart. You don’t have the luxury of a whole chapter to do that.
As an example, here are the first couple sentences from my short story Tangled Dreams, from the anthology Bites – Ten Tales of Vampires:
I am an unapologetic choir geek. That’s probably not the sexiest thing you can imagine, but it usually doesn’t get me into trouble. Except the one time it did.
Right off you find those three elements – a quirky voice, conflict, and an element of self-deprecation – that suggests that this is a person you can care about. You need a strong hook because you can’t waste words gradually acclimating the reader to what’s going on.
Scope of action
Limit the scope of action by controlling the number of conflicts the characters deal with. It’s most effective if the action is focused on one or maybe two main issues. In her post Revising Short Stories that appeared on Janice Hardy’s blog, Lydia Sharp describes how to do this. “Strip it down to its main thread--getting the protagonist from point A to point B--and then cut whatever elements you may have included in your first draft that don't change the story's outcome if they are removed.”
Tangled Dreams happens over the course of one evening and involves one primary conflict. There aren’t the layers of sub-plots that you’d find in a novel. Even though the focus is narrow, keep in mind a standard story structure, like the steps in The Hero’s Journey.
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD.
2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL.
4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.
6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.
8. THE ORDEAL.
9. THE REWARD.
10. THE ROAD BACK
11. THE RESURRECTION.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.
The challenge comes in fitting all those steps into less than 10,000 words. In his post on short story writing, Philip Brewer says that “It is important that the steps “take place” in the context of the story—that’s what makes it a story. But it isn’t necessary to show each step. It is enough simply to mention them. In fact, it can be enough simply to imply them.”
Though the plot only covers a few of the steps in The Hero’s Journey, you’ll need to give the reader the sense that it exists in the context of a bigger picture. In Tangled Dreams, the POV character and her sister meet a man who tells them he’s a vampire. Her sister disappears with him, and the POV character’s challenge is to find her sister before anything bad happens. There’s a brief ‘refusal of the call’ and ‘meeting with the mentor’, and, while she’s successful in her search, at the end there’s the suggestion that her sister has supernatural skills of her own, which is new and surprising information. The story reaches a satisfying conclusion, but the reader is left with the sense that the POV character is at the “crossing the threshold” stage, and there’s more to come.
There’s a limit to the number of living, breathing characters you can create in fewer than 10,000 words. You don’t have the space to really develop more than two or three, with a handful of minor walk-on characters. If you try, you run the risk of confusing the reader with a crowd of underdeveloped characters that they can’t relate to.
This goes hand-in-hand with the idea of keeping a tight leash on the action. A streamlined plot with just a few essential characters will make for a stronger piece. If you’ve got a bigger crowd in your head, consider developing it into a novella. Alternately, you may need to have a little ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment with your characters and see if they really want to be a novel. However, since your goal is writing short, you’ll need to pare away characters that aren’t absolutely essential to the plot and save them for another work.
Careful Word Choice
This goes beyond pruning the adverbs out of your work, though that’s always a good idea. “A good way to improve your writing overall, and keep things concise, is to analyze your verbs. A strong verb will eliminate the need for an adverb.” (Lydia Sharp, Revising Short Stories) It’s important that the verbs you choose fit the mood of the piece and the character that’s creating the action.
You don’t have paragraphs of space for description or exposition, so every word has to perform more than one function. Quirks and mannerisms that the characters possess can be reinforced by the verbs and adjectives associated with them, and the mood of the piece is amplified by the words you choose. Sentence length can be used to communicate emotion, and the rhythm of the paragraphs carry more weight because there are so few of them.
The action that happens after the climax has to be as carefully controlled as anything else in the piece. Not only are you addressing the main conflict, but you’re placing the action in the context of the bigger picture, the rest of The Hero’s Journey.
In her post Plotting Your Short Stories, Aliette de Bodard says “a short story needs a vivid last few paragraphs, if possible a last strong image...” It’s your last chance to leave the reader with a good impression, and hopefully to make them want to read more of your work. Taking this a step further, “…make the final word of the story a dramatic one (backloading technique). What's the most powerful evocative word that would make sense? Something as dramatic as 'death', 'vow' or 'love'…” (Rayne Hall, editorial comments 3/28/12) Just as your opening hook is vitally important to setting the mood of the piece, the final few words should leave the reader with a dynamic image.
When I was in college, I used to challenge myself by trying to draw the outline of a rabbit with one line, without lifting the pencil from the paper or crossing over. Writing short stories is a very similar experience. The goal is to get the maximum impact out of only the most essential words. It takes discipline to write a good short story. You need to start and finish strong, limit the scope of the action and the number of characters, and make careful word choices throughout. I find it really satisfying, though, to be able to create entire worlds in the space of twenty pages. It takes work, but it’s a whole lot of fun.
If all of this has intrigued you, look for my story Tangled Hearts in Bites – Ten Tales of Vampires. You can also check out my story Temptation’s Touch in the newly released anthology Spellbound Hearts from Still Moments Publishing, or Un Homme de Couleur Libre, which appears in Cutlass – Ten Tales of Pirates. And for those of you with a longer attention span, there’s my novella, A Vampire’s Deadly Delight, available from Amazon and Black Opal Books.
*Amazon statistics from: http://bizmology.hoovers.com/2012/03...indle-singles/
Liv Rancourt is a writer of speculative fiction and romance. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, two cats and one wayward puppy. She likes to create stories that have happy endings, and finds it is a good way to balance her other job in the neonatal intensive care unit. Liv can be found on-line at her website (www.livrancourt.com), her blog (www.liv-rancourt.blogspot.com), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/liv.rancourt), or on Twitter (www.twitter.com/LivRancourt).