|Image courtesy of Apolonia at FreeDigitalPhotos.net|
Short changed, short-sheeted and the short straw. Nobody likes coming up short - or do they? There are some shorts we may enjoy; shorts or short sleeves in hot weather, short blacks - and short stories.
After all, many of the biblical stories are short (Ruth, Jonah, Esther, and Jesus’ parables). They may be short but they still give a powerful and even life changing message. How much impact has the parable of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan had over the centuries? Grims' fairy tales, Aesop’s Fables, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories, Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, even the adventures of Sherlock Holmes or many of Isaac Asimov’s classic tales (like 'The Bicentennial Man') are told in short story form.
A short story is a fictional piece shorter than a novel or novella. They can range for nanofiction (six words, or 140 characters for instance) to flash fiction (between 300-1000 words), up to about 10,000 or maybe 15,000 words. Short stories are not just miniature novels – they have their own pace, challenges and joys. You can find them in a collection by a single author, an anthology with different authors often on a common theme or topic, in magazines or journals, on websites or mobile phones, or stand alone "e-books".
To be honest, I have found writing short stories a challenge. My back story and subplots tend to multiply. This has worked well with my fantasy series and it means that I am not likely to run out of writing material anytime soon. However, last year I had an opportunity to submit to a story to an anthology of short stories (Tied in Pink). I decided to take on the challenge. My first two attempts ran a couple of thousand words beyond the 5000 word limit, but I eventually nailed it with The Herbalist’s Daughter. I've written a few more since then. Most of my short stories range between 7000-10,000 words – though I did manage shorter ones for The Faith Writer’s challenge (750 words) and the Tamrin Tales on my website. While I’m still learning how to keep my short stories short, I've really enjoyed writing and reading them.
For a reader short stories:
- May be read and enjoyed in one sitting.
- Can provide a nice transition between longer works.
- May fill the story gaps in larger well-loved tales (as prequels or sequels or tell the story of secondary characters).
- Can be a great introduction to a new authors or genres.
For writers short stories also have benefits:
- They provide a great way to hone the craft – they help tighten your prose.
- They provide an opportunity to explore a new genre, topics or techniques.
- They don’t take as long to write as a novel and are easier to discard if they don’t work out
- It’s easier (though not necessarily easy) to have a short story published – in journals, anthologies and competitions. Many magazines pay for short stories.
- They can build a writer's body of work and platform.
- They can give fans something to go on with, while they wait for the next novel (or the first one) to be released, or can be offered as a free sample to hook new readers.
- They can fill in gaps or provide richer layers to your story world. My Tamrin Tales take up the stories of secondary characters like Anna before the events in the Akrad’s Children.
So some tips.
- Have a great title and hook.
- Keep it simple. Focus on one theme or event. Have one main plot without a lot of subplots.
- It’s easier to work with fewer characters over a shorter period of time (days or weeks).
- Start towards the end or climax of the story and plunge into the story quickly.
- Avoid getting bogged down with info-dumps or long sections of back story.
- Make your words count. Use telling detail rather than extended description.
- Elements of good story writing like having a great hook, “show don’t tell”, conflict, snappy dialogue, good characterisation, editing etc apply just as much, if not more to short stories as to longer ones.
As a bonus - here’s an example of a six (and seven) word short story:
Lion scares neighbours. Wig slips. Dog? (Based on a Facebook meme)
Stranger offers lift. Six weeks later. Engaged!
What is your favourite short story and why? What tips do you have for writing them?
Jeanette has practiced medicine, studied communication, history and theology and has taught theology. She is currently caring for her children, enjoying post-graduate studies in writing at Swinburne University and writing her Akrad's fantasy fiction series. You can read some of her short fiction here. She has recently had a short story published as part of the general market Tied in Pink Anthology (profits from the anthology go towards Breast Cancer research) .