Wednesday 1 April 2015

Coming Up Short

by Jeanette O'Hagan

Image courtesy of Apolonia at

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.
While a short story may leave you wanting more, a good one can be memorable and satisfying.

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) . 

You can find her at her Facebook Page or webistes or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes .


  1. It's years since I read any published short stories (although I did judge some entries for the Romance Writers of NZ short story competition last year). One I remember well is The Linesman by Janet Frame, which I studied in high school. It was very short, perhaps 500 words, with a killer final line. I also remember reading some by Roald Dahl (Lamb to the Slaughter comes to mind).

    I'm supposed to read a book of short stories for my 2015 Reading Challenge. Any suggestions?

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    3. Hi Iola - I haven't come across many Christian short story collections, but I like anthologies by different authors. That way you're bound to come across something that you like. Black Inc Publishing put out a collection each year of the Best Australian Stories and they've previously featured authors like Tim Winton and Cate Kennedy. Here's a link to their latest one, though I haven't read that one yet.

      Stringybark also puts out several short story collections each year that contain 25 x 1500-word stories. I was lucky enough to have a story in their Role of a Lifetime collection of stories that all had a twist at the end. I really enjoyed reading those. There's always a couple that aren't to your taste, but on the whole it was a good one. Here's the link for that:

      Be warned though - their latest collection is on erotica. That's not the one I'm in -LOL (N.B. I deleted my two previous comment because I forgot to add something. Major brain fade this morning. Third time lucky)

    4. Hi Iola

      The Linesman sounds like a great short story :)

      I guess it would depend in what genre you wished to read. Along with Nola's suggestions, I could suggest Tied in Pink (editors Mirren Hogan & Heather Tyler) - it has romance and stories with romantic themes, some are a bit steamy but others excellent. Also, it's a charity anthology - so all profits go towards breast cancer research. Each story contains a reference to a pink ribbon and also has a dedication to breast cancer warriors. And, of course, a story by me.

      Xycher publish some interesting speculative fiction stories. I recently enjoyed reading "The Toll of Another Bell". And then there are the classics like Asimov's short stories, or Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Melissa Gijsbers Khalinsky has contributed to a few anthologies, including Teapot Tales.


    5. Sorry that should be Xychler Publishing.

  2. Great post Jenny. I never thought I'd be any good at writing short stories until I did a prose subject in a writing course. We had to write three short stories for the assessment and I surprised myself by coming up with three reasonable offerings. However, it's deceptively hard to nail them. They may be short, but it takes a lot of work to hone the prose and story arc. I think your idea of keeping to one theme is important. I tend to come up with way too many ideas for a short story and then have to peg it back. I've started to read more short story collections - Alice Munro and Anthony Doerr are brilliant at that genre. Among Australian authors, Tim Winton and Cate Kennedy are really good. I really liked "The Herbalist's Daughter". Looking forward to reading more of your shorts Jenny :)

    1. Thanks Nola. I'm really pleased that you liked "The Herbalist Daughter." And I agree, it's not as easy as it looks but I've been enjoying the challenge.

  3. Hi Jenny, great post. I cut my teeth on short stories in my Faith Writers days and in a Write Your Story course run by my local community centre. I LOVED the word limit and deadline of these challenges. I also judged for FW and that was a great way of learning how the reader responds differently to a shorter story.

    Great training for the novelist in me. Much can be said with few words. Thanks for the reminder. :)

    1. Thanks Dotti. Faithwriters' Challenge is a great way to write flash fiction and received constructive critique. The lessons learned help with writing longer pieces, though it is also an art form in its own right. A number of famous writers are primarily known for their short stories - Alice Monroe, Edgar Allen Poe, and Washington Irving. I started out writing novels and am still primarily a novel writer, but have enjoyed writing short stories.

  4. Hi Jeanette - great post! Lots of practical tips to nudge us into having a go.

    I enjoy reading short stories. I particularly enjoyed reading The Herbalist's Daughter in the Tied in Pink anthology :)

    Short stories certainly have a place in our busy world. Joanne Hill has written several and put them in a book entitled 'For the Commute' - pure genius!

    I recently finished a novella (or novelette really, only 15k words) and loved it. It was great to give my brain a break from all that's involved in writing a long novel, yet kept my imagination ticking over. I'd like to write more. You've definitely inspired me!

    1. Thanks Andrea. I'm glad you enjoyed The Herbalist's Daughter :) and I'm really chuffed that I've inspired you to write more short fiction :) I think I'm with you - it's great to change stride with short fiction without giving up on the novel writing. And I love Joanne Hill's short story collection title 'For the Commute" :) As you say, pure genius.

  5. Hi Jenny,
    I definitely enjoyed The Herbalist's Daughter in the Tied in Pink anthology. That's something I like about short stories. You can revisit people and places from your other writing. I liked your picking up of characters from Akrad's Children. Looking forward to more.

    1. Thanks Paula - Hoping to get Akrad's Children published by 2016 but will have see how it works out.

  6. A good friend of mine reads a lot of short stories. Many of the great authors have books of them: Dickens, Dahl, King, etc Interesting how many movies are also created from a short story.

    I enjoy a short story that's 5-10,000 words but I don't find Flash Fiction (500-1000 words) very fulfilling as there isn't any depth to it and I find I'm just wanting more when I finish it.

    I think we'll see more short stories published especially by indies and self-pubbed as the digital age makes it so much easier to publish and read plus it enables readers to sample new authors and provides authors a means to keep their readers "seats warm" while they're writing the next novel.

    Good post, Jeanette.

  7. Thanks Ian - very true about movies being made from short stories. In some ways, a movie is more like a short story than a novel (which is longer and more involved). And I think you are right about it's much easier to publish short stories these days - there is a trend to publish them as "e-books". The Kindle Single picks up on that trend. A think a good short story leaves you thinking, but I prefer longer ones too :)

  8. Hi Jeanette, Congrats on your short story publication! I've nearly finished a 20k novella and it's a real challenge to write a shorter length story.

    1. Thanks Narelle. I agree, I find it hard to keep it short but well worth it when it does come together. All the best with your novella.


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